This article is part of a series on the Love of God by D.A. Carson. He originally presented these papers in a lecture series at Dallas Theological Seminary. Part 1 can be found here, part 2 can be found here, and part 3 can be found here.
I recently read an article by D. A. Carson titled “God’s Love and God’s Wrath.” I strongly commend the article to you, especially to those who overemphasize God’s love or God’s wrath. There are many statements in this article that are quote-worthy; they’re too numerous to list. There are many places in Scripture where God says He hates sinners. There are also many places where God says He loves sinners. We must preach both. You can find Carson’s full article here (pdf). I’ve provided a summary below, followed by my response. You can also find Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God here for free (pdf).
Carson, D. A. “God’s Love and God’s Wrath.” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (October-December 1999): 387-398.
Summary of Main Points
A common view of God’s love is that He must forgive us because He is good. This lecture will reflect on why this view of God’s love is unbiblical. We will also seek to think more precisely and faithfully about the love of God.
Wrath, like love, includes emotion as a necessary component. Here again, if impassibility is defined in terms of the complete absence of all “passions,” not only will you fly in the face of biblical evidence, but you will tumble into fresh errors that touch the very holiness of God. Wrath, unlike love, is not one of the intrinsic perfections of God. Rather, it 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. However, the price of diluting God’s wrath is diminishing God’s holiness. To distance God too greatly from wrath on the ground of a misconceived form of impassibility soon casts shadows back onto His holiness. If God is not really angry at sinners, it is difficult to see the need for propitiation. Furthermore, to retreat to the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity in this case would be disastrous. That tactic argues that God as He is in Himself (the immanent Trinity) is immune from wrath, while God as He interacts with rebels (the economic Trinity) displays His wrath. But this leaves us in the dubious position of ascribing to God as He is in Himself less concerned for maintaining His holiness than God as He interacts with the created and fallen order.
How, then, do God’s love and His wrath relate to each other? One evangelical cliché’ has it that God hates sin but loves the sinner. Fourteen times in the first fifty Psalms alone, the psalmists state that God hates the sinner, that His wrath is on the liar, and so forth (Psalms 5:4-5, 11:5; Proverbs 6:16-19). In the Bible the wrath of God rests on both the sin (Rom. 1:18-23) and the sinner (Rom. 1:24-32; 2:5; John 3:36). In God, wrath and love can be directed toward the same individual or people at once, since His love is entirely a reasonable and willed response. God in His perfections must be wrathful against His rebel image-bearers, for they have offended Him; God in His perfections must be loving toward His rebel image-bearers, for He is that kind of God.
Two other misconceptions circulate widely even in circles of confessional Christianity: 1) God’s love is now richer than His wrath was in the Old Testament. 2) God is implacably opposed to us and full of wrath but somehow mollified by Jesus, who loves us. The reality is that God’s love and wrath are both revealed in the cross. Also, God sent His Son because He loved the world meaning that His Son did not win Him over, for God loved the world prior to sending His Son. God provides the propitiating sacrifice (He is the subject), and He Himself is propitiated (He is the object). All of this is implicit in Romans 3:21-26, a great atonement passage.
The label “limited atonement” is singularly unfortunate for two reasons: 1) It is a defensive, restrictive, expression—here is Atonement, then someone wants to limit it. The notion of limiting something as glorious as the Atonement is intrinsically offensive. 2) “Limited atonement” is objectively misleading. Every view of the Atonement “limits” it in some way except for the unqualified universalist. Arminians limit the Atonement by regarding it as merely potential for everyone. Calvinists regard the Atonement as limited to the elect. Amyraldians limit the Atonement in much the same way as Arminians, even though the undergirding structures are different.
Let us grant for a moment the truth of election. The definiteness of the Atonement turns more on God’s intent in Christ’s work on the cross than on the mere extent of its significance. Those who defend definite Atonement cite several verses for support (Matt 1:21; Titus 2:14; Rom. 5:6-10; Eph. 2:15-16; Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Isaiah 53:10-12; Eph. 5:25). Others, however, respond that there are too many texts on the other side of the issue: God so loved the world (John 3:16) and Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Consider the five ways the Bible speaks about the love of God: 1) God’s intra-Trinitarian love, 2) God’s love displayed in His providential care, 3) God’s yearning warning and invitation to all human beings as He invites and commands them to repent and believe, 4) God’s special love toward the elect, and 5) God’s conditional love toward His covenant people as He speaks in the language of discipline. If one of these is absolutized, a false system is generated that distorts God’s love. Instead, we must affirm that the Atonement is sufficient for all and effective for the elect, for only then are both texts accommodated. The context of 1 John 2:2 helps us understand that the Atonement was potentially for all without distinction rather than effectively for all without exception. There is a real sense where Christ died for the world, while also a real sense where Christ died effectively for the elect alone. The Bible speaks of both God’s love for the world and special selecting love for the elect. Preachers in the Reformed tradition should not hesitate for an instant to declare the love of God for a lost world, for lost individuals.
Furthermore, God’s love for the world is commendable because it manifests itself in awesome self-sacrifice; our love for the world is repulsive when it lusts for evil participation. We must not love the world in a sinful way (1 John 2:15), but instead, we must love the world by taking the gospel to every creature.
In conclusion, here are three reflections to consider: 1) The love of God for people is sometimes likened to the love of a parent for a child (Heb. 12:4-11; Prov. 14:26). Believers must never forget to keep themselves in the love of God (Jude 1:21). In this way, we imitate Jesus (John 15:9-11). 2) The love of God is not merely to be analyzed, understood, and adopted into wholistic categories of integrated theological thought. It is to be received, absorbed, felt. In Ephesians 3:14-15, Paul connects such Christian experience of the love of God with Christian maturity. 3) Christians should never underestimate the power of the love of God to break down and transform the most amazingly hard individuals. We love because He first loved us; we forgive because we stand forgiven. Understanding God’s love as displayed in the aforementioned five categories will cause us to love God and others in such a way as to glorify the Lord. We must love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).
I appreciate Carson’s dedication to “the Scriptures alone” beyond classical Christian tradition and evangelical clichés. He expresses accurately what the Bible says concerning God’s love for sinners and the elect, along with His wrath towards sinners and the elect. God’s love is reasonable, passionate, and coextensive with His holiness and will. God does hate sinners while also loving them. Christians must believe and preach both. All God does is righteous, as are all His relational expressions of His being: love, wrath, etc.
What are your thoughts?