Summary of Love of God: A Canonical Model: Chapter Eight: “The Reciprocal Aspect of Divine Love”

Chapter eight of John Peckham’s Love of God: A Canonical Model focuses on the ideally reciprocal nature of divine-human love. While God has a universal love for all persons, he “enters into and enjoys a particular, intimate relationship only with those who freely reciprocate his love” (p. 220). Humans must choose to respond to God’s love in order to enjoy its blessings and benefits, and this reciprocity is necessary because of the nature of love, which involves the free and mutual giving of the self to the one who is loved. This discussion of reciprocity in divine-human love overlaps in many ways the previous discussion of the foreconditionality of God’s love in chapter seven.

God has foreconditionally bestowed love on every person, enabling a reciprocal response by humans to that love. God seeks these relationships because he is by nature love (1 John 4:8), and the revelation of God’s triune nature reflects that the Father, Son, and Spirit have eternally enjoyed a reciprocal love relationship. God is not in need of relationship with his creatures, but he desires and seeks relationship with humans. He expects that humans will reciprocate his love and responds with love and special intimacy to those who do so. In the Old Testament, God shows his “lovingkindness” (hesed) to those who “love” (’ahav) him and keep his commandments (Exod 20:5-6; 34:7; Deut 7:9; Neh 1:5; Jer 32:8; Dan 9:4). Similarly, the New Testament teaches that both God and Jesus respond with love toward those who love and obey the Son (John 14:21-23; 16:27). Followers of Jesus enjoy an intimate friendship with him because of this reciprocal love (John 15:14), but must remain in that love (John 15:9-10).

The Biblical Evidence for Reciprocity in Divine-Human Love

The reciprocity of divine-human love is especially reflected in the covenant and kinship relationships that God enjoys with his people. God initiates covenant relationships through calling and election prior to any human response, but those in covenant with him are expected to love him in return and to keep his commands. Providing a corrective to the sharp distinction between promissory and obligatory covenants in the Old Testament, Peckham rightly emphasizes that all covenants between God and humans contain elements of conditionality that place obligations upon those in covenant with the Lord. Even promissory covenants like the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants that guarantee the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises place conditions of loyalty and obedience upon those who wish to personally experience their blessings  (cf. Gen 18:19; 22:16-18; 26:4-; 1 Kgs 2:3-4; 8:2; 9:4-9).

The use of marriage and parent-child metaphors to portray the covenant relationship particularly highlights the bilateral “give and take” involved in divine-human relationships. God has an enduring and patient love for his people, but he also expects the love of his people in return (cf. Ezek 16:8-13; Jer 2:2). God’s compassionate love for his people surpasses that of a human parent (Isa 49:15), but humans can also reject God as husband or parent and thus sever the kinship relationship (Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8; Hos 2:2). In the Old Testament, Israel’s repeated apostasy brought a rupture of their special relationship with Yahweh so that they forfeited their claim to be his “wife” (Jer 3:1) and “children” (Hos 1:6, 9; 2:4). God gave his wife a certificate of divorce (Isa 50:1) and sent her away into exile. God’s love for Israel was enduring so that he called for their repentance and return even in the midst of their apostasy and he promises to make a new covenant with those who seek him and return to him (Jer 31:31;36; Ezek 16:60-62; Hos 2:19-20; 14:3-4). In the New Testament, only those who respond by faith in Jesus Christ are allowed to be called children/sons of God (John 1:12; Rom 8:14; 1 Jn 3:1-2).

Regarding the human reciprocation of divine love, Peckham makes two important clarifications.  Reciprocal love does not mean that humans can love God equally or that the relationship between God and humans is symmetrical, but it does mean that a relationship between God and humans is possible in which “God’s love is responded to positively so that humans become conduits of divine love” (p. 231). The second is that the reciprocal nature of divine-human love also means that human love for God is not the result of God’s unilateral action. While God is the prime agent and initiator of divine-human love, he does not unilaterally cause humans to enter into a love relationship with him. Peckham states that “humans possess the divinely granted freedom to reciprocate or reject God’s love” (p. 231) and views this understanding to be in line with the numerous exhortations in the Bible for humans to love God and statements in the Bible concerning human love for God. He argues that “the divine exhortations for human love would be superfluous and misleading if human love were unilaterally determined by God such that those who do not love God could not love God” (p. 231). The numerous passages that speak of the reward given to those who love God “strongly imply genuine contingency and significant human freedom” (p. 231).

God’s Universal and Particular Love

Peckham’s view of divine-human love as ideally reciprocal necessitates a distinction between God’s universal and particular love. There is a universal invitation to all, but God’s relational love can be rejected and forfeited. There is a special “insider love” for those who respond to God, but those on the outside who reject God’s love could have been insiders as well but were not willing. Humans do not earn God’s love by responding to his initiatives because their response “is no more meritorious than the acceptance of a gift from a benefactor” (p. 234).

Pekcham rejects universalism in all of its forms, because God’s love ultimately can be rejected and resisted. He also rejects the idea that God’s particular love reaches only those whom God as chosen as his elect. Peckham, in agreement with Walls and Olson, finds it problematic to say that God truly loves those whom he has unilaterally chosen not to save. He also raises the question of why God does not save all if he truly can unilaterally impose his love on humans.  A reciprocal view of divine-human love instead asserts that God does all he can “within the bounds of bilateral significant freedom” to bring about the salvation of all, but ultimately each individual must choose to accept or reject the offer to enter into relationship with God.

A Further Canonical Perspective to Consider

Peckham’s model of the reciprocal nature of divine-human love accords well with the canonical interplay between the divine initiative to enter into relationships with humans and the contingency of human responses to those initiatives. Peckham also raises important questions regarding how divine-human love can be genuine and mutual if unilaterally imposed on humans. At the same time, there appears to be a canonical movement in Scripture that perhaps does not receive enough attention in Peckham’s treatment. In the new covenant that God would make with Israel, there is a greater emphasis on the circumcision of the heart, writing the divine law on the heart, or the giving of a new heart that would serve to override Israel’s unbelief and that would guarantee the nation’s fidelity to the Lord (cf. Deut 30:16; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 11:19). Walter Brueggemann writes of this movement from a “Deuteronomic model,” stressing human repentance as a condition for Israel’s restoration, to a “Prophetic model,” in which restoration occurs without Israel’s repentance. This movement does not eliminate reciprocity, because human repentance/response remains a part of the equation, but Peckham could devote more attention to this greater emphasis in the new covenant on divine initiative in securing the human responses that God desires. Peckham states that “those privy to God’s particularly relational love allow God to love them forever” (p. 243), but it seems that there again needs to be greater emphasis on the indwelling of the Spirit (also a new covenant reality) that seals the believer in this love relationship and that secures the believer’s enduring love in relationship with God. The power of God that acts to hold the believer in this reciprocal love relationship once it is initiated is also an important part of the canonical presentation concerning divine-human love.


Gary Yates

Gary Yates is Professor of Old Testament Studies at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia where he has taught since 2003.  Prior to that he taught at Cedarville University in Ohio and pastored churches in Kansas and Virginia.  He has a Th.M. and Ph.D. in Old Testament Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary.  His teaching interests are the Old Testament Prophets, the Psalms, Biblical Hebrew, and Biblical Theology.  He is the co-author of The Essentials of the Old Testament (B&H, 2012) and The Message of the Twelve (B&H, forthcoming) and has written journal articles and chapters for other works.  Gary continues to be involved in teaching and preaching in the local church.  He and his wife Marilyn have three children.