The God of the Bible is wholly other, a creator and redeemer God who does not take his cues from human beings or their behavior but rather creates them and redeems them into his very image, manifesting his character. In short, we do not define God; God defines us. God is the very definition of what love means.
Then what will seem to us a total paradox, or even an oxymoron, comes into view; exhibit A of the loving character of God toward human beings: God sends his only and unique Son to die for an ungrateful and sinful world. God’s love and loving is proactive, not merely reactive. It is fully expressed in his salvation plan and the execution of that plan in Christ. But the death of Christ reveals not only the profound love of God for humankind but also one of God’s fundamental traits. He is holy; he is righteous; and he cannot pass over sins forever, as Paul reminds us (see Rom 3). God is not a being that exercises one aspect of his character at the expense of the others—not even in the case of love. God’s love is always a holy love. Not love without holiness and not holiness and righteousness without love—thank goodness, or none of us could stand or have a positive relationship with God.
Notice that in 1 John 4:9–10 God sent his Son so that we might have everlasting life through him, but he also sent him as an atoning sacrifice for sin. If God is love, then no wonder a holy God is also righteously angry about our sin and must do something about it if we are to be reconciled to him. After all, it is sin that has destroyed our relationship with our loving God, just as sin destroys our relationships with other human beings. Love and life are the antitheses of hate and death, and yet the substitutionary sacrifice, the atoning death of Christ, is the prime example of God’s love for us.
While various scholars, including notably C. H. Dodd, have tried hard to read the terms hilasmos/hilasterionas referring only to expiation rather than also to propitiation, this is a costly mistake because it misconstrues the very character of God. Yes, God wants us to be “expiated,” cleansed of our sin and the guilt that accrues with it, but there can be no expiation unless God’s demand for “propitiation” (for righteousness and justice) is also satisfied. One characteristic of God cannot be raised above another. God’s full character was expressed on the cross.
Put another way, unless Christ’s death on the cross was absolutely necessary for the righteous demands of a righteous God to be fulfilled and yet salvation to be offered, God is in no sense a loving God. What sort of Father would demand his only and beloved Son submit to crucifixion unless it was the one essential and sufficient means to save the world? But then, if it was both essential and sufficient for salvation to be offered to all, paradoxically the cross becomes the epitome of God’s love for us all.
God by nature—by his very character—is self-sacrificial, not self-centered or self-indulgent. This totally accords with what the Beloved Disciple has in mind when he says God is love. God’s love is self-sacrificial. It’s not about protecting his rights or honor.
This post is adapted from Who God Is: Meditations on the Character of Our God by Ben Witherington III (Lexham Press, 2020).