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