The Fruit of the Spirit: Love [part 2]

John Webster
You can read the introduction to this series, which appears on a monthly basis, here ~ Editor


At the head of the apostle's list of the Spirit's fruits stands love, the principal virtue from which the others derive and of which they are extensions. If we are to come to understand the nature of Christian love and the character of the gospel's commands to love, however, we have to proceed indirectly, reflecting first on God and the acts of God, and then on created human nature.

Christian faith and theology begin their talk about love, as they begin their talk about all things, by talking of God's nature and his inner and outer works. Proceeding in this way, they respect a two-fold rule about the object which they contemplate and the proper order in which its different parts are to be studied. The rule is this: the object of Christian teaching is first God and by derivation all other things in relation to God; all things other than God are to be considered under the aspect of their relation to God from whom they derive. The intellectual, spiritual and moral cogency of a Christian account of love will depend heavily on what it says about God who is love and acts with love, and who is the cause of creaturely love.  
How could love be rightly discussed if you were forgotten, O God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth, you who spared nothing but gave all in love, you who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in you! How could love properly be discussed if you were forgotten, you who made manifest what love is, you, our Saviour and Redeemer, who gave yourself to save all! How could love be rightly discussed if you were forgotten, O Spirit of love, you who take nothing for your own but remind us of that sacrifice of love, remind the believer to love as he is loved, and his neighbour as himself! 
So Kierkegaard, in the trinitarian prayer which prefaces his Works of Love. Such a prayer is especially needful in our lapsed condition, in which the orientation of all thought to and by God is no longer natural and easy but against the grain and laborious. To think fittingly of God and love requires us to check much that has become habitual to us, and to acquire at the hands of God new habits of thought and dispositions of the spirit.


A Christian understanding of love arises from the confession that God is love in his inner being and works. The three persons of the undivided divine nature are a perfect fellowship of love. The form of this love is God's inner acts of relation: the relation of paternity (the Father is the Father in relation to the Son whom he generates eternally), of generation (the Son is the Son in relation to the Father by whom he is begotten before all worlds), and of spiration (the Spirit is the Spirit in relation to the Father and the Son from whom he proceeds). This love of theirs is perfect: entire, unhindered union of persons and unity of being. In the relations of Father, Son and Spirit there is no moving towards an as-yet-unattained fulfilment, no act of establishing union, no absence or defect of any kind, but only fully realized mutual regard, delight and repose. God does not become love; he is love, eternally, immutably, infinitely.

In his inner works, God's love is pure satisfaction; in his outer works, God's love is benevolence and beneficence. Out of his unrestricted goodness, God wills and brings into being objects of love other than himself, conferring life and, in the case of his human creatures, giving a capacity to love. God's end in this work is not the expansion of his own being, for he lacks nothing and so acquires nothing from the existence of created realities. His end is, rather, the creature's own integral goodness: God loves creatures for themselves, blessing them and acting to maintain, defend and complete them. God's outer work of love is a doing good in creation, providence, redemption and consummation.

Why must this love of God, inner and outer, be the object of ardent regard? Because love does not first come to the attention of faith as a human phenomenon; rather, love is prior to all creatures. Love is principally divine love, the inner communion of the divine being and the cause of creatures before it is a work which creatures undertake. God is love; love is of God.


We would not, however, have exhausted all that needs to be said of God's love if we did not go on to speak of creaturely love. God's love is first love; but because it is benevolent and beneficent - because there are outer works of love which flow from and correspond to God's inner works - then there are human creatures, made by love and for love. What is to be said of creaturely love?

Love is natural to the kind of creatures that we are, and so it is necessary for the fulfilment of our given nature.

Love is natural. We enact our created nature not in solitude but communicatively and socially, in relation to God and others of our own kind. We are maximally ourselves in relation to others. This relation is not one of mere proximity; simple existence alongside others is not loving society but just aggregation or coincidence. Nor, on the other hand, is it a relation in which individuals dissolve into one reality; this, again, is not society but existence as a mass. Rather, our given nature is enacted in intentional and articulate uniting with others, whether in intimate society or public congregation, characterised by mutual regard and enjoyment. Because love is natural, it is necessary for the fulfilment of our creatureliness. Love is intrinsic to us; in its absence, our nature cannot attain completeness. Love is not accidental or supplementary, as if our nature could be fulfilled without love. It is given in and with our nature, and so it is not something which we may or may not elect to make part of the way we are, like gardening or playing the piano. It is, of course, possible to live without love, to look on others simply as adjacent realities, rather than as objects of love.  But so to live is to live in defect.  Without love, the apostle tells us, I am and gain nothing (1 Cor. 13.2f.). 

What kind of activity or disposition of life is this natural and necessary love? Love is an active inclination of the self to a known good, an extension of mind, will and affections to that good, and it generates an aspiration to be in its company, there to find satisfaction. Because we are living creatures, we move, seeking the completion of our nature.  Love is a movement in which we stretch out to some object to which we are attracted or by which we are drawn, whether by its outer loveliness or its inner graces.

The object to which love inclines is in some measure known. Its attractiveness, that is, is not a mere compulsive force, for this would not generate love but simply stun or enchant us. Rather, the loved object presents itself to the mind, inviting us to come to know and understand more fully what it is that draws us to itself. This object, further, is judged to be good: inherently worthy, and so a fitting object of admiration and desire. The object is loved for its own sake, not simply in order to acquire some benefit. Moreover, love seeks to serve the object of love, doing all in its power to protect the object's well-being. Love is not satisfied with distance; it seeks union with that which is loved. In the absence of such union, love sorrows; when union is attained, there arises the resting or composure of our nature, as it is conserved and filled out by the object of its love.  

Human love may extend to all manner of objects of greater and lesser dignity: material objects (a favourite landscape; chocolate cake), or cultural activities (baseball, the operas of Handel). But its most proper objects are personal, and of these there are three: God, others, and ourselves. These objects exist in a proper order, and our love will be regular - in accordance with our created nature, and so fruitful and satisfying - when it honours and governs itself by this order.

God is the first object of creaturely love. Love of God is the primary movement of our nature, because it corresponds to the fact that, though we might not have been, we have life because of God's abundant and abiding goodness: 'I love thee, O Lord my strength' (Ps. 18.1). God is to be loved simply in and for himself, in acknowledgement of his unsurpassable excellence: God is 'worthy to be praised' (Ps. 18.3), and so worthy to be loved. To love God is to desire his presence, seeking union with him since 'thou dost make him glad with the joy of thy presence' (Ps. 21.6). United to God in love, creatures delight in him, discovering him to be the one by whom our nature is expanded and elevated: to one who loves God, God is 'my exceeding joy' (Ps. 43.4). From the joy of union comes praise, the continuous creaturely recognition and ascription to God what he eternally is: 'ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name' (Ps. 29.1f.).

Love's second object is other human creatures in whose society we are placed. The attitudes and actions by which this love is known are very varied, but they all arise from a fundamental disposition.  Love acknowledges that others have an identity, worth and end which are given by God and which precede any attitude which we may take up towards them. Love recognises that by divine goodness others are, and that there is a certain inviolability to them, such that they cannot be reduced to being simply relative to me. They are other than me, not me, and precisely as such they are those to whom I am set in relation by God. To love others is to recognise their integrity and the given fellowship which I have with them. Love therefore seeks to maintain society with others, acting in ways which honour, preserve and promote the good of others.

Love of others differs according to the degree of proximity which exists between others and ourselves. We enact our lives in varying degrees of neighbourly relations - with colleagues, or fellow citizens, or those distant fellows whom we have not met but of whose existence and needs we have come to be aware. Alongside this, there are relations of friendship, of kinship, and of intimacy. As we move from distant to close relations, knowledge of others is deepened and with it the desire for union and life in common, and delight in the attainment of these goods.

Love's third object is ourselves. In loving God and our fellow creatures, we love ourselves. There is degenerate self-love. Sometimes it takes the form of self-absorbed repudiation of society; at other times it acknowledges others simply as occasions for self-gratification on our part. Well-ordered self-love, by contrast, is the movement of our lives in which we seek our given good, stretching out to the completion of our nature and to the end which God has set for us in bestowing this nature upon us. As we extend beyond ourselves in love of God and others, our being expands, and we acquire happiness, and enjoy the pleasure of living in accordance with our nature. This happiness is confirmed and further enlivened when we are in turn loved by those whom we love.

This sketch of creaturely love and its ground in God's immanent and externally active love indicates the background and setting of Christian teaching about love as the Spirit's fruit. To ponder these things is to come to know something of the height from which we have fallen, the depth into which we have plunged, and the abundant mercy of God by which our created nature is renewed and vivified by Christ and the Holy Spirit.


In our crooked state after the fall of Adam, God and our created nature are almost entirely unknown to us; when they are glimpsed, we recoil from them. Moreover, the corruption of our will and our moral powers enfeebles our capacity for love: we will not and cannot stretch out to those loving relations in which our good consists. Aversion to God makes us enemies of others and of ourselves; the entire frame of our nature is out of joint.

The decay of our loving nature takes three principal forms. First, those things which should be objects of our love become objects of hatred. There is in us an antipathy of mind to that which is properly lovable, an abhorrence and active opposition to the good. We are 'haters of God' (Rom. 1.30) who hate one another (Tit. 3.3). By perverse consequence, second, our love is set on those realities which, because they are contrary to the will of God and to our created nature and end, ought to be objects of aversion. Third, even our vestigial love of proper objects is disproportionate: we attach ourselves to legitimate objects of love to excess, neglecting others and falling into destructive disorder.
What is required if creaturely love is to be repaired? A fresh imperative will scarcely suffice, because commands presuppose capacity, and capacity is what we lack. The restoration of creaturely love to integrity requires, rather, the entire renovation of our nature, that is, the divine work of regeneration of which the gospel is both pledge and revelation.  

In regeneration, God acts alone. Creatures are creatures, and cannot make themselves; still less can they remake themselves after sin has torn apart their nature. As in our integral state, so now in the matter of its restoration: to talk of creaturely love we must first say much of God. 'We love, because he first loved us' (1 Jn. 4.19): everything hangs on the protology of love, on that 'first'. Divine love is antecedent; it does not arise out of or respond to some initiative on the creature's part. From inception to continued effect to consummation, the work of regeneration by which creaturely love is remade is inalienably and exclusively God's.  

The regeneration of our love is a work of the entire godhead, the one who in himself 'is love' (1 Jn. 4.8). It is a work willed by God the Father. In love, the Father purposes that alongside God's own being there should be human creatures who complete their natures in love. This first act of the Father's loving will is repeated and confirmed by a second, in which he determines that what was purposed in the beginning will not fail to be, that our created nature will not disintegrate but will be rescued, restored and brought to completion.

The Father's purpose is objectively accomplished by God the Son. 'In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might love through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins' (1 Jn. 4.9f.). Sent at the Father's behest, the Son acts out and reveals the love of God in his reconciling person and work. He takes upon himself our loveless condition in its guilt and shame, and in so doing he takes it away and replaces it, making creatures come to be alive with a new nature and vocation in relation to God and others.

The Son's accomplishment is made practically and socially visible and effective by God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit establishes steady union between God and those who are 'born' of God, made his regenerate children: 'by this we know that [God] abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us' (1 Jn. 3.24); 'by this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit' (1 Jn. 4.13). This 'abiding' is not, however, simply a matter of the enduring location of our life, passively enjoyed; it has animating and imperative force. It is 'all who keep his commandments' who 'abide in him' (1 Jn. 3.24). 'Abiding' generates the practice of human love. To dwell in and to be indwelt by God is therefore to love: 'he who abides in love, abides in God, and God abides in him' (1 Jn. 4.16).

By the Spirit, regenerate creatures are made capable of rightly ordered love. The distortion of our nature and the dissolution of our powers brought about by sin are countered by the Spirit's gift of new capacity. At the same time, the disarrangement, confusion, excesses and deficiencies of unregenerate nature are set straight as the Spirit brings order, and commands and enables its realisation: 'he who loves God should love his brother also' (1 Jn. 4.21).

By the Spirit, love of God is set in motion. God becomes newly amiable to those who are born of him: infinitely satisfying, one whose presence is to be coveted, whose glory and worth are to be enunciated, whose ways are to be sought out and followed. And by the Spirit, a domain of human love is newly established. Regeneration's social co-ordinate is the church, the Spirit-derived and Spirit-actuated fellowship in which the remaking of our common nature becomes manifest and finds practical effect. 'Remaking', note: not mere modification but recreation by resurrection. 'We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren' (1 Jn. 3.14). The shape of this new life of love includes both readiness for that loss of self for the good of others which the Son of God himself demonstrated (1 Jn. 3.16), and also practical attentiveness to and assistance of the needy, which is love 'in deed and in truth' (1 Jn. 3.17f.).


And yet: Christian love of God and others is painfully incomplete, because the work of regeneration, though entirely accomplished, remains unfinished in application. If the church is the domain in which love is newly understood and practiced as the design of God for the fulfilment of human nature, it is also a place of failure. Each of us looks to his or her life-conduct, and sees the works of the flesh which oppose love and contradict the new life granted at baptism: enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy (Gal. 5.20f.). What is there to keep us from giving up?

The believer may continue to withstand vestigial corruption and to persist in works of love principally by virtue of faith and the knowledge which faith affords. 'Whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith' (1 Jn. 5.4). Faith knows that its condition and situation are determined by a past act of redemption in which God has secured his creative ends against all opposition and contradiction by creatures themselves. Faith knows, further, that its life now is decisively marked by the presence of the ascended Christ and of the Spirit. By Christ's lordly power and the Spirit's indwelling, the believer's life is more than simply a string of hesitations, omissions and disappointments, because there is in the believer a principle of life and activity which is beyond creaturely contradiction or elimination. Faith knows, finally, that the believer's future is caught up by the promise of eternal life, and so possesses a persistent character and direction.

Such knowledge consoles and bestows confidence in the face of trespass and imperfection, inhibiting wretched self-accusation by directing us to God who is 'greater than our hearts' (1 Jn. 3.20).  But confidence stirs action, because if the world is what the gospel declares it to be, and if we are those whom the gospel declares us to be, then love is possible.  And so: 'make love your aim' (1 Cor. 14.1).

John Webster is Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. His books include Holiness and Domain of the Word; a two-volume work God Without Measure will be published in the Fall