What Does it Mean to Love God?

What Does it Mean to Love God?

What Does it Mean to Love God?

While we love to talk about the love of God and how he has manifested that love towards us in innumerable ways, we become uneasy when the discussion is about whether we love God and if our profession of love for him is tangible like his love for us is.

The fear of legalism is one reason for this uneasiness. Since Christianity is founded on God and his grace, we fear that to talk about our duties towards God is to fall into legalism or to share with God the glory that belongs to him.

However, while this fear of legalism is healthy, in and of itself, we have gone to the extreme – to the point where our religion is all about what God can do for us and all talk about holiness, virtue, duty, devotion, and love for God have receded to the background.

This is not the biblical approach. While the love of God is the priority (“we love him because he first loved us”), it is the kind of love that produces love in us (“we love him because he first loved us” and “Christ’s love compels us”). In fact, love for God is the identifying mark of those who truly know him, which means to not love God is to be outside the kingdom (1 Corinthians 16:22).

In what follows, I consider the Bible’s consistent call for us to love God and what it means to heed this call in practice. 

Love the Lord your God

Of all the multitude of laws in the Old Testament (OT), which is the greatest? This was the question that an expert in the Mosaic Law asked Jesus. According to Albert Barnes, some have said that it was the “law respecting sacrifice; others, that respecting circumcision; others, that pertaining to washings and purifying.”[1]

For Jesus, the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). This means, according to Barnes, to love him with all our “faculties or powers,” to love him “supremely, more than all other beings and things, and with all the ardor possible.”[2]

But this command to love God was not new even if Jesus used this occasion to show its pre-eminence as the greatest. We find it in Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, 11:1, and 30:6, among others. As David implored, “Love the LORD, all his faithful people!”

As said in the introduction, this love for God is an important distinction of those who belong to God. Those who are brothers and sisters in the faith are those who “love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (Ephesians 6:23-24). For Peter, Christians can be described as those who love Jesus Christ even though they have not seen him (1 Peter 1:8). Consequently, “if anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! (1 Corinthians 16:22). According to Thomas Schreiner, a New Testament (NT) theologian, the word “anathema” that the NIV translates as “cursed” means “final destruction and condemnation.” Therefore, “irrevocable punishment will be meted out to those who do not love the Lord.”[3]

What the above paragraph means is that the presence or absence of love for God is a determinant of the current state of a soul and its future destiny. That is, someone can talk a lot about how good God is, pray to him for intervention and miracles, and even thank him for the good things that happen to him and still be a damned sinner if the love of the triune God is not present.

Whatever the love of God means, in the new covenant, it is a heart matter. This does not mean that it is a mere feeling uncorroborated by actions; rather, it is an inward state that is made manifest outwardly. How so?

The promise of the new covenant is that God will write his laws in the heart of his people (Jeremiah 31:31-33, Hebrews 10:16). And if the command to love God is the greatest, then love for God is an inward reality manifested outwardly. As Andrew Willard Jones, a church historian, puts it in his comments on Matthew 5, “Christ is asserting that the Law is actually kept or broken through the movements of the heart rather than through external actions in response to commands … The external law, the commands, are, therefore, fulfilled not through mere obedience in works but through the heart.”[4]

In essence, in the new covenant, love for God is a virtue that characterises and defines believers, the movement of the heart towards Christ that then manifests itself in every detail of our life. This is what Christ was getting to when he said we must love him with our whole heart, soul, and mind. Such love involves the whole being and cannot be reduced to a mere to-do list. In other words, it denotes “the vehemency of affections,” according to John Gill.[5]

Nevertheless, love for God does not remain internal. It is not a mere feeling, it is instead a vehemency of affection that is manifested in the entirety of one’s life. So, what does it mean to love God?

brown sand love text on seashore
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

To love God is to obey his word/commands

In Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:21, and 13:3 (among other passages in Deuteronomy), the primary context for the command to love God is Moses relaying God’s commandments to his people. We see the same thing in Exodus 20:6. Therefore, it is impossible to define or understand the command to love God without emphasising obedience to his commands.

As Jesus himself said, “if you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). Or, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (verse 21). John also made this point in his epistle: “if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly perfected in them” (1 John 2:5). Said differently, “this is love for God: to keep his commands” (1 John 5:3).

The point of all these texts is that if we truly love God, we will obey his commands and pay heed to his word. All these texts do not recognise love for God that is merely a profession or a feeling. Instead, they all affirm that obedience to God is evidence of love.

However, it bears repeating that a mere outward, legalistic, to-do list type of obedience is not what is in view. It is obedience from a heart with the vehemence of affections; said differently, it is obedience that involves the heart, the soul, and the mind, that is, the whole person. In Andrew Willard Jones terms, it is virtuous obedience, obedience that is “second nature,” “an aspect of the character or personality,” and a “movement of the heart.”[6] In the Psalmist’s term, it is delighting in the law of God.

To love God is to serve him   

In Deuteronomy 10:12 (and Joshua 22:5), we see Moses correlating love for God with service to him. In fact, to love him is to serve him with all of our heart and soul. This service springs from love, according to John Gill. And Adam Clarke defines it as “putting forth your whole strength and energy of body and soul in the sacred work” or “giving him that worship which he requires.”[7]

We see this in Jesus’ conversation with Peter at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:15-17). Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and when Peter responded positively, Jesus commissioned him to service: “feed my lambs,” “take care of my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.”

So, if we love God, we will worship him with our whole being and use our talents and gifts to serve him and the cause of his kingdom. Again, this will not be a service of drudgery and mere legalism; rather, in contrast to the Israelites, we must serve him with joy and gladness (Deuteronomy 28:47). “We are to use what we have gladly received from God in order to fulfil the mission God has given us,” said Joe Rigney, a theologian.[8]

To love God is to fear him

Fear of God is correlated with love for him, service to him, and obedience to him in Deuteronomy 10:12. According to Walter Kaiser, a Bible scholar, “few expressions in the Old Testament embrace more what it is to listen, love, and serve God than to ‘fear God.’”[9] Again, “fearing God is one of the best ways to express our love and devotion to him (6:13).”[10]

In a previous article, I explained that to fear God is to be in awe of him and to reverence and honour him in all things and in every way. God is holy, he is the king of all the nations and he demands that we honour and fear him.

But what about 1 John 4:18 where love is contrasted with fear? The fear in this verse is associated with punishment and judgment. It is a fearful expectation of judgment (Hebrews 10:27) that characterises those who have not made their peace with God.

John insists that we can know and rely on the love of God and for those who know that God loves them (a love that has produced love for God in their hearts), there is no need to live in fear of punishment and the day of judgment (verse 13-18). Instead, we can have confidence on the day of judgment because we are assured of God’s love and the fact that we live in him and he in us (as evidenced by our love for him). As Adam Clarke puts it, “The man who feels that he loves God with all his heart can never dread him as his Judge. As he is now made a partaker of his Spirit; and carries a sense of the Divine approbation in his conscience, he has nothing of that fear that produces terror or brings torment”[11]

So, the fear that John contrasts with love is not the same fear, reverence, awe, and honour of God that Bible writers constantly call us to (for example, Hebrews 12:28).

To love God is to desire him above all else

In Matthew 10:37, Jesus made it clear that to love him at all is to love him supremely, even above family. And we have already seen in Matthew 22:34-40 that true love for God engages the whole being.

One manifestation of this love is a constant longing and desire for him. We see this in Paul. In Philippians 3, we see how he considers everything (whatever was gain to him) as garbage that he might gain Christ (verse 8). To know Christ, be found in him, and be united with him in his life, death, and resurrection were Paul’s desires, desires that made everything else insignificant in comparison.

Ages before Paul, David exemplified for us what such desire for God, borne out of love for him, looks like:

“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you,

in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you” (Psalms 63:1-5).

To love God is to love others

While love for God is primary, it does not eliminate other loves. In fact, John told us that we cannot truthfully claim to love God if we don’t love others (especially fellow believers). “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:20-21).  If we love God, we will not refuse to show compassion towards those in need (1 John 3:17). It is by loving others that we show that God dwells in us and that his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:12).

It is no wonder then that to love our neighbours as we love ourselves is the second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40).

To love God is to be loyal to him

Loyalty to God (holding fast to him) is correlated with loving God in Deuteronomy 30:20 and Joshua 22:5. If we love God, we will be loyal to him, trusting him in all things and at all times.

To love God is to hate evil

When we love God, there are many things we also love though in a subordinate way. But there are also some things we are to hate. According to the Psalmist, to love God is to hate evil (Psalms 97:10).

To love God is to refuse to love the world

Similarly, to love God is to refuse to love the world. As John commanded: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[a] is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

In a previous article, I explained that John used the word “world” in various ways. In this passage, the world is humanity in rebellion against God. In this sense, we must deny the world and refuse to embrace the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life that characterise it.

“The meaning is, that we are not to fix our affections on worldly objects – on what the world can flourish – as our portion, with the spirit with which they do who live only for this world, regardless of the life to come,” said Albert Barnes. “We are not to make this world the object of our chief affection; we are not to be influenced by the maxims and feelings which prevail among those who do”

Growing in love

Love for God, like other spiritual graces, is the product of the Spirit’s work in our hearts. First, the Spirit of God pours God’s love into our hearts (Romans 5:5). Second, this outpouring of God’s love makes us capable of loving him. As John puts it, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Consequently, it is those who have been forgiven much (forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s love) that love much (Luke 7:47).

This is why Paul includes love as part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5::22) and Peter includes it as part of the virtues that show that we are participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:5-8).

While no one can be a genuine believer who does not love God, this love is not static. As believers, we must grow or abound in love (Philippians 1:9, 1 Thessalonians 3:12). We should obey, serve, fear, and desire him more than we did yesterday. And our love for others, hatred of evil, refusal to love the world, and loyalty to God must be stronger tomorrow than they are today. 

This will require that we keep contemplating God’s love for us (Ephesians 3:14-19) for it is as the Spirit pours out his love in our heart that we grow in love for him.

close up photo of wooden scrabble tiles near heart
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com


Let’s magnify God’s love and trumpet it to everyone who is ready to hear. But let’s also allow that love to transform us and create a love for God in our hearts.

Our relationship with God is a covenantal one. And in this relationship, God has called us to certain obligations. Faithfulness to these obligations shows that we are true covenant members. The primary obligation is that we love the God who has loved us. Yes, our love can never compare to his, but even though it is imperfect, it must not be lacking.

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14,15).

More love to thee, O Christ,

more love to thee!

Hear thou the prayer I make

on bended knee;

this is my earnest plea:

more love, O Christ, to thee,

more love to thee,

more love to thee!

Once earthly joy I craved,

sought peace and rest;

now thee alone I seek,

give what is best;

this all my prayer shall be:

more love, O Christ, to thee,

more love to thee,

more love to thee!

Let sorrow do its work,

send grief and pain;

sweet are thy messengers,

sweet their refrain,

when they can sing with me:

more love, O Christ, to thee,

more love to thee,

more love to thee!

Then shall my latest breath

whisper thy praise;

this be the parting cry

my heart shall raise;

this still its prayer shall be:

more love, O Christ, to thee,

more love to thee,

more love to thee![12]


[1] Riversoft Systems (2022). My Sword Bible. Retrieved from https://www.mysword.info/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Schreiner, 1 Corinthians (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2018), p. 497, Scribd. 

[4] Andrew Willard Jones, The Two Cities: A History of Christian Politics (Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2021), p. 42, Kindle.

[5] Riversoft Systems. My Sword Bible.

[6] Andrew Willard Jones, The Two Cities, p. 42-43.

[7] My Sword Bible. Riversoft Systems.

[8] Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Illinois: Crossway Publishers, 2015), p. 233, Scribd.

[9] Walter Kaiser, Commentary on Deuteronomy (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2012), p.34, Scribd.

[10] Ibid, 36.

[11]  My Sword Bible. Riversoft Systems.

[12] Elizabeth Payson Prentiss, More Love to Thee in Trinity Psalter Hymnal (Willow Grove: Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Venture, 2018), #497

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