The love of God is beautiful and even breathtaking when considered rightly. God is infinite in His capacity to love, even loving fallen, rebellious sinners enough to send His beloved Son to die in their place (Romans 5:8). Of all the ways in which God’s perfection far surpasses human ability and effort, the most obvious and humbling is His perfect love. Have you ever truly contemplated the fact that an infinite and holy God loves human beings who are not only far beneath Him in nature and inferior to Him in character, but who also hate Him, scorn His goodness, and run from His truth? (cf. John 3:19-20; Romans 1:30; 2:4; 5:10).
God’s love is not only beautiful, it is also deep and complex. Sadly, the idea of God’s love for man is often over-simplified, trivialized and misunderstood. There’s a familiar slogan in some Christian circles that goes like this: “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin.” Many well-meaning people firmly believe that statement to be the one that best sums up God’s emotional stance toward every member of fallen humanity. Based often on the words of 1 John 4:8 (“God is love”), the assumption is drawn that everything God does, every thought He has toward people, must be loving. But consider that idea and the words of the familiar slogan, which, interestingly, is not found in the Bible, in light of some words that are: Psalm 5:5, for example, where David says to God, “You hate all who do iniquity.” Or Psalm 11:5 where we read, “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates” (emphasis added). Those two verses (and there are many others,1) seem to convey the idea, contrary to popular opinion, that God hates the sin and the sinner.
A directed study of this subject in the Bible will reveal that God’s hatred for the wicked person as well as his wicked deeds cannot be legitimately denied. And “hate” is neither the only, nor the strongest biblical term used to convey God’s negative feelings: He abhors sinful people (Leviticus 20:23; 26:30); He scoffs at them (Psalm 2:4); He has burning anger against them (Exodus 32:10); they are an abomination to Him (Proverbs 6:16-19; 17:15); He is sharpening His sword, bending His bow, making His arrows into fiery shafts, and preparing other instruments of death for their destruction (Psalm 7:11-13); He says that if they disobey His Law, He will delight over them to make them perish and destroy them (Deuteronomy 28:63), and this referring to Israel, no less!
God clearly has strong, negative feelings, not only toward evil behavior, but also toward the person practicing the evil. Surely, then, it must be clear that the trite phrase “God loves the sinner but hates the sin” betrays a seriously insufficient understanding of God’s love and of His overall view of fallen mankind. But at the same time, hatred cannot be properly seen as the only expression of “feelings” or “emotions” which God has toward sinful people. There are at least three ways in which the Bible describes the love of God, or His loving actions, toward sinful mankind:
1. God’s Benevolence
Jesus says to His followers, ” . . . love your enemies . . . so that you may be sons [most often understood to mean “imitators”] of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45; also see Luke 6:35-36). The passage teaches us that God extends goodness even to the most wicked of His enemies by providing them with good things like sunshine for warmth and rain for their crops. It is not only the believing farmer who prospers at God’s hand, but also the wicked one. It is not only believing parents who enjoy God’s blessing of children, but also the unbelieving. And because God does good to all, Jesus says we are to do the same.
It is interesting to note that the word “love” is not directly used in this passage to describe God’s benevolence toward mankind. It is also important to note that this passage does not refer to God’s love in its highest sense (see #3 below); most recipients of His benevolence will meet their ultimate end in hell (cf. Matthew 7:13-14) having never been the objects of His fatherly love. Nevertheless, since Jesus is teaching a moral lesson using God as the standard, it is certainly arguable that what we are told to imitate by loving our enemies is the example of God’s loving action toward His enemies. This seems even more certain when we compare Deuteronomy 10:18, where God is said to love “the alien.” His love is seen in His provision of food and clothing, and because of His love, the Israelites are told to treat the alien or stranger in the same way.
2. God’s General Love for Mankind
This is undoubtedly the most difficult aspect of God’s love to explain and understand. The reader may find this surprising, but part of the difficulty lies in the fact that there is little mention of this aspect of God’s love in the New Testament (see #3 below). With the possible exception of Titus 3:4 (which is also discussed below) the only sure passage is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
The problem we face is in defining “the world.” Precisely who is God said to love in this verse? A common mistake is made when people assume that “the world” in John 3:16 refers individually to all people who have ever or will ever live, each of whom, it is also assumed, God loves equally. Many will protest if God is portrayed as having a special love for some people, while withholding His highest form of love from the rest. But God’s Word is clear: He sets His highest love on whom He pleases. God is just, but He is not bound by any obligation to be “fair” (according to human estimations of fairness). “Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated'” (Romans 9:13—referring to a choice made by God before the twins were born). “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15; also see Deuteronomy 7:7-13; Ephesians 1:3-11, 2:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13).
God does not love because of some lovable virtue in the person. Romans 3:9-18 makes it clear that no such virtue exists. He does not love because He foresees a person’s faith. God certainly does foresee all things, but foreseen understanding, repentance, and faith are not the reason for election by God. Rather, they are given as gifts from God, to those whom He has chosen (cf. John 6:65; Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:25). And it is just as clear that these same gifts (i.e. understanding, repentance, and faith) are purposefully withheld from those whom He has not chosen (cf. Matthew 11:25-26; Mark 4:10-12; John 8:43; 10:26; 12:39-40; Romans 11:7-8).
In the divine mystery of election, God sets His highest love on certain sinful people, thereby predestinating them to redemption and adoption as His children (cf. Ephesians 1:4-5). We expect a human father to love his own children in a much deeper way than he does those who are not his. God is no different in this respect. But unlike a human father, God knows and loves His children before they are born, even before the beginning of time (cf. Romans 8:29; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:1-2). In that sense, God’s children have always belonged to Him. And the Bible clearly teaches that not everyone in “the world” belongs to God in the same way children belong to their father (cf. John 6:37-39; 8:42,44; 10:14,16,26-27; 15:19). Note that 1 John 3:10 even distinguishes between “the children of God and the children of the devil.”
There is a special sense in which God only loves His children. As we learn in Hebrews 12:5-11, they are the only ones who receive His loving, fatherly discipline. Those who do not receive His corrective attention are not His true children, and therefore, they are not loved by Him in this fatherly sense. Unlike His true children, the rest are left in their sin as they treasure up for themselves wrath in the day of wrath. They will one day be punished, but they will never experience God’s loving discipline. The same principle is found in Revelation 3:19 where the Lord Jesus Christ says to John, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.”
Consequently, if John 3:16 does indeed refer to God’s highest love for mankind (i.e. God’s fatherly love for His children), and if it is extended individually and equally to every human being, then we can make no sense at all of the distinction made in Hebrews (and in Revelation 3:19) between those who areloved and therefore disciplined, and those who are not disciplined and therefore not among the loved.
The inescapable conclusion is that “the world” is a “what” more than a “who.” It is not a reference to the total number of people, or to people as individuals, but rather to unlovely humanity in general as a singular object of God’s love. From among this mass of fallen humanity, which God loved in the “John 3:16” sense, He has chosen some upon which to set His highest form of love, which we will discuss next.
3. God’s Elective, Redeeming Love
Jesus tells us that the greatest expression of love is for one to “lay down his life for His friends” (John 15:13). In the next verse He identifies His friends as true followers—those who obey His commandments (one mark of true saving faith; cf. 1 John 2:3-4). What this tells us is that Jesus’ greatest act of love, His sacrifice on the cross, was not for the potential saving benefit of every person who has ever lived, but rather for the actual saving benefit of His friends—His true disciples in every age. And John 15 is not the only place where this truth is taught. Jesus laid down His life “for the sheep” (John 10:11,15). He gave Himself for the church (Ephesians 5:25). Through His highest demonstration of love Jesus paid the redeeming price for the people whom the Father had chosen and given to Him (Acts 20:28, cf. John 6:37-39; 17:2).
Compared to the rare instances where God’s benevolence or His general love toward mankind are mentioned, the New Testament is filled with references to God’s elective, seeking, redeeming, fatherly love toward His chosen people. Particularly in the letters to the churches, there are frequent references to a group of people designated as “we,” “you,” or “us.” While some maintain that these pronouns refer to all mankind generally, such a view fails to account for their use in context. The people referred to are often shown to be the recipients of God’s love in ways that cannot logically be applied to every person. These pronouns are used in letters to Christians, and a careful study of the context in each case will show that they refer to Christians only. (e.g. Romans 5:8; 8:35-39; Ephesians 2:4-5, 3:19; Titus 3:4-5; 1 John 3:1; 1 John 3:16; 1 John 4:10,19; etc.).
Consider Romans 5:8 as an example: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Twice, the pronoun “us” is used to describe those whom God loved—those for whom Christ died. Could the pronoun “us” possibly refer to every human being? If Romans 5:8 stood alone, maybe. But when we read it in context, we find that the same people are “justified” and “saved” in verse 9, “reconciled” in verse 10, and exulting in Christ in verse 11. As we read into the next chapter, we find them described as those who have “died to sin” (6:2). They have been “buried with [Christ] in baptism” (6:4). And going a bit farther in Romans, they are those who “overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (8:37). And if that is not enough, Paul concludes by saying that there is absolutely nothing in creation that can separate the same group of people—”us”—from “the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). In this case, “us” cannot possibly be a general reference to all people. It refers to the elect alone.
Titus 3:3-5 is another example (we have italicized the pronouns for emphasis):
For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us . . .
God’s love for “mankind” is mentioned. But then His purposeful action is seen as the benefits of His highest love are applied to “us“—a sub-group of mankind and obviously a reference to God’s elect. “He saved us . . .” If the word “us” refers back to the word “mankind,” then all of “mankind” will be saved, a notion that is incompatible with true Christianity. The truth is, in this one passage we see two different aspects of God’s love—His love for “the world” in general (as in John 3:16), and His higher love for the elect, whom He chose “out of the world” (John 15:19).
One final example—Ephesians 2:1-7:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging in the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Notice the repeated use of the three pronouns “we,” “you,” and “us,” which we have italicized for emphasis. Even though we were “by nature children of wrath, just as the others,” because of God’s “great love with which He loved us,” He “made us [not the rest] alive.” Paul then inserts the inescapable and precious thought, “(by grace you [but not the rest] have been saved).” He continues by saying that God “raised us up [not the rest]. . . and made us [not the rest] sit together in the heavenly places . . . . ” Notice that all of the action here is shown to be God’s, and it is all motivated by His “great love,” which is directed toward some people but not “the rest.”
As I said before, it is amazing that God loves any human being. No person deserves anything other than God’s wrath. But even those who persist in their rebellion against Him experience His goodness every time they taste food or drink a cool glass of water, every time they enjoy a walk in the forest or view a beautiful sunset. And if you are a true believer, it is not because you first loved God, but because He first loved you with His “great love.” What a humbling realization to know that long before the world existed, God set His love on you and purposed to save you through Christ’s sacrifice. It was this realization that prompted John to write, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:10).
Look for Part 2 soon. We will be discussing the ways we speak of God’s love to others.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Updated New American Standard Version of the Bible. Regarding other passages that refer to God’s hatred of the sinner, see Leviticus 26:30; Deuteronomy 28:63; Proverbs 6:16-19; 15:9; 17:15; 22:14; Psalm 2:4; 7:11; 34:16; 37:12-13; Zechariah 11:8; Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:13; etc. There are “thirty-three places in the Bible where God’s hatred is expressed. In twelve, He is said to hate sinners’ actions . . . but in the other twenty-one He is said to hate the sinner” (John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell?, pp. 170-171).