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“God loves you”. It’s an astounding and profound truth, full of great comfort and power. I’d love you to grasp how wonderful it is. But the thing is, if I say just those three words, you may not hear what I want you to hear. It’s not just that the phrase by itself might sound cheesy or trite to you. There’s an even trickier communication problem. The problem has to do with the word itself: “love”. No matter how often I keep using that word, “love”, if you’re the average English speaker, you might not think it means what I think it means.
This kind of confusion about words often happens when people from slightly different backgrounds try to communicate with each other. They might think they’re speaking each other’s language, but then they discover there are subtle differences. My wife Bron and I discovered this when we moved from Australia to live in England. For the most part, we spoke the same language as our English counterparts (after all, they called it “English”, and we speak English). But we soon learned that there are certain words that Aussies and English people both use, but which mean different things. Mostly it’s common words for things like food and greetings and clothing. We confused everyone when we talked about packets of “chips” (they say “crisps”). We got funny looks when we asked people “How are you going?” (they ask, “How are you doing?” or if they’re from the North, “Are you all right?”). It was even more awkward when we started talking about our “pants” (which for us meant trousers, but for them meant undies). We were using the words to mean one thing, but what they heard was something quite different.
The same is true when Christians try to communicate the biblical concept of God’s “love”. When we say “love” we mean one thing—something wonderful and life-changing. But the word means quite different things to many English speakers. For example, the word “love” might be taken to mean something like “strong desire”. So if I say “God loves you” then it might sound like I’m saying “God has strong feelings for you”. Another, increasingly common, understanding of “love” is the idea of “unconditional approval”. In this view, the way to “love” somebody is to affirm and approve of everything they do. So if I don’t approve of your actions and actively affirm everything you do, then by definition I’m not “loving” you (in fact, by definition I’m “hating” you). On this common definition of “love”, if I say “God loves you” then it might sound like I’m saying “God affirms everything about you and your actions”. But that’s not what the Bible means by God’s “love” either.
Given this communication problem, how can I best explain the idea of God’s “love”? Well, it’s not actually that hard. The best way is to see how the word works when the Bible uses it. In Ephesians 2:4–5, Paul uses the word “love”. But he doesn’t just say “God loves you”. He explains and spells out what that love means. And as we look at it, we can see how amazing God’s love really is:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us—we who were dead because of our offences—made us alive together with Christ—it is by grace that you are saved.Ephesians 2:4–5
The first thing to see here is that God’s love is just that—God’s love. It’s not our love. We can’t just look at the way humans love each other and then project that on to God. We need to look first at how God himself loves, and only then work out what that means for our own love.
Rich in mercy
God’s love is related to his “mercy”. God is “rich in mercy”. Mercy is about showing leniency and undeserved kindness. Mercy is when somebody in a position of power decides not to give you what you deserve. What do we deserve? This is what Paul has been talking about in the previous verses—we deserve God’s wrath, because we have offended against him. Left to ourselves, we’re in a desperate and hopeless situation before God. But instead of showing that wrath to us, God shows leniency, mercy, compassion and pity to us. He has forgiven us (see chapter 1 verse 7). This is fundamental to God’s love—his mercy.
Love in action
Paul describes God’s love as “his great love with which he loved us”. At first glance, this might sound repetitive. But it’s making an important point. God’s love is shown in action. It’s not simply that God felt a certain way or had a certain internal attitude toward us. He actually loved us by doing something for us. So love isn’t just desire or attitude. God’s love is something that God does.
Love to the unlovely
Normally you love someone who is inherently lovable. But God didn’t love us because we were particularly lovely. In fact, we were “dead because of our offenses”. Paul has already said this in verse 1, but he goes out of his way to repeat it here. Why? Because when we realise that we were “dead because of our offences”, we can see something strange but incredible about God’s love. God’s love is not about approving of who we are and what we do. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a love that God showed us even though he clearly didn’t approve of who we were or what we did. Our state was “dead”; we were in a very real and fundamental way cut off from the life of God and out of relationship with him, deserving his wrath. Why? Because we had offended against him. We’d done the wrong thing, rejected him, ignored him, and rebelled against him. God doesn’t approve of any of these things. He didn’t actively affirm us in our dead state or support us in our offenses. And yet—he loved us. Deeply and profoundly. How?
Made alive in Christ
God showed his love in this way: he “made us alive”. This means he changed us, for the better, at the core of our being. He changed our status, he gave us a new identity, he brought us into a new reality. He didn’t just feel for us; he didn’t just affirm us. He loved us. He made us alive.
What does this mean? The key to understanding it (as it is almost everywhere in Ephesians), is that phrase “in Christ”. Jesus Christ is central to it all. Jesus Christ is the one who has literally been raised from the dead. Jesus Christ died in our place, to bring forgiveness. But he didn’t stay dead. God brought him to life. He appeared to witnesses, and he ascended to be with God forever. Right now, God is bringing the entire creation to the point where everything is “summed up” in Jesus Christ. Even now, Jesus Christ is with God, alive and victorious. And for those who believe in Jesus Christ—who stake their lives on him, there is certain hope of a life to come with God. This life will go on forever, rich and full, secure, in a new creation that Jesus will bring when he returns for us. That’s our future. But Paul’s point here is about our present. It’s as good as done. We have that status, that reality, that identity, even now. God raised us with Christ. We’ve been made alive.
This is what God’s love means. God has transformed our very identity. He hasn’t given us what we deserve, but instead he has made us new people: people whose hope and life is set on Christ and the future.
Saved by grace
So, says Paul, God’s love is about being “saved” by “grace”. That is, God’s love is shown in rescuing us, though we don’t deserve it. It’s “by grace”: it’s a gift to us even though we don’t deserve it. It means we are “saved”: rescued from something we can’t rescue ourselves from. Because Jesus has died on the cross and risen from the dead, we’re now saved, rescued people. That’s who we are. That’s why it’s so wonderful and comforting, and why it’s so profoundly life-changing.
This, then, is what God’s love means. It’s a love that comes from God himself rather than from us. It’s about the God who is rich in mercy, not giving us what we deserve. It doesn’t just involve God’s feelings or desires, but his actions towards us. It’s not a love shown to those who are inherently desirable, but a love shown to us who were unlovely. It’s not just a love that simply affirms us and our actions, but a love which transforms us, makes us alive, and gives us a new identity. It’s a love that is shown, most of all, in his Son Jesus Christ. And it’s not something we have done for ourselves: it’s a gift of God, who rescues us.
Is this incredible love something you have grasped? If so, praise God! Do you want to communicate that love to others, so they can grasp it too? “God loves you” is a wonderful thing to say, isn’t it? But by itself, those three words are easy to misunderstand. If we just keep repeating the three words like a mantra, or sticking it up on billboards or in mission statements, we probably won’t get the message across very well. We’ll be saying one thing, but people will hear something else. So whenever we can, let’s fill it out. That is, let’s not just say the words, but let’s use the rich and profound content that the Bible gives us to communicate what God’s love really means. And, as Paul says a little later in his letter, let’s live lives characterised by this kind of love—lives of mercy and gratitude, imitating God as his dearly loved children.
What aspect of God’s love in this verse strikes you the most?
How might you better communicate God’s love to others?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.