The Transcendent Holy Love of God

In the whimsical world of childhood nostalgia, there lurks a grinning purple theropod tirelessly romping through the memories of children now grown up and their aging parents. This behemoth of jolly chaos is none other than Barney the Dinosaur. Every weekday morning on the PBS Network from April 1992 until November 2010, after approximately 30 minutes of mind-numbing befuddlery, Barney would serenade his television audience with a closing song:

I love you, you love me
We’re a happy family
With a great big hug
And a kiss from me to you
Won’t you say you love me too?

While it’s difficult to comprehend how a prehistoric technicolor puppet on television can truly love us in any meaningful way, it speaks to our core desire for love, one of the most innate aspects of human existence. This universal longing has found expression in various forms throughout the history of entertainment. From the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet to the enduring camaraderie of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, from a story of reconciliation between father and son as seen with Mufasa and Simba to the unconventional bond of man and car portrayed in Herbie the Love Bug, from Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of an old man and his reverence for the sea to a dolphin named Flipper who befriends a young boy in a coastal town, love takes on many guises and narratives, encompassing a multitude of emotions, relationships, and contexts.

Holy Love

But there exists a love that transcends the human experience, one that doesn’t come naturally to us and is, in fact, completely unknown to us in an experiential sense. This transcendent love can only emanate from a transcendent being. When the apostle John wrote, “Love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7a), he wasn’t speaking of a love that can be witnessed in the relational experiences of humans and animals alike (more on that later), but something else entirely. Eighteenth-century Anglican preacher, John Wesley described it in a letter to a friend as “holy love.” He writes, “God would first, by this inspiration of his Spirit, have wrought in our hearts that holy love without which none can enter into glory.”1 Mankind is utterly incapable of expressing or even knowing this holy love until the Spirit has made a home in a person’s heart. We catch glimpses—yet without understanding—as it radiates through the cracks and crevices of our sinful brokenness, but until we follow the light of God’s drawing prevenient grace and answer the call to repentance, we have no frame of reference to comprehend the nature and extent of this transcendent holy love of God.   

Before we dig deeper, however, we must understand that when John said, “God is Love,” he wasn’t describing the ontological essence of God but rather was saying that everything God does and says and thinks is expressed in a love that surpasses all understanding. Christian author and teacher, A.W. Tozer explains, “If God is love in His metaphysical being, then God and love are equal to each other—identical. We could worship love as God! Thus, we would be worshiping an attribute of personality and not the person Himself, thereby destroying the concept of personality in God and denying in one sweep all the other attributes of the deity.”2 In the age of “Love is love” yard signs and bumper stickers, human love has been exposed as self-defining, open to whatever whims the corrupt human heart feels in any given moment. Sin has separated all humanity from God leaving us without any trace of true holiness or righteousness.  And love apart from holiness has no lasting substance or power. It’s a mere fading echo—an empty shell that sings with the rising voice of a prioritized self.

Holy love, according to Galatians 5:22, is a fruit of the Spirit. It is cultivated within believers as they grow in their relationship with God, transforming their hearts and enabling them to love others with a divine, selfless love that mirrors Christ’s love for humanity. As John said, “Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7b), and conversely, anyone who does not know God, does not love. While there are a wide range of expressions and emotions that we call love, these are not the love that John is speaking about in this passage. When Scripture says that “love comes from God,” it isn’t a claim that all forms of love are rooted in God’s holy love. There is a sense in which all love (properly defined) comes from God in that He created us and all of our natural qualities were designed by Him, but the holy love described in 1 John 4 is unique to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that only comes from faith in Christ. The command to love God and neighbor specifically pertains to a love that reflects every attribute of God’s character: mercy, justice, grace, holiness, righteousness, selflessness, faithfulness, goodness, compassion, truth, and wisdom. This holy love of God is masterfully exemplified most profoundly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Love of this kind seeks the well-being of others not only in a temporal sense but even more so in an eternal sense. As Christians strive to embody this love in their lives, they participate in God’s redemptive work in the world, demonstrating His character and extending His grace to those around them. Thus, loving God and neighbor isn’t merely a moral obligation but a joyful expression of one’s relationship with the Creator and a transformative force for good in the lives of others.

Natural Love

Theologically speaking, it would be improper to say that the love expressed by those who are not yet Christians is rooted in God’s holy love. Some might say that even the unbeliever is capable of selfless and sacrificial love, such as how a mother loves her child. She would do anything to protect her little one. While this is likely true, the love of an unbeliever has a very limited scale and scope. If it isn’t expressed to glorify God, it cannot be said to be of God. Instead, It will take on the characteristics of its surroundings and lose its distinctive qualities. Without the presence of the Spirit of God indwelling within us to cultivate our hearts, the desires and impulses of the flesh take over. C.S. Lewis calls this “natural love.” It’s a love that springs forth from human nature. This isn’t to say there is no benefit to natural love, but only that any benefits are temporal at best. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves, describes this natural love as a garden: “It is no disparagement to a garden to say that it will not fence and weed itself, nor prune its own fruit trees, nor roll and cut its own lawns. A garden is a good thing but this is not the sort of goodness it has. It will remain a garden, as distinct from a wilderness only if someone does all these things to it.”3 In essence, without the transformative power of God’s holy love working within us, our capacity for love remains uncultivated and bound by the limitations of our fallen human nature. Noted Wesleyan theologian, Kenneth J. Collins offers a similar perspective: 

If the descriptive, delimiting, and uncanny (numinous) power of the term “holiness” is not brought to bear on love, illuminating it in a distinctive way, setting it apart from other uses of the word “love,” then it is not very likely that the love of God manifested in Jesus Christ, especially in its most humble forms at the cross, is under consideration. Again, without the qualitative distinctiveness of holiness as Wesley understood it, a love so conceived is likely to be informed by self-will, sentimentality, or what human reason itself judges to be both good and acceptable.4

Recognizing this distinction is crucial for understanding the deeper significance of this transcendent holy love of God and the need for spiritual renewal in our lives.

Worldly Love

The pulse of Scripture emanates with God’s holy love throughout—often called “agape love.” The word “agape” is most often associated with the selfless, sacrificial love God has for humanity profoundly expressed on the cross by Jesus Christ. As followers of Christ, we also are commanded to love God and to love our neighbors in the same way. In this context, it is indeed what the Greek word means. However, “agape” isn’t exclusively used in this manner, even in the original Greek text of the New Testament. some passages use the word “agape” to describe love in a negative sense that is clearly disordered and not of God. One such instance is John 3:19 where it says, “God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” While a form of“agape” is the word being translated into “love” here, it cannot be said that love for darkness comes from God. We can see from the context that this love is neither selfless nor holy. Another instance where “agape” is translated in a negative sense is in John 12:43, where it depicts the love for human praise more than the approval of God. And In 2 Peter 2:15, it is used to describe Balaam’s love for earning money by conducting misdeeds on behalf of Israel’s enemies. Finally, in 1 John 2:15, the apostle warns against agape for the world and the things it offers in opposition to agape for the Father. John vividly illustrates in verse 16  a definition of “agape” in a negative worldly sense as “a craving for physical pleasure… and pride in our achievements and possessions.” In verse 17, John contrasts this worldly form of agape—essentially addiction or compulsion to please the flesh—with the heavenly form of agape—complete devotion to God and a cheerful desire to please Him through obedience regardless of the cost to ourselves.

Love and the Image of God

Is the capacity for natural love a characteristic of the image of God inherent in all humanity? According to Genesis 1:27, mankind was created in God’s likeness. Scholars interpret this to mean that humans possess inherent qualities that reflect aspects of God’s nature and character. This divine imprint distinguishes humans from the rest of creation, endowing them with dignity, worth, and a capacity for meaningful relationships with God and one another. As bearers of the divine image, humans share in God’s rational, creative, and moral attributes. Unfortunately, when Adam and Eve chose to engage in sinful rebellion against God, the rational and creative aspects of God’s image were severely marred, the moral image—holiness and righteousness—was lost entirely, and the relationship between God and Man was severed because the spirit within Man had died. In the absence of holiness, the love expressed by humans consequently lost its connection to God’s holy nature, leaving only an intangible shadow of its intended glory. Mankind’s capacity for meaningful relationships now bears little difference from that of the animal kingdom. 

Scientific studies have found that animals exhibit compassion and love toward their offspring, family, and friends in similar ways to humans. They also demonstrate empathetic behavior toward other animals who are hurt or afraid, even those of another species.5 Likewise, brain scans show that dogs bond with their human owners similarly to a child and parent, suggesting a deep emotional connection between canine and human.6 While these scientific evidences reveal the remarkable extent to which animals can express love and compassion or the profound connections that can exist between humans and animals, it also highlights the diminished state of human relationships in the absence of holiness. Until the moral image of God is restored, humanity’s capacity for love, empathy, and meaningful connection remains constrained by the limitations of the fallen human condition.

Love Redeemed

The Good News, however, is that because of God’s transcendent holy love, humanity isn’t lost forever. Through the loving gift of the Son, redemption is made possible for those who turn away from their sinfulness and believe in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the atonement for their sin and guilt. And through the loving gift of the Holy Spirit, not only are we declared righteous (justified), but we are transformed into righteous and holy persons at our very core, sanctified so that we may share this perfect holy love that saved us with the rest of humanity. Through the gift of salvation, God’s transcendent love has also become imminent. The veil has been lifted and the presence of God’s holy love has become apparent as it surrounds us and fills us, transforming us into our original design and purpose, which is to love God and to love our neighbor with a perfect, righteous and holy love that only comes from the power and the presence of God within us. The natural love we may have experienced before knowing God borne from our limited human capacity is enhanced infinitely so by holiness, enabling us for a level of compassion and intimacy previously unfathomable in every relationship with which we engage. What was once of only temporal benefit now has eternal rewards. What was once reserved for close friends and family is now universally expressed to all humanity. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This is holy love. The love of God is always and only perfect and holy.

  2. A.W. Tozer, The Attributes of God: Volume Two, Christian Publications Inc. 2001. pp. 182, 183
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1960. p. 133
  4. Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, Abingdon Press, 2007. pp. 7-8
  5. Jamie Lee, The Many Ways Animals Teach Us Love, Compassion and Empathy,
  6. Sabrina Karl et al, Exploring the dog–human relationship by combining fMRI, eye-tracking and behavioural measures,

3 thoughts on “The Transcendent Holy Love of God”

  1. I was going to wait until I returned from errands but was anxious to check this out so dug into your blog immediately. Excellent and compelling articulation of your stance and with very good supporting references. I am in full agreement.

  2. Rev. Daniel C. Elliott, Ed.D.

    You could not be more correct in your discussion of the concept of Godly love being light years apart from how the world uses the term. This is something the church has struggled with since the middle ages. Today’s church struggles against its people exercising unconditional love toward things of this present world. Some might think the church in the USA is losing that struggle. In this terrible sinful world today it is more important than ever for the Church of Jesus Christ to be teaching, preaching, training in, and promoting Godly, unconditional, and limitless love that we can only obtain through surrender to Jesus Christ as our Lord, Savior, and reason for being.

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