Part 2: Speaking Biblically1
On a Christian radio station, a speaker recently declared:
“God loves you so much that if He had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.”
Messages like this are not hard to find these days. People are inundated with images of God’s love that picture Him in heaven, longingly looking down at the human race and wringing His hands, hoping every single person will realize just how much He loves them and how desperately He wants them to love Him. In keeping with this way of thinking, a very popular author writes:
God wants to be loved. He wants to be a priority to someone. How could we have missed this? From cover to cover, from beginning to end, the cry of God’s heart is, ‘Why won’t you choose me?’ It’s amazing how humble, how vulnerable God is on this point.2
You could easily find yourself feeling sorry for God if He is accurately represented by that quote. You might even get the impression that He has a self-esteem problem and would feel better about Himself if only some of His creatures would love Him. And then it must be assumed that God will spend eternity pondering the masses of people suffering in hell as He wonders, “Why didn’t they choose Me?”
Many who read this paper will recoil at that example. Most would never knowingly represent God in such a degrading manner. But almost everyone would agree that a very common appeal in modern evangelism is the love of God for man. “God loves you!” preachers passionately proclaim to their audiences, many of whom are unconverted. “He loves you so much that He wants you to turn from your sin and trust in Jesus.” It might even be fair to say that this type of appeal is the most common approach to evangelism in our day.
Before I convey any misunderstanding, let me say that it is perfectly appropriate to teach people about the love of God. Love is one of the greatest themes of the Bible, and God’s love is equally as important as any of His other attributes. The point I hope to make clear is this: Whether we are addressing a group of Christians, an audience of unconverted people, or a combination of the two, we must be careful not to misrepresent either the characteristics or the liberality of God’s love. In other words, we must never give the impression that He loves in a way He does not, or that He loves every person in exactly the same way.
How does the Bible describe God’s love for man?
I was recently in a place where a man repeatedly said to a large audience, many of whom were undoubtedly unconverted, “Jesus loves you. He loves you so, so much.” His presentation of music was followed by an invitation to recite a “sinner’s prayer,” clearly acknowledging the possibility of the presence of unconverted people. But everyone present was asked to sing, “Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Does the Bible offer such assurance of God’s love to unbelievers? If so, where?
- In the Old Testament, God is said to love:
- the forefathers of Israel (Deuteronomy 4:37)
- the nation of Israel3 (Deuteronomy 7:7,8,13; 23:5; 33:3; 1 Kings 10:9; 2 Chronicles 2:11; 9:8; Isaiah 48:14; Jeremiah 31:3; Hosea 11:1,4; 14:4; Malachi 1:2)
- Israel depicted as His wife (Hosea 3:1; numerous references in the Song of Solomon, if understood allegorically)
- Jerusalem (“Zion,” Psalm 87:2)
- the “alien” or “stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19) 4
- Jacob (while choosing at the same time to hate Esau; Malachi 1:2-3)
- the tribe of Judah (Psalm 78:68)
- Solomon (2 Samuel 12:24)
- King Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:17, KJV, where God’s love is equated with forgiveness)
- the righteous person (Psalm 146:8; Proverbs 15:9)
- those whom He disciplines as sons (Proverbs 3:12)
- those who love Him (Proverbs 8:17, if “Wisdom” is seen as God personified)
Nowhere in the Old Testament is God said to love earthly nations (other than Israel), mankind in general, His enemies in general, or all people who hate Him.
- In Matthew’s gospel, neither God nor Jesus is ever directly said to love anyone. Matthew 5:43-48 is the only indirect reference, and it is not a reference to God’s seeking, saving love as for His elect, but refers to God’s goodness and kindness to all, as in Deuteronomy 10:18. (Also see Psalm 145:9, Luke 6:27-36, Acts 14:17, etc.).
- In Mark, the only reference to God loving a person is in reference to the man known as “the rich young ruler” (“Jesus felt a love for him and said to him . . .”—Mark 10:215).
- In Luke’s gospel, neither God nor Jesus is ever said to love anyone.
- In John, not including references to the Father’s love for the Son, there are a total of twenty-four references to the love of God for man:
- One refers to God’s love for mankind in general (i.e. John 3:16, as discussed in part 1).
- Twenty-three clearly refer to the love of the Father or Christ for believers.
- In the book of Acts, the word “love” is never used.
- In the epistles of the New Testament (Romans-Jude), except for one reference to God’s love for mankind in general (Titus 3:4), the love of God for men is always in reference to believers, either before, or after they were saved. To see this for yourself, study the use of the pronouns “we,” “you,” and “us” in the places where they refer to the group of people who are the objects of God’s love (also see part 1 of this article). You will find that in reference to God’s love, these pronouns cannot refer to all people in general.
- In the book of The Revelation, there are two references to God’s love for man. Both refer clearly to believers (Revelation 1:5—”To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood . . . ,” and Revelation 3:19—”Those whom I love I reprove and discipline . . .”).
In all of this, the one thing that stands out is the distinct absence of any references to God’s universal love for individual unbelievers. Mark 10:21 may be a reference to Jesus’ love for one such unbeliever as an individual, but it is worthy of note that most commentators are united in their uncertainty as to the precise meaning of the term “love” in this passage. In any case, when matched against the complete absence of this thought elsewhere, little can be gained from this reference in terms of building a doctrine of the love of God for all unbelievers as individuals. Although purely speculative, it is also a possibility that the man was elect and later repented.
We know that God loves His elect while they are still sinners (Romans 5:8). We know that He loves “the world” in a general sense as discussed earlier (in part 1). But the fact remains that the Bible never says that God loves all unbelievers individually, let alone equally.
Interestingly, as I was writing this article, the marquis in front of a local Baptist church bore the following message:
“I love you, and you, and you. God.”
Clearly, the intent of this message was to convey to each person who passed by, the idea that God loves him as an individual. Based on the biblical data you just read, is this not false advertising?
What harm can it possibly do to tell unconverted people that God loves them?
Words are powerful tools. They can insult, comfort, persuade, or shatter. They can also deceive. Paul instructed Timothy to pay close attention to his teaching (1 Timothy 4:16), because he knew that words carelessly used, even with the best of intentions, could give the wrong impression, leading people into wrong thinking. There are a number of ways in which the words “God loves you” can give the wrong impression, potentially causing great harm if spoken unreservedly to unconverted people:
1. God may be degraded: The fact is, the unconverted person needs God. But when God’s love is portrayed as a pleading sort of love, it begins to appear that God needs him. And if God, in any way, needs the person to choose Him, then the person is, in some sense, controlling God. As a result of this way of thinking, it has become increasingly popular (although totally unbiblical) to see God as a risk-taker, emotionally vulnerable, etc. After all, His attempts to woo the person He so desperately loves will not always succeed. Therefore, God will often be disappointed. In the estimation of the person who sees God in these ways, His sovereignty is slighted, His self-sufficiency denied, and His character misrepresented. But this risk-taking, vulnerable God cannot possibly be the God described in Scripture—the God who “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), and who will accomplish all His good pleasure (cf. Isaiah 46:10; Psalm 115:3; 135:6; Daniel 4:35).
2. The sinner may be lured into false comfort: Some people go so far as to say that God loves unconverted people, “infinitely and unconditionally.” The sinner who hears those words and believes them may be led to the understanding that God is also infinitely patient, even while he, the impenitent sinner, persists in his rebellion. It is true that in a properly understood sense, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, referring to the fear of future judgment—a fear that is relieved when one comes to Christ). But it is also true that unbiblical notions of God’s love may cause unbelievers to cast out the necessary fear of Him—the fear that will draw them to repentance (cf. John 16:8). The resulting complacency could lead to the sinner’s eternal ruin.
3. True biblical doctrines may become intolerable: When the unconverted person repeatedly hears people say what the Bible does not say about God’s love, he may be hardened to what the Bible does say. Once he is assured that God loves all people unconditionally, even in their wickedness, he is much less likely to accept the truth that God hates “all who do iniquity” (Psalm 5:5), that unrepentant sinners are God’s enemies (Romans 5:10), that they actually hate God (Romans 1:30), or that God is preparing for their judgment and destruction (Psalm 7:11-13). In addition, people who have been taught that God’s love is universally and equally given are often reluctant to accept such important doctrines as unconditional election or the biblical practice of church discipline. According to their unbiblical understanding of God’s love, these doctrines seem unloving.
4. The speaker could easily be proved wrong: The one who says to the unconverted, “God loves you,” runs the risk of losing credibility with his audience. It doesn’t take much for an unconverted but curious person to look through a Bible concordance and discover the complete absence of the universal, infinite, equally-given love that is so often presented as biblical truth. If Paul had tried to convince the Bereans (cf. Acts 17:11) that God loves every person individually and equally, they would have easily proved him a fraud when they searched the Scriptures to see if what he was saying was true. The reason this does not happen often today is that most unconverted people, and many professing Christians are biblically ignorant or indifferent.
5. God may be seen as inconsistent: What is the unbeliever to think when he hears that God loves him greatly, even unconditionally, but will send him to a fiery hell if he doesn’t repent? Interestingly, I once heard a well-known Christian apologist say that when God sends a person to hell, it is because He loves the person. He loves him too much to “violate his free will,” the man said. Such an idea is not only foreign to Scripture, it is completely out of character with everything we know about fathers. Imagine a father watching as his young son walks toward a sheer cliff. The father calls to the boy, saying, “Look out son! You’ll die if you don’t turn around.” But the rebellious child ignores his father and keeps walking. What should this father do? Will he let the one he loves walk right over the edge because it would be unloving to pursue him and turn him around against his will? The truth is, none in heaven will complain that their wills were “violated,” and none in hell will cling to any romantic notions about God’s universal, infinite, or unconditional love.
6. As God’s love is unbiblically widened, it becomes very shallow: How impressed would my children be if I told them that I loved every other child in the world just as much as I love them? Would they be awed at the magnanimity of my love? Or, being the special ones in whom I should delight above all others, might they feel slighted? How strange would it seem, even to all the other children, to hear that I loved them just as I do my own? If earthly fathers have a special love for their own children, why must God, who also has his own children, love every human being equally? The fact is, when we describe God’s love as universal—given equally to every person—we minimize the depth of His love for those who truly are His children. And we deny the special significance of biblical passages where God’s love for His elect is described:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
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) . . . (Ephesians 2:4-5).
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation . . . (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are (1 John 3:1).
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 (1 John 4:10).
These verses are impossible to explain in context apart from their unique application to the elect. Are we to think that no human being will ever be separated from God’s love? Is it true that every human being will be “made alive together with Christ” because of God’s great love? Can every person know that he is “beloved by the Lord,” because he has been chosen for salvation? Has God adopted every person as His child? Was Christ the actual propitiation (i.e. did He actually satisfy God’s wrath) for every person?6
How then should we speak to the unconverted?
From the Scriptures, Christians learn how to think, live, speak, pray, trust, and hope. We also learn how to preach and teach, not so much in terms of style or tone, but in terms of the message we should convey. And the responsibility to preach and teach biblically does not only apply to “professional” pastors and evangelists. Every Christian who presents the message of the Bible to a friend, a neighbor, or a family member must do so in a manner that accurately represents God and His Word.
There are certain Christian doctrines that can be discerned only through deep, theological study. Some are scarcely represented in the Bible, making it difficult to know how we should think, act, or speak. But that is most certainly not the case when it comes to learning how to address the gospel to lost people. Beginning with John the Baptist, and then Jesus, and then the preachers throughout the book of Acts, we have a wonderful library of brief sermons to the unconverted. If we want to know how we should present the gospel, all we need to do is ask, “How did the first evangelists, including Jesus and John the Baptist, speak to unconverted people?” Certainly the words of these men—the words first used to evangelize an unconverted world—provide us with worthy examples of the best ways to present the gospel today. We should, in fact, be wary of using words that were never used by these men, especially if our words convey ideas that were never conveyed by them.
The following are the appeals, instructions, and commands to unconverted people, drawn from the four gospels and the book of Acts. I have not attempted to harmonize the gospels by identifying which are duplicate accounts of the same event. Where the words or meanings are identical, or nearly identical to one already quoted, I have chosen to reference the duplicates in parenthesis rather than quoting them.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2; 4:17).
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven. . . . Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. . . . Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3-10; cf. Luke 6:20-26).
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14; cf. Luke 13:24).
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter (Matthew 7:21).
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall (Matthew 7:24-27; cf. Luke 6:46-49).
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3; cf. Mark 10:15; Luke 18:16-17).
The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15).
Follow Me! (Mark 3:14; cf. Matthew 9:9; Luke 5:27).
They went out and preached that men should repent (Mark 6:12).
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will find it (Mark 8:34-35; cf. Matthew 16:24-25; Luke 9:23-24).
One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (Mark 10:21; cf. Matthew 19:21; Luke 18:22).
So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance . . . As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with may other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people (Luke 3:7-18; cf. Matthew 3:8-12).
It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:31-32; cf. Matthew 9:12-13; Mark 2:17).
Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple (Luke 14:26-27; cf. Matthew 10:34-39).
So then, none of you can be My disciples who does not give up all his own possessions (Luke 14:33).
I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:7).
And He also told a parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people . . . ‘ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner.’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14; cf. Matthew 23:12).
Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3; cf. 3:5).
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 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 (John 3:14-16).
Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up into eternal life (John 4:13-14; cf. 7:37:38).
Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life (John 5:24).
I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst (John 6:35).
I am the light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in darkness but will have the Light of life (John 8:12).
You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins (John 8:23-24).
If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).
Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death (John 8:51).
I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die (John 11:25-26).
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins . . . ” (Acts 2:36-38).
And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers also did. But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:17-19).
He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:11-12).
The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:30-31).
You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you (Acts 8:21-22).
Then Phillip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And Phillip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” (Acts 8:35-37).
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:4-6).
. . . and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20).
And He ordered us to preach to the people, and to solemnly testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:42-43).
Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses. Therefore take heed, so that the thing spoken of in the Prophets may not come upon you: “Behold you scoffers, and marvel and perish; for I am accomplishing a work in your days, a work which you will never believe, though someone should describe it to you” (Acts 13:38-41).
Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the end of the earth'” (Acts 13:46-47).
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31).
And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ” (Acts 17:3).
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).
But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul began devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:5-6).
So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance (Acts 26:19-20).
Including passages referenced but not quoted, I have given sixty-three examples of evangelistic preaching or teaching. The word “love” is used only one time in all of those passages (John 3:16) and the single listener when Jesus said “For God so loved the world . . .” was Nicodemus the Pharisee. Given the context of the conversation, where Jesus is informing him that it is not his Jewish heritage that will get him into heaven, but rather the new birth, is it not likely that he would have understood Jesus to be saying God loved the world in general, meaning all nations of men, Jew and Gentile alike?
Is it not unreasonable to think that Nicodemus would have gleaned from that single statement the idea that he was loved by God, individually and personally? Are we supposed to think that he ran to the other Pharisees and said, “Listen to this, guys! God loves each one of you—individually!”? No, the Pharisees already believed themselves to be loved by God because of their heritage (cf. Deuteronomy 7:7). This would have been no news to them at all. But hearing that God loved “the world,”—Jew and Gentile alike—would have been something new and shocking. It would actually have been a great offense to prideful Jews.
If Jesus’ true intent was to inform Nicodemus that God loves every person as an individual, and if that idea were to be such a central and essential theme in evangelism as it has become today, is it not reasonable for us to think that the first evangelists would have said those words to someone—at least once or twice? It seems certain that they would have. But aside from Jesus’ private and instructional comment to Nicodemus,7 the first evangelists simply never said such a thing to anyone. When one combines this fact with the knowledge that the Bible never teaches such a thing, how can we continue unreservedly assuring lost people that God loves them?
Modern evangelicalism will not be easily persuaded that the concept of God’s infinite, universal, unconditional love for every human being is an unbiblical idea, rooted in a man-centered theology, and that it should be put to rest. The vast majority of professing Christians today are convinced that it is perfectly appropriate, even necessary, to tell unconverted people that because God loves them individually, they should believe in Jesus. Perhaps even you have convinced yourself that this understanding of God’s love is accurate. If so, have you not overlooked much biblical evidence to the contrary?
As a preacher, a Sunday school teacher, or one who shares Christ with co-workers, neighbors, or family members, your responsibility is not to give unbelievers spiritual comfort by assuring them that they are loved by God. Your task is to make them uncomfortable by speaking the truth and pleading with them to run to Christ as their only hope. True spiritual comfort in the knowledge of God’s fatherly love is rightly reserved only for those who are safe in Christ. Your responsibility, above all things, is to represent God as He represents Himself. It is to present Him in such a way that His glory is magnified in the reverently fearful and trembling hearts of men.
It is my desire to grow in my understanding of how to think and speak biblically about the love of God for man. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for improvement or correction regarding this article, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Part 1 may be found at www.ccwtoday.org.
2 John Eldredge, Wild at Heart (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), p. 36. On the same page, the author informs the reader that this understanding of God came to him, not through his study of the Bible, but rather through the time he has spent counseling women.
3 It is true that the nation of Israel included many unbelievers. But God’s love for Old Testament Israel must be understood in a prophetic, eschatalogical sense. Viewing God’s love for Israel through the interpretive lens of the New Testament, it must be understood as the foreshadowing of His highest love for the body of Christ in the new covenant-true, spiritual Israel-those who are the descendants of Abraham, not through physical lineage, but through faith (cf. Rom. 4:11-12; 9:6-8; 11:1-10). And regardless of one’s theological standpoint on prophecy and eschatology, God is never said to love every individual member of the Old Testament nation of Israel. Many times, unbelieving, wicked Israelites are the objects of His most extreme expressions of hatred (cf. Leviticus 26:27-30; Deuteronomy 28:63; Psalm 5:4-6 and 11:4-7, cf. Isaiah 59:1-3)
4 In Deuteronomy 10:18-19, God is said to love “the alien,” referring to non-Israelites. The meaning is clearly parallel to Matthew 5:43-48 where God’s benevolence is in view. Because of God’s love for “the alien,” He gives him food and clothing. Nothing of a salvific, redemptive love is indicated in this passage.
5 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Updated New American Standard Version of the Bible.
6 Some will say that the use of the word “propitiation” 1 John 2:2 proves that Christ did actually die for every human being (“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”). This seemingly obvious understanding, however, overlooks two very important things:
1. The word “propitiation” indicates not merely potential substitution but rather actual substitution. If Christ actually bore the wrath of God on behalf of every sinner, then God has no remaining wrath to vent on anyone. With this understanding, unless God unjustly demands double payment, no one will be punished for their sins. What do we say then about those who have died in unbelief since the time of Christ and are already suffering in hell? Did Christ satisfy God’s wrath on their behalf as well?
2. John was an apostle to the Jews (cf. Galatians 2:9). To his Jewish readers, “the world” was often understood to mean “not Jews only, but Gentiles as well.” In 1 John 2:2, John was explaining to Jewish Christians the broadness of Christ’s saving work, applying His work of propitiation not to Jews alone, but to people of every nation. This seems even more certain when we compare this verse to John’s explanation of Caiaphas’ unwitting prophecy in John 11:51-52.
7 It is also quite possible that beginning in John 3:16, it is not Jesus’ words that are recorded, but rather John’s theological meditation on what Jesus said up to that point. We must remember that the red letters in our Bibles do not prove that Jesus spoke those words. Rather, they are the translators’ opinion that Jesus said them. Beginning in John 3:16, several things change in style and vocabulary that could indicate that John, rather than Jesus is speaking. The same is possibly true later in the same chapter. From vv. 27-30, John the Baptist is speaking. But beginning in v. 31, the change in style and vocabulary seems to indicate that John the apostle is commenting on what the other John has said. If this is the case, nothing theological is changed in the meaning of John 3:16-21, but it would mean that the word “love” is never used-not even once-in a recorded conversation with an unconverted person. See D. A. Carson’s commentary on John for a good discussion of this possibility (Pillar New Testament Commentary series, Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1991, pp. 203-204).
Charles Spurgeon vs. the Hyper-Calvinists
In the latter half of the 19th century, the great English pastor and evangelist, Charles Spurgeon, was embroiled in an ongoing debate with a group of pastors and theologians who became known as Hyper-Calvinists. This debate is recounted in Iain Murray’s excellent book, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism.
Spurgeon, a committed Calvinist himself, disagreed with Hyper-Calvinism as a theological system on four main points: “. . . its restriction of gospel invitations, its failure to treat the word and the promises of God as sufficient warrant for faith, its minimizing of the place of human responsibility, and its denial of any love in God except love to the elect.”1
To say that God has no love for men except for His elect is to deny even the most general meaning of John 3:16 where God is said to have loved “the world” enough to send Christ to die. Hyper-Calvinism’s unbiblical limitation of God’s love also denies that God’s kindness may in any way be understood as “loving.” But when God sends rain, causes the sun to rise, or provides food and clothing, the Bible clearly describes these as loving actions that are extended in some degree to all people. We must be careful never to promote or repeat the unbiblical restrictions of Hyper-Calvinism. The gospel must be freely offered to everyone. All men must be commanded to repent, because all men are responsible before God.
But a special note needs to be made about Charles Spurgeon and his preaching, specifically in reference to the Hyper-Calvinists’ total limitation of God’s love. As zealously as he contended against Hyper-Calvinism, Spurgeon understood that error is often committed in the other direction as well. When speaking to Christians about the love of God, he not only refuted Hyper-Calvinism’s excessive limitations of God’s love, but was just as critical of men who taught that God’s love was universally and equally given to all. He vigorously defended the doctrine of election, and contended with those who denied God’s special, higher love for those whom He has chosen.
Consider the following selection from the work just referenced as Iain Murray comments and then quotes Spurgeon:
All references to divine love in Scripture are not to be interpreted as universal (Arminianism), neither are they all to be made particular (Hyper-Calvinism). There is a differentiation observable in Scripture. In speaking to Christians, Spurgeon would often make the difference clear: ‘Beloved, the benevolent love of Jesus is more extended than the lines of His electing love . . . That [i.e. the love revealed in Matthew 23:37] is not the love which beams resplendently upon His chosen, but it is true love for all that.’ God’s special love ‘is not love for all men . . . There is an electing, discriminating, distinguishing love, which is settled upon a chosen people . . . and it is this love which is the true resting place for the saint.’2
It was clearly important to him to represent God biblically—to unashamedly affirm God’s sovereignty in giving His “electing, discriminating, distinguishing love,” to His chosen people alone. But notice that Spurgeon spoke this way when speaking to Christians. One cannot help but notice in other places that when speaking to the unconverted, He sometimes seemed to depart from his own commitment to represent God’s love in biblical, theologically consistent ways. As Iain Murray comments:
It was Spurgeon’s own persuasion of the love of Christ for the souls of men that lies at the heart of his weekly evangelistic preaching in London for thirty-seven years. He had no hesitation in concluding sermons with such words as, . . . ‘With hands loaded with love he stands outside the door of your heart. Is this not good reason for opening the door and letting the heavenly stranger in, when he can bless you with such a vast extent of benediction?’3
Apparently, Spurgeon did not see any contradiction in saying to Christians that God’s special love “is not love for all men,” while telling the unconverted person that Christ does, in fact, possess that saving love for him, and that he need only open the door of his heart to receive it. But is such a promise ever used in Scripture as the means of inviting the unconverted to repent? Revelation 3:20 may come to mind, but those words are spoken to a church, and in the previous verse Jesus made it clear that if He loves a person, he will rebuke and chasten that person. So at best, the verse can be understood as Christ waiting to see if the people whom He does love will repent before He must use the rod to bring them to repentance. But nowhere are we given reason to understand this verse as a general offer to the unconverted. And further, as was detailed in the main body of this article, no such use of the word “love,” nor even a single example of such preaching can be found in the Bible. So how did Charles Spurgeon justify saying such things to unconverted people? Consider yet another quote, one which seems to explain much about his reasoning:
We are often in the dark, and puzzled about difficulties, but do you know half the difficulties in the Bible spring from a cold state of mind: but when the heart gets right, the head seems to get right too, in great measure. I remember a person puzzling himself fearfully with the passage in Scripture about Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. . . . The good man could not understand how Jesus could say as He did, “How oft would I have gathered thee, but thou wouldest not!” One day he received more grace, and got a love for souls, and then the old skin of narrow mindedness which had been large enough for him began to crack and break, and he went to the passage then, and said, “I can understand it now; I do not know how it is consistent with such and such doctrine, but it is very consistent with what I feel in my heart.” And I feel just the same.4
Charles Spurgeon was a passionate evangelist who wanted desperately to see people saved. We would all be better evangelists if we shared his passion. And it was his passion for the lost, not poor theology or the expectations of his culture, that led him to speak to unconverted people in these ways. Even if no biblical warrant can be found for some of his words as noted above, the vast majority of his appeals to the unconverted were soundly biblical.
Even though I may disagree with Spurgeon on this issue, there would have been no need to research and write an article such as this to him, or others like him. If I had written these pages with Spurgeon’s preaching in mind, I would certainly be guilty of straining out a gnat. His freeness in proclaiming God’s love was never misunderstood the way it is today, because it was held up against consistently sound biblical preaching that glorified God and humbled sinners. Sadly, the same cannot often be said today. That which may have been a gnat in Spurgeon’s time has become a camel in ours. And evangelicalism is stretching its doctrinal throat wide enough to swallow it whole.
1 Iain H. Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), p. 99.
2 Ibid.,p. 98.
3 Ibid. p. 96.
4 Ibid. p. 95.