This morning we want to look at an attribute of God that has been everything from abused to assumed to over-simplified to ignored altogether. The love of God is an interesting aspect of God in our culture. For some, this is all that God is. He is one who loves. His job is to love all of mankind. He is simply some cosmic Santa Claus. To others, who have probably seen this abuse too often, the mention of God’s love must instantly be greeted with qualifiers. One cannot say that God loves his church or mankind, in their eyes, without needing to hear the holiness of God. Therefore, the love of God has fallen on hard times, and I think that many of us have much to learn by spending time in reflection on the love of God.
Love – A Difficult Doctrine
The first thing I want to say this morning about God’s love is that it is indeed a difficult thing to talk about. D. A. Carson has written a small book titled, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God which is one of the better books on the market. But the title was a bit surprising to me at first. “What is so difficult about the love of God?” was my thought looking at that book. But in reality, as one begins to look at the doctrine of God’s love, he will soon see that this doctrine really is difficult.
One reason it’s difficult is because of our false images of who God is. I mentioned above that some have an understanding of God in which he is anything but the God we discussed last week from Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. Therefore, one reason why this is a difficult doctrine about which to speak is because so many have distorted images of God and his love.
A second reason it is difficult is because the Bible talks about God’s love in many different ways. Carson points out in his book five different ways that the Bible speaks of God’s love. They are: 1) The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father, 2) God’s providential love over all that he has made, 3) God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world, 4) God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect, and 5) Finally, God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way – conditioned, that is, on obedience.1 So, even when you talk about God’s love at times you have to identify which way you’re talking (which is no different with us talking about things and ways that we love). However, there are some basic things that we need to see about God’s love.
God Does Not Need Us – That’s Why He Can Love Us
God does not need us. It’s a striking statement, but that is exactly what Scripture says. Isaiah 40:12-31 show clearly that God does not need us, that we can add nothing to him. In addition, in Acts 17, Paul says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” God simply does not need us.
Therefore, it is a wrong idea to say that God created the world because he was lonely or needed us or that somehow God is incomplete without the ability to love his creation. God is self-sufficient. He existed in eternity past before we were created and could have continued to exist fine without us. This sounds negative at first, doesn’t it?
But in fact I don’t think it is. For God’s self-sufficiency (or having no need for us) is what allows him to love us from himself. For God loves in such a way that his love is not based on us (or dependent on us) but originates in himself. That is why he was able to love us when we were his enemies.
Yet here someone might point out that the Bible says that God’s wrath is toward sinners or that he hates them. It is true. In fact, in the first fifty psalms alone we are told fourteen times that God hates sinners. So, does God really love us when we are sinners?
Love and Wrath
The answer is, “yes.” In human understanding we cannot comprehend the presence of wrath and love toward one, but this is what the Bible says. John 3:16 makes very clear that God loves the world, and yet, as they are in their sins his wrath is bearing down on them. Yet God’s wrath simply does not cancel out his love. Therefore, it is not necessary at every spoken word about God’s love to talk about wrath, as if somehow God’s love needs to be diminished. For Scripture seems to talk about God’s wrath toward sinners without mentioning his love for them and his love for sinners without mentioning his wrath for them. Both are true. God loves sinners, and yet his wrath burns against them.
But it should be noted as well that God’s love and God’s wrath are on a different plane. Some do indeed forget God’s wrath in our culture, but God’s wrath is not equal to God’s love. Love is a necessary attribute of God. There will always be love in God. However, wrath is not necessary to God’s being. Carson writes, “[Wrath] is a function of God’s holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath – but there will always be love in God.”2
However, now, someone might say, “So if God loves everybody, he must love everybody in the same way.” But that would be a wrong implication of God’s universal love. For though Scripture talks about universal love, it also talks about God’s particular love for his people.
Universal and Particular Love
As aforementioned, God indeed has a universal love for all mankind. J. I. Packer points out that God’s universal love is indeed true and displayed in God’s “providential care for the creatures he made”, “in the universal invitations of the gospel”, and in his “bona fide wish that all may hear, and that all who hear may believe and be saved.”3 Therefore, God clearly loves all people. However, the Bible also shows us that God has a stronger, particular love for his people.
In fact, God’s particular love for his people is far more commonly found in Scripture than his universal love. One such example of God’s universal love being spoken of is in Malachi 1:2-3. There, God declares that he loves Israel. Then, he asks on their behalf, “How have you loved us?” Thus, be clear, the question is how has God loved Israel. His answer? He says, “I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” He answers how he has loved them by saying that he loved Jacob and hated Esau. That is to say, God loved them by choosing them over another. He loved them by choosing their forefather and not the forefather of another group of people.
So it is with God’s children. He loved them particularly because he chose them for himself. This is the context of Romans 8 in which God declares that he predestined us and ends with a statement of God’s love and the question, “Who can separate us from the love of God in Christ?” God does not simply love his people like the rest of creation. He loves them in an additional way because he chooses them to be his very own. Packer sums it up well writing, “So it appears, first, that God loves all in some ways (everyone whom he creates, sinners though they are, receives many underserved good gifts in daily providence), and, second, that he loves some in all ways (that is, in addition to the gifts of daily providence he brings them to faith, to new life, and to glory according to his presdesinating purpose). This is the clear witness of the entire Bible.”4
Thus, I think it is probably quite clear at this point already that God’s love is indeed a difficult doctrine. But where all of these elements are seen most clearly is in the cross. There we see God’s wrath and love collide and his universal and particular love seen most clearly.
The Cross – An All-Encompassing Example
Last week we said that if God was going to justly justify men that he had to send Jesus to the cross. However, we also said that God could have just condemned us all to hell, not sent his Son, and been perfectly just and holy. So, why, when it would cost his Son greatly was God willing to make a way to justify us and remain just? The answer is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” God sent his Son to the world because he loved us.
And that is the richest demonstration of love ever seen. Many want to try to exalt God’s loving nature by ignoring his wrath altogether, but the Bible exalts God’s love by pointing to God’s wrath. In 1 John 4:10, John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his to be the propitiation for our sins.” Propitiation means that which appeases wrath so as to render one friendly. Jesus appeased the Father’s wrath (being sent by the Father5) by dying on the cross to the point of death. He received God’s wrath that should have been ours, bearing the penalty for ours sins so that God might justly forgive us. That is love, God sending his Son to receive his wrath so that we might be forgiven. John Murray writes, “The doctrine of propitiation is precisely this: that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of His wrath. It was Christ’s so to deal with the wrath that he loved would no longer be the objects of wrath, and love would achieve its aim of making the children of wrath the children of God’s good pleasure.”6 That is indeed great love.
And it is also there that we see the height of God’s universal love (sending his Son because he loved the world) and God’s particular love (sending his Son to ensure the salvation of his chosen people). Therefore, though we do need a complete picture of God in our day where many have turned him into simply a cosmic Santa Claus who cannot judge and is obligated to do good to everyone, a right picture of God will never mean ignoring and downplaying his great love – both for the world and (in particular) his people, most clearly seen in the cross. Amen.
1 D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 16-19. 2 Ibid., 67. 3J. I. Packer, “The Love of God: Universal and Particular” in Still Sovereign, Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 283. 4 Ibid., 283-84. 5 It is quite an incorrect picture to think of the good Son coming to pacify the evil Father’s wrath, because the Father was unwilling to love his people. No. In fact, the Father sent the Son. It was the Father’s initiative to send the Son so that his people might receive forgiveness of sins. 6 Quoted in J. I. Packers, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1973), 185.