Does God love all people? This is a great question, and one which we automatically snap out an answer to without even giving it much thought. “Yes, of course he does. He created us therefore He loves us!” Before we allow our own emotions to answer this question however, maybe we should allow our God, through His word, answer for Himself.
As a missionary sent to preach the gospel, I was recently asked this question, in a manner of speaking, by a church missions board. As I spent some time putting this together, I thought it might be helpful to a wider audience, thus I am making it available here. The question was posed like this:
We were wondering about your theology of missions. Could you describe to us your view on whether or not God loves sinners? If you were sitting across from an unbeliever who did know God and was not saved, who was depressed and hopeless, and that person were to ask, “Does God love me?” Could you respond positively and affirmatively “Yes God loves you.”
One might expect a question like this from a non-Christian with no understanding of the God of the Bible, but frankly, that is a very odd question coming from leadership in a church. This is not a question whose answer is veiled or vague in scripture, but it is one many, including I would say a majority of “Christians” in our culture, simply do not like the answer which scripture clearly gives. And it is clear.
This is a huge topic, and books have been written on this, but I’ll try to give as concise a response as I can of what we find in scripture.
Does God love sinners? Jesus words found in Matthew 5:44-45 “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.” Certainly it appears that God does have a sense of love for even His enemies, and we are to reflect that sense of love as Christians. Very clearly this passage is speaking of what we would call “common grace” or “beneficent love”. He makes the sun to rise, rain to fall, He gives life to the just and unjust, to the righteous and the unrighteous. Acts 17:25 tells us “since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” So God does, in a sense, care for all, yes! If He didn’t, He would not allow us to continue to exist.
Did Christ die for sinners? Emphatically we can answer YES! 1 Timothy 1:15 “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”, of course this is true. Should we tell people that Christ died for sinners? Yes, without a doubt and we should include ourselves in that category as we do.
We also know explicitly that God does not celebrate the death of any. Ezekiel 18:32 “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” But does this mean that God loves every single person? Or maybe we are asking the wrong question.
The question we need to ask is this: Is “God loves you” our message to unbelievers? Is this what we are commissioned to tell unbelievers?
Nowhere in scripture are we exhorted to tell unbelievers that God loves them. Not one verse. We could list many passages that speak of God’s love for His elect, there is much encouragement for the saved to know the height and depth and breadth of God’s love yes. I just don’t ever find in Jesus teaching, or the apostles, or in the evidence of early church history anywhere that Christians are seen as witnessing to non-believers by telling them “God loves you”. Many times in scripture we find the love of God addressed, but so far as I can see, with one exception being John 3:16 (which I will address in a moment), every other case of God’s love seems to be directed only at His elect.
The only verse in the New Testament that speaks of both “God’s love” and “sinners” is found in Romans 5:8 which does say that God demonstrates His love toward “us” that while “we” were still sinners Christ died for “us”. Pronouns in scripture are very important as we seek to properly interpret God’s word. Very clearly in that verse God’s love is not demonstrated toward all, but only toward His elect for whom Christ died. There is no way to read that entire passage of Romans 5:1-11 and not see this is specifically for those who are saved by grace, all the bride of Christ.
In the book of Hebrews chapter twelve we find a very important passage with regard to God’s love.
Hebrews 12:5-6 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
Clearly there are some whom God loves, which in this passage are defined as those whom God disciplines. There are some whom God does not love, those God does not discipline. God Himself makes this distinction.
In the book of Exodus as we read of the plagues that God poured out on Egypt we find a truth presented repeatedly throughout the retelling of the plagues as God himself tell us that He makes distinction between the people of Egypt and His people Israel. God makes a distinction! If God makes a distinction, should we not do the same as we preach His message?
Let’s turn our attention to a key passage for this topic found in Romans 9.
Romans 9:10-18 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
God makes a distinction! Clearly God does not have the same affections for all. This presents some issues in our telling people that He does. In fact, if we do tell people that God loves all, we are found to be liars misrepresenting God. Would we sit across that table from Esau and tell him “God loves you”?
I think we need to be very careful here. Yes some will take John 3:16 out of its context to make that case that God loves every single person (applying equal love to all), but clearly read in its context, it simply doesn’t say that. John 3 tells us that we can’t even see the kingdom of heaven unless we are born ἄνωθεν (anothen) which means “from above” just as it is translated in John 3:31. Jesus goes on to say to this Pharisee (Nicodemus) who believes that the only people loved of God were Jews, Jesus says that God’s love reaches far beyond Israel, to the whole world, to all nations, that is the context of the verse. But clearly in the context of the passage that does not mean every single person. If it did, since it is God who causes us to be born again (1 Peter 1:3, John 3:3, John 1:13) God would “cause all” to be born again, and we are not universalists so we must reject that notion. Ephesians 2:8 tells us “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” God has not given this gift to all. God makes a distinction!
God saves some, and condemns some, as that same conversation with Nicodemus clearly shows in John 3:18. Some are already under the condemnation of God. In John 3:36 God’s wrath is already on some. Not all are saved, therefore, not all are loved, at least not loved in the same way. Not all are loved equally. Not all are loved eternally.
Does God love all providentially? Yes! Does God love all to salvation? Of course not, or all would be saved. So for us to say “God loves you”, we have to mean something different when we say that to a believer than we do if we say it to an unbeliever. That can lead the unbeliever to understand that since God loves them, they don’t need to be reconciled with Him because they already have a good relationship with Him. That is a huge problem that witnessing in this way, which we are never exhorted to practice, leads to.
The other thing I would comment on is that if we try to make John 3:16 say that God loves every single person, then we have a huge bible contradiction. As pointed out in Romans 9:13 above, God states clearly that he loves Jacob, but hates Esau. Further we have passages like Psalm 5:4-6 where God destroys, hates, abhors evil men. Psalm 7:11-13 where God is angry with sinners every day and set out to destroy them. Psalm 11:5 where God hates the wicked and those who love violence. Do we want to be found misrepresenting God when His word says these things?
So what does this mean for our “theology of missions”? If we are sitting with an unbeliever who is “depressed and hopeless” as the question above was presented, which I have done on many occasions, we are to do what the bible calls us to do. We are to be faithful to the mission Christ has given us. No, we don’t tell them “God loves them”. We don’t know that to be true other than common grace as mentioned above. How do we know they are not an Esau? Esau received common grace too. We make no judgements in this regard one way or the other, that is not our place, that is not our calling.
What we can and should tell them, being faithful to scripture, is that God has given them life, breathe and everything else. We can tell them that God is kind (Romans 2:4) and that His kindness is extended to us that we might repent and come to Him. We can tell them that God has extended grace to them in that, just like us, though we are sinners and deserve to be condemned, because of God’s mercy towards us we still have life and opportunity to reach out to Him and that He turns away none that come by faith to Him (John 6:37-40). We can tell them that God created them that they should reach out for Him and find Him for He is not far from each of us (Acts 17:27-28). We can tell them that there is hope found in Christ. We can tell them that there is a way to have peace with God, and this peace brings great joy. We can tell them that Christ’s salvation is completely available to them, and that it can be found through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. We should have no problem telling people that God sees their hurts and has compassion. That God has invited them into a loving relationship with Him through His Son and He has called them, in fact commanded them, to that relationship which is theirs by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Our theology of missions is to be found in scripture, not in our own thinking. His ways are higher than ours, His thoughts higher than ours. Let’s go to Him to define our mission. What was Paul’s theology of missions? We find in Acts 20 Paul tells us: Acts 20:18-21 “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We find more from Paul on His theology of missions in Acts 26 as he shares his testimony.
Acts 26:15-20 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
“Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.
We see nothing in Paul’s example on telling unbelievers that “God loves them”. What does he tell them? The gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4, Romans 3:21-26) and a call to repent and believe (Mark 1:15).
We should also take our theology in this area from Paul’s direct and explicate teaching on what our theology of missions should be. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
We notice never in the New Testament as ambassadors of Christ that our message to unbelievers is to be “God loves you”. Not once! Our message is as Paul laid it out here in 2 Corinthians 5:20 “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
We are commissioned by our Lord Jesus Himself as to the following:
Matthew 28:18-19 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Mark 16:15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.
Luke 24:46-48 Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
When the bible uses the word “Gospel” that is not equivalent to “God loves you”. Actually, if we understand the gospel, it actually answers the question “how can God love me?” The gospel begins with God’s holy character, a God who cannot leave sin unpunished, and in His decree has stated that the penalty for sin is death. We all have sinned and therefore find ourselves under the curse of God awaiting for that penalty to be carried out, both physically and spiritually/eternally. In and of ourselves there is no way for us to ever be reconciled with this holy and righteous judge. For a good God must crush sinners. But God has made a way, one way, by sending his Son to live the perfect life that we should have lived, and die on the cross as a substitute for all who will place their faith in Him and his payment in their place. That on the third day as He rose from the grave he demonstrated that his payment had been accepted by the Father and that through Him there is victory over the grave. Not only is our sin atoned for in Christ for all who believe, but eternal life is ours in Christ. With our sin fully paid for in the blood of Christ, we now stand before the Father without stain or blemish of sin in the least. None of this is of ourselves. For it is both to show that God is just, and justifier of all who have faith in Jesus. We are reconciled to God in Christ and adopted into His family as dearly loved children. Oh our God does love. He loves His children!
So we don’t need to tell people “God loves you”, we need to show people how God can love them with this eternal saving love. Telling someone that God loves them with only common grace love is to give them a security they should not have. If that is the only love they have from the Father, they are still headed for judgement and they still don’t know how they can be saved. Telling someone who is not saved that God loves them is merely comforting them while on their journey to hell. That is not our mission, and frankly that is not very loving of us if that is what we do.
So our theology is to proclaim what God has done in the person of Christ, and to call “all” to salvation and the forgiveness of sins which is available to “all” who will repent and believe the Gospel. God loves (eternal loves) all He chooses to love. God saves all He chooses to save.
We preach the message of Christ indiscriminately to all people (parable of the soils). John 10 tell us that all “His sheep” will hasten His voice and come. John 6 tells us “all the Father gives the Son will come to Him”. He loses none of those He chooses to save.
One final point I would make, this regarding intellectual honesty. Believing in particular redemption (John 10:11, John 10:26), and the bible will not support any other position, that Christ died paying the price, though available for all, yet specifically for a particular people, not a hypothetic possible people, not a potential people, but rather specifically for His elect (Ephesians 1:3-14), those whom He predestined before the foundation of the world to justify (Romans 8:29-30), because this is true, we must see the love of Christ is for those whom He saves. This then defines “His love” for us.
Having said that, for us to then apply that word to someone who is not saved (someone we don’t know if God is going to save or not) means that we would have to change the definition of love to allow us to say God loves them. In other words, we can’t say it and mean the same thing we mean when we say God loves His bride. Is there a sense in which God loves all people? Yes, beneficently certainly, the just and the unjust enjoy sunshine. But not the same sense as He loves those He saves. So to say that God loves an unbeliever, for me at least, is intellectually dishonest. I have to bait and switch to say it. I have to say it but mean something different. I don’t want to be found misrepresenting God by saying something that can be taken in a wrong sense and give someone a false sense of security. I must remember that I will give an account for my ministry, as will all believers.
So I would choose to speak in a way that can’t be misunderstood to mean that they need not repent and believe to come into right relationship with God. I would speak in a way that clearly communicates God’s providential care and the need of the gospel. So I can say that God cares for them, God see their situation and His heart is grieved, I can tell them that Christ died making salvation completely available to them, etc. But I choose to be intellectually honest and consistent with my definition of God’s love.
I remember speaking to a pastor and teacher of the word that I greatly respect, Dr. Steven Lawson, at the Ligonier conference in Orlando a few years back as I was being challenged about my position, and asked him how I should respond to a church on this question of “God’s love for all”. I felt stupid asking because it is so clear in scripture, but he was gracious in his response, and simply said “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” Scripture is clear, if only we would take our theology from it.
1 John 4:19 “We” love because “he” first loved “us”.