Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Who does God love?

I wrote this rather long reply to an old friend who was asking me about the love of God. But I thought perhaps other people might find it helpful too.

Dear X,

I'll mention my stand first of all, and then try to explain it to you afterwards. The question is one that I was forced to consider a lot, especially by a close Christian friend who challenged my previous position about it. In the end, I could see how my position didn't really fit Scripture and contradicted itself, but it was still some time before I was not too stubborn to admit that.

I believe that God has loved everlastingly the ungodly and undeserving, the wicked, and depraved. This is the main idea in one of the key passages in Scripture that speaks about the love of God; "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." (Rom. 5:5-10).

But I don't believe that this means all the ungodly, because then all would certainly be saved (and we know that this is not the case). As the passage above teaches, those who have been justified by His blood, are certainly saved from wrath through Christ. The passage ties various things together inseparably.

One, God's love is tied to the atoning death of Christ, so that Christ's death is the expression and action of God's love.

Two, justification (that is, being legally accounted righteous in the sight of God) is tied to Christ's atoning death. We are justified by His blood. This is because Christ bore the punishment for our sins, and therefore our sins cannot be held against any longer, and so those for whom Christ died can only be righteous in God's sight since their sins have been paid for.

Three, justification is tied to eternal salvation. Those for whom Christ died, are justified, and therefore saved from wrath. This is because God cannot and will not have any wrath towards those who are legally righteous, whose sins have been paid for by Christ.

Four, reconciliation is also tied to Christ's death. It is by the death of Christ that we who were once enemies against God, become friends of Him. So not only are we accounted righteous before God by Christ's death, but we are also brought into a sweet fellowship of love with God who loved us.

Five, this reconciliation is also tied to eternal life. Because Christ has reconciled us by His death, how much more then are we who are reconciled saved eternally by Him who lives eternally for us.

So then all whom God loves, Christ died for, and all whom Christ died for, are justified, and reconciled, and all these are also saved eternally. Therefore, not only are all those for whom Christ died saved eternally from wrath, but all those whom God loves are saved eternally from wrath. And this stands to reason because God's love is incompatible with wrath. He cannot have any wrath towards those whom He loves, otherwise, what kind of love would that be? And where would the comfort of that love be?

But there is even another inseparable connection made in this passage, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. So, if God loves us, He sheds abroad that love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In other words, He causes those whom He loves to know that He loves us, by His Holy Spirit who dwells within us. We know that God's Spirit does not dwell in anyone except those who come to faith in Jesus Christ who are saved eternally, and therefore we know also from this that God does not love every single person. But those whom He does love have unspeakably glorious consolation and comfort in His love from His Spirit.

As Romans 8:9 says, "Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His." Which means also that if we have the Spirit, we have great comfort knowing that we belong to Christ who will certainly "quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwelleth in you." (v. 11). There is a marvellous and sweet inner work of the Holy Spirit which changes our hearts, so that as God loves us, our stony hearts are melted and love Him too. As I John 4:19 says, "We love Him, because He first loved us." And this too means that those who do not love God, it is not because we are better than they are, for we are as wicked and undeserving as all humanity, but it is that God determined to love us, and withheld this precious love from others, according to His inscrutable purpose.

He says, "I was found of them that sought me not. I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me." (Rom. 10:20). As such I believe God's love is entirely gracious, and when I say entirely gracious, I mean that we do nothing that causes God to love us more or less, and that all our love for Him is a result of His love for us. So, that His infinite, unchangeable, unconditional, and Almighty love for us, is the only thing that makes us different in anyway to those who will receive what we all deserve in hell. The difference is not our success and their failure, then it is not grace, but merit by which we make ourselves more acceptable in the sight of God than others, as if we made ourselves different and prompted God to save us on account of this difference.

But I'm not saying that we don't have to do our part. It's just that if salvation is entirely gracious, and if God's love is truly what Scripture says it is, then our part is not left up to us, but God causes us to do our part. His love stirs us up, and changes us from the inside out, so that we begin to love Him in return.

I could refer to many more Scriptures which prove that God's love never ever fails to save, such as Romans 8 (and I could explain those passages which seem to suggest otherwise which used to trouble me when I first studied this), but if you take time to look closely at the short passage in Romans 5 that I have quoted, and simply understand what it is saying exactly, then you'll see that it can mean nothing else other than what I have explained here, and then the rest of the Bible, and all those passages from beginning to end which bear on this subject will fit together perfectly.

I chose to refer to this passage because it is one of the simplest and clearest, while at the same being one of the most beautiful and comforting, as it also shows why this issue is important - because to say God loves everyone, ends up with a love of God that in the end cannot comfort us, if we think that even though God loves us we could still go to hell. Scripture is far more assuring and comforting than that - to whosoever believes.

But if I was to pick the very shortest, and most unmistakeable passage on this subject (and there are so many), I would quote, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau have I hated."

Many have tried to explain away the plain meaning of this, and I've probably heard all the arguments by now (most of which I imagined myself in my own stubborn refusal to see what Scripture teaches about this), but I'm sure you know, love is incompatible with hatred, and hatred is incompatible with love. If there was any hatred in God's love, then there is no comfort in such love, and we may as well not call it love. Therefore, if God hated Esau, as Scripture here says, He did not also love Him in some sense, otherwise His love is meaningless and comfortless.

But I didn't refer you to this passage first, because I want you to know why this is so important. This verse proves what I've said, but it doesn't show you the unspeakable comfort of it, and the reason that I would even die for this truth about God's Almighty love, for me, you, and all who believe in Christ, according to His gracious choice. So, that I can say, the only reason I am not going to hell is because of God's love for me. This one thing is therefore enough for me to know, that God loves me, therefore I am saved eternally from hell, the devil, the wicked world, and all my sin and enmity towards God.

I know that these things are difficult to understand and to accept, but we must trust God's wisdom and goodness, and believe what He has revealed to us, no matter what. As Abraham said to God, hearing about the coming judgment on Sodom, and fearing for His nephew Lot, who had ended up there on account of his own covetousness, he pleads with God and says, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Such was the faith of Abraham, and such is our faith also. Even though Scripture contains things difficult to understand, and God's thoughts are infinitely higher than ours, we remember that God is always good and just, even if we don't understand His purposes, and why He saves some and not others. But Scripture doesn't leave us completely without explanation. But to hear this, we need to first of all be utterly convinced that God would be no less loving, or just, or good if we went to hell as we deserve. When we understand that, then we have begun to know what the grace of God really is.

Your friend,