The Dynamics of the Everlasting Gospel
By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira
The ground of our salvation is God’s love; apart from this love there would be no gospel to preach [John 3:16; Ephesians 2:4-7; Titus 3:3-5; 1 John 4:9]. In order, therefore, to understand and appreciate the good news of salvation, we must first be rooted and grounded in God’s love [Ephesians 3:14-19].
The Bible clearly teaches that “God is love” [1 John 4:8, 16]. This does not mean that one of God’s attributes is love, but that He is love and therefore everything else about Him and His acts must be understood in the context of this love, including His law [Matthew 22:36-40] and His wrath [Romans 1:18-32. Note how Paul defines God’s wrath in the passive [vss. 24, 26, 28; love does not coerce but lets go when we deliberately choose our own way].
The greatest stumbling block to understanding God’s love is our own human love. Most Christians make the mistake of projecting human ideals of love on to God. By doing this we reduce God’s love to a human level; the result is that we not only misrepresent God but also distort the gospel of His saving grace in Christ. It is for this reason Paul wants Christians to understand “this love [of Christ] that surpasses knowledge” [Ephesians 3:19].
One major cause for this problem, as we shall see below, has to do with our modern languages. The English language, like most modern languages, has only one word for love. This makes it very difficult when reading our English Bibles to distinquish between human concepts of love, all of which are polluted with self-love, and God’s love. In Scripture, God’s love (agape) completely contradicts human love (phileo) so that the two cannot be compared but only contrasted. Please note the following:
Unlike most of our modern languages (including English), which have only one word for love, the New Testament writers had at least four words in the Greek language to choose from when writing about divine and human love. These four words were:
A good example of how two different words are used in the Greek New Testament for love but translated into the same word in English is John 21:15-17. In the first two questions Jesus used the verb form of agape (love that never fails) [1 Corinthians 13:8]. Peter, on the other hand, responded with a phileo, human affection, both times. The third time Jesus switched to phileo, and it is this that “hurt” Peter.
In the New Testament agape was given a very special meaning derived from God’s revelation in the holy history of Christ, and which was supremely demonstrated on the cross [Romans 5:6-10]. It completely contradicts phileo and even heavenly eros (which to the Greeks was the highest form of love) in at least three ways:
Human love (heavenly eros or phileo) is conditional and, therefore, reciprocal. It needs arousing and depends on outward beauty or goodness. When this human love is projected onto God it perverts the gospel into legalism or conditional good news or good advice. Note how man must do something good before God can save or even listen to him.
In contrast, God’s love (agape) is unconditional and therefore spontaneous, uncaused, and independent of our goodness or self-worth. With this understanding of God’s love, salvation or the gospel becomes unconditional good news [Romans 5:6-10; Ephesians 2:4-6; Titus 3:3-5]. It is for this reason the Bible clearly teaches that mankind is saved by grace alone—undeserving or unmerited favor [Acts 15:11; Romans 3:24; 5:15; 11:6; Ephesians 1:7; 2:8-9; Titus 1:14; 2:11; 3:7].
Human love (heavenly eros or phileo) is changeable. This means it is a love that fluctuates and is unreliable. A good example is Peter. He promises Christ at the Passover feast: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” [Luke 22:31-34]. Yet, when the test came, he failed miserably. In this respect, it is worthy to note the dialogue between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection, as already mentioned above [John 21:15-17]. Twice Jesus asked Peter the question, “Do you love [agapao] me more than these?” and both times Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love [phileo] you” [verses 15-16]. The third time Jesus switched and said, “Do you love [phileo] me?”
It was not the same question with which Jesus confronted Peter the third time. It was as if He were saying, “Peter, is this the only kind of love (phileo, this unreliable human love) you have for me?” No wonder Peter was “hurt” by this last question. But he was now a truly converted man (in the sense that he had lost all confidence in himself, Philippians 3:3) and in humility he replied, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love [phileo] you” [verse 17]. This is the only kind of love (phileo or eros) that human beings can generate in and of themselves. (Incidentally, the high divorce rate in the United States is primarily due to this fluctuating, unreliable human love, devoid of agape).
In complete contrast, God’s love (agape) is changeless. It is this fact that prompted Him to declare to the unfaithful Jews, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” [Jeremiah 31:3]. According to Paul’s description of God’s love, “agape never fails” [1 Corinthians 13:8]. This was clearly demonstrated on the cross when “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved [agapao] them to the end” [John 13:1]. When we Christians realize God’s unchanging love for us and are “rooted and established in agape” [Ephesians 3:17], we will be able to say with the great apostle Paul: “Who shall separate us from the love [agape] of Christ? ...For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love [agape] of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 8:35-39].
Human love, at its very best (heavenly eros) is self-seeking. We are by nature egocentric and therefore everything we do and think, in and of ourselves, is polluted with self-love or selfishness. Hence man’s love is always trying to ascend, whether it be socially, politically, academically, materially, economically, or even religiously; we are all slaves to our “own way” [Isaiah 53:6; Philippians 2:21]. As we saw in our last study, we are all shaped in “iniquity” (bent to self). Consequently, all of us, without exception, fall short of God’s glory or agape love [Romans 3:23].
But God’s love (agape) is the very opposite. It is self-giving. It was because of this that Christ did not cling to His equality with the Father, but emptied Himself and became God’s slave, obedient to death, even the death of the cross [Philippians 2:6-8]. All His earthly life, Christ demonstrated God’s agape [John 17:4, first part]. This is “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father,” which the disciples saw [John 1:14]. He lived for the benefit of others; He actually became poor for our sakes, that we “through his poverty might become rich” [2 Corinthians 8:9].
There is no self-love in God’s love [1 Corinthians 13:5], and it is this love produced in the lives of Christians through the indwelling Spirit [Romans 5:5; Galatians 5:22] that is the most powerful witness of the transforming power of the gospel [John 13:34-35]. This is what Christ meant when, addressing his followers, He said: “You are the light of the world. ...Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds [of agape] and glorify your Father in heaven” [Matthew 5:14, 16].
The supreme manifestation of God’s self-giving love was demonstrated on the cross when Christ tasted the second death for all mankind [Hebrews 2:9]. This second death is obvious since believers who are justified in Christ still have to die the first or sleep death but will be exempted from the second death [Revelation 20:6]. The second death is the cessation of life or saying goodbye to life forever. On the cross Christ was submitting to this death. He was willing to be deprived of life forever (not just three days) that we may live in His place (this will be covered in detail in the fourth chapter). It was this self-emptying love that transformed His disciples who before the cross were dominated by self-interest [Luke 22:24]. Likewise, when we get a glimpse of this self-sacrificing love of Christ shining from the cross of Calvary, we too will be transformed [2 Corinthians 5:14-15].
In concluding this contrast between human and divine love, may it become clear to every reader that it is only when we realize these threefold qualities of God’s agape love (unconditional, changeless, and self-giving), that the gospel comes to us as unconditional good news of salvation. And when we are “rooted and established” in this agape love we will cast out all fear and will be able to serve our God with an unselfish motive [1 John 4:7, 12, 16-18].
When Satan rebelled against God in heaven [Revelation 12:7-9], he was really rebelling against the God’s agape love the spirit of His law [Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:13-14]. The idea that “love (agape) is not self-seeking” (i.e., self) [1 Corinthians 13:5] was too restrictive to Lucifer. Consequently he objected to it and introduced the principle of self-love or eros [Ezekiel 28:15; Isaiah 14:12-14]. Therefore, ever since his fall, the enemy of God and man (Satan) has hated the concept of agape. When this concept was restored to the human race through the preaching of the gospel, he naturally was ready to attack it with all his might [Revelation 12:10-12]. Hence, the very first thing he attacked in the Christian church was not the sabbath or the state of the dead; these truths came later, but he zeroed in first on the concept of God’s agape love.
After the disciples had passed away from the scene, the leadership of the church fell into the hands of the church “Fathers,” who were of Greek origin. Immediately the great battle to substitute eros concepts for agape began.
The Greeks were insulted that the New Testament writers ignored the highest form of love in their language (heavenly eros) and used an obscure word (agape) instead. They felt that the disciples of Christ, who were all Jews (except Luke), did not really understand their language and, therefore, a correction had to be made. The first to attempt this was Marcion (died in 160 A.D.). He was succeeded by Origen (died in 254 A.D.) who actually changed John’s sublime statement “God is agape” [1 John 4:8] to “God is eros.” However, the battle did not stop there; it continued until we come to Augustine, the fourth century bishop of Hippo (North Africa) and one of the great “fathers” of Roman Catholic theology.
Augustine realized how futile it was to substitute eros for agape. Instead he did a very smart thing. By using Greek logic, he took the concepts of agape as well as eros and married the two together, producing a synthesis which he called caritas (Latin) and from which we get our English word charity, the word that is often used in the King James Version of the Bible for agape. This word caritas was not only accepted by Christendom but became the key word to define divine and Christian love in Roman Catholic theology. Its meaning was a mixture of agape and eros so that the gospel was perverted from “Not I, but Christ” [Galatians 2:20] to “I plus Christ,” a concept of the gospel still prevalent today. The moment the pure meaning of agape was corrupted, the gospel became perverted with self-love, and the Christian church lost its power and was plunged into darkness. It was not until the Reformation (16th Century) that Martin Luther realized the problem and tried to break the synthesis. However, the church today is to a large degree still groping in darkness as to the true meaning of the gospel.
Today three concepts of love exist: the concept of eros or self-love; the concept of God’s agape or self-giving love; and the concept of caritas, a mixture of self-love (eros and agape). Each of these three concepts have produced in human history their own kind of gospel. The pagans who are steeped in eros have produced in their various religions the gospel of works. As Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, declared: “Salvation is the movement of the creature towards God.” Plato taught a similar idea, and believed that God only saves the lovable. In other words, the eros gospel teaches that man must save himself by pleasing God through sacrifices and good works, to make himself lovable. We call this “legalism” or salvation by works, the basis of all non-Christian religions.
At the heart of Roman Catholic theology is the caritas gospel: man must first give evidence he wants to be saved through his good works, and when God sees this, He will meet him halfway to save him. This gospel teaches that we must do our best to meet God’s ideal and Christ will make up the difference. The Galatian Christians fell into this trap [Galatians 3:1-3] and so have a great number of Christians today the religion of faith plus works, or justification plus sanctification. This is a subtle legalism.
The Bible however subscribes to neither the eros or the caritas gospel. In complete contradiction to the above two gospels, the apostles taught that while we were “helpless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and even “enemies,” God demonstrated His agape love towards sinful men through the death of His Son, which fully reconciled us to Him [Romans 5:6-10]. This agape gospel is the clear teaching of the New Testament. [John 3:16, Ephesians 2:1-6, 1 Timothy 1:15, Titus 3:3-5 are but a few examples.] Both the eros gospel as well as the caritas gospel may be described as conditional good news; but the agape gospel which turned the world upside down in apostolic times [Acts 17:6] is unconditional good news.
It is this gospel that the world desperately needs to see restored and witnessed today, and which will lighten the earth with His glory [Revelation 18:1] before the end comes [Matthew 24:14; Revelation 14:6-15]. For the purposes of comparison, the following diagram represents the three gospels:
One of the effects of the sin problem is that it has produced in many lives a very low sense of self-esteem or self-worth. Unfortunatately this problem has magnified in our present complex world with its high divorce rates and competitive lifestyle. The result is a heyday for those who are in the counseling business. But may I introduce you to the “wonderful counselor” [Isaiah 9:6] who alone has a permanent solution for you.
As we have already seen, in dealing with the sin problem (Chapter 1), the Bible puts very little value in sinful flesh. To Nicodemas, whose religion put much emphasis on human achievement, Christ said: “Flesh gives birth to flesh” [John 3:6]. By this He meant that there is nothing good in God’s eyes which the flesh is capable of producing [Romans 7:18]. This is because every thing that man does, in and of himself, is polluted with self-love. Hence there is none good and no one righteous [Romans 3:10,12].
It is for this reason the apostle Paul told the Philippian Christians that we are to have no confidence in the flesh [Philippians 3:3]. All this is devastating to our Good News for you God’s agape love for each one of us. The only permanent solution to the problem of a low self-worth is a clear understanding of God’s unconditional love (agape) and His saving truth in Christ. As the prophet Isaiah declared, in spite of our sinfulness, God will make us more precious than the fine gold of Ophir [Isaiah 13:12]. And this He has done in Christ, as we shall see in our study of the next chapter.