It’s striking that love is listed first when describing the fruit of the Spirit, because as it’s portrayed and understood in Western culture, love has little to do with the Holy Spirit. Cultural “love” is sentimental or romantic, primarily a feeling. It is mysterious and fickle, capturing some people and leaving others stranded. It sweeps some people away then dashes them against the rocks. It is a good thing, definitely, but also something easy to resent when others have it and you don’t. This is not at all what the Bible tells us about love, nothing like the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s transforming work.
Scripture tells us, “God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him” (1John 4:16). This does not mean God is only love without other defining traits, or that love is God, as if it is a thing to be worshiped of its own accord. Rather, it means that God is the originator of love and all characteristics of true love are characteristics of God. Real love stems from God because “He has given us of his Spirit” (1John 4:13).
The best way to understand this real love is to see what God says about it. In Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to Israel, this newly formed and chosen people of God freshly rescued out of slavery, and he tells them this about their rescuer:
“[God] will not leave you, destroy you,
or forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them by oath,
because the LORD your God is a compassionate God….
Because he loved your ancestors,
he chose their descendants after them” (Deuteronomy 4:31,37).
God’s love, unlike any earthly notion of love, is defined by commitment. He is a covenant-keeping God, a promise keeper, an unfailing presence to those He loves.
In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul lays out what love is and why it matters so much to all believers. He begins by listing a bunch of great things, other gifts of the Holy Spirit—tongues, eloquence, prophecy, knowledge, understanding, faith—but then says each of these is nothing without love. Love is what makes those things matter. Then Paul describes what love looks like; it’s patient, kind, not envious or boastful, not arrogant or rude or selfish. Instead, it rejoices in truth, hoping and believing the best, it remains despite circumstances (vv.4–7). To be loving is to embody all the Spirit’s work in your life—it isn’t a separate characteristic.
Paul closes his description with this sentence: “Love never ends” (1Corinthians 13:8). This is no mere feeling or sentiment. “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins…. We love because he first loved us” (1John 4:10,19). Love, as the world knows it, is a sweet feeling while it lasts, but it can’t be counted on. Love, as God offers it, never ends because it stems from His eternal, unfailing, perfect heart, through the work of His Son and the Holy Spirit for all who believe. It is the means of our salvation, our growth as Christians, and it is the visible evidence that we are in Christ.
Written by Barnabas Piper