As I write this article, I am reminded of the December 15, 2003 issue of the Orlando Sentinel. “CAPTURED,” read the front-page headline, “feared dictator found alone in rat-infested hole.” With sincere wonder, I remember gazing into the eyes of the worn and unkempt former Iraqi leader, asking myself: “Does God love this man — does He actually love Saddam Hussein?” In responding to this question, some might retort, “No way, not a chance — how dare you ask such a question!” However, others might say, “Of course God loves him, God loves everyone — how dare you ask such a question!” The real question, though, concerns not only Saddam Hussein but everyone throughout the entire world. The real question is, “Whom does God love?” Such a question is not just for theologians, it is a question for all — a question for the church and, indeed, a question for the world. Does God love everyone in the same manner? Does He love Saddam Hussein more or less than Osama bin Laden? Does He love them more than Adolf Hitler? Does He love them any less than the local abortionist? Perhaps He loves them less than the next door neighbor who hates the church, hates God, and hates everyone who professes Jesus Christ.
The love of God is foundational to our faith, yet it is one of the more misunderstood doctrines in the church today. We parade God’s love on key-chains, tee-shirts, bumper stickers, and large banners at football games. We pronounce the unconditional love of God upon everyone, and we throw it about so whimsically that we have made it virtually worthless. As a result of the church’s mishandling this most precious doctrine, the love of God has become but a whispering wind.
Still, for us, the question remains: Whom does God love? Is His love the same for everyone? Is it equally bestowed upon every person on earth? The answers to these questions are at the very heart of who we are as Christians. These questions, though difficult to ask, are necessary and must be answered. Nevertheless, our answers to these questions cannot come by way of our own feelings and attitudes however strong they may be. Rather, our answers to such questions must come directly from God’s sacred Word. For it is His Word that reveals His character, and it is His character that conforms our worship of Him. As Thomas Aquinas wrote: Theologia Deum docet, ab Deo docetur, et ad Deum ducit (theology teaches God, is taught by God, and leads to God).
The apostle Paul identifies the Word of God as the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). He calls us to arm ourselves with it and to handle it rightly (2 Tim. 2:15). Thus, in our wielding of the Word, we must be diligent in keeping to the task to which we have been called. We must not forget that our Enemy, like a roaring lion, prowls around seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). By the Enemy’s craft, the world has carefully schemed; it has selected its own passages of sacred Scripture and uses these passages for its own ends. In its clever deception, the world uses passages concerning tolerance, unity, and love — all of which are used by the world to promote its own religion; though it shall be proven to be a religion of death, destruction, and eternal misery. Foremost in the minds of the men of the world are passages they have chosen to justify pluralism: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). They use such passages to justify homosexual unity: “There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 3:28). And, in attempting to justify themselves before a loving God, they use such passages to pronounce the unconditional, eternal love of God upon themselves: “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
What the world does not understand, however, is that in seeking justification for its own religion it is securing its own condemnation. The passages of Scripture the world promotes are contained within a unit — they do not stand alone. In not “judging,” we are told that God is Judge (2 Tim. 4:1). In our union with Christ, we are told that He is Lord over men and women (1 Cor. 11:3). And, concerning God’s love, we are told that it is special (Eph. 2:4). His is a unique love that is bound by His own immutable character (1 John 4:9). It is not something to be carelessly thrown about. Rather, it is to be cherished and praised (Song 2:4; Eph. 1:4).
Throughout Scripture, God affirms His love for His people. In the Old Testament, God demonstrates His love in calling a people unto Himself (Ex. 33:16). From out of the world He drew a holy people, a set-apart nation upon which He pronounced His covenant love (Gen. 15–17; Ex. 4:22). In the Ten Commandments, the Lord gives credence to His commandment concerning idols. He declares, “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5–6; see also 34:7; Num. 14:18; Deut 5:10; 2 Chron. 5:13). In reminding His people of His covenant of peace, God declares through the prophet Isaiah: “‘My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord who has compassion on you” (Isa. 54:10). Still, the Lord extended His covenant love to those foreigners who would enter His covenant, who would “love the name of the Lord” and be “his servants” (Isa. 56:6). However, His covenant love was not without condition; for it is manifested in God’s oath to fulfill His promise of salvation (Gen. 3:15).
In the New Testament, the love of God is likewise covenantal in nature. Nevertheless, in the New Testament, God makes it more clear that His covenant love reaches not only to the nation of Israel but to all peoples. When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night inquiring of Jesus’ true identity and mission, this is made clear. After explaining to this ruler of the Jews how one is born-again, Jesus answered Nicodemus telling him very plainly that He came not to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:16–17). It is clear that Jesus defined His salvation of the world in terms of all those who believe. No longer was the covenant love of God pronounced solely upon the nation of Israel. In the new covenant, God pronounced His love upon all nations throughout the entire world (Acts 10; Rom. 1:16–17; 10:12).
In the new covenant, the Gospel is preached to all people, and our prayers of supplication are offered on behalf of all people (1 Tim. 2:4). We are commanded to love our enemies and pray for them (Matt. 5:44). Yet, in praying for them, we pray that God would convert their souls. And we pray not only for our unbelieving relatives whom we love, but we pray for our neighbors who hate us; we pray for our local abortionists, and we pray for the terrorists of the world. In this way, God’s love is expressed to all. For indeed His love of benevolence is pronounced generally to all peoples throughout the entire world (Luke 2:8; John 3:16). Still, even though God displays general love to all people in giving sunlight and rain, His special love is demonstrated toward His people in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). This sweet love of God, (His “complacent” love in the traditional sense of the word), is set upon His people from the foundations of the earth (Eph. 1:4). His love has been poured out into our hearts (Rom. 5:5). He has secured us forever in His steadfast love (Deut. 5:10), and He has established us in the love of Christ from which we shall never be separated (Rom. 8:31–39). But not all are loved in this way; for He says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Mal. 1:2; Rom. 9:13). Esau was an enemy of God (Heb. 12:16), but Jacob was blessed by God (Gen. 32:29).
We, the people of God, are led to repentance on account of God’s kindness to us (Rom. 2:4), but those who do not fulfill the conditions of God’s love in Christ shall suffer His righteous judgment (Rom. 2:5). And even though many say that God hates the sin but loves the sinner, it is not the sin that God condemns to hell. Rather, on account of His special love for us, He saves us from His wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9–10), and He disciplines us precisely because He loves us (Heb. 12:6). He enables us to love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), and, in keeping His Word, His love is made complete in us (John 17:8; 1 John 2:5).
The love of God is a most precious love that God has set upon His people. Indeed, His love is bestowed upon all people without distinction of race, ethnicity, or class (Rom. 3:29). Yet, it is not a love that is bestowed upon all people without exception (John 17:9), even though the Gospel is proclaimed to all people without exception (Rom. 10:13–15). We see this truth displayed in the high-priestly prayer of Jesus upon the hour of His death; in praying for His followers, He said, “I am praying for them, I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me … I do not ask for these only, but for those who will believe in me through their word … that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:9–23).
For we are His covenant people whom He has redeemed by His own sacrifice. He is our Father whom we adore and worship. He is our King — we are sons and daughters of His kingdom and have been brought in to feast at His royal table. Indeed, the special, saving love of God has not been manifested to everyone everywhere. But, by His grace, He has set His love upon us and has made His face to shine upon us (Num. 6:24). For God, “being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” — by grace we have been saved (Eph. 2:4–5).