I was recently editing a book by a long-time pastor I respect and noticed that he defined agape love in the Bible as "self-sacrificial action on behalf of others," or something like that. I wrote a version of the following comments on the manuscript and he ended up changing his definition to what I suggested, so I must be on to something! :)
I would suggest that agape love itself (narrowly defined) is not an action, but a desire of the heart that produces actions. And it is not merely self-sacrifice, because then non-Christians could have it without any reference to God, as long as they are sacrificing for someone else. In 1 Corinthians 13:3 Paul says, “If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” The person described there has self-sacrificial actions, but according to Paul does not actually have love. That and other passages like Romans 5:5 seem to indicate that love itself is actually something in the heart, which is then manifested in actions. Plus, because it can only be produced by the Spirit and is directed toward God, it must include spiritual purposes (to set it apart from merely human self-sacrificial love). So my working definition of agape is “a Spirit-created desire of the heart for the spiritual good of others, which produces self-sacrificial actions on their behalf.”
In other words, I don’t think agape = action for the reasons stated above (e.g. “God so loved the world that he gave…” His love was the reason for His action of giving). And I also think “spiritual” needs to be added before “good” to accurately capture the biblical meaning of the word (same example).
Agape = action is problematic because we can do sacrificial action for our wives (or whomever) without actually loving them in our hearts (like “this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are from me”). And even if it is heart-driven action, it might come from wrong motives in the heart, like selfish ones.
Emphasizing the goal of spiritual good helps because otherwise unbelievers could practice agape love, and the Bible says it’s a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 3:24) that is shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit (Rom. 5:5). That part of my definition is what sets the use of agape in the NT apart from its infrequent use in the ancient world (and the other Greek words for love, of course). My belief after studying it is that Jesus “coined the term” (or at least co-opted and changed it) in order to communicate these ideas.
I illustrated the importance and implications of our definition of love in a recent Facebook post, which elicited some interesting responses:
What do you think about this? I'm wondering if one of the reasons why the younger generation of Christians are so open to unbiblical ideas about sexual morality is because we have failed to draw a clear distinction between the world's definition of love and the Bible's. "Love is love," they say. But the primary New Testament Greek word for love (agape) means something so different from the way we usually use the word in our culture. Here's what "love" means in the Bible: "A Holy Spirit-created desire in the heart for the spiritual good of others, which issues in self-sacrificial action on their behalf." This kind of love can only happen by the power of God transforming us from the inside out (Rom. 5:5, 1 Cor. 13:3), like God's love it is focused on and acts for spiritual and eternal goals (John 3:16, Gal. 6:1-2), and it is clearly not based on feelings or the attractiveness of the object (Matt. 5:44, Rom. 5:10). Since this is so different from the way "love" is used in our culture, I wonder if we should use different words for one or the other, and if so what should we call them?
Maybe we should start using the term "agape love" when we're talking about the kind of love that God has and we should have as well (as long as we understand it correctly, of course:).