In English, we have one word for love. In ancient Greek, there were four different words that we can translate as “love.” And each has a different meaning. Let’s consider each briefly.
Storge—referred to a person’s affection for something. When we say we love our car or a person’s smile or another’s ability to sing, we are using love in this sense.
Eros—usually used in reference to romantic or sexual love. This is what people mean today when they speak about “falling in love” or “making love.”
Phileo—most commonly used in reference to friendship. When we tell a best friend we love him or her, we don’t mean it romantically (eros), nor do we mean only that we have affection for something about that person (storge).
Each of these senses of love involves an emotional feeling we have toward another person or thing. For this reason these first three kinds of love are neither universal nor unconditional. We cannot have affection for everyone and everything (storge); we cannot have romantic feelings toward everyone (eros); and we cannot experience personal friendship with everyone (phileo).
Agape—this fourth kind of love is universal and unconditional. This love is not a feeling one has, although certain feelings often follow from it. It is rather a commitment one makes, a stance one takes toward another, and an activity one does. It should be present in each of the first three senses of love but also when those forms of love are absent. Agape is a kind of love you can have when there’s nothing about the other you like, when you have no romantic interest in the other, and even when the other is your enemy rather than your friend.
Agape is the most fundamentally the kind of love God had for us while we were yet sinners and the kind of love we are commanded to have toward all others.
The Bible does not give us an abstract definition of agape love. It rather points us to its perfect expression in the person of Jesus Christ, dying for us on the cross. “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3:16). In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we read “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). This is what agape love looks like. As Bonhoeffer put it, “love … is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ.”
Love, as defined by the one who is love, lays down its life for another, however undeserving. Agape love ascribes worth to another at cost to oneself. On the cross, God expressed this love in its most perfect form.
The kind of love that defines God, that characterizes the life of Christ, and that is commanded of believers has nothing to do with getting something. The agape love that flows from the Spirit of God is rather about giving something. It is constituted by a unilateral movement toward another. God does not love because he needs something from us. He is not trying to get his own needs met by relating to us. Rather, God loves out of the abundance of his life and in the interests of the beloved.
What is it that agape love gives? In a word, it is worth. God does not love because of the worth that he finds in another, as is typical of most expressions of love. If that were true, God could not love us with a perfect love, for we are unworthy sinners. Rather, God loves in order to ascribe worth to another.
—Adapted from Repenting of Religion, pages 24-25 and Seeing Is Believing, pages 145-146