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I recently read an article by D. A. Carson titled “On Distorting the Love of God.” I strongly commend the article to you. Please heed its warnings. The Southern Baptist Convention is in danger of over or under emphasizing certain aspects of the love God, thus distorting God’s love. Instead of distorting God’s love, let us submit to and communicate the love of God as revealed in Scripture. You can find Carson’s full article here (pdf) or the audio here. 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).
The doctrine of the love of God is difficult for at least five reasons: 1) The overwhelming majority of those who believe in God, believe he, she, or it is a loving being. 2) In Western culture, the love of God is often separated from God’s sovereignty, holiness, wrath, providence, and the personhood of God, which redefines the love of God as something other than what Scripture says. 3) Some elements of postmodernism relate to this problem in that people in the West believe that all religions are the same; therefore, the only heresy is believing that there is such a thing as heresy. 4) Due to the sentimentalizing of God’s love, Christians have been swept along to the extent that we have forgotten that within Christian confessionalism the doctrine of God’s love poses difficulties. A sentimentalized doctrine of the love of God finds difficulty meshing with the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty and justice. 5) The doctrine of the love of God is sometimes portrayed within Christian circles as much easier and more obvious than it really is, and this is achieved by overlooking some of the distinctions the Bible itself introduces when it depicts the love of God.
The bible speaks of the love of God in five distinguishable ways: 1) The Bible speaks of the peculiar love of the Father for the Son (John 3:35, 5:20), and of the Son for the Father (John 14:31). 2) Even though the Bible avoids using the word “love,” the theme of love is evident in God’s providential love over all He has made. He made everything “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31; Matt. 10:29). 3) God has a loving salvific stance toward His fallen world. According to John 3:16, God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. Some try to use “world” here to only refer to the elect, but based on the rest of John’s gospel, that will not do. God loves the whole world (1 John 2:2), and commands all human beings to repent. 4) God has a particular, effective, selective love toward His elect. The elect may be the entire nation of Israel, or the church as a body, or individuals. This is a discriminating feature of God’s love. God does not love the non-elect in this way (Deut. 7:7-8, 10:14-15; Ma. 1:2-3; Eph. 5:25). 5) God loves His own people in a conditional way based on their obedience. Jude, for example, says to keep yourself in the love of God (Jude 1:21). This is not the same type of love as the other four mentioned, since one cannot escape those forms of God’s love. God’s people live under God’s love or His wrath depending on their covenantal faithfulness. Jesus told His disciples to remain in His love by keeping His commandments as He has kept His Father’s commands and remains in His love (John 15:9-10).
There are two preliminary observations on these distinctive ways of talking about the love of God. First, it is easy to see what will happen if any of these five biblical ways of talking about the love of God is absolutized and made exclusive: 1) If the intra-Trinitarian love of God is used as a model for all of God’s loving relationships, we will fail to observe the distinctions that must be maintained between Creator/Creature and the ontologically Holy One in relation with ontologically sinful Christians. 2) If the love of God is nothing more than His providential ordering of everything, this is not far from a benevolent “force.” It would be easy to integrate that kind of stance into pantheism or some other form of monism. 3) If the love of God is exclusively portrayed as an inviting, yearning, sinner-seeking passion, then this strengthens the hands of Arminians, semi-Pelagians, Pelagians, and those more interested in God’s inner emotional life than in His justice and glory—but the cost will be massive. This form of love made absolute only treats complimentary texts as if they were not there, and it also steals God’s sovereignty from Him and our confidence and security from us. 4) If the love of God refers exclusively to His love for the elect, it is easy to drift toward a view where God loves the elect and hates the reprobate. Rightly positioned, there is truth in this assertion; stripped of complimentary biblical truths, that same assertion has engendered hyper-Calvinism. 5) If the love of God is construed entirely within the kind of discourse that ties God’s love to human obedience, then we may run to merit theology.
Second, believers must not view these ways of talking about God’s love as independent, compartmentalized loves of God. None of these aspects of God’s love should be overemphasized or underemphasized. Instead, we should gratefully acknowledge that God in the perfection of His wisdom has thought it best to reveal His love in these ways. These truths must be held together and integrated in biblical proportion and balance, and applied with insight and sensitivity to our lives and the lives of those to whom we minister.
First, I appreciate Carson’s thoroughness in discussing the doctrine of the love of God. I have held for a long time that God loves the Devil, yet hates Him as well. Now, I have a better understanding of what exactly this looks like. The same may be said for God’s view of those in Hell. There must be a sense where He loves them while also a sense where He hates them.
Second, I appreciate Carson’s warning concerning overemphasizing or underemphasizing one way God loves against the other ways God loves. I agree that God loves in each of these ways. All of them should be believed and applied with the balance that the Bible demands. Currently in Southern Baptist churches and evangelicalism as a whole, the love of God for sinners is overemphasized to the point that God’s wrath and justice are extremely diminished. The wrath of God towards sin and sinners is what makes God’s love so amazing. All humans deserve hell, yet God reveals His love for us by giving His Son for the world. Furthermore, there is a special love for the elect that the lost do not have. This love should be shared instead of hidden, encouraging sinners to come and enjoy the love God has for the elect through repentance and faith in Christ.
Third, there is a real danger for those who read the verses where God’s love is contingent on our obedience to ignore the rest of Scripture. We must take all of Scripture into account, or we may submit to a meritorious salvation that, if we are honest, we will never achieve. That is the path of misery. I know because I have tried.