Love in Paul (5) divine love reimagined in light of the cross

In the previous post in this series we looked at how Paul stands in continuity with three main strands of OT love:

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

But that each of these strands is comprehensively reworked in light of the Christ-event. We looked at how election is reworked to include Jews and Gentiles.

In this post we are still in strand 1) – the electing and saving love of God but turn to look at how God’s salvific love for his people takes a remarkable turn – the cross of Christ.

Divine Love Reimagined in Light of the Cross

For Paul, divine love is the motive for the cross. Numerous texts illustrates this perspective, but before mentioning a few, we should not skip over how astounding a reimagination of divine love it is. No-one in the Roman world familiar with the brutal reality of crucifixion and its attendant political message intimidating opponents, could ever have interpreted the cross in any positive way.

How on earth could a sadistic method of public execution be connected to love? It would be like saying today that God shows his love through the noose or the guillotine.

Some texts

Galatians 2:20: The self-giving death of Christ is an act of salvific love.

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

Romans 5:1-11 is probably the most significant example. Humanity needs redemption and are even described as ‘enemies’ of God and facing his wrath. But due to God’s grace (5:2) believers now have ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (5:1). The result is reconciliation through the death of Christ (5:10-11). The cross for Paul therefore ‘proves’ the love of God (Rom 5:8).

For at just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8).

Ephesians 2:1-3: Similarly in Ephesians, humanity is powerless under the power of the flesh (sarx), the world (kosmos) and the ‘ruler of the power of the air’. Again, divine love reaches its climatic expression at the cross – it is out of his ‘great love’ (2:4), ‘mercy’ (2:4) and ‘grace’ (2:5) that believers are made alive and are raised up with him to a new eschatological existence ‘in Christ Jesus’ (Eph 2:6-7).

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-7.

All this constitutes an astonishing development in the understanding of divine love. Revolution is not too strong a word. It is truly ‘apocalyptic’ – an unveiling of a new theology of God himself. The cross shows us the depth and cost of God’s love for humanity. Paul and John are on the same page – God is love.

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