There is an arresting statement about God in I John 4:8: Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. “God is love” is an essentialist statement about God: who God is in God’s essence.
There is also an arresting call to Christians in Ephesians 5:1 & 2: 1Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The family trait of a Christ-follower is love: God’s essence is love; so should Christ-followers’ essence be love. “Following God’s example” means being “imitators of God” (in the original), who is at the core “love”.
What does this love look like?
What it does not look like is the kind of “justice” practised by the Pharisees. Translations often use the term “righteousness” for the Greek word dikaiosune, that above all is a relational word, and thus best translated as “justice”. “Relational” that is: towards God (theological), towards oneself (psychological), towards others (sociological), towards the creation (ecological), towards the cosmos (cosmological). Matthew 5:20 states: For I tell you that unless your righteousness [justice] surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
What love does look like is seen throughout the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 – 7, and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. In a word: “love” looks like justice. Which as we’ve seen is God’s essence and should be that of all who aspire to imitate God through the atonement effected by Christ.
This moves us into the realm of the Two Greatest Commandments. Here is Matthew’s rendition (Chapter 22:36 – 40): “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
But this is the admonition of the writer of Ephesians 5:1 & 2: live a life of love. And incidentally, Jesus’ call in the Two Greatest Commandments is the hermeneutical “overacceptance” of the entire sweep of Scripture theologically towards the essentialist revelation of God as love. (“Overacceptance” in the theatre “indicates an improvised reframing of the action of a drama in light of a larger story one wants to tell (Samuel Wells in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (2004), p. 65).”) The larger biblical story wanted to be told is: God is love. And God’s followers should fully imitate that love too.
There is a kind of inexorable Gospel logic that moves from love of neighbour as litmus test of love of God to love of enemies as litmus test of love of neighbour to enemy-love as litmus test of love of God.
Wayne Northey has been a forerunner in restorative justice and the author of the novel, Chrysalis Crucible