How do we know that God loves us?
First John 4:9-10 answers that question by teaching us that God’s love is public, personal, proactive, and propitiatory.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
First, God’s love is public. It is something he “showed” us. It is not merely a theological idea or spiritual feeling, it is an historical event—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the ancient world, few people believed that God (or the gods) loved them. At best, ancient people believed that God (or the gods) might take care of them if they offered appropriate sacrifices. But in the New Testament, God publicly proves his love for us by offering a sacrifice for us. Indeed, in a real sense, he offers himself as the sacrifice for us.
That brings us to the second point: God’s love is personal. John writes that “[God] sent his one and only Son into the world” to be “an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Now, at one level, this sounds like a pretty lousy thing for God to do, like he’s an old man sending his young son off to war to fight his battles for him. But in Christian theology, while the Father and Son are distinct persons, they are one in essence. This is the heart of the mystery of the Trinity: One God exists eternally as three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. This is not the time to swim in the very deep waters of Trinitarian theology. Rather, the point I want to make is that the Father and Son are so unified in Christian theology, that for the Father to send the Son was a personal sacrifice. That personal sacrifice demonstrates the depths of God’s love for us.
Third, God’s love is proactive. “This is love,” John writes: “not that we loved God, but that he loved us.” Indeed, according to Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God didn’t wait for us to turn to him so that he could love us; he loved us so that we could turn to him.
Finally, God’s love is propitiatory. Theologians distinguish between expiation and propitiation. Roughly speaking, the distinction is this: Expiation changes us, propitiation changes God. Expiation cancels out the guilt of our sin; propitiation cancels out the anger of God at our sin. Let me suggest a simplistic analogy for understanding this distinction. If you drive recklessly, slam your car into your neighbor’s parked car and total it, your neighbor is going to be justifiably angry with you. A check to your neighbor from your insurance company is expiation; it pays what you owe. Becoming friendly with your neighbor again—getting him to stop looking at you like an idiot—is propitiation. John teaches us that Jesus’ death on the cross is an “atoning sacrifice.” It both cancels our guilt and guarantees God’s love for us.
Ultimately, then, we know God loves us because his Son made the ultimate sacrifice for us.