The last few months I’ve been working through the glorious truth of God’s love. I confess this is a challenging and powerful truth, perhaps more so than any I have studied. It is with great humility and much searching through the Scriptures that I can even attempt to express here a fraction of God’s love. In addition to reading God’s Word I’ve also listened to numerous sermons from John MacArthur, D.A. Carson, Paul Washer, Tim Conway, and others. I’ve read commentaries from Charles Hodge, Matthew Henry, Calvin, John Owen, A.W. Pink, John Frame, Wayne Grudem, J.I. Packer, Spurgeon, Matthew Poole, and others. Many men smarter than I. Some I agree with, some I have trouble agreeing with, but my studies are not exhaustive and my conclusion cannot be finalized. Though I can draw from their insights, what I have found is based not on the assumptions of men, but on God’s Word alone.
This really began last year while leading a small group study that was reading through David Platt’s book Radical. In that book, Platt points out that:
“If you were to ask the average Christian sitting in a worship service on Sunday morning to summarize the message of Christianity, you would most likely hear something along the lines of, ‘The message of Christianity is God loves me.’ Or someone might say, ‘The message of Christianity is that God loves me enough to send his Son, Jesus, to die for me.’ As wonderful as this sentiment sounds, is it biblical? Isn’t it incomplete, based on what we have seen in the Bible? ‘God loves me’ is not the essence of biblical Christianity. Because if ‘God loves me’ is the message of Christianity, then who is the object of Christianity? God loves me. Me. Christianity’s object is me.”
As Platt concludes, “God is the object of our faith, and Christianity centers around him. We are not the end of the Gospel; God is.”
This really got me thinking about God’s love and how often the statement “God is love”, from 1 John 4:9 is used. As I wrestled with what many perceive to be a simple, straightforward statement, I began to see that many times “God is love” is abused by many well-meaning Christians and simply put it is not all the Bible has to say about who God is. As J.I. Packer adds “God is love” is “one of the most tremendous utterances in the Bible – and also one of the most misunderstood.” Misunderstood? How can something so seemingly simple, so oft used be described as misunderstood? As is often the case when passages are taken out of context or hijacked from their biblical meaning, “God is love” has been wrongly designated as the summation of all who God is, to the neglect of His other attributes. As Packer summarizes, “’God is love’ is not the complete truth about God so far as the Bible is concerned. ‘God is love’ is the complete truth so far as the Christian is concerned.” Now what does that mean? To understand this perspective better, let’s look at two recent, public examples.
1. “’God is love’ is not the complete truth about God so far as the Bible is concerned.” – Packer
It’s no secret that Pastor Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins took the evangelical world by storm the last few weeks. Bloggers, pastors, and authors, all weighed in on the controversial theme of God’s love which Bell attempted to address. If you’re unfamiliar with Bell or his book, see The Curious Case of Rob Bell. In that book, which was released March 15, after a firestorm of publicity, Bell takes the position of a form of universalism by stating in the end no one really goes to hell because God’s love wins. Bell’s position fails in the light of the Bible, in that Bell blatantly rejects the biblical truth that God upholds his holiness, with love for Himself and with justice towards sin and the sinner. For example, take the oft-quoted passage John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is a faithfully true and wonderful passage that summarizes the Gospel. However in this same chapter we read, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” John 3:36 Just 20 verses away from the one so frequently quoted, on the same page of most people’s Bibles, the passage states that for those who do not believe, “the wrath of God remains on him.” God’s wrath remains. As we learn from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:3 we are all “by nature children of wrath.” Everyone ever born was “by nature” under the wrath of God. Does that mean that God ceases being a God of love? May it never be! However, the Bible is not silent concerning the wrath of God towards sinners. Psalm 5:5 says, “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.” Psalm 11:5, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” In Nahum 1:2 we read, “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.” Likewise, Colossians 3:6, Ephesians 5:6, and Romans 2:5 warn of the wrath of God to come, of which Psalm 7:11 speaks so powerfully, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.”
As humans with finite, emotional minds we often think that God must act and behave like we do. That God must be emotional and fickle with His feelings like we are. But this simply isn’t true. Because of the man-centered nature of everything that we do, including how many of us read the Bible, we tend to think that humans, i.e. God’s creation, must be the sole recipient of God’s love. If we followed that logic through, then if God had never created us He would never have known what it means to love. Again following that thought, if God had justly destroyed everyone, including Noah and his family, in the flood, because of their sin, that logic would say that God would’ve ceased being loving. But what’s missing in this reasoning is that God must have love for Himself. We know this is true because in John 14:31 we read Jesus saying, “but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father….” Likewise in John 3:35 we read, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” God the Father loves His Son Jesus Christ, yet He poured out His wrath on Him at the cross. Did that mean He stopped loving Him? No! It was because of His love that He had to pour out His wrath. It was because of love for His holiness and His righteousness that He could not leave sin unpunished and that His wrath had to be poured out on Christ, who Himself bore our sins. But there is more love here, the love of God for His children and the love of Christ for His bride. And this brings us to the second point.
2. “’God is love’ is the complete truth so far as the Christian is concerned.” – Packer
This weekend I was watching Todd Friel’s show Wretched TV. It’s an entertaining show, much like his radio broadcast, that includes a variety of the latest Christian news, video clips, and worldview topics. In this particular episode he included a brief excerpt from a viewer email (I think) that pointed out the demonic exhibition that Lady Gaga calls a “concert”. The email mentioned a “jesus-like” statue that she brings on stage, which is used as a source for flames, fireworks, and blood. Since I know the influence she has, particularly on the youth, I searched for clips for more info on what was taking place on stage with this “jesus-like” figure. What I found was that in the midst of a “concert” is what appears to be much occultism and satanic behavior. The statue on stage looked less like man’s perception of Jesus and more like an angelic figure (perhaps fallen angel?), with wings and a long robe. At the point in the concert when the statue appears, just before her performance of the song Alejandro, Gaga, already covered in blood, begins some sort of weird monologue with the figure which seems to be a combination of adoration and worship, but less like what you would see in a Sunday church service and more like demonic possession (yes I’m serious). She concludes this set by having the figure pour out blood on her and her dancers. Parents, keep in mind, this is the music your children are likely listening to.
How does this all fit in with our discussion thus far? Well just prior to this song performance, at the conclusion of the song Teeth, Lady Gaga, already covered in blood, lying on stage begins a monologue with the crowd in which she states, “Jesus, I’m confused. People say you only love one kind of person or a certain kind of beliefs, or a certain kind of ethnicity, or sexual orientation. But Jesus, you have blessed me; as I bleed to death in front of 20,000 people every night, preaching love and unity, I’m quite certain that Jesus must love EVERYBODY!!!! Jesus loves everybody…” (from the forum on her website, emphasis hers)
This statement is reminiscent of the message Rob Bell was portraying in the video promo for his new book and no doubt the message that was inside. How is her statement that “Jesus must love everybody”, from a secular humanist perspective, a position that would closely define Bell also, any different than the well-meaning Christian, who we mentioned earlier, that feels “God is love” is the sole biblical description of who God is?
How would that well-meaning Christian interact with the humanist who declares “Jesus loves everyone”? Never mind the fact that the statement in this instance was given in a blasphemous, mocking delivery, within an atmosphere that closely resembles pagan worship. See, herein lies the danger with misunderstanding the love of God and not realizing that, as Packer stated, “’God is love’ is the complete truth so far as the Christian is concerned.” To not realize that first God must love Himself and that second God sets His love on His children grossly misrepresents what the Bible says and allows books such as Bell’s and statements such as Lady Gaga’s credence within the secular world. It gives validity to the thought that “Jesus loves me just the way I am” so there is no need for repentance, no need for Christ’s death, no need to come to Him for mercy. And it brings up Bells’ questions such as how can God love those whom He sends to Hell? But the truth is because of God’s love for His own holiness He must have wrath and that wrath must have an object. It cannot merely be sin, for sin itself is not judged and cast into hell. It is in fact the unrepentant sinner that is the object of God’s wrath, just as we read in John 3:36, Ephesians 2:3, and the multiple passages included above.
This brings us back to the believer, who was once also the object of God’s wrath because of their own sinful nature. Packer describes God’s love as, “an exercise of his goodness toward individual sinners whereby , having identified himself with their welfare, he has given his son to be their Savior, and now brings them to know and to enjoy him in a covenant relation.” As would be expected, this statement is centered around biblical truths. In a passage we’re familiar with here, Deuteronomy 7:7-8 the Lord says to Israel, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” God’s love is specific, with a specific object that He chooses, from his own free will and not because of anything they have done or will do. His love is not a general, generic, universal love for everyone. It is specific, as we read here, and in this passage He tells us His love is set on Israel, not the other nations.
Let’s turn to a parallel passage in the New Testament to see God’s love is again set forth towards a distinct people, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” Ephesians 1:4-5 Note here again, the reason the object of God’s love receives it is “according to the purpose of his will.” This amazing correlation from Old Testament to New is what makes John 3:16 so powerful. Prior to the arrival of Jesus, salvation belonged to the Jews, but in John’s gospel we read, “For God so loved the world” which means Jews and Gentiles, collectively the world. This passage cannot be used to show the universality of God’s love towards every individual, nor can it be used to support the universality of salvation (see all of the verses mentioned earlier regarding God’s wrath toward sinners). Likewise, the Apostle Paul, quoting Malachi 1:2-3, states, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Romans 9:13 This passage supports the idea that John’s use of “world” here cannot be inclusive of every person from Adam until present, nor can it exclude everyone but “New Testament” believers, because this would then negate the salvation of the Old Testament saints, thus violating Hebrews 11. As Charles Spurgeon states, “The words [world and all] are generally used to signify that Christ has redeemed some of all sorts – some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and has not restricted his redemption to neither Jew nor Gentile.” We’re left then with the previous statement that “world” here means generally, Jews and Gentiles. But what about God’s love in this passage?
The expression of God’s love is seen in the next clause, “that he gave his only Son”. God put His love on display by sending Christ to die on the cross. God’s love is extended to those who believe, while His wrath continues on those who do not believe, which is what we read in John 3. Romans 5:8 tells us that God demonstrated His love through the death of Christ on the cross for sinners. But as we’ve discussed, this certainly cannot mean universal love, nor can it mean universal salvation. Let us conclude this discussion by applying a simple Scriptural test to the love of God. In Romans 8:35 the Apostle Paul asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” While a discussion on qualifying the “us” used here is outside the scope of this post, let’s instead focus on those things Paul mentions as unable to separate God’s love from those He loves. He lists tribulation, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword all with respect to faithful witnesses to the Word of God. He then lists that neither death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate “us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Ask this simple question, if death cannot separate the object of God’s love from His love, then either God sends to hell those whom He loves or unbelievers are not the object of God’s love. The answer to this test can be found in 1 John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Love here is defined. Propitiation means by definition that Christ satisfied or appeased the wrath of God and then reconciled sinners to God. We read earlier that the Gospel of John said that for those who do not believe, the wrath of God remains on them, therefore Christ has not propitiated or satisfied God’s wrath for them and therefore they can know nothing of God’s love.
The only real biblical defense against the humanist idea that “Jesus must love everybody”, as Lady Gaga claims and the humanist idea that God’s “Love wins” as Rob Bell claims, is a thorough, biblical understanding of the love of God. Otherwise, it allows God’s love to be incorrectly applied as salve to the sinner’s conscious, before they have a chance to realize their need for it. It’s like taking medicine without being diagnosed as sick. Christ said, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” If a person is not diagnosed as being a sinner, how would they know their need for the Savior?
Friend if you are reading this blog for the first time and are not yet saved, then you must know because of your sin, God’s wrath remains on you. You know nothing of the love of God outside of the display of Christ on the cross and of God’s common grace in providentially allowing you the conveniences of life. Make no mistake, God will not withhold His wrath forever. You, dear friend are in need of the Savior, Jesus Christ. Repent of your sin and trust in Christ as your Lord and Savior. Know that no sin is too great for Christ to forgive. Know that Christ Jesus died for sinners just like you and if you only repent and believe in Him, then His amazing love will be a banner over you for all eternity and you will be a child of God. Do you desire to know the love of God? Flee from the wrath that is to come, Repent and Believe!
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7
“The most difficult task you are ever going to have to overcome is to look in the mirror of God’s Word and see your sin as it truly is and then to believe that God loves you as much as He says He does.” – Paul Washer