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Understanding God’s Love
Tough Stuff 2015
I was blessed to be able to visit a couple of other churches recently—I was asked to speak. And I am always so thankful for FBC. I love the fellowship of our home church here. If you are a regular, you know we are in the middle of a special series over the summer called Tough Stuff, and we have covered such topics as racism, creationism, and homosexuality. And in the coming weeks we will be preaching on sign gifts, church discipline, pornography, and work ethic. Going into the fall, we will be starting a series in the book of Philippians.
This morning, we are looking into the subject of Calvinism and Arminianism–two terms which for centuries have been maligned, misunderstood, and have been the source of tremendous tension in the Church. And for that reason, I really want to start our discussion on these two doctrines in a fresh way. I want to approach the whole subject from a starting point which I pray will be a whole lot more positive than you might have heard this kind of sermon before.
I want to start this morning dealing with the core of the matter, which actually is God’s love. The key issue in this whole debate is the subject of God’s love, and so the title of this morning’s message is “Understanding God’s Love.” I don’t have a single main text for you this morning, but will be referencing a lot of different passages.
Now listen–Ephesians 3:19 says, “The love of Christ surpasses knowledge,” so in one sense the task before us this morning is an impossible one. How can any of us ever fully appreciate all the complexities, the subtleties, the surpassing greatness, and the selflessness of God’s love–not to mention its breadth, length, height, and depth (Ephesians 3:18)? God’s love surpasses knowledge!
But having said that, God has revealed much in His Word that speaks of His love, and we ought to be diligent to present ourselves approved to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, because we handle the word of truth accurately (2 Timothy 2:15). And so we need to study the subject of God’s love, because He has gone out of His way to reveal it to us in His Word. And frankly, we need to understand God’s character in order to protect ourselves from heresy.
As you look back over the centuries, a large number of the heresies that have ever been taught in the Church found their roots in a misunderstanding and misappropriation of God’s love–and I will detail some of these heretical teachings for you at the end of the message. But for now I really want to ask and answer one main question–“Who does God love?” You were sent some questions in the church email to consider in preparation for this morning’s message, and ultimately those questions can be summed up in this one question–“Who does God love?”
And this morning, I want to give you five answers to that question. I think that the Word of God reveals that there are five objects of God’s love. That is–God loves five different groups of people. I want to briefly show these five categories of God’s love, and then I want to spend some time at the end of the message showing you what can go wrong if you don’t keep all five concepts in balance.
Now I have to be honest, I stole this morning’s outline from someone–I stole it from Scott Ardavanis. I heard Scott preach a similar message to this a while back, and I asked him if I could steal his points–and he said, “Oh yeah, no problem. I stole it from someone else too!” So here’s number one. This is the first concept of God’s love.
1. The Perfect Love of God
God has a perfect love which is directed toward the other members of the Trinity. That is to say that within the triune Godhead, perfect love is expressed and received in all six directions. Now I have four Scriptures for you here, and they all come from John’s gospel. In John 3:35, John the Baptist said, “The Father loves the Son.” In John 15:9, Jesus affirmed the same truth to the disciples, saying, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you.” Later in John 17:24, Jesus said, “Father . . . Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world.”
Scripture is clear–God the Father loves His Son. But God’s love goes in the opposite direction too, because in John 14:31 Jesus explains why it is that He obeys His Father. He says He keeps His Father’s commandments so “that the world may know that I love the Father.” So Jesus loves the Father too. Wayne Grudem says it this way: “This eternal love of the Father for the Son, the Son for the Father, and [presumably] of both for the Holy Spirit makes heaven a world of love and joy because each person of the Trinity seeks to bring joy and happiness to the other two.”
Now think about this–since the members of the Godhead never sin against each other, they never need to forgive one another. Their relationships are never strained or tested. That means that the love they share for one another is never trampled on by one of the other members of the Trinity. That’s why we call it the perfect love of God. Love could not be more perfect than this. Within the Trinity exists God’s perfect love–but it doesn’t stop there. Here’s number two–this is the second concept of God’s love.
2. The Providential Love of God
Sometimes this is referred to as His common grace. Now think back with me–when God had finished creating the universe as we know it, He described it as what? He called it “very good.” And ever since that time He has cared for His creation and expects its inhabitants to enjoy it. Yeah, God cares for His creation no matter whether its people are believers or not.
Let me give you a verse–it’s Matthew 5:45. In that verse, Jesus says, “[The Father] causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” According to Jesus, it doesn’t matter whether someone is good or evil, God provides for them.
In a similar fashion, when Paul and Barnabas were preaching in Lystra, they proclaimed to the worshippers of Zeus that “in the generations gone by [God] permitted all the nations to go their own ways, and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16 to 17). God’s providential love was enjoyed by people of all nations and all religions.
Think about when Jesus came to earth–He indiscriminately healed the sick, delivered the demon-possessed, raised the dead, provided for the hungry, and showed care to outcasts. His love for people was not dependent upon their ethnicity, lifestyle, or religious affiliation. He showered thousands upon thousands of people with His providential love.
Let me give you a list of things that God has designed human beings to enjoy on earth. Music, art, food, sport, poetry, beauty, architecture, sexual fulfilment, laughter, scientific discovery, medical breakthroughs, the love of a child, the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, and the safety of living under God-ordained government. And the list could go on and on. And this is not to say that all people have enjoyed all of these delights all of the time in every century and in every location, but it does mean that when they have, it’s because God has showered them with His providential love. That’s His common grace. That’s number two. But wait, there’s more–God loves another group of people.
3. The Passionate Love of God
And here we are referring to God’s passionate love for all people. It is His passionate love for the world. For this we go to John 3:16–probably the best known verse in the entire Bible. But I want you to turn there to see something special. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Now there are some Christians who don’t like the first phrase in that verse–they struggle with it because their preconceived theological system will not allow it to be true. This is what some of these people say . . . “The popular idea that God loves everybody is simply not found in Scripture” or “If God loved everybody, everybody would be saved. It is as simple as that–clearly not everybody is saved, therefore God does not love everyone” . . . “Scripture tells us that the wicked are an abomination to God–how can anyone who believes all of Scripture claim that God loves everyone?” . . . “God loves His chosen ones, but His attitude toward the non-elect is pure hatred” . . . “The concept that God loves all humanity is contrary to Scripture–God clearly does not love everyone” . . . “Not only does God not love everyone, there are multitudes of people whom He utterly loathes with an infinite hatred–both Scripture and consistent logic force us to this conclusion.”
But what do people like A.W. Pink do with John 3:16? Well, what they do is change the meaning of the word “world” to mean the “world of believers.” And they interpret it this way: “For God so loved the ‘world of believers’ that He gave His only begotten Son. . .” But you can’t arbitrarily do that, just because it doesn’t fit your preconceived theological perspective.
Now this is what I want to show you. Look at verse 17, and you’ll see there that Jesus continues to mention the world. “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him.” Now that view might work there, but it stops working at verse 19, “And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil.” No, if “world” means “world” in verse 19, then it has got to mean “world” in verses 16 and 17 too.
Listen, in 1 John 2:2, Jesus Christ the righteous “is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” It is really important to get this right! Paul was clear in Titus 3:4 to 5 when he said, “. . . when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us.” God loves humankind and His love is especially expressed to sinful men and women through Jesus Christ. He loved the world so passionately that He was willing to send His only Son to die for that world–and of course that world included unbelievers. This is the plain teaching of Scripture.
Listen, don’t hold God’s love back from unsaved people. If you’re presenting the Gospel to a friend or a family member, you can have full confidence to say to them, “God loves you! God sent His Son into this world to die for you!”–because God has a passionate love for the whole world. So God has . . .
1. A perfect love for the members of the Trinity
2. A providential love for His creation
3. A passionate love for the whole world
But wait there’s more–God also has another, more selective kind of love also.
4. The Particular Love of God
God chooses to show a particular love to His chosen saints, and He does this by sovereignly electing them and predestining them to be saved. And when did He do this? He did it before the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:4 to 8 says, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
This is a thrilling passage of Scripture, but unfortunately, this wonderful, God-glorifying text of Scripture has been maligned and distorted by people who can’t make it fit their preconceived theological systems. Some people simply can’t accept the fact that predestination is a loving act of God. Instead, they think that the teaching on election makes God unfair and unloving. And that is in spite of Ephesians 1:4 which says quite simply that God predestined “IN LOVE.”
This is His particular love for His chosen saints. Now think about this, because there are other Scriptures. When Paul and Barnabas preached the Gospel in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, Luke records that “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). In other words, those who had been chosen by God before the foundation of the world responded positively in faith to the message preached by the apostles. What a loving act of God–this was His particular love in action.
To the disciples Jesus said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16). What a shock to the disciples who had been thinking all along that they were in control of their own decisions to love and follow Christ. Actually, Jesus had first lovingly chosen them. Now is this so wrong–is this really that unfair?
Let me try to give a parallel illustration. God has commanded us to love our neighbors, and we will keep that command as faithfully as we can. But that doesn’t at all prevent us from choosing some in this world to love to an even greater extent. All of us will defend the idea that we ought to be able to choose a wife or a husband. And in that choosing we are going to commit to love our spouse way more than we would love any of our neighbors.
In the same way, God loves the world AND He specifically loves those whom He has chosen for Himself. Is that really so wrong? Is that really so unfair? Christ has chosen a bride for Himself. No one comes to me and says, “Well Nigel, you’ve only taken one wife–you only love Sereena, but what about all the other women, Nigel? You’re so mean! You’re so unloving! All those other women are missing out on your love, Nigel! You’re just a big ogre! You’re a big meanie!” No one says that!
In the same way, Christ has chosen a bride for Himself–the Church. Who in their right mind says that’s unloving? Second Timothy 1:9 says, “[God] has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” And 1 Thessalonians 1:4 says, “Knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you.” Surely we cannot deny that fact that “God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) and drew us toward Him.
Praise God for His sovereign particular love. It is because God chose us that our salvation is eternally secure. It is because of His particular love that Paul was 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, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38 to 39). Praise God He chose us, and He is not going to revoke His decision. He is not going to change His mind. We are eternally His chosen saints. But wait, there’s more.
5. The Provisional Love of God
This could be called the conditional love of God, but conditional doesn’t start with “P” so here it is, the provisional love of God, which is shown to those who obey Him. There is a sense in which Christians who are faithful to obey God’s commands encounter God’s love in ways that disobedient Christians do not. Now please understand–I am not speaking at all about how one becomes a believer, but rather I am referring to the life of a believer after salvation.
In Jude 21, the brother of our Lord Jesus commanded his readers saying, “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” Naturally one must ask, “How can this be achieved?” Simply stated, since Jude’s command requires our obedience, one must assume that God’s love is conditioned upon our conformity to His will. Similarly Jesus said, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (John 15:10). Jesus’ provisional love is conditioned upon keeping Jesus’ commands.
“So great is His lovingkindness . . . toward those who fear Him. . . . The LORD has compassion . . . on those who fear Him. . . . But the lovingkindness of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting . . . on those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:11, 13, 17). Similarly, Exodus 20:6 says that God shows lovingkindness to those who love Him and keep His commandments.
There is a provisional love that God only shows to those who obey Him. It’s the same in our families today. My parents loved me much more when I was obedient than when I was disobedient. Now they loved me no matter what, and that would never change. But there was an even greater expression of love to me when I lived within the boundaries of their instruction. And it’s the same with God.
Now those are the five categories of God’s love as we find them in the Scripture. We have answered the question, “Who does God love?”
He loves the other members of the Trinity
He loves His creation
He loves the world
He loves his chosen saints
He loves those who obey Him
Now here’s the thing–we must keep these five concepts of God’s love in perfect balance in order to avoid false teaching about the character of God. Do you understand the danger when any one of these distinctions is exclusively upheld at the expense of another dimension of the love of God? If you absolutize (that’s a word that Scott Ardavanis used) any one of these distinctions, your understanding of God’s love will be diminished.
For instance, let me show you some examples. If we disregard concepts #4 and #5, and we only focus on #2 and #3, and therefore we overemphasize the providential love of God for His creation and the passionate love of God for all people, then we would all be Universalists, and we all would be teaching that in the end everyone goes to Heaven. It doesn’t matter which God you choose to worship–they’re all the same in the end, and everything will work out just fine, because a loving God under this erroneous definition could never send anyone to eternal Hell.
See that is what happens when you absolutize #2 and #3, and disregard the balancing concepts of God’s love. Let me give you another. If we disregard all of these concepts except #3, and we overemphasize the passionate love of God for all people, then we would all be Arminian. In other words, we would reject the idea that God is sovereign, and we would promote the idea that man is sovereign. Man is in control, and we would hate the idea of #4.
In fact we would strip that away from God and tell Him He is not allowed to choose anyone, and when you do that you begin to produce a man-centered Gospel that robs God of His glory and exalts man and his choices. It would also rob Christians of any kind of eternal security, because if you chose God, then who’s to say that you’re not going to unchoose Him somewhere down the track?
No, we need to keep these in balance. Let me give you another example–if we overemphasize God’s particular love (#4), you will strip God of His passionate love for the world (#3). This is what is known as hyper-Calvinism–in other words you take Calvinism too far. An exclusive view of particular love withholds in some people’s scheme the free offer of the Gospel to all sinners. And if you do that exclusively, you blunt the love of God for the world.
That does not do justice to the Scripture, does it? It restricts God’s love to just a remnant, and it pictures Him hating the vast majority of humanity, and it suggests that His hatred for humanity overwhelms His love. But this is not consistent with the Bible. Exodus 34:6 says, “The LORD God [is] compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.”
Try this one then–what happens if we overemphasize #5, the provisional love of God for those who obey Him? Well, if you exclusively hold to “keeping yourself in the love of God,” then you are in danger once again of being driven into a performance-based standard of Christian living, and all of a sudden you lose sight of #4, His particular love. And while you used to know you were saved by grace, now you get into the mode of thinking you are sanctified by your own effort.
When that happens then you start thinking, “Well, I’m not keeping myself in the love of God, therefore I’m not saved.” And if you overplay that too much, you will lose your joy because nothing you do in your own strength can make you a better person. Performance treadmill theology will kill you in the end. And it will create endless doubt about whether you have done enough today to enjoy the love of God.
Listen, we cannot overemphasize one aspect of God’s love at the expense of another. We cannot strip God’s love of these kinds of diverse distinctions in Scripture. Without these distinctions, we are in grave danger of misunderstanding God Himself. If we dogmatize one of these distinctions over any one of the others, we will create heresy–no doubt about it.
Now here are THREE test questions just to make sure we are getting this.
1. Does God love everyone in exactly the same way? Yes/No
Yes, that’s true regarding #2, but it is not true regarding #4
2. Is God’s love always unconditional? Yes/No
Yes, that is true regarding #4, but it is not true regarding #5–in fact you never tell a disobedient Christian that God unconditionally loves them while they remain in their sin. That could do damage to their spiritual recovery. They need to hear the words: “Obey God so that you can experience His provisional love.”
3. Can God’s love be earned? Yes/No
True, regarding #5, but not true regarding #3 and #4
Some people say, “I don’t like this tension.” But here is my advice–live with the tension. People don’t like the fact that the Scripture speaks to these issues with tension and they want to remove the tension–but the reality is that there is tension, and we better leave it there because the Bible leaves it there.
We live in a country filled with churches that are typically Arminian in their approach. And we look at the Arminian, man-centered approach to the Gospel and we want to bring some balance to the discussion of God’s sovereignty, so we argue that God does indeed predestine some to be saved. So we defend God’s sovereignty, but sometimes we do that so strongly that we present ourselves as hyper-Calvinists–and as a result there are some people who think that we don’t believe God loves sinners as John 3:16 declares. What a sad misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what we believe.
We can’t be Arminian because the Bible doesn’t teach Arminianism. And we can’t be hyper-Calvinists either, because the Bible doesn’t teach hyper-Calvinism. No, we must maintain the balanced approach that Calvinism represents. I’m not here to defend people like MacArthur or Calvin, or any theological system at all–I just want to teach the Bible. But understand this–Calvin said John 3:16 is the heart of the Gospel. He got it–He understood that balance is required.
Maybe we have led people to misunderstand us by our seemingly over-corrective approaches. And so when we respond to people who have a different understanding of God’s dealings with mankind, don’t argue saying, “Yes, but . . .”–instead say, “Yes, and.” Don’t set these five concepts of God’s love against each other as if they are mutually exclusive. Instead, embrace all of them equally, and learn to live in the tension.
And so we come back to Ephesians 3:19, which is where we started this morning, which says, “The love of Christ surpasses knowledge.” Who are we to think we should be able to sort it out and fully comprehend almighty God? The love of God is so complex, so otherworldly, so multifaceted that we better not mess with it and try to simplify it so that our puny minds can accept it on our terms. No, we live in the tension, because that is the way the Bible describes God’s love. Would you pray with me?
1Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 199.