[This article is take from John MacArthurs book "The God Who Loves." Calvinists differ amongst themselves as to the extent of God’s Love. John MacArthur is a Calvinist, but he does not take the extreme view of some Calvinists who teach that God hates those He has not chosen for salvation. I may disagree with MacArthur on his interpretation of ‘degrees of love’, but he does a good job of showing how John 3:16 should be interpreted… and not misinterpreted by those Calvinists that twist Scripture to make it agree with their theology – Matthew]
by John MacArthur
"On the other hand, some well-meaning Christians concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy are so cautious about overemphasizing God’s love that they fear to speak of it at all. Our culture, after all, is “in love” with sin and self-love, and utterly dull to the wrath of God against sin. Isn’t it counterproductive to preach the love of God in the midst of such an ungodly society? Some who reason thus tend to see every bad thing that happens as if it were a direct judgment from the hand of a severe Deity."
John MacArthur, F., Jr, The God Who Loves. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003, c1996), xiv.
Does God Love the Whole World?
Nevertheless, while acknowledging that some people are prone to abuse the notion of God’s love, we cannot respond by minimizing what Scripture says about the extent of God’s love. John 3:16 is a rich and crucial verse. In chapter 1, I noted that some Christians actually deny that God truly loves the whole world. I referred to Arthur Pink’s famous attempt to argue that “world” in John 3:16 refers to “the world of believers” rather than “the world of the ungodly.” 1 I pointed out that this notion seems to have gained popularity in recent years.
Perhaps it’s worth revisiting this subject for a closer look. As I said, I am encountering more and more Christians who want to argue that the only correct interpretation of John 3:16 is one that actually limits God’s love to the elect and eliminates any notion of divine love for mankind in general.
A friend of mine recently gave me seven or eight articles that have circulated in recent months on the Internet. All of them were written and posted in various computer forums by Christians. And all of them deny that God loves everyone. It is frankly surprising how pervasive this idea has become among evangelicals. Here are some excerpts taken from these articles:
- The popular idea that God loves everyone is simply not to be found in the Scripture.
- God does love many, and those whom He loves, He will save. What about the rest? They are loved not at all.
- Sheer logic alone dictates that God would save those whom He loves.
- If God loved everyone, everyone would be saved. It is as simple as that. Clearly, not everyone is saved. Therefore, God does not love everyone.
- Scripture tells us that the wicked are an abomination to God. God Himself speaks of hating Esau. How can anyone who believes all of Scripture claim that God loves everyone?
- God loves His chosen ones, but His attitude toward the non-elect is pure hatred.
- The concept that God loves all humanity is contrary to Scripture. God clearly does not love everyone.
- All who are not keeping the Ten Commandments of God can be certain that God does not love them.
- Not only does God not love everyone, there are multitudes of people whom He utterly loathes with an infinite hatred. Both Scripture and consistent logic force us to this conclusion.
But neither Scripture nor sound logic will support such bold assertions.
I want to state as clearly as possible that I am in no way opposed to logic. I realize there are those who demean logic as if it were somehow contrary to spiritual truth. I do not agree; in fact, to abandon logic is to become irrational, and true Christianity is not irrational. The only way we can understand any spiritual matter is by applying careful logic to the truth that is revealed in God’s Word. Sometimes logical deductions are necessary to yield the full truth on matters Scripture does not spell out explicitly. (The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is implicit in Scripture but is never stated explicitly. It is a truth that is deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence—and therefore it is as surely true as if it were stated explicitly and unambiguously.) 2 There is certainly nothing whatsoever wrong with sound logic grounded in the truth of Scripture; in fact, logic is essential to understanding.
But surely we ought to be wary lest “sheer logic alone” lead us to a conclusion that runs counter to the whole thrust and tenor of Scripture. Applying logic to an incomplete set of propositions about God has often yielded the bitter fruit of false doctrine. We must constantly check our logical conclusions against the more sure word of Scripture. In this case, the notion that God’s love is reserved for the elect alone does not survive the light of Scripture.
As we have seen throughout this study, Scripture clearly says that God is love. “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9). Christ even commands us to love our enemies, and the reason He gives is this: “In order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). The clear implication is that in some sense God loves His enemies. He loves both “the evil and the good,” both “the righteous and the unrighteous” in precisely the same sense we are commanded to love our enemies.
In fact, the second greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31; cf. Lev. 19:18) is a commandment for us to love everyone. We can be certain the scope of this commandment is universal, because Luke 10 records that a lawyer, “wishing to justify himself … said to Jesus, ’And who is my neighbor?’” (Lk. 10:29)—and Jesus answered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The point? Even Samaritans, a semi-pagan race who had utterly corrupted Jewish worship and whom the Jews generally detested as enemies of God, were neighbors whom they were commanded to love. In other words, the command to love one’s “neighbor” applies to everyone. This love commanded here is clearly a universal, indiscriminate love.
Consider this: Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law in every respect (Matt. 5:17–18), including this command for universal love. His love for others was surely as far-reaching as His own application of the commandment in Luke 10. Therefore, we can be certain that He loved everyone. He must have loved everyone in order to fulfill the Law. After all, the apostle Paul wrote, “The whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ’You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). He reiterates this theme in Romans 13:8: “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Therefore, Jesus must have loved His “neighbor.” And since He Himself defined “neighbor” in universal terms, we know that His love while on earth was universal.
Do we imagine that Jesus as perfect man loves those whom Jesus as God does not love? Would God command us to love in a way that He does not? Would God demand that our love be more far-reaching than His own? And did Christ, having loved all humanity during His earthly sojourn, then revert after His ascension to pure hatred for the non-elect? Such would be unthinkable; “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (Heb 13:8).
Look once again at the context of John 3:16. Those who approach this passage determined to suggest that it limits God’s love miss the entire point. There is no delimiting language anywhere in the context. It has nothing to do with how God’s love is distributed between the elect and the rest of the world. It is a statement about God’s demeanor toward mankind in general. It is a declaration of good news, and its point is to say that Christ came into the world on a mission of salvation, not a mission of condemnation: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (v. 17). To turn it around and make it an expression of divine hatred against those whom God does not intervene to save is to turn the passage on its head.
John Brown, the Scottish Reformed theologian known for his marvelous studies on the sayings of Christ, wrote,
The love in which the economy of salvation originates, is love to the world. “God so loved the world, as to give His only begotten Son.” The term “world,” is here just equivalent to mankind. It seems to be used by our Lord with a reference to the very limited and exclusive views of the Jews.…
Some have supposed that the word “world” here, is descriptive, not of mankind generally, but of the whole of a particular class, that portion of mankind who, according to the Divine purpose of mercy, shall ultimately become partakers of the salvation of Christ. But this is to give the term a meaning altogether unwarranted by the usage of Scripture. 3
B. B. Warfield takes a similar position:
Certainly here “the world” and “believers” do not seem to be quite equipollent terms: there seems, surely, something conveyed by the one which is not wholly taken up by the other. How, then, shall we say that “the world” means just “the world of believers,” just those scattered through the world, who, being the elect of God, shall believe in His Son and so have eternal life? There is obviously much truth in this idea: and the main difficulty which it faces may, no doubt, be avoided by saying that what is taught is that God’s love of the world is shown by His saving so great a multitude as He does save out of the world. The wicked world deserved at His hands only total destruction. But He saves out of it a multitude which no man can number, out of every nation, and of all tribes, and peoples and tongues. How much must, then God love the world! This interpretation, beyond question, reproduces the fundamental meaning of the text. 4
Warfield goes on to make the crucial point that our primary concern as we interpret the word “world” in John 3:16 should not be to limit the extent of God’s love, as much as to magnify the rich wonder of it:
The key to the passage lies … you see, in the significance of the term “world.” It is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when He gave His Son for it. 5
In fact, as we noted in an earlier chapter, if the word “world” holds the same meaning throughout the immediate context, we see in verse 19 that it cannot refer to the “world of the elect” alone: “this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” About this, Robert L. Dabney wrote,
A fair logical connection between verse 17 and verse 18 shows that “the world” of verse 17 is inclusive of “him that believeth” and “him that believeth not” of verse 18.… It is hard to see how, if [Christ’s coming into the world] is in no sense a true manifestation of divine benevolence to that part of “the world” which “believeth not,” their choosing to slight it is the just ground of a deeper condemnation, as is expressly stated in verse 19. 6
So John 3:16 demands to be interpreted as speaking of God’s love to sinful mankind in general. Calvin’s interpretation is worth summarizing again here. You’ll recall that he saw two main points in John 3:16: “Namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish” 7
Now take a fresh look at John 3:16 and try to absorb the real sense of it: “God so loved the world,” wicked though it was, and despite the fact that nothing in the world was worthy of His love. He nevertheless loved the world of humanity so much “that He gave His only begotten Son,” the dearest sacrifice He could make, so “that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The end result of God’s love is therefore the gospel message—the free offer of life and mercy to anyone who believes. In other words, the gospel—an indiscriminate offer of divine mercy to everyone without exception—manifests God’s compassionate love and unfeigned lovingkindness to all humanity.
And unless we mean to ascribe unrighteousness to God, we must affirm that the offer of mercy in the gospel is sincere and well-meant. Surely His pleas for the wicked to turn from their evil ways and live must in some sense reflect a sincere desire on God’s part. As we shall see, however, there are some who deny that this is the case.
1 Arthur W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1930), 314.
2 This is the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith with regard to the sufficiency of Scripture: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (1:6, emphasis added).
3 John Brown, Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990 reprint), 1:34.
4 B. B. Warfield, The Saviour of the World (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991 reprint), 114.
5 Ibid., 120–21.
6 R. L. Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982 reprint), 1:312.
7 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, William Pringle, trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 reprint), 123.
John MacArthur, F., Jr, The God Who Loves. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003, c1996), 100.
© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.