“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
In this is love,
God took the initiative to reach out in love to us. This model for our love is a model of initiative in sacrifice.
not that we loved God,
It is not our nature to spontaneously love God or others. We do not love God in an unsolicited manner. We did not take the initiative in love; God did. Love begets love. God’s love causes a reply of love in us.
but [strong contrast] that He loved us
The word “but” shows a strong contrast. The word “us” is emphatic and stands in contrast to another emphatic term, “He.” Love for God never originates in man but always in God. God sought us; we did not seek Him.
and sent His Son
God took action in loving us. He sent His Son to die on the cross. His love was not in response to man’s love but was initiated wholly within Himself. It was His plan from eternity to do this.
to be the propitiation
The only two instances of “propitiation” are in this verse and 2:2. There is another word for propitiation.
“Propitiation” means expiation. On occasion, it means satisfaction or mercy seat. The Old Testament sets forth the idea of “propitiation” in the sense of atonement or covering of sins by sacrifice to free a person from sin. God transferred the penalty of sins to the animal sacrifice. God removes our guilt by sacrifice. The judgment of God on Christ at the cross appeases His wrath against the one who accepts Christ’s suffering for sin.
Jesus was the only one who could satisfy the demands of a perfect God. Jesus satisfied God by dying in our place and taking our eternal punishment on the cross.
Divine love takes the initiative to love others.
God’s love cannot contradict His justice. God is perfect and absolute righteousness. He can never oppose who He is. He cannot wink at our sins. He will not sweep them under the rug. God is no crooked divine dealer in the sky.
Someone had to pay the price for sin. The only person who could satisfy a holy God was Jesus Christ. His death on the cross satisfied the justice of God. That was an exorbitant price to pay; He paid top dollar for our sins – His very own life.
God does not save us by the life of Christ but by the death of Christ. We do not become Christians by following Jesus’ example. We become Christians by accepting His death in place of our eternal death. Only Christ’s death can satisfy an absolutely holy God.