It doesn’t matter who you talk to in the U.S., if you ask them one thing that they know about the God of the Bible—whether Christian, atheist, pagan, etc., is that He is a God of love.
Now this is definitely true (1 John 4:8, 16). However, as J.I. Packer as said, a half truth masquerading as a full truth becomes an untruth.
When a person mentions or thinks that God is a God of love, they are imputing their views of love on God. Basically, as loved is (mis)construed in our nation, the reason that anyone loves anyone is because that person is lovely. Thus, this same thinking is foisted on God: “God’s loves us because we are lovely. And therefore, why wouldn’t love me or you? We’re basically good people.”
However, the Word of God clearing contradicts such a notion of God’s love. In 1 John 4:10 we get a clear definition of God’s Love, as two verses before God is declared a God of love. It says:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
We see from “not that we have loved God but that he loved us” that love by definition does not have to reciprocate. In order to give love, one does not have to be loved back. Thus, true love is not contingent on being loved back. Unlike our culture’s definition of love, the love of God is still manifested in and to those who don’t love him and do not have the qualities that would be considered loveable. In fact, we are sinners and from God’s point of view we are so incredibly horrid and evil. It isn’t that we loved God but that He loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:19).
In Deuteronomy 7:7-8 we see that God did not love Israel because of their number or any other factor. He loved them because He loved them. There was nothing intrinsic in this nation that drew forth God’s love. Rather, God chose to love them for His own reasons and glory. He loved because he loved them, because He loved them…
Moreover, in the love of God He sent “His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Propitiation means an appeasing, a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath so that God becomes “propitious” or favorably disposed toward us; the claims of divine justice are satisfied. Propitiation is the wrath of God satisfied because of Jesus.
Wrath is God’s intense hatred of sin. If God did not hate sin He would either enjoy it or be indifferent to it. Either way, it is a horrible act of injustice. God must hate sin and we know what it is like to do so as well. As D.A. Carson says wrath “is a function of God’s Holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath… The price of diluting God’s wrath is diminishing God’s holiness.
So we see that God’s love must be put in place with His holiness. You cannot just have a God of love but He doesn’t exist. In fact, God’s love is highlighted and heightened in light of His holiness, our sin, and therefore His wrath. We deserve nothing but damnation: to receive the complete and total wrath of God. The most terrifying thing in existence is God’s wrath.
But since God is loving, He saves people in Christ from His wrath. God’s love and wrath are not antithetical. Because we are sinners and He is holy and righteous they cannot ever be divorced. Rather, in a fallen world they always work in tandem.
If one talks about God being loving and does not discuss the atonement and penal substitution of Christ, they are speaking out of both sides of their mouth. And the inseparable link between God’s love and wrath is abundantly evident in Scripture:
Ephesians 2:1-8: And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Romans 5:6-9: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
This truth is explicit in John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
The term “perish” presupposes judgment and the wrath of God, as “whoever does not believe is condemned already.” Later in the same chapter it says in verse 36, “whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
This is the gospel! We deserve nothing but wrath and condemnation, as there is nothing intrinsically loving about us. In 1 John 4:10 we did not love God, and in fact we wanted nothing to do with Him period (Romans 3:9-20), as we were by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3). God could have, and should have sent us all to Hell where we would experience His Holy unmitigated wrath for an eternity (and did so with the angels: Jude 6 & 7; 2 Peter 2:4). God is just and cannot look upon injustice and evil. He must punish injustice and sin in proportion to the crime.
With regards to a true understanding of God’s love James Denney in the Death of Christ poignantly states:
So far from finding any kind of contrast between love and propitiation, the apostle can convey no idea of love to anyone except by pointing to the propitiation—love is what is manifested there; and he can give no account of the propitiation but by saying , “behold what manner of love.” For him to say “God is love” is exactly the same as to say, “God has in His Son made atonement for the sin of the world.” If the propitiatory death of Jesus is eliminated from the love of God, it might be unfair to say that the love of God is robbed of all meaning, but it is certainly robbed of its apostolic meaning. It has no longer that meaning which goes deeper than sin, sorrow, and death, and which recreates life in the adoring joy, wonder, and purity of the first Epistle of John.
To never properly discuss the love of God in terms of His propitious death is to gut what is means that God is love. The grandest demonstration of love in existence was when Christ Jesus took on full strength the wrath of God we all deserved. To say, “God loves you” and to at the same time withhold or neglect God’s holiness and righteous is to preach a false Gospel meriting eternal condemnation (Gal 1:8-9).