Can I say to an unbeliever “God loves you?”

At least one pastor on social media doesn’t think so.

This raises some interesting questions. The first of which is can we through a quick scan through Acts draw such a dogmatic conclusion as that the apostles “never” did something.

Interestingly, if we are looking for examples from New Testament narrative, my friend -and experienced evangelist, Richard Baxter comments:

Secondly, yes, Romans 1:18 and John 3:36 talk about God’s wrath, incidentally, John 3:36 follows on as part of the discourse that includes the statement “God so loved the World.” But does God’s wrath, his righteous anger and judgement exclude his love? Well, we have at least a hint in that those words about wrath once included you and me as rebel sinners and yet as believers we can definitely say that God loved us and sent his son to die for us.

So, whether or not Pastor Gabe is correct in his assessment, his argument is based on what is at best very ropey exegesis.

Some people in the ensuing discussion have suggested that his position reflects reformed theology and a focus on Christ’s atonement being for the elect. This is sometimes referred to as limited atonement, though many Reformed Christians tend to prefer either Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption. The point being that Christ’s death was fully effective towards its intended recipients, it actually saves and does not merely offer the potential for salvation (but this is perhaps worthy of a conversation in its own right). However, it is worth noting that in evangelism, plenty of Reformed/Calvinist Christians would say to an unbeliever, something along the lines of “Christ died for your sin.” or “Jesus died in your place.”

Instead, what I would like to do here is look at what Reformed Theology actually says about God’s Love. So, here’s something I prepared early. It’s an extract from “Who is God.” As you can see, the focus is on God’s character and nature, that he is not merely the God who loves but who is love. An outworking of this is his love to his creation.

God is Love

This is that wonderful statement from 1 John 4:8 which we started our thoughts on “Who is God?” with. We saw that we can say that God is Love not just that He loves.  The love is an eternal and essential attribute of God. There wasn’t a time when he started to love and there will never be a moment when He will stop loving. We know this because God is Trinity. As we saw earlier, the Father has eternally loved the Son and the Son has eternally loved the Father and so on with reference to the Holy Spirit. This is God’s self-love (John 3:36; 5:20; 10:17; 14:31).

“This love between the persons of the Trinity is eternal. And since God does not exist without his three persons, the love among those persons is necessary to his nature.”[1]

We then go on to see God’s love towards his creation.  This can be defined as

“his self-giving affection for his image bearing creatures and his unselfish concern for their well-being that leads him to act on their behalf and for their happiness and welfare.”[2]

And whilst His self -love must be described as necessary or an essential and natural aspect of who he is, his love for others is described as “free.”[3]  It is something that he chooses to do; it is an act of the will.

How does God love?  Turretin distinguishes love for creatures, for humans generally and for the elect.[4] In fact, Bavinck prefers to limit the use of the word love specifically to those who are saved, stating that:

“Now it is indeed possible to speak of God’s love to creatures or people in general (the love of benevolence), but for this the Scripture mostly uses the word ‘goodness’ and speaks of God’s love, like his grace only in relation to his chosen people or church (the love of friendship).”[5]

We may not be comfortable with that type of restrictive language. After all, John seems to talk quite broadly in terms of God’s love for the World. However, Turretin and Bavinck are right to make distinctions in terms of the way in which God loves.  We should not be surprised by this. After all, if I were to say that I love ice cream, Bradford City, my friends and my wife and mean the same in each context, your reaction would be somewhere between concerned and disturbed. However, even with those distinctions in place and Bavincks’ highly cautious position, both of these Reformed titans do talk in terms of God’s love being something that reaches beyond the elect.

So, we can talk about God’s love for all people because:

“If God is good to all, as we have seen, then surely he loves all. For both goodness and love in these contexts refer to God’s benevolence, his seeking the welfare of others. If God is good to all, then surely that benevolence is no accident. It is motivated by a self-giving affection and concern for his creatures’ well-being, that is by love.”[6]

In other words, love involves a conscious, willed decision to seek the welfare and good of others. Frame is saying that when your unbelieving neighbour gets up in the morning and opens his fridge and it is stocked with good food because God has caused the sunshine and the rain to guarantee a harvest, this is no accident.  His benefit is not the unintended by-product of God’s plan for others. God really intends him to benefit.

So God shows his love to all by sustaining creation. He shows his love to all by restraining evil, for example by providing governments to uphold law, order and justice. God shows his love to all by enabling people to flourish, gain knowledge, acquire wisdom and develop skills. God shows his love for all in giving us joy and delight in art and recreation.  Food, government, learning, relationships, marriage, sex, families and children are all examples of God’s benevolence.  We sometimes refer to these things as “common grace.” Just as we distinguish between special and general revelation, so we distinguish saving and common grace. By this, we mean that everything we enjoy is an example of God’s good gifts to us.  By the way, it is on this basis that I think even unbelievers can join in to some extent with our praise and worship at gatherings even though they don’t yet fully understand the Gospel. This is particularly true when we invite them to join in a Harvest Celebration, thanksgiving for a new child or a wedding. It’s also why I believe that we should uphold the institution of marriage and God’s standards for marriage not just for believers but for the whole of society.  It’s one of the reasons why Christians should engage in public life.

Bavinck identifies a further aspect of God’s care for all people.  He says:

“The goodness of God which spares those who are deserving of punishment, is called forebearance or patience.” (Numbers 14:18)[7]

However, God’s love is specifically seen in salvation.  Believers are the recipients of saving love. As Frame says, “So there are various ways in which God loves everyone, whether elect or non-elect. But the form of divine love most central to Scripture’s message is the love of God in saving sinners.”[8] 

This means that “The New Testament typically defines love (both the love of God and the love required of believers) by reference to the Cross of Christ.” (E.g. John 3:16, Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:9-10).[9]  In other words, if we want to properly understand God’s Love, then we won’t get it by simply looking at his benevolence to all creatures.  We only truly see love at Calvary.

This is important because what people often do is make a big mistake. They take the phrase “God is love” and try to define and describe God on the basis of their understanding of what love is. There are two problems with this. First of all, our own definitions of love tend to be superficial and sentimental. Secondly, we are trying to do something we cannot with the grammar and syntax of 1 John 4:8. Just because “God is love” does not mean that we can say “love is God.”  Love is not equal to God. 

We must allow the nature of love to be defined by God.  Love is what God is. We know from previous discussions that we only truly know what God is like through revelation.  God tells us what he is like in the Bible. So when John tells us that “God is love” he goes on to define and describe love in terms of God the Father sending the Son to die in the place of sinful man.

Now, there are two further implications to arise from this. First of all, we see exactly why Bavinck wishes to be so careful about how, where and when he uses the word “love.” Love is about relationships. Love does not happen at a distance and so “The goodness of God appears as love when it not only conveys certain benefits but God himself.”[10]  Again, we understand that because we see it in a small way in human relations. There is a massive difference between the person who helps us out, who gives us what we need and the person who takes time to get to know us. The first person may show kindness, pity, compassion, but it is the second who shows love. 

Secondly, Frame raises a striking and perhaps surprising question.  “People sometimes ask whether God’s love is ‘unconditional.’“[11] This is surprising because actually we rarely see that set as a question. It is usually a statement that God loves unconditionally. This unconditionality often comes with the expectation that we should love in the same way and furthermore is defined by the expectation that unconditional love equals unconditional acceptance. It means we take people as they are without any demand or expectation on them to change.  Now look at what Frame says next:

“In one sense, God’s love is conditional, for God declares conditions that must be met by those who are seeking his blessings. Some don’t meet those conditions and receive eternal punishment. But when God loves someone in Christ before the foundation of the world, God himself meets the conditions, so that that person will certainly be saved eternally. To those who belong to Christ, there are no further conditions. Nothing can separate us from his love. In that sense, God’s saving love is unconditional.”[12]

So, we do better to say that God’s love is conditional, but because all of the conditions have been met in Christ, there are no conditions left for us to meet. So in that sense love is unconditional.  This then links to the question of change. Does God love and accept us without expectation on us to change?  Actually, no! This is completely the wrong end of the stick. Earlier in 1 John 3:1-3, we are told

“See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. 2 Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. 3 And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.”

In other words, it is not simply that God loves us whether or not we change. It is that God loves us by changing us. Change is necessary, possible and for the believer unavoidable and certain because God is love and because He loves us.  Interestingly, Frame goes on to suggest that in a sense God’s love is “controlling” and an aspect of his Lordship because “His love chooses us before the foundation of the World.”[13]  By “controlling”, he doesn’t mean manipulative or abusive, but Lordship includes authority and control so that God’s love takes the initiative and acts to rescue us and bring us to life.[14]

So when we say that God is Love, we are saying two great and wonderful things. First of all, we are describing God’s eternal and unchanging character expressed in the Trinity. Secondly, we are describing his relentless, sacrificial pursuit of lost, sinful humans, taking their place, bearing their sin and shame, forgiving them, restoring them to life.

“How marvellous, how boundless
Is Your love, is Your love
How wonderful, sacrificial
Is Your love for me…

Yes Jesus loves me
Yes Jesus loves me
How wonderful
Yes Jesus loves me
This is love
You gave Yourself”[15]

[1] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 416.

[2] Jack Cottrell, What the bible says about God the Redeemer (Jopin, MO.: College Press, 1987), 336. Cited in Frame, The Doctrine of God, 414.

[3] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 417.

[4] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III.XX.iv. (Giger: 1:241).

[5] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 215.

[6] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 417.

[7] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 213.

[8] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 420.

[9] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 421.

[10] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 215.

[11] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 423.

[12] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 423.

[13] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 423.

[14] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 424.

[15] Rend Collective © 2009 Thank you Music

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