The Love of God: Limited, Universal, or Misunderstood?

At the root of some of the doctrinal difficulty and disagreement in the Christian faith is a lack of understanding of the love of God and its relationship to the grace of God. For example, there are those who declare that God’s love would not allow any sinner to perish, or go to hell; this teaching is called “Universalism.” Five years ago, megachurch leader Rob Bell wrote a book to that effect, entitled “Love Wins”, in which he postulates that people are given an eternity of opportunities after death to respond to God’s love, and so none will be finally lost.  On the other side of the theological spectrum, if we might be permitted to speak that way, are those often referred to as hyper-Calvinists, who maintain that when the Lord Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world,” He really meant that God loved the world of the “elect”, and not the souls of all men.

Wisdom consists in part of the ability to distinguish between similar concepts that differ in important ways. The concepts of love and grace, although intimately related, are not used interchangeably in the Scriptures.  We read in I John 4 that “God is love”, and we understand by that expression that love is His inherent nature.  Another has said that the declaration that “God is love” reveals to us the energy of His nature, while “God is light” (I John 1:5) tells us of the purity of His nature, which necessitates His righteousness. I believe it would be correct to state that the love of God is the wellspring of all His activity in the universe, beginning with creation and culminating with the reconciliation of all things based on the infinite work of His Son on the cross to put away sin, done once for all “in the consummation of the ages” (Hebrews 9:26).

The grace of God, on the other hand, is the means by which God, in the perfection of His love, carries out His purposes in the lives of helpless, unworthy sinners. Grace is effectual, for God always accomplishes what He sets out to do by grace in the lives of His elect (Philippians 1:6; Ephesians 2:10). As difficult as this may be to comprehend, this grace was given to us who are saved “before the world began”.¹  God’s love is not spoken of in Scripture with this particularity, because love is the motive and mode of His activity toward all, whereas grace has the individual soul’s eternal blessing in view, and grace infallibly accomplishes its goal according to the purpose of God.²   John Calvin wrote of “irresistable grace”, but since that term has an objectionable connotation as indicating forcible entry into a soul, we might more accurately and carefully speak of the “effectual grace” of God.  In fact, to say that “grace wins” would be much more correct than the Universalist mantra “love wins”, for grace is effectual while love is motivational.

And what a motive was love in God! So much so that we can state and preach emphatically that God loved the world so that He gave His Son Jesus as the propitiation for the “whole world” (I John 2:2), and that all men are both invited to come and commanded to repent, since propitiation allows God to be merciful while remaining perfectly righteous. When sinners up until their final breath reject and disobey the gospel call, they experience permanent separation from the love of God, and from the God of love.³ However, the love of God is not compromised or diminished because He must judge the wicked, and judgment is His “strange work” (Isaiah 28:21).  We can therefore place both Universalism and hyper-Calvinism at the extreme fringes of the discussion of the love of God, and unworthy of godly consideration.

But grace is God’s unmerited favor toward individual sinners who are no better than “them that perish” – by grace God chooses them, quickens them, saves them, and glorifies them. God’s highest delight now and forever will be to glorify Himself in His Son through us who are saved, and who are the beneficiaries of “the riches of His grace“.   And lest we become overly occupied with our own interests and benefit in the matter of God’s working by grace, let us remember that the believer’s redemption, acceptance, and adoption will throughout all eternity be “to the praise of the glory of His grace.”²


¹   II Timothy 1:9

²   Ephesians 1:3-12

³   Romans 8:39; Matthew 22:13; Luke 14:24

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