There is an all too common thought being proclaimed, embraced, and believed throughout our culture today: that all we need is love, that God is love, that God loves everyone unconditionally no matter what, and love is tolerant and accepting of any behavior or belief; because truth is relative and love would never discriminate. This sounds sweet, even almost Biblical sometimes, but is it true? Does God tolerate, accept, and love everyone?
The question of the validity of that statement is actually deceptively difficult. Some like to use the statement as a catch all, end all blanketing statement, but the Bible speaks of God’s love in several different ways. There are at least five (which are outlined in greater detail by D.A. Carson in his book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God and mentioned by Kevin DeYoung in a blog on the Gospel Coalition website):
1. God’s trinitarian love. The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father. The love of the Son for the Spirit, the Spirit for the Father. Yes, it can be confusing. (Matthew 3:17, 17:5; Mark 1:11, 9:7; Luke 3:22; John 3:35, 5:20, 10:17, 14:31; 16:26-28; Colossians 1:13; 2nd Peter 1:17)
2. God’s providential love over all that He has made. (Genesis 1:1-31; Psalm 33:6; Matthew 6; John 1:3; 1st Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2)
3. God’s salvific stance toward His fallen world. (Ezekiel 33:11; John 3:16, 15:19; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 2:13-15; 1st John 2:2)
4. God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward His elect. (Deuteronomy 4:37, 7:7-8, 10:14-15; Malachi 1:2-3; Matthew 25:34; Romans 4:4-8, 8:28-39, 9:8-29; 1st Corinthians 7:17; 2nd Corinthians 5:14-21; Ephesians 1:4-19, 2:1-10, 5:25; Philippians 1:6; Colossians 1:21-22, 3:12; 2nd Thessalonians 1:11-12, 2:13-14; 2nd Timothy 1:8-10; Titus 3:3-8; Hebrews 12:2; 1st Peter 1:3-5)
5. God’s love toward His own people in a provisional way, conditioned upon obedience. (Exodus 20:6; Psalm 103:8-11, 13, 17-18; John 15:9-10; Ephesians 1:15-19, 2:8-22; 2nd Peter 1:12-25; Jude 1:21)
There are often ignored complexities and overlooked dangers of emphasizing one aspect of the love of God over the others.
First: If God’s love is defined exclusively by His intra-Trinitarian love, which is perfect and unblemished by sin, we won’t grasp the glory of God in loving rebels like us.
Second: If God’s love is nothing but His providential care over all things, we’ll struggle to see how the gospel is any good news at all because, after all, doesn’t He love everyone equally already?
Third: If God’s love is seen solely as His desire to save the world, we’ll end up with an emotionally charged God who doesn’t display the same sense of sovereignty and justice we see in the pages of Scripture.
Fourth: If God’s love is only understood as His electing love, we’ll too see easily say God hates all sorts of people, when that truth requires a good deal more nuance.
Fifth: If God’s love is bound up entirely in warnings like “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21), we’ll fall into legalism and lots of unwarranted self-doubt.
Talking about God’s love sounds like a simple theological task, but it’s actually one of the trickiest. I’ve actually heard of people debating about whether their kids should be taught “Jesus loves me” (some of the children might not be saved after all, you never know). I know many more people and churches which so emphasize God’s all-encompassing love for everyone, everywhere and always, that it’s hard to figure out why anyone should bother to become a Christian and follow Christ. The fact is that God loves everyone and He doesn’t. He hates the world and He loves the world. He can’t possibly love His adopted children any more than He does, and He is profoundly grieved by our sin. (Seriously, can some of us stop pretending sin/idolatry [or whatever you want to call it] isn’t that big of a deal… how would we even begin to explain or understand the cross in any way that makes any sense at all if we ignore the seriousness of sin.) The challenge of good theology is to explain how the Bible provides warrant for all those statements and how they all fit together.
“Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal.” – C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
“Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us, but it keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information, but in such a way that we cannot really hear it.” – Tim Keller
True love is not exactly tolerant and ever-accepting, for rather true love would call the other person out and remind them that it is ok to not be ok, but it is not ok to stay there. Genuine love warns someone when they believe they are in danger. True love wounds more like a physician, not a criminal, because while discipline, rebuke, and honesty can hurt, it may be just what the person needs to save their life; and regardless of whatever cost, we should seek reconciliation and repentance for our greater joy. So, when God wounds, He wounds like a purposeful surgeon. He doesn’t wound like a criminal. He doesn’t bash your whole world with a bat; that is not what He does. But God will lovingly take the scalpel to us. We all, like a cancer patient, have a serious infliction of sin in our hearts, and often times that requires some rough chiseling and intense reshaping of our hearts.
“Being true to ourselves doesn’t make us people of integrity. Charles Manson was true to himself, and as a result, he rightly is spending the rest of his life in prison. Ultimately, being true to our Creator gives us the purest form of integrity.” – John Wooden
“For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love.” -Søren Kierkegaard
The Scriptures help to make this abundantly clear:
“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” – Proverbs 27:5-6
“And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” – Hebrews 12:5-11
“By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” – 1st John 3:16-18
There is no love without wrath. What infuriates many people today is the wrath of God: “I can’t believe in a God who judges people, would condemn people to some kind of hell, and send people to suffer eternally. God is love and no loving God would get angry or be filled with wrath.” We must understand that a God without wrath is a God without love. Many people ask, “What kind of a loving God could be filled with wrath?” But any loving person is often filled with wrath. In the book “Hope Has Its Reasons,” Becky Pippert writes, “Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it… Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.”
“Anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it.” – C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (page 97)
Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, “Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.” She concludes: “If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but His settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race He loves with His whole being.” God paid the ultimate cost Himself to love us; He passionately loves us, and simultaneously He ferociously hates sin and the sin within us.
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” – Tim Keller
Idols are not made from scratch. Idolatry involves the distortion of already present truth. The truth is changed into a lie. The lie depends upon the truth it is distorting for its power, just as the counterfeit depends upon the authentic for its value. Our idols of God contain truths within them, making them all the more seductive to us. To be sure, God is love. To reduce God to love, however, is to change the truth into a lie.
Jesus says in the gospel that everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change. And that’s the hope and change we all really need. We need the hope that we have been justified by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. And we need the hope of the promise of Romans 8:28, that God will work all things, even the fallout from our past sins, together for good for us; for His glory and our joy.
“Three Things We Should Know About God” by: Jonathan Parnell
“The Doctrine of the Wrath of God” by D. A. Carson (Desiring God Theology Refresh blog)
“Will All Be Saved?” by Gerald R. McDermott