The subject of God's love has been the genesis of some of the most sublime literature penned in any language. Ask most anyone who knows of God at all what His most essential characteristic is, and they will probably tell you it is His love. If you were to ask them the question, "Who does God love?" they would tell you that He loves everybody. It's common knowledge, at least among Christians, that God loves all people the same. It's common all right, but is it correct? An investigation of God's love will reveal that it is not universal in it's scope.
At this point, I would ask the reader to do a little exercise. If you have one, take a complete concordance, such as Strong's or Young's, and look up all the occurances of the word "love" and it's derivities in the Bible. There aren't that many and it should only take you an hour or so to read all of the verses. You will notice some very startling things, which we shall observe here, also as we proceed.
We have rather badly misunderstood what the love of God is and to whom it is shown. We have told ourselves, our friends and, most particularly, our children that God wants us to be happy, to feel good, to have positive experiences. This borders upon blasphemy! We have believed and taught that God loves everybody and wants all to be saved. Some have taken this to the point where they deny that God could ever destroy anyone. They teach that God does not kill, nor hate. Some of them teach that eventually, all will be saved because God loves them too much to see any lost. Lord, forgive our insolence.
To see just what the Bible does say about God and His love, let's start In Isaiah 46:9-11 we see a very definitive statement of God about Himself: Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure: Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it."
Unless you read a different English than was written here, it is obvious that God is declaring Himself to be sovereign of all. He does what He does for His own pleasure. He takes counsel of nobody else, and is answerable to nobody. Also notice that He does not mention His love in this passage. In case you think the lack of mentioning of love is a fluke, let us look at another text where God defines Himself.
In Exodus 33 and 34, we have recorded an encounter between Moses and God. Moses asks to see God's glory, and God replies thus: "And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." Ex 33:18,19, 34:5-7.
These characteristics are wonderful indeed. Observe though, what is missing ... love. Did God forget that He is a loving God? Of course, that is a stupid question ... God forgot nothing. He chose to announce the attributes of His character that were what Moses, (and we), needed to hear.
Now, with reference to that exercise asked of the reader earlier: You probably noticed that the uses of the word "love" and it's derivitives are different from what is generally said about the "love of God." For example: Nowhere in the record of the early church in Acts is the word "love" mentioned. In more than half of the books of the Old Testament "love" is completely ommitted.
Does this mean that love is not important? Not at all. If John declares that "God is love," than it must be important. If it is so essential, than why isn't it mentioned more. Why, in the four gospels, is the love of God not refered to in terms of man with the single exception of John 3:16? Let's examine some of the passages where love is mentioned and see if we can understand what this love is, and to whom it is directed.
To understand what this great love of God is, it is useful to see the nature of the people on which it is bestowed. The popular idea that God loves everyone is simply not to be found in the Scripture. Even John 3:16 does not say that if it is carefully examined, which we shall do later.
Two passages immediately spring to mind regarding those who receive God's love:
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Rev. 3:19.
For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Heb 12:6-8
Some might be tempted to interpret this to mean that God chastens everyone and those who survive will be saved. To those we would recommend a reading of Romans 8:7, 1 Corinthians 2:14 and Ephesians 2:5. The natural heart/mind is at complete enmity against God. No natural man would put up with God's chastening for a moment unless he had the new, fleshy heart promised in Ezekiel 36:26,27.
In John 15:2 Jesus reiterates these thoughts by telling us that His Father purges all branches that bear fruit, and removes those who don't. Given what we saw in Revelation and Hebrews, this would lead to the direct conclusion that God purges those who He loves and removes those whom He does not love.
True, the idea that God does not love everybody is radical to many Christian minds. It is essential to understand this, though. As we mentioned at the top of this article, there are many, dangerous errors that arise from believing that God loves everybody.
Recently, a well known Boston talk show host was heard in a protracted argument with a caller about the existance of God. The host was a self proclaimed atheist. He ably argued that any god who would create creatures whom he loved and then throw a lot of them into hell was a silly, capricious and mean-spirited being and one whom he, the host, didn't want to serve at any rate. This gentleman hit the nail on the head. Either we believe in the complete sovereignty of a Holy God, or we are left with unanswerable questions.
In first Samuel, Hannah gives a prayer after the birth of Samuel that speaks most gloriously of God's sovereign rulership of the universe and all in it. This prayer shows very clearly that God will do as He chooses with all things.
And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the LORD, mine horn is exalted in the LORD: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy as the LORD: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God. Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength. They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased: so that the barren hath born seven; and she that hath many children is waxed feeble. The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up. The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and he hath set the world upon them. He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail. The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them: the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed. 1 Sam 2:1-10
Once again, we have established God's sovereignty. We are still faced with the issue of who God loves. Romans nine answers this clearly. Paul is discussing the nature of the true Israel and to do this, he is teaching about Divine, unconditional election. As part of this, he penns the following verses.
Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. Rom 9:6-16.
Could it be possible that God can hate? The Greek word translated here does mean hate. It does not, as many commentaries say, mean "loved less." The nicest thing it can mean is to love not at all. The worst, to persue in hostility. Now, many will argue that that may be what is said, but not what is meant. If the Bible does not mean what it says, than we are followers of a myth.
Anticipating the objections, Paul goes on to quote from Exodus, where we read earlier, showing that God claims the right to have mercy on who He chooses. Further on in Romans nine, paul, again anticipating the objections that will arise from his argument uses the analogy of the potter and clay. He makes it very clear that the potter, given a lump of clay, may make a costly vase or a toilet. The decision is the potter's, not that of the clay.
The idea of God's hatred or not loving at all is not new with Paul. "All their wickedness is in Gilgal: for there I hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of mine house, I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters." Hosea 9:15. "The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD's throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men. The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth." Ps 11:4,5. "Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished." Prov 16:5. From these three passages it can be seen that God definately does not have any love for certain individuals. While it could be argued that these are people who rejected Him and so earned His wrath, this is not at all indicated anywhere in the Scriptures. Now, let's go back to Romans and observe some verses from the end of chapter eight. Here will see that God's love is effective. In other words, if He loves you, you will be saved, no if's and's or but's.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. Rom 8:28-30.
The key word here is "foreknow." It is used but a few other times in the New Testament. In Acts, chapter two it refers to God's forknowledge and determinate counsel in regard to Jesus sufferings and death. In Romans, chapter eleven, and 1 Peter 1:2 it refers to the same thing as it does here. The word does NOT mean to see the future. Many have interperted it to mean that God sees the future, sees who will choose Him and decides to choose them. This is scholarship of the poorest order.
All of the finest lexicons agree that this word, foreknowledge, or in the Greek, "prognosko," means to know ahead of time in the most special sense of the word "know". In Genesis, it is recorded that Ada knew Eve, and she bore a son. The word "know" has a very special meaning in both the Old and New Testaments. Here, to foreknow means literally, to love before all else, or to love before time.
Now, observe what happens here. Paul states that those who were foreknown were predestinated to be conformed to the image of Jesus. Then in the next verse, to continue his chain of relationship, he goes on to say that those same people who were predestined were called, and that the same group were justified, and the same, exact same, group were glorified. What is presented here is a picture of God's loving those whom He will eventually glorify before they, or time itself, existed. In fact, in the mind of God, they, the elect, are already glorified.
It is very clear from these texts that God does love many, and those whom He loves, He will save. What about the rest? They are loved not at all.
The instictive reaction of many is going to be "That can't be, God loves everyone," or "If that's what God is like, than I don't want to serve Him." Be very careful about your reactions. Remember that God is sovereign and He decides what is going to happen in His universe. His will is absolute. It is not arbitrary, nor capricious. He does everything for a determinate purpose, which it is His privilege alone to know. What right do we, as the created creatures, have to question our mighty creator.
First Corinthians 8:3 says that "But if any man love God, the same [that man] is known of Him [God]." Here we see the love direction reversed. If a man loves God, he is one of God's known, or His foreknown, or His elect. When a man comes to realize that he is one of God's loved, his only possible response is love and gratitude. If he does not respond that, I submit that he was not one of the loved in the first place.
Again, in Second Corinthians 13:11 Paul mentions the love of God, this time in the context of the experience of the Corinthian believers: "Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you." The God of "love and peace" will be with those who manifest the same qualities. We already know that only those in whom the Spirit dwells can do that, so again, we come back to the fact that God loves a select grouP- -His Chosen.
Since this is a new concept to many, it would be helpful if we examined a few more texts to help us pin this down and gain some perspective. In ephesians, Paul starts from chapter one verse three with a beautiful explanation of Divine Election. He makes it very easy to understand. In chapter two, he says this: "But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)" Eph 2:4,5. So, those who are quickened, or made alive, by Jesus were once dead, and still loved by God in their spiritual death. They were loved in death, and hence, they were made alive.
To emphasize the importance of love in the Christian life, Paul lists it first in the list of fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. He does the same basic thing when, in First Corinthians thirteen, he sandwiches lengthy comments about love between lengthy comments on the gifts of the Spirit. Indeed, love is critical in the Spirit-led life. In fact, in observing these texts closely, one can see that love can only be present in the Spirit-led life. Not only then, does God love a select group, but only that select group have the true ability to love in return.
"Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering;" Col 3:12. The elect of God are spoken of in such an offhand manner that it is assumed that they are the beloved. This casual manner is repeated again and again throughout the New Testament, showing that these concepts were so completely and thoroughly understood that they were hardly to be considered as subjects for investigation. This does not imply the sucjects of election and God's love were not important. To the contrary, they were so vitally important that they were well understood by nearly all Christians in the early church.
Speaking to the elect in Thessalonica, (1 Thess 1:4) Paul says, concerning their brotherly love, "But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another." 1 Thess 4:9. God teaches His elect how to love one another. That is how foreign love is to the carnal heart. The association with God will inveriably produce brotherly love. To make our basic point again: If God loves everyone, than everyone will eventually come to love one another and will be savable and thus, be saved. This is universalism and bare untruth. Sheer logic alone dictates that God save those whom He loves. The Bible is so very clear about the fact that many, many will not be saved that this universalist belief must be abondoned with no looking back.
While most Christians who believe in the universal love of God would not like the idea that it leads to the teaching that all are saved, that is what happens nevertheless.
John, in writing to the elect, speaks some beautiful words about the love of God. When we understand that these words are for God's special, loved, people; we can appreciate them ever the more. "But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him." 1 John 2:5. Those who are in God have their love perfected. We have already seen that that group are those who were loved before time and who were called to be God's own. These words are directed toward this group of those who are in the process of being perfected in love. In chapter three, verse one, the same thought is again expressed. "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not."
Like His other attributes, the love of God is a marvelous and wonderful thing. To think that, before time itself existed, God loved His chosen people and intended to show His grace on them is mind stretching at the least. If God's love is given to all, saved or lost, then He is trite. If His love is given to all so that all, no matter who they are, are saved, than His love is cheap. No, His love is a most precious commodity and should be held in the highest regard by those upon whom it is showered.