The biggest underlying question to be looked at before we examine God’s love from a Biblical perspective is, if God loves the world so much why does he allow so many to perish? To put it another way, if God sovereignly and only elects, as some would maintain, how is it that God claims to love the world, and yet allows so many to perish? A God of love who allows most people to perish is a God whose love becomes a love that is not understandable. John Wesley, so famously wrong about much doctrine, perceived at least this—a God who puts people into Hell without any chance of redemption is an evil God, and Wesley famously denied that we had such a God.
The logic of the difficulty is irrefutable. To state it briefly, the first premise is that God alone sovereignly chooses to save some. The second premise comes from the first, God deliberately excludes some—most of mankind—and makes it impossible for them to be saved because he sovereignly has excluded them. The difficulty of what is being suggested is obvious—God’s love for the world must include a plan to put or allow, if you will, most people to go to Hell, and that is hardly a good definition of what we understand love to be.
The premises can be stated thus:
1. God is a God of love.
2. God sovereignly chooses to save some.
3. God sovereignly chooses to damn most.
4. Therefore, God’s love is expressed in the damnation of most of the human race.
Yet, stated so starkly, I doubt there are many who would really hold to these glaring contradictions. Indeed, many Christians, upon hearing this strict interpretation, have noted that that if they really believed in that sort of God they would turn away from Christianity. The definition of love becomes so distorted that they cannot understand how God could be a God of love. Some have pointed out that under this belief system God and Satan at least agree on the general aim that both want most people in Hell.
Chafer, no Arminian himself, refers to this difficulty when he points out, “The fact indicated in this text, that the one ground of condemnation is the failure to believe on Christ as Savior, confirms the truth, restated more than one hundred times in the New Testament, that the one and only condition of salvation is faith in Christ as Savior.”1 Thus, the difficulty is overcome when we realize that while all of the above premises may be true, salvation in every case is dependent on faith. It is very true that conviction and calling must come from God, but it is also true that no one gets there apart from faith. Indeed, the lack of faith is what separates us from a loving God, for it says that he is not come to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be saved.
Thus we have the complete sovereignty of God in each of our salvation, without exception, but we also have a hundred percent response of faith. Sovereignty and the choice of man works together in a way that we cannot, in this lifetime, understand. But we can understand the goodness of a God, who in his mysterious purposes, has elected some to be saved, and still holding everyone to account for not having faith. It is not a complete answer, I am afraid, but it seems to be what the Bible leaves us with, and is the best that I can do.
It is only with man being given responsibility for his faith, or lack thereof, that the love of God becomes evident. First, he loved us enough to send his son to die for us, that as the Scripture says, “whosover will may come.” Jesus, going to the cross, famously laments over Jerusalem over and again, saying, oh Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem. The lament itself only makes sense if we clearly see that when he says how often I would gather you and you would not, that when he says that he was holding Jerusalem responsible for their poor choices. Choices are somehow always folded into the sovereign plan of God.
I always think of the rich young ruler, whom Jesus loved (says the gospel), whom was given the choice of laying aside his riches and following Jesus, or following his riches. He chose wrongly, following his riches, of which he had many. Jesus was saddened by his choice, and uses his choice to remark that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven. At least in this case, we see someone loved of God, invited by God to follow, and refusing to do that which he knew was right. I think that the many of the lost souls can fit into this same category, loved by God, invited to follow, and yet finding some excuse not to follow. I do not know for certain, but I picture God saddened by the choices of so many for whom he died, but who for one reason or another, never have faith. God, fully justified, and yet still loving, is perfectly righteous to judge those who were given every opportunity to escape their judgment. Can there be anything more tragic to the lost to know that they have died and been judged, and yet still are loved by God? I can think of nothing worse to happen to me than to know I have missed the love of God, and because of justice an eternal wall now separates me from his love.
The discerning reader may note that I have avoided the common arguments of election. I think these arguments are argued far too much, and I think that we are not to know the complete picture of God’s election, much less be able to explain it coherently to anyone (something no one has ever done). At every point we see the word of God, we have one obligation, and that is to believe. Therefore when the scripture points to his sovereignty and election, as it does in so many places, our obligation is to believe. When he tells us that we must believe, then it becomes our responsibility before God to believe. Let the theologian work out how God does it; it is my plain duty to believe God, and that I fully aim to do.
Back to the question, what does it mean when it says God loves us? The perfect definition of love is what it always will be: Jesus. If fact, if I may borrow from an old saying: “Know Jesus. Know love.” “No Jesus. No love.” In the end, it will come down exactly to that. God has already judged the sins of the world, being borne on the back of our Savior, and if we persist in not believing that, we place our souls to be judged justly—something that not one of us can ever bear, and condemnation will always result.
God loves us enough to send his own Son to die in our behalf. We may think being old and experienced that we understand what love is all about, but until we meet Love we know nothing about it. Our worldly experiences, both disappointments and victories, will always pale before the love of God. And everything we think we know about worldly love will change irretrievably once we know Jesus. The best love experiences will serve but as preludes to the main act; the worst experiences will dim and be forgotten as we get to know the one true love, Jesus.
I leave with one devotional thought. Is there anything more that a loving God could give to free men other than that which he has freely given? In the cross which Jesus willing endured God literally gave his all. I find it such a wonderful harmony that each of the early Fathers was asked to give his child. Abraham literally was asked to sacrifice his son. Jacob watched his sons fight, and Joseph fled for his life, having stolen his father’s blessing, but his curse was to never see either his mother or his father again. Jacob’s favorite son was lost to him for many years but was at last restored, giving us a picture our Son who will one day be restored to us. In all three cases men were tested, being asked of God to give up their own sons, and giving us a picture of what, one day, God would do for us. Greater love hath no one than this—that Jesus should be freely offered that we might have the forever love of God. It is the ultimate gift of God. It is impossible that God should do more.
1. Chafer, L. (1947). The Convicting Work of the Spirit. In Systematic Theology (Vol. 2, p. 218). Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press.