Love is the best known but least understood of all God's attributes. Almost everyone who believes in God these days sees Him as a God of love. I have even met agnostics who are quite certain that if God exists, He must be benevolent, compassionate, and loving.
All those things are infinitely true about God, of course, but not in the way most people think. Because of the influence of modern liberal theology, many suppose that God's love and goodness ultimately nullify His righteousness, justice, and holy wrath. They envision God as a benign heavenly grandfather — tolerant, affable, lenient, permissive, devoid of any real displeasure over sin, who without consideration of His holiness will benignly pass over sin and accept people as they are.
Liberal thinking about God's love also permeates much of evangelicalism today. We have lost the reality of God's wrath. We have disregarded His hatred for sin. The God most evangelicals now describe is all-loving and not at all angry. We have forgotten that "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). We do not believe in that kind of God anymore.
We must recapture some of the holy terror that comes with a right understanding of God's righteous anger. We need to remember that God's wrath does burn against impenitent sinners (Psalm 38:1-3). That reality is the very thing that makes His love so amazing. Only those who see themselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God can fully appreciate the magnitude and wonder of His love.
In that regard, our generation is surely at a greater disadvantage than any previous age. We have been force-fed the doctrines of self-esteem for so long that most people don't really view themselves as sinners worthy of divine wrath. On top of that, religious liberalism, humanism, evangelical compromise, and ignorance of the Scriptures have all worked against a right understanding of who God is. Ironically, in an age that conceives of God as wholly loving, altogether devoid of wrath, few people really understand what God's love is all about.
How we address the misconception of the present age is crucial. We must not respond to an overemphasis on divine love by denying that God is love. Our generation's imbalanced view of God cannot be corrected by an equal imbalance in the opposite direction, a very real danger in some circles. I'm deeply concerned about a growing trend I've noticed — particularly among people committed to the biblical truth of God's sovereignty and divine election. Some of them flatly deny that God in any sense loves those whom He has not chosen for salvation.
I am troubled by the tendency of some — often young people newly infatuated with Reformed doctrine — who insist that God cannot possibly love those who never repent and believe. I encounter that view, it seems, with increasing frequency.
The argument inevitably goes like this: Psalm 7:11 tells us "God is angry with the wicked every day." It seems reasonable to assume that if God loved everyone, He would have chosen everyone unto salvation. Therefore, God does not love the non-elect. Those who hold this view often go to great lengths to argue that John 3:16 cannot really mean God loves the whole world.
Perhaps the best-known argument for this view is found the unabridged edition of an otherwise excellent book, The Sovereignty of God, by A. W. Pink. Pink wrote, "God loves whom He chooses. He does not love everybody." He further argued that the word world in John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world...") "refers to the world of believers (God's elect), in contradistinction from 'the world of the ungodly.'"
Pink was attempting to make the crucial point that God is sovereign in the exercise of His love. The gist of his argument is certainly valid: It is folly to think that God loves all alike, or that He is compelled by some rule of fairness to love everyone equally. Scripture teaches us that God loves because He chooses to love (Deuteronomy 7:6-7), because He is loving (God is love, 1 John 4:8), not because He is under some obligation to love everyone the same.
Nothing but God's own sovereign good pleasure compels Him to love sinners. Nothing but His own sovereign will governs His love. That has to be true, since there is certainly nothing in any sinner worthy of even the smallest degree of divine love.
Unfortunately, Pink took the corollary too far. The fact that some sinners are not elected to salvation is no proof that God's attitude toward them is utterly devoid of sincere love. We know from Scripture that God is compassionate, kind, generous, and good even to the most stubborn sinners. Who can deny that those mercies flow out of God's boundless love? It is evident that they are showered even on unrepentant sinners.
We must understand that it is God's very nature to love. The reason our Lord commanded us to love our enemies is "in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). Jesus clearly characterized His Father as One who loves even those who purposefully set themselves at enmity against Him.
At this point, however, an important distinction must be made: God loves believers with a particular love. God's love for the elect is an infinite, eternal, saving love. We know from Scripture that this great love was the very cause of our election (Ephesians 2:4). Such love clearly is not directed toward all of mankind indiscriminately, but is bestowed uniquely and individually on those whom God chose in eternity past.
But from that, it does not follow that God's attitude toward those He did not elect must be unmitigated hatred. Surely His pleading with the lost, His offers of mercy to the reprobate, and the call of the gospel to all who hear are all sincere expressions of the heart of a loving God. Remember, He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but tenderly calls sinners to turn from their evil ways and live.
Reformed theology has historically been the branch of evangelicalism most strongly committed to the sovereignty of God. At the same time, the mainstream of Reformed theologians have always affirmed the love of God for all sinners. John Calvin himself wrote regarding John 3:16, "[Two] points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish."
Calvin continues to explain the biblical balance that both the gospel invitation and "the world" that God loves are by no means limited to the elect alone. He also recognized that God's electing, saving love is uniquely bestowed on His chosen ones.
Those same truths, reflecting a biblical balance, have been vigorously defended by a host of Reformed stalwarts, including Thomas Boston, John Brown, Andrew Fuller, W. G. T. Shedd, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, John Murray, R. B. Kuiper, and many others. In no sense does belief in divine sovereignty rule out the love of God for all humanity.
We are seeing today, in some circles, an almost unprecedented interest in the doctrines of the Reformation and the Puritan eras. I'm very encouraged by that in most respects. A return to those historic truths is, I'm convinced, absolutely necessary if the church is to survive. Yet there is a danger when overzealous souls misuse a doctrine like divine sovereignty to deny God's sincere offer of mercy to all sinners.
We must maintain a carefully balanced perspective as we pursue our study of God's love. God's love cannot be isolated from His wrath and vice versa. Nor are His love and wrath in opposition to each other like some mystical yin-yang principle. Both attributes are constant, perfect, without ebb or flow. His wrath coexists with His love; therefore, the two never contradict. Such are the perfections of God that we can never begin to comprehend these things. Above all, we must not set them against one another, as if there were somehow a discrepancy in God.
Both God's wrath and His love work to the same ultimate end — His glory. God is glorified in the condemnation of the wicked; He is glorified in every expression of love for all people without exception; and He is glorified in the particular love He manifests in saving His people.
Expressions of wrath and expressions of love — all are necessary to display God's full glory. We must never ignore any aspect of His character, nor magnify one to the exclusion of another. When we commit those errors, we throw off the biblical balance, distort the true nature of God, and diminish His real glory.
Does God so love the world? Emphatically — yes! Proclaim that truth far and wide, and do so against the backdrop of God's perfect wrath that awaits everyone who does not repent and turn to Christ.
Does the love of God differ in the breadth and depth and manner of its expression? Yes it does. Praise Him for the many manifestations of His love, especially toward the non-elect, and rejoice in the particular manifestation of His saving love for you who believe. God has chosen to display in you the glory of His redeeming grace.
Arthur W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1930), 29-30.
John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, William Pringle, trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 reprint), 123.
Adapted from The God Who Loves © 2001 by John MacArthur. All rights reserved.