Why should we love God? This seemingly impertinent question is answered by the American theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Edwards defined a truly virtuous person as exemplifying benevolence to all or displaying “consent, propensity, and union of heart to Being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general goodwill” (540). In other words, to be truly virtuous, to be truly morally good, one must exercise a general good will, or virtuous love, toward all beings. “All creatures great and small . . . The Lord God made them all,” so penned the Victorian hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander. But, of course, we should not love all beings equally and indiscriminately. And this is why Edwards argued that there are two separate grounds of benevolent virtue.
First, Edwards argued that virtuous love to others should first be based upon, what I will call, their level of ontological greatness. “That Being who has the most of being, or has the greatest share of existence, other things being equal . . . will have the greatest share of the propensity and benevolent affections of the heart” (545–46). As a Christian, Edwards explicitly saw God as having the “most being.” Strangely worded, but the conception here is an old one. Edwards is suggesting that there is an ontological hierarchy, or scale of beings, in the universe. Based upon this conception, Edwards is arguing that a virtuous person should love God above all other beings because God is “the infinitely greatest being” (550). And, since human beings are made in God’s image (Gen 1:27), a virtuous person should also love human beings, but not to the degree that he or she loves God. Likewise, animals, plant life, etc. are lower down on the scale of being and thus are worthy of lesser levels or intensities of virtuous love.
In addition to a being’s ontological greatness, Edwards also argued that virtuous love to others should be based (secondarily) upon, what I will call, their level of enacted benevolence. He writes, “When anyone under the influence of [virtuous] benevolence sees another being possessed of the like . . . , this attaches his heart to him and draws forth greater love to him, than merely his having existence” (546). Like ontological greatness, Edwards again views God as the exemplar here because he is “infinitely the most beautiful and excellent” (550). The beauty and excellency of God’s love towards us is seen most clearly in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, the virtuous person should love God above all others on two counts: not only is God the infinitely greatest being, he is also the most benevolently loving being as well.
The implications of this understanding of virtuous love become more diverse down the scale of being. As we saw, Edwards’s view implies that a human being is deserving of virtuous love primarily because of being made in God’s image. But, in addition, virtuous love must be modified to the degree of how much moral goodness is exemplified by that human person. For example, an unrepentant sinner—who still should be virtuously loved in lieu of the fact that he or she is still made in God’s image—should receive less love from the virtuous person than a striving-after-righteousness Christian. For the latter reflects God more fully in two distinct ways: ontologically in terms of being made in God’s image, and also presumably in terms of love in striving to live a life that reflects the virtuous and loving character of God as well.
This all sounds fairly abstract, and it is, but Edwards is trying to philosophically capture some core biblical truths. For example, Edwards’s conception of true virtue reflects different, yet good motivations for how we should love God. First, we should love God for who he is as well as what God has done for us in Christ in securing our redemption. If Christ had never come to save us, God would still be worthy of our love and praise; his very being demands or obligates the praise of all creatures. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). “The LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isa 8:13). “I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you” (Ps 5:7). However, given the gracious love that God has displayed for us in Christ, he also should be clearly praised in thanks for the love he has exemplified in his salvation for us. “My heart exults in the LORD . . . I rejoice in your salvation” (1 Sam 2:1). “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness . . . O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Ps 51:14–15). And “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Why should we love God? Many reasons! But I think we can answer, most generally, that we should love God because of who God is and because of what God has lovingly done for us in Christ.
Dr. James McGlothlin
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology
- Please pray for us here at Bethlehem College & Seminary as we seek to form students to love God for the greatness of who he is and for all of the gracious things he has accomplished for us in Christ!
- Pray that God would begin to bring us the right students to join us in the Fall of 2022. Our admissions and recruitment efforts are underway, and we are taking applications.
- Pray for Serious Joy: The 34th Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, which we will be relaunching in February 2022. Our theme is Gravity and Gladness in a Groaning World. Pray for both our preparation and the pastors who will be joining us.
- Pray for the full funding of the Serious Joy Scholarship for all our resident students.
 All parenthetic page references are to Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue  in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 8, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 540.