“What about John 3:16, though?” – Difficult Doctrine of the Love and Sovereignty of God – Part 2

Previously, I recounted an episode where I did not love the people in my church well by dismissing a few questions regarding how God could be both loving to the world and electing some to eternal life.  This is the classic “Calvinism vs. Arminianism” question.  I supplied my initial decent but not truly great or loving enough answer in a previous post. What I would like to offer here is a sampling of D.A. Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God and how it is helping me construct a better understanding of this topic and the above mentioned question in particular.

Carson’ book starts with the premise that it is fairly easy to think of “God as love” in today’s world.  It is his other attributes we have a difficult time with.  Its the things like God’s justice, or holiness that gets us riled up in contention.   In Carson’s words, what has happened in our culture today is that “…the love of God…has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable.  The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized,” (p. 11).  With that one simple observation, it should be enough to make us question whether or not when we refer to the “love of God” that we may or may not be echoing the same idea God has in mind when He uses it in His Word.

But even more helpful is Carson’s treatment of the varying ways “love of God” is used by God in the Bible itself.  He lists the following:
1    The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (ex. John 3:35, John 14:31)
2    God’s providential love over all that he has made (cf. Gen. 1 and Matt. 6)
3    God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world (cf. John 3:16 – see brief discussion below)
4    God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect (cf. Deut. 7:7-8, and Eph. 5:25)
5    God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way – conditional that is on obedience (cf. Jude 21 and John 15:9)

All of these ways of talking about God’s love make it imperative to never just import our own understanding of love and apply it to God, but to search out the context and understanding of how it is being used in Scripture.  The fact that God himself can mean multiple things through the same word or concept should give each of us intellectual pause to assume we automatically know exactly what He is referring to.

Also, his specific but brief treatment of John 3:16 was extremely illuminating.  Far from going the route of typical Calvinistic arguments that try to make “the world” of John 3:16 only refer to “the elect”, Carson acknowledges that to do is an illegitimate theological leap.  Instead, Carson goes to the context of the book of John in how “world” is typically referred to – the state of a fallen world vs. the extend of a created world.  Carson writes:

“True, world in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness.  In John’s vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God.  In John 3:16 God’s love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to such a big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such wicked people,” (p. 17).

Now, if I can be quite frank.  This is all a matter of a way of thinking that I intellectually and theologically subscribe to.  To be completely honest, I don’t always like it.  I don’t like to think that there may be someone close to me and my family whom we love dearly, who may be a recipient of God’s love in the #2 or #3 sense, but not in the #4 sense.  I still have a hard time reconciling that and I wonder if that will ever completely go away.  I do know though that God has not revealed to me (or anybody else for that matter) on whom love like #4 rests or doesn’t.  Therefore, I must continue to pray, to serve and to love and to share Jesus with everyone around me in such a way that will hopefully make a God a real and attractive reality in their life.

If I truly believe in the sovereignty of God as well as the love of God, in ways that the Bible affirms, then that is all I am really called to do.  To have confidence in who God is, what He has done and what He has promised to do, and to share that confidence with everyone around me – by both my words and my life.  Everything else is in God’s hands.

For Further Reading:

The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson – if you read no other book, this would be worth it alone.
Why I’m Not a Calvinist by Walls and Dongell
Why I’m Not an Arminian by Peterson and Williams

Difficult Doctrine of the Love and Sovereignty of God

So yesterday I was teaching at our weekly School of Theology and the topic came up of whether God “elects” His people to receive His saving grace, or whether or not people have a choice in the matter.  I frankly, did not handle this question well.  Why, you might ask?

1.  For starters, it was a question that wasn’t on topic with anything else we were discussing last night. Four years of seminary does not mean that you don’t need prep and processing time, and even the most able of pastors and theologians have their moments where they don’t shine as bright as others.

2. Next, I had just spent the previous day knocked out in my bed with some kind of virus.  Needless to say, I wasn’t up for slow-pitch softball let alone Major League Play Off games.

3. Lastly, I didn’t love our people. And that’s the short and truest answer for why I didn’t handle it well.  If I had, I wouldn’t have been as dismissive of the view points from the room that were not seeing how a loving God could also be an “electing” God – electing some to eternal life, and by default, not electing others to that same life.

Let me briefly recall how I responded, and then I would like to offer a follow up post from some resources that have helped me understand this, particularly the book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson (Crossway 2000).

I went the route of acknowledging what for me is a fundamental, and biblically philosophical framework of thinking:  God is God, and I am not.  That is to say, that since I am a creature, dependent on God for everything, including revelation, I am limited in my ability to understand fully the ways of God.

This is true biblically. Genesis 1:1 starts off with “In the beginning, God…”, and then acknowledges that because of God’s independent activity, everything else came into existence, “…created the heavens and the earth.”  This goes a long way for me and this question, because it acknowledges that what I do know to be true, is finite.  Its limited.  In other words, it should provoke me to hold my own epistemological grasp of things with a loose sense of certainty, but a tremendous amount of confidence.

So while I may not be able to completely reconcile emotionally and intellectually that the God of the Bible can be both loving towards the world and yet still have an electing love for some within that world, it does not necessarily mean that it isn’t plausible. I can hold those two things in tension – the way Scripture tends to hold them – because it may not be a matter than my finite capacity can completely reconcile.  It is, to coin what might be labeled a cop-out by some, a mystery.  And the Bible is frankly quite OK with mystery.

I also acknowledged that while the Bible does speak to the idea of election, it never once dictates nor encourages us to isolate and determine who those elect are.  In other words, it is a theological and biblical certainty that is known only to and only by God alone.  We are never called to make or determine judgments based on who is “elect” or “non-elect”.  I read one of  Mark Driscoll’s tweets a couple of weeks back and it was something that helped sum it up nicely:  “The visible church is the imperfect church as man sees it; the invisible church is the perfect church as God sees it.”  Again, a sense of mystery.

But this also does not preclude the reality that there may be a whole lot more “elect” than we think.  Sure we can guess around the issue by looking at how people respond to God (faith and repentance), but the reality is that none of us will ever know fully who is “elect” and who is not until the coming day of Christ that we all await.  It is true that in our theological discussion on this topic, we may tend, as Calvinists, to make the number smaller than it might actually be, as if there are only 120 seats on God’s “elected” bus.  But whose to say that its not in the Billions?

The fact of the matter is we don’t know.  Not with certainty, anyway.  But we can still have confidence that the picture of God that the Bible paints is one of love towards His whole creation, and yet still, one that has sovereignly and graciously intruded into the lives of a select number to receive and respond to His grace.

And that was a decent answer. Until I started to get the following questions, which I completely dismissed (and hope in some small part to make up for through these brief posts)

Coming up next….But what do you do with passages like John 3:16 – “For God so Loved the World that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”?