Can we tell everyone, 'God loves you'?
According to The Marrow of Modern Divinity the Christian evangelist can say to every man, ‘I have good news for you.’ Does this include the news, ‘God loves you’?
Many, thinking immediately of the doctrine of predestination, will think the Marrow goes too far. How can we tell everyone that God loves them when we know that he has not predestinated everyone to salvation?
But take, for example, the language of Jesus in Matthew 5.43-48. He is pressing on his disciples the duty of loving their enemies: an ethic which stands in stark contrast to the maxim of the Pharisees, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ What is fascinating, however, is the way that Jesus appeals here to the example of God the Father, who shows that he loves even his enemies by causing his sun to shine and his rain to fall on the evil and unrighteous equally with the good.
Behind this specific example lies the wonder of what Calvin called ‘general grace’, according to which divine blessing falls indiscriminately on believers and unbelievers; on the elect and on the reprobate.
In the express terms of the Bible these blessings include rain, sunshine and fruitful seasons, but they cannot be limited to these. The blessing which God pronounced on the human race at its creation has never been revoked and, in line with this, good and perfect gifts continue to rain down upon us from the Father above (James 1.16). The skill of the craftsman, the wisdom of the statesman, the acuteness of the philosopher and the imagination of the scientist are all divine gifts; and so, too, are health of mind and body and, above all, the blessings of love and friendship.
But, divine gifts though they are, none of them is limited to the household of faith. On the contrary, God lavishes them on his enemies: on an Aristotle as well as on a Calvin. Nor can we dare trace them to anything but his love, or argue that they are mere spin-offs from God’s love for the elect. Jesus’ command that we love our enemies is based precisely on the fact that God specifically loves even those who are ungrateful and evil (Lk. 6.35). Only by imitating such love can we show the family likeness between ourselves and our Father in heaven (Lk. 6.35).
We have to remember, too, that God has a bond with the human race, and with every individual of that race, that he has with no other species. We are made in his image, and though that image has been sadly disfigured by the Fall, it has not been obliterated. The Psalmist still speaks with wonder of God’s mindfulness of man; and not of man as redeemed or as elect or as believing, but of man simply as man (Ps. 8.4). Every member of the human species is but a little lower than the angels (literally, ‘a little lower than God, Elohim), and as such is crowned with glory and honour (Ps. 8.5). It is because of this that God has invested the life (and the reputation) of every human being with a special, protected sacredness simply she is made in the image of God (Gen. 9.6, James 3.9).
Linked to this is a further fact: the welcome every prodigal is assured of when he returns home. Jesus draws a vivid picture of the ‘waiting Father’, looking out every day for his errant son until, one day, he sees him, a faint figure in the distance, walking hesitantly home. Does the Father hesitate for fear that the prodigal will treat his love too lightly? Not for a moment! He rushes off to welcome him and commands an instant heavenly celebration (Lk. 15.20-24).
Conversely, judgement is God’s ‘strange’ work (Is. 28.21); or, as the old theologians put it, not his ‘proper’ work, but somehow ‘alien’ to him. He will execute it when it is deserved, but it gives him no pleasure (Ezek. 18.23). Indeed, Jesus’ tears over an impenitent Jerusalem, too proud to accept the offer of shelter under his wings (Mt. 23.37), must surely reflect something deep in the heart of the Father. Are the Son and the Father one in tears? God certainly pitied Nineveh, and sternly rebuked the prophet who was disappointed that that great city had not received the punishment he thought it deserved.
But there remains the greatest word of all. We can say to every man , ‘God loves you so much that he has provided a Saviour exactly suited to your needs; and not only has he provided him, but he offers him to you, just as you are, and categorically promises you personally that if you believe in him you will never perish but will have everlasting life.’
This means, first of all, that God loves us so much that he has foregone his right to demand that we make personal atonement for our sins. Instead, he has arranged for a Mediator: a go-between who will act for us and take our place; and not just any mediator, but his own Son, Jesus Christ, who not only speaks up for us, but takes responsibility for our sins, and atones for them by his own obedience and death. Christ has made peace through the blood of his cross (Col. 1.20), and now God holds out to us the hand of reconciliation.
But it also means that God loves us so much that he has provided a Saviour who has taken the sinner’s very nature, shared our trials and temptations, and perfectly understands our weaknesses, our fears, and our darkest moments; and in and with this Saviour he offers every sinner a perfect salvation. It is not just an offer he offers us, or the offer of a mere helping hand as we set out tentatively on a journey we have no guarantee of completing. What is placed within our grasp is salvation itself, full, rich and free: pardon, sanctification, perseverance and glorification, forming a golden chain of which none of the links can be broken.
These are the things Christ obtained for the human race on the cross, and in the gospel he promises that from the moment we entrust ourselves to him no one will ever be able to snatch us out of his hand (Jn. 10.28). What we get in him is eternal life, secure, abundant and endless: ‘whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11.26).
But further still: we can say to every human being, ‘God loves you so much that he attaches no conditions to his offer of a Saviour.’ He simply says, ‘Come!’ and to everyone who comes he promises the life that will never end.
Many find this incredible. Surely, they think, some terms and conditions must apply, like, for example, being full of remorse for our sins, or being genuine seekers, or being really driven by spiritual hunger and thirst. ‘I can’t come to Christ right now, just as I am,’ they say. ‘I’m not ready! I must prepare before I dare go to Jesus. I must sort myself out first.’
But no! If I’m an angel – a real, genuine, fallen angel – I have no right to go to Christ because he is not the angels’ Saviour. But if I am a human being I have a categorical right to him. If I am a sinner living on this planet I am within his catchment-area, with all the residential qualifications I need in order to register as one of his patients. Repentance and holiness are part of the cure, not a condition of being taken on by the Great Physician.
And one thing more: We can say to every member of the human race, ‘God loves you so much that he pleads with you to take his Son as your Saviour.’ This is the background to the language of 2 Corinthians 5.18-21, where St. Paul, fully conscious of his position as an ambassador for the Kingdom of Heaven, pleads with us to be reconciled to God.
Here, surely, is the model model for the Christian preacher, and it is exemplified brilliantly in a sermon preached by Spurgeon in the Surrey Gardens Music Hall on 5th December, 1858 (see The New Park Street Pulpit, Vol. 5, pp. 18-24). The text is Luke 14.23, ‘Compel them to come in’ and, undaunted by the knowledge that the sermon would bring down on his head the imprecations of London’s many hyper-Calvinists, he proceeds, with an overwhelming sense of urgency, and without preamble or introduction, to address those who are ‘strangers to the truth as it is in Jesus’. He commands them to repent and believe. He exhorts. He entreats. He threatens. He weeps for them; and finally, he makes a public appeal to the Holy Spirit to keep his promise and bless his word.
In every contact we have with the gospel, God is standing at the door of our hearts, knocking: not helpless, or locked out, but urgent, earnest and imperious; and utterly sincere. He has no greater joy than that those he has made in his image return to the Father in heaven.
When Calvin gave his famous ‘full definition’ of faith, he wrote as follows: ‘it is a full and firm and sure knowledge of the divine favour toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ’ (Institutes, III.II, 7). The great thing here what it says about the connection between God’s love and our faith. God doesn’t love us because we believe. His love goes before our faith. It is what we believe in. It is incarnate for us in Christ, and offered to us in the gospel, and what faith does is to receive it, just as it receivesthe reconciliation (Romans 5.11): a reconciliation which is a reality long before we believe, and even before we are born. It’s not accomplished by our faith. It was accomplished on the cross.
But in the very moment we tell human beings of God’s love, and offer them a perfect salvation in Christ, we have also to stress that it is but an offer. It is not enough to hear the offer, or to have it earnestly pressed upon us, or even to have our hearts strangely warmed by it. We have to accept it; or, better, we have to accept him, Christ our only Saviour. And that means that we have to make a choice, just as we have to make a choice when God commands us to love our neighbour, or to love our enemy. In neither the one case nor the other do we have the right to wait for God to move us before deciding to act. He commands us to act now.
Love comes knocking at the door: ‘if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.’ (Revelation 3.20).