There is a danger when engaged in any argument, even a just one, that we become so entranced with the rightness of our position and the wrongness of others, that we lose sight of our own unique tendencies to error. I believe the doctrines of grace to be true — I am, as Piper puts it, as 7-point Calvinist. But when we approach God’s sovereignty in a purely systematic or argumentative fashion, we can be at risk of forgetting things such as God’s love and kindness, or failing to allow God’s sovereignty to produce the worship and adoration that he deserves.
Perhaps this is a problem only for me. But I see in me a tendency to understand God’s sovereignty in such a way that his personality, emotion, and love are diminished in my mind, and this is not good. This particularly shows up in how I think of unbelievers. I believe God is sovereign in both election and reprobation. But if God predestines the reprobate to disobedience and destruction, can we honestly say that he truly loves them? After all, 1 Peter 2:7-8 says that:
for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
Approaching Scripture with this kind of wooden philosophical presupposition can cause us to do damage to the text, to our understanding of God, and to our application of his word. With this in mind, I will briefly visit the topics of common grace, the love of God, and the cross; and touch on several related points in conclusion.
John Murray defines common grace as “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.” This is the sun and the rain that all the world enjoys in Matthew 5, which reads:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Matthew 5:43-48
The text commands us to love unbelievers in the same way that God does. But if we hold to the doctrines of grace in a wooden way, as a hyper-Calvinist, then we will be inclined to say that this common grace is not a mark of God’s love, since he plans to punish unbelievers in the end.
In fact, there is a frequent hyper-Calvinist argument (see, for example, ) that common grace, rather than being a token of God’s love and compassion, is nothing more than an entrapment by which God hardens unbeliever’s hearts and gradually builds up an overwhelming judicial case against them. Now this is true in one sense — God’s kindness is often lost on the unbeliever, and often serves to harden hearts. And certainly an unbelieving response to God’s kindness is storing up future judgment. But can we say that God has no love for the unbeliever?
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. — 2 Peter 3:9
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. — John 3:16
And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. — 1 John 4:14
Now it is true that not all the world is saved. But these and other verses speak powerfully of God’s heart, not just to mankind in general, but even to individual unbelievers specifically. It can be tempting to look at all the world through the lens of God’s eternal decrees, peering into questions whose answers are not given to us — who is saved and who is not? But then we will see God’s love only as it relates to salvation and destruction. We will be forced to interpret words like “world” in stilted ways, and we will miss an important aspect of God’s loving disposition toward the lost. God’s eternal decree of reprobation does not lessen his goodness, kindness, and love in giving gifts to unbelievers, individually, and to mankind in general. God is sovereign and God is holy, but he is also love; all of his attributes and perfections are in complete harmony.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. — 1 John 4:8
Mark Horne writes:
Did God love Adam and Eve? Were His good gifts to them a revelation of His love for them, or were they snares meant to hurt them?
The answer must be that, though God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, and ultimately causes all things, God’s gifts and offers of future reward are all genuine expressions of a genuine love. It may be difficult to conceive of how this objective revelation in history is to be reconciled with God’s eternal decrees, yet it is perverse to use the decrees to deny that God’s gifts and promises are motivated by love. The fact is, just as without God’s love there is no ground for God’s jealousy, so without God’s good gifts there is no ground for holding ingrates accountable for how they abuse and pervert these gifts. It was Satan’s strategy, after all, to deny that God loved Adam and Eve. If our inferences from God’s decrees put us in Satan’s camp, we need to rethink our position.
The Love of God
D. A. Carson addresses God’s love in his book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. This book is an outstanding treatment of God’s love and I highly recommend it. It is a short and accessible read. Carson distinguishes 5 major aspects of God’s love. This is certainly not an exhaustive list:
- God’s intra-Trinitarian love, between the members of the Godhead.
- God’s providential love for all his creation.
- God’s compassionate love toward fallen mankind.
- God’s particular, elective, saving, transforming love toward his people.
- Finally, Carson speaks of a sort of conditional love God has for his people, being careful to distinguish this from saving love. While our salvation is secure, our disobedience nonetheless grieves God and brings his fatherly discipline.
Carson is concerned that we embrace the full counsel of God concerning God’s love. Neglecting any one of these aspects of God’s love, or emphasizing some at the expense of others, will lead us into various errors. His chief concerns for us as reformed believers are, first, that we do not deny the reality of God’s love as a genuine and personal emotion; and second, that we do not deny the reality of God’s compassion for the lost.
Calvinists hold to limited atonement, also definite atonement or particular redemption — the idea that Jesus’s death accomplished salvation for specific, elect individuals. We hold to particular redemption for several reasons. First, the benefits of Jesus’s atonement are frequently described in definite terms, suggesting that Jesus’s death was in itself wholly sufficient to accomplish and secure forgiveness, propitiation, righteousness, redemption, salvation; therefore his death cannot have been effective for those who perish in the same way that it is savingly effective for believers. Second, Jesus is often described as having died specifically for his people or his church. While he is also described as having died for the whole world, it is clear from this that believers benefit from his death in a way that the whole world does not. Lastly, and of less importance, John Owen made a famous reductio ad absurdum argument for the doctrine of particular redemption.
But again, if this doctrine is understood woodenly, we can fall into error. While Jesus’s death secured the atonement only of the elect, it is not true that Jesus did not die for all men. Again, it is wrong in many cases to artificially read “world” to mean only those who are saved. Charles Hodge writes of Jesus’s death:
In answer to this question, it may be remarked in the first place that Augustinians do not deny that Christ died for all men. What they deny is that he died equally, and with the same design, for all men. He died for all, that He might arrest the immediate execution of the penalty of the law upon the whole of our apostate race; that He might secure for men the innumnerable blessings attending their state on earth, which, in one important sense, is a state of probation; and that He might lay the foundation for the offer of pardon and reconciliation with God, on condition of faith and repentance.
These are the universally admitted consequences of his satisfaction, and therefore they all come within its design. By this dispensation it is rendered manifest to every intelligent mind in heaven and upon earth, and to the finally impenitent themselves, that the perdition of those that perish is their own fault. They will not come to Christ that they may have life. They refuse to have Him to reign over them. He calls but they will not answer. He says, “Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out.” Every human being who does come is saved.
This is what is meant when it is said, or implied in Scripture, that Christ gave Himself as a propitiation, not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world. He was a propitiation effectually for the sins of his people, and sufficiently for the sins of the whole world. Augustinians have no need to wrest the Scriptures. They are under no necessity of departing from their fundamental principle that it is the duty of the theologian to subordinate his theories to the Bible, and teach not what seems to him to be true or reasonable, but simply what the Bible teaches. — Charles Hodge, ”Systematic”, vol, 2, pp. 558-9.
So while Jesus’s death does not secure reconciliation for the unbeliever, it nonetheless has a gracious effect for the unbeliever. Jesus’s death will in fact secure the redemption of creation itself. And as an expression of God’s love and grace, our holy God is able to restrain the sin of unbelievers and temporally withhold his judgment. Even in the face of sin and rebellion, he is righteously able to pour out great gifts of common grace upon unbelievers and mankind. And most importantly, Jesus’s death secures the offer of salvation to all men. He is a sure and certain savior, and no one who comes to him will be cast out (John 6:37). While the hyper-Calvinist may deny that God’s offer of salvation to the lost is “well-meant”, it is clear from scripture that God lovingly invites and commands all men to believe and be saved.
We see this clearly in passages that describe the work of the cross in expansive terms. Jesus is described as one who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); one who brought salvation for all people (Titus 2:11); the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2); the savior of the world (1 John 4:14); and as the savior of all people, especially those who believe (1 Timothy 4:10). Other scripture would forbid us from affirming universalism, so it is clear from this that unbelievers are beneficiaries of the cross in some sense short of true salvation.
So we see that the balance of Scripture requires us to affirm both the doctrines of grace, but also God’s genuine love toward the lost. Carson writes:
In recent years I have tried to read both primary and secondary sources on the doctrine of the Atonement from Calvin on. One of my most forceful impressions is that the categories of the debate gradually shift with time so as to force disjunction where a slightly different bit of question-framing would allow synthesis.
He is saying that we can come to understand the doctrines of grace in such a wooden way that God’s love for unbelievers is diminished in our minds. We ought to guard against this.
I have in mind three other concerns for us as reformed believers that I don’t have time to address at length, but I do want to mention them briefly.
The first has to do with God’s love for the lost. If God has such a loving disposition to unbelievers, as his people we are to have the same love for unbelievers! This ought to energize our evangelism and service to the lost. When we invite unbelievers to salvation, we do not invite them on the condition that they are elect. We invite them unconditionally. In Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray writes that:
From whatever angle we may view [the offer of the gospel], it is full, free, and unrestricted. The appeals of the gospel cover the whole range of divine prerogative and of human interest. God entreats, he invites, he commands, he calls, he presents the overture of mercy and grace, and he does this to all without distinction or discrimination. . . .
When Christ is presented to lost men in the proclamation of the gospel, it is as Savior he is presented, as one who ever continues to be the embodiment of the salvation he has once for all accomplished. It is not the possibility of salvation that is offered to lost men but the Saviour himself and therefore salvation full and perfect. There is no imperfection in the salvation offered and there is no restriction to its overture — it is full, free, and unrestricted. And this is the warrant of faith. (107ff)
In his lectures on the Marrow controversy, Sinclair Ferguson makes the point that God does not offer salvation to sinners as some abstract and conditional transaction — we believe, and from a distance, God will deal with our sin and dispense to us the benefits of the gospel like some kind of mail-order pharmacy. Rather, Jesus himself is offered as a personal and loving savior to all men. The benefits of the gospel come only as we are united with him.
The second concern has to do with God’s immutability. God never changes, and systematic theologians describe him as impassible, or without passions. But this does not mean that God is without emotion, or that his love is impersonal and mechanical. Carson writes that God’s impassibility is best understood as “trying to avoid a picture of a God who is changeable, given over to mood swings, dependent on his creatures” (49). God is not fickle or temperamental. Carson labors to communicate that God’s impassibility does not diminish the reality and personality of his emotions, including his love. Carson talks of people who would make God’s love to be nothing more than an anthropopathism, a crude human picture of something that is not really true of God. Carson makes this memorable appeal: “Give me a break. Paul did not pray that his readers might be able to grasp the height and depth and length and breadth of an anthropopathism and know this anthropopathism that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:14-21)” (59). God’s love is a real and perfect love!
The third concern is that we must progress from understanding and even experiencing God’s love to gratefulness and worship. How amazing it is that a holy God would love us! And how more amazing still as we discover more and more the greatness and depth of his love!
- D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.
- Sinclair Ferguson on the Marrow controversy.
- John Murray on common grace.
- John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied.
- Charles Hodge on the cross and common grace.
- Loius Berkhof on common grace.