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?” (Yes God’s love is the cause of His sending His Son and the work of the cross, but here I speak of God’s love being manifest. Apart from the finished work of Christ we would all be under the wrath of God. The gospel enables God’s love to be extended to his elect rather than the wrath God’s justice would demand were our price not paid in full in Christ. I am in no way stating that Jesus going to the cross “convinced” the Father to love us.) 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”.
Why should I love God if he doesn't love everyone? How could I possibly love a God who chooses only to save some people and burn the rest in a lake of fire forever and ever? Do you realize how much pain and anguish...of course you don't. Who could fathom such an extreme punishment, that has no end? And you're telling me, a person struggling to come to God, that I should bow down to this God, who chooses only to save a few people? People, by the way, who were just as sinful as anyone else. Oh yes they were and are. How could a loving, wise, just God only choose to save some people and not everyone, even though He created them? God created ALL people, not just His "elect". Paul's response to this in Romans 9 tells us that God's own glory, whatever that means to the writers of the OT and the NT, that God's own glory is more important than salvation of all people. How could anyone worship a God whose own glory is more important than the salvation of the lost? What does that say about their morality? What does that say about their concept of love and justice. Romans 9 clearly spells out, and you clearly explain that God can make some people into Esaus. How could anyone worship a God who would do such a thing to his own creation? A God who creates wicked people and then punishes them for being exactly the way He made them, wicked? Is it fear that is the only thing holding you to this "faith"? Do you really think that living our lives in fear of God is a right way to live? How could anyone worship or love anyone they were afraid of? I mean genuine love, not stockholm's love. You can't. You cannot genuinely love or respect anyone who creates people, lets them become lost, refuses to save them, threatens to kill them if they don't repent, -but they can't repent because he won't give them faith (faith is a gift from God), and then he doesn't just kill them, he tortures them FOREVER. You're just lying to yourself if you think that anyone can love such a being. All you could possibly ever do is be terrified of such a being, and wish you had never been born. What do you say to me? Will you answer me, or ignore me like most so called Pastors and so called Christians?
I would love to answer your questions. It is clear as I read your response that there is one issue that needs be dealt with which is the overarching problem in your thinking on this matter. That is your view of God. He is so small in your thinking. Yes the true God is primarily focused on His own glory. How could He not be. After all He is the greatest there is and the greatest to be known by those of HIs creation. God's glory is the purpose for which God does all that He does, including creating man in the first place.
Now when you have a small God, then suddenly sin isn't such a big issue. If sin is not as serious as to deserve an eternity in hell (I assure you sin against an infinitely holy God warrants such punishment) then the salvation you need is of small consequence as well.
Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. If you don't have a proper understanding of God to understand that this ferocious God should be feared, it is because you don't know God. I would ask you to do a study of the Bible looking for who this God is. I would recommend for example, reading Isaiah 40-46. Look what God says about Himself. Allow Him to tell you who He is rather than creating a god in your own image.
I feel for you! I myself have been struggling with very, very angry thoughts against God lately, really similar to yours, and have feared and hated Him. Please know that it's not true. Hear me out, because after having had all these thoughts, I can tell you for a fact that I was wrong and that you will be SO much happier if you decide to let Jesus introduce Himself to you and show you what He's actually like. As I write this, I'm really ashamed of myself for hating God, and it hurts a lot to admit to myself that I was so cruel and unfair to Him, but I don't have to be ashamed because He is - or rather, will be (this is so recent I haven't even had a chance to go to Reconciliation yet afterwards but I'm going to go ASAP) - all the more delighted to welcome me back and cheer me up on seeing how miserable I am.
So what in the world is going on? God does not create some people to be good and some to be wicked. He created everyone to be good and to be happy with Him forever. Wickedness is a choice. But Jesus actively pursues each one of us with grace all our lives in hopes that we'll repent and turn back to Him. He does not "choose to save only a few". Why would He choose not to save anyone after already paying their ransom with His life? No, He comes after everyone with His grace, but many people choose to refuse it. When Adam and Eve fell, He immediately felt pity for them and eagerly - yes, eagerly! (Hebrews 12:2) - and without hesitation decided to die the worst death He could think of to prove His Love for them, and for each one of us, and get us to change our minds.
I myself have been living in fear of Hell. Easy to do, and I need to ask Jesus for help to moderate this fear and focus more on being excited for Heaven. But you can't be excited for an eternity with God in Heaven unless you know Who He is first. What is He like?
1. God is Love Itself
2. You are infinitely precious to Him
3. His Mercy is even greater than His Justice
4. He loves to exercise His Mercy and hates to punish anyone, although some people will want to be punished at the end of time (more on this below)
God's justice is impossible to fully understand and it is easy to be threatened by it, especially for a big sinner like me, but His Justice is not somehow separate from and opposed to Love. Is there anyone who's been really, really nice to you... just blown you away? Maybe you've had trauma in your life and have never known real love from another person, and if not, that could make this tricky, but maybe you could still try to imagine... maybe imagine someone saved your life. What would it be like if you then did something mean to that person and they knew about it? Could you look them in the eye? Especially if you didn't apologize? We've got a sense of honor, and God knows and respects that. We'd prefer to go to Hell if we died without repenting because we couldn't stand to go to Heaven. We couldn't even stand to live out a not-blissful-but-not-miserable-either eternity here on Earth. Because we couldn't bear to look Jesus in the eye in Heaven or even continue to experience His care on Earth knowing what we'd done to Him. Read this: https://littlestsouls.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/our-lord-weeps-more-for-sinners-than-for-his-own-passion-and-death/. It was a real eye-opener for me. I love "Littlest Souls"; that site has so many beautiful and encouraging words about Divine Mercy on it.
As for God's glory, it's not a selfish kind of glory like we tend to pursue. It's a Father's glory: He's proud of His beautiful children. Read John 12:23-28. God is glorified when He shows His Mercy at the crucifixion. In his treatise Against the Heretics, which he wrote against the Gnostics who denied Christ's humanity (https://setonshrine.org/the-glory-of-god-is-man-fully-alive-saint-irenaeus-and-mother-seton/), St. Irenaeus wrote that "The glory of God is man fully alive." We're fully alive when we're alive body and soul and have something and Someone to live for. So yes, God's purpose in all things is His own glory - because we are His glory.
I don't buy some of the things Pastor Steve said. God is not ferocious; On the contrary, "Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger, abounding in mercy.
Oops sorry website submitted my comment before it was finished. I wanted to add a few more words: Psalm 103:8 says that "Merciful and gracious is the LORD, slow to anger, abounding in mercy". The rest of that Psalm is beautiful, too. Meaning no disrespect, I do not believe God is ferocious. And fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom. However, again with all due respect, I've learned that "fear of the Lord" is not fearing God as in fearing Someone who is mean and wants to punish us, but rather fear of offending God like we would fear hurting a loved one, because He is good and loves us. St. Thomas Aquinas says this in the Summa Theologiae (Summa, I-II, q. 67, art. 4; II-II, q. 19, art. 9). This kind of fear is joyful, freeing, because it gives us Someone to live for. It makes the "delight" in Isaiah 11:1-3 make more sense: "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord."
Hope this helps. God wants you so much, Claire! Let Him tell you how much. It was His joy to give His Life for you, and then He went even further than that and adopted you - if you've been baptized, that is. (If you haven't gotten baptized yet, please do because you have to be baptized to go to Heaven. "Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5).) God bless.
The Jacob and Esau has nothing to do with eternal salvation, that story is about inheritance
Well, that would certainly shock the apostle Paul who included the account of Jacob and Esau in Romans 9 which is a passage completely dealing with salvation. God will have mercy on whom he chooses to have mercy. That’s the context.
I just had one quick clarification point; when you say we can tell unbelievers “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.” I assume by “called them” you mean the general, invitational calling rather than the effectual calling in this instance?
Also what books would you recommend on this topic?
You are correct that the "call" to unbelievers is the general call, a call in light of the gospel, to turn to Christ by faith. As for books on the topic, I'd suggest R. C. Sproul's book "Chosen by God". The effectual call is that call internal to God's elect that moves them to Christ as they are given a new heart with new desires and direction.