Ambassador of Reconciliation
2/1/14 at 12:44 AM 60 Comments

Does God Love Everybody?

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Ephemera, Inc.

I became a Christian through Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), with the use of “The Four Spiritual Laws.” Law #1 stated:

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.1

This message is appealing, and I’m sure it has helped to draw many (like me) to faith in Christ. But is it true? Is it biblically accurate to tell unbelievers “God loves you”?

There are some who flat-out say that God does not love the whole world—that God’s love is reserved for the elect, that only the saints are the recipients of His love. For example, a commenter here on Christianpost, Reformed Baptist, quotes “Objections to God’s Sovereignty Answered” by Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952):

One of the most popular beliefs of the day is that God loves everybody, and the very fact that it is so popular with all classes ought to be enough to arouse the suspicions of those who are subject to the Word of Truth. God’s love towards all His creatures is the fundamental and favorite tenet of Universalists, Unitarians, Theosophists, Christian Scientists, Russellites, etc…. So widely has this dogma been proclaimed, and so comforting is it to the heart which is at enmity with God, we have little hope of convincing many of their error….

To tell the Christ-rejector that God loves him is to cauterize his conscience as well as to afford him a sense of security in his sins. The fact is, the love of God is a truth for the saints only, and to present it to the enemies of God is to take the children’s bread and to cast it to the dogs.

A contemporary preacher who holds a similar belief is Mark Driscoll.2 He told his congregation,

Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you…. He doesn’t think your excuse is merited. He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you; He hates them too.

God hates right now, personally, objectively, hates some of you.

Those who believe that God loves and calls only the elect cannot even have confidence that He loves and calls their own beloved children. I recently read some words by John Piper that grieved me greatly. Writing in 1983, when his three sons were small, he spoke of his deep love for them and his high hopes that they would grow into powerful men of God. Then he added, “But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons.3 He said that he himself would give his life for their salvation, but he could not be sure that Jesus had died for them! Do you parents resonate with what Piper says? Or do you find it overwhelmingly sad that he thinks God could pass over his dear sons?

In my experience, it seems that those who already believe that God loves only the elect are as unlikely to change their opinion as they think those who believe God loves everybody are to change theirs. (“So widely has this dogma been proclaimed, and so comforting is it to the heart which is at enmity with God, we have little hope of convincing many of their error.”) Therefore, a dialog between these two camps would probably make little headway in either direction.

For that reason, in this post I would like to address those who say, “Yes, God loves all people, but…” There are many who affirm the biblical truth that God loves the world, but they often add a caveat or condition or restriction:

but He is also holy.

but His love is not like human love.

but love is not His primary attribute.

...but He doesn't love unbelievers the way He loves His elect.

but He is also just.

but He has to punish sin.

but He doesn’t force anyone to believe.

For example, in a recent correspondence with a friend, we were discussing the relationship of God’s love and holiness. My friend said,

You seem to want to place God’s love as the controlling factor in his planning and decisions. To me the central attribute around which all the others revolve is His holiness. He is called the Holy One of Israel 31 times (e.g. 2 Kings 19:22; Psalm 71:22, 41:14; Isa 55:5; 60:9, etc.). His name is holy (Isa 57:15). I do not see His love as the central issue or motivation in God.

I replied,

I think a case could be made that God’s love is at least as central as His holiness (God IS love—you don’t get any more essential than that), but I don’t think it’s necessary or wise to do so, because God’s love is not in conflict with His holiness (or with any of His other attributes). It’s not that some of His actions are driven by His holiness and some by His love; everything He does is driven by the totality of who He is. So we should never say, “God is holy, but He’s also loving” nor “God is loving, but He’s also holy”; both are part of His essential nature and are in no way at odds with each other.

In other words, I believe it’s a mistake to say “God is loving, but anything.” He’s loving and He’s holy and He’s just and He’s infinitely more than we can ever know. His love is at the core of His being, just as all His other attributes are at the core of His being. But the question remains, Does He love everybody? Or does He hate some, as Pink and Driscoll would say? Does He love everybody in a vague, fuzzy kind of way? Does He love in a way that we find difficult to recognize as love? Does He love everybody at first but stop loving them depending on what they do? Or stop loving them when they die?

Anybody who knows me at all knows where I’m going with these questions, so I’ll just state my premise and then try to back it up: God is love, He always operates in love, He loved us while we were sinners, and He will always love us. And by “us” I mean the whole human race. And by “love” I mean the quality that in God is infinitely higher and purer than the best human love but not radically different from it. And by “always” I mean that He will never stop loving us—not when we sin, not when we rebel against Him, not when we die.

I have written about the love of God previously on my blog, but it’s a topic that can never be exhausted, so I want to amplify what I wrote before. Let’s look first at the Old Testament. Certainly God’s steadfast love is evident throughout the Old Testament, but some say it is directed only to His chosen ones, the people of Israel. The children of Israel are the apple of His eye; He set His affection on them and chose them above all others and made a covenant of love with them.

It could also be said that His love is conditional: He keeps His covenant of love with His people if they continue wholeheartedly in His way and are careful to follow His laws. He shows love to those who love Him and keep His commands. He loves the just, and His unfailing love surrounds those who trust in Him. His love is great for those who fear Him, but He hates evildoers. He detests the way of the wicked, but He loves those who pursue righteousness.

So shall we conclude that God’s love is reserved for those who are faithful to Him? In one sense, perhaps; those who follow Him are the recipients of His love, while those who are in rebellion against Him do not experience His love. Yet on another level, God’s love is spoken of as an essential part of who He is, which is not dependent on how we respond to it. He can no more stop being loving than He can stop being holy. Over and over the Bible declares that He is a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. His love is steadfast and unfailing, it reaches to the heavens, it stands firm forever. Psalm 136 declares 26 times that His love endures forever.

And is His love for a select segment of humanity? Israel was specially chosen by God, but not to be the exclusive recipients of His love. Rather they were to be the instrument for declaring His name to the world and making known His holiness and His love. They didn’t do a very good job of it, but God’s desire was that they be a light to all the nations rather than keeping the light for themselves. Psalm 107 repeatedly says to give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind (or the children of men). David’s song of praise in Psalm 145 extols the Lord for His graciousness toward all: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made…. The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works…. Let all flesh bless His holy name forever and ever.”

So if you want to limit God’s love in any way, you can find verses to support your position. But I would encourage you to do the opposite; rather than limiting His love—or any of His attributes—think bigger. As I wrote previously,

With all of God’s attributes, however great you think they are—they’re greater. (Ps. 145:3—“His greatness no one can fathom.”) However holy you think He is—He’s holier. However just you think He is—His justice is more complex and perfect. However powerful you think He is—His power exceeds what you can imagine. However vast you think the love of God is—it’s more so. His “love divine, all loves excelling” extends to all of space and time and beyond space and time, because God is beyond space and time and God is love.

And what do we see in the New Testament? Again there are those who say God’s love is only for His people. It has been pointed out that, other than John 3:16, God’s love is hardly mentioned in the gospels; it’s not until the epistles, which are addressed to the people of God, that the love of God is revealed in its fullness. Should we therefore understand that God’s love is restricted to the elect? Does He love the elect before they come to faith (knowing that they will)? Does He love little children? All little children, or only those who will one day come to Him in repentance and faith? If He loves them all, does He stop loving some if they fail to trust Him personally?

Or does God love everybody in this life but stop loving unbelievers if they die without coming to faith? One commenter believes that God “turns off” His love when unbelievers die:

God makes the choice to turn His love off once a lost person enters into eternity…. For God to turn His love off means you can no longer experience that love. Once a lost person enters into eternity God no longer expresses His love towards them. Instead all the lost person knows is the judgment of God.3

So she believes that God’s love for the lost stops at their death and turns into judgment. Others believe that God’s love is an immutable part of His nature, so it does not stop when a person dies, but they say that allowing people to go to hell is somehow an expression of His love. I can only wonder by what strange logic it can be considered “love” to consign people to never-ending suffering with no hope of relief. God has given us a sense of right and wrong, and we know in our hearts that cruel and unusual punishment is wrong, even for the worst of criminals. If “love” means allowing people to suffer endlessly, then the word “love” has completely lost its meaning and become indistinguishable from hate.

Of course God deals with people differently depending on their response to Him, and of course their perception of Him depends greatly on their own moral condition and their relationship to Him. The consuming fire of His presence is experienced as intense love by those who love Him but intense conviction by those who do not. But it seems to me that you get trapped in a logical quagmire if you say that God’s love or lack thereof is somehow dependent on the worth or character or faith or actions or standing of the recipients. You can find verses that suggest that His love for a person is determined by the person’s value or actions (He loves His own beloved children; He hates the wicked), but I think those verses should be understood in light of the character of God and the constancy of His love. Otherwise you get tangled up in all kinds of quandaries and contradictions: “God loves His children but hates evildoers”; in other words, He loves you if you’re good, and He hates you if you’re bad. So does He hate believers when they do evil? Does He love unbelievers when they do good? Why do some merit His love while others do not? Or if no one merits it, why does He single out some to get it and leave others with no hope of ever getting it? If He is the one who grants (or withholds) salvation, how does He choose who will get it and who won’t? Does He automatically love people who are unable to choose between good and evil (infants and mentally handicapped)? Does He stop loving them when and if they become able to choose? Does He love beforehand those whom He knows will eventually come to faith, or does He hate them until they do? Does He love people in this life and keep calling them to Himself up to their deathbed, and then set His face against them with implacable wrath the moment they take their last breath?

I don’t think we need to go through any philosophical or theological contortions to try to explain God’s love. It’s not complicated: God is love, He loves you and me and everyone else, and His love never ceases. He loved us when we were dead in sin, and He continues to love us if we fall into sin again. Just like any good father, He never gives up loving us. The goal of His holy love/loving holiness is to make us holy, to eradicate sin, and to restore His creation to a state of sinless perfection even greater than it would have been if we had never sinned. He pursues us tirelessly—throughout our lives on earth and beyond, through kindness and severity—to draw us to Himself in a relationship of love. God’s love and holiness in no way clash with one another; in fact, they are even more than complementary. As Stephen Ford put it,

God’s judgments (because of His Holiness) are, in reality, simply manifestations of His Love. (For God would not be loving if he never judged sin and simply allowed it to go unchecked and bring about ever more evil.) And His Love—which has been manifested to the world (all of humanity) through the cross—is an expression (and “satisfaction”) of His Holiness…. In the final analysis, I am convinced that to say that “God is Holy” or “God is Love” is to say the same thing.

As I said to Reformed Baptist,

I was once a child of wrath. But I think God loved me even then: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved).” And I think that He loves others who are still dead in sins, so much so that He sent His Son to die for them: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

The justification that Jesus brings through the cross is as extensive as the condemnation that Adam brought upon us in the garden: “Therefore as by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” How could we ever think that Adam’s sin is greater than Christ’s righteousness? The power of the cross is that Jesus by His righteousness can completely undo the destruction caused by man’s sinfulness.

So yes, all little children can sing “Jesus Loves Me” with confidence that it is true—not that there are some He does not love, or that He may stop loving some when they get older. His love is not limited to a fraction of humanity; it is big enough to go around. And though we can and do rebel against Him and walk according to the prince of the power of the air and become children of disobedience, yet HE IS SOVEREIGN and will not allow any of us to thwart His good purposes. He is not limited in power, He is not limited by our “free will,” and He is not limited to this one age to accomplish His eternal purposes. He will draw all by His irresistible grace and reconcile all to Himself through the blood of the cross.

Arthur Pink says that “To tell the Christ-rejector that God loves him is to cauterize his conscience as well as to afford him a sense of security in his sins.” Others say that if unbelievers think God will rescue all in the end, they will see no point in coming to Christ now. All the contrary, what actually keeps many away is a twisted picture of God that shows Him treating unbelievers in a way that is virtually unrecognizable as love. For example, star2’s response to the question “What Would Jesus Say to Justin Bieber?” was “I love you Justin. Repent and live for me or I will thrust you out of my presence on judgment day and declare to you that I never knew you.” Is God really that schizophrenic? Consider this scenario, which occurred to me when I read star2’s “gospel” message:

Suppose your daughter met a man who professed undying love for her. He asked her to marry him and promised a wonderful life together. He vowed that if she became his wife, he would love her unconditionally and protect her with tender care. But if she turned down his offer, she would be miserable. If she doubted or rejected his love, she would receive his fury. Not only would she miss out on all he promised to do for her, but he would see to it that she met a terrible fate. What would you advise your daughter to do? Avoid that kind of guy, or hurry up and marry him in order to receive the blessings and avoid the misery?

We have to ask ourselves: Does our witnessing for Jesus ever look like the latter? “Ask Jesus into your heart now so you get the blessings and go to heaven and avoid hell.” Do we not cheapen the gospel of grace when we hold out the carrot of heaven and/or the stick of hell? Salvation is so much more than getting into heaven and staying out of hell, and when we present it as a get-out-of-hell-free card, we horribly misrepresent the Lord and His message.

Unlike Reformed Baptist, I think God loves everyone (not just the elect) and Jesus died for everyone (not just the elect). However, I do agree with one statement made by Reformed Baptist. He said, “To die for the world (everyone) and fail to redeem all is an epic failure.” I replied,

I think you’re absolutely right about one thing: “To die for the world (everyone) and fail to redeem all is an epic failure.” I believe He died for the world (everyone) and will succeed in redeeming all. Epic success.5

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:14-21)

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1If my memory serves me, back in the 70s the first law stated, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It now reads, “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.” I don’t know whether the change is incidental, whether it reflects a change in theology, or whether it is an attempt to state a biblical truth more accurately.

2For more recent comments by Driscoll, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/10/pastor-mark-driscoll-tweets-hell_n_4576284.html?utm_hp_ref=religion#comments. On January 10, 2014 he tweeted, “If you are not a Christian, you are going to hell.”

3“I have three sons. Every night after they are asleep I turn on the hall light, open their bedroom door, and walk from bed to bed, laying my hands on them and praying. Often I am moved to tears of joy and longing. I pray that Karsten Luke become a great physician of the soul, that Benjamin John become the beloved son of my right hand in the gospel, and that Abraham Christian give glory to God as he grows strong in his faith.

“But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.” John Piper, 1983. http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/how-does-a-sovereign-god-love

4star2. http://blogs.christianpost.com/ambassador-of-reconciliation/a-word-to-the-elect-19397/

5"Every soul that is ultimately lost is a defeat of the love of God." George MacDonald

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