Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Wrestling with God's love

I've been skimming over DA Carson's little book, "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God".

I've been reminded of what a fantastic little book this is. In fact I think it is one of my favourites. For a long time one thing has riled me: badges, stickers, posters, ministers and well meaning Christians who proclaim to all and sundry, "God loves you". I remember being at a wedding where the minister had done his best to set before the mostly unconverted guests, the claims of Christ over their lives. All was going well until he came to the end when he said, "If you only remember one thing from all I've said, remember this: God loves you." I hung my head.

My problem stems from the fact that the most important thing for them to hear is not that God loves them, but that God is angry with them. If we keep telling people that God loves them, then they see no need to worry about meeting God when they die.

Of course I understand that in some measure God does love them, and that he loves enough to send his Son to provide salvation for anyone who repents and believes. But to walk about proclaiming scriptural truths without a context or without due precision is dangerous.

Whenever I expressed such thoughts to other believers sometimes they were quite shocked, especially when I followed it up with the idea that God might actually hate the same people that they were assuring that God loved them. Could God really hate? Surely he only hates sin, but loves the sinner?

This brings me back to Carson. In his book he clarified a lot of these things for me.

He points out that the bible speaking of God loving in 5 different ways:
  • The love of God Father for God the Son, and the love of the Son for the Father
  • God's providential love over all he has made
  • God's salvific stance towards a fallen world
  • God's particular effective selecting love toward the elect
  • The love God has towards his own people is sometimes said to be conditional on their obedience
Carson goes on to say that we cannot emphasize anyone one of these to the neglect of the others, otherwise the doctrinal and pastoral implications will be disastrous.

Carson also has a great section on whether God hates the sinner or the sin:

"How, then, should the love of God and the wrath of God be understood to relate to each other? One evangelical cliché has it that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. There is a small element of truth in these words: God has nothing but hate for the sin, but it would he wrong to conclude that God has nothing but hate for the sinner.

A difference must be maintained between God's view of sin and his view of the sinner. Nevertheless the cliché (God hates the sin but loves the sinner) is false on the face of it and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty psalms alone, we are told that God hates the sinner, his wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible, the wrath of God rests both on the sin (Rom. 1: 18ff.) and on the sinner (John 3:36).

Our problem, in part, is that in human experience wrath and love normally abide in mutually exclusive compartments. Love drives wrath out, or wrath drives love out. We come closest to bringing them together, perhaps, in our responses to a, wayward act by one of our children, but normally we do not think that a wrathful person is loving.

But this is not the way it is with God. God's wrath is ... an entirely reasonable and willed response to offences against his holiness. But his love wells up amidst his perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved.

Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at the same time. God in his perfections must be wrathful against his rebel image-bearers, for they have offended him; God in his perfections must be loving toward his rebel image-bearers, for he is that kind of God. "

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