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The gospel and the love of God

May 2021 | by Stephen Rees

CREDIT Lynn Friedman
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I’ve been looking at ‘tracts’ – evangelistic leaflets for mass distribution. It’s not easy to find tracts that present the gospel clearly, attractively, and, most important of all, in a way that’s true to the Bible.

I’ve got one tract in front of me now. It’s better than many. It’s attractive in its design. It’s serious in its message and tone. The language is contemporary without being trendy or ‘cool’.

The tract begins by explaining the reality of sin – its origin, its awfulness, its consequences, and it goes on to make clear that there can be no salvation except through Christ and his death on the cross. Maybe this tract is what I’m looking for…

But then, I read this sentence: ‘Jesus loves you.’ And then, a little further down, ‘He loved you even before you were born into this world.’ And I think, no, no, no. I decided long ago that I would never use that language. I will never say to unconverted people, ‘Jesus loves you.’

Well, try this one then. Yes, I think this tract’s good too. Fresh, clear, good illustrations. But here it is again – ‘God loves you personally.’ And again I say no. I am not going to say that to unbelievers.

But why not? Isn’t it part of the gospel? We’ve got to tell people that God loves them, haven’t we? Isn’t that what the gospel’s all about?

Well, it’s certainly been a key element in the way many evangelical Christians have presented the gospel over the last 150 years. It’s not just tracts. I’ve been approached in the streets by earnest evangelists wearing ‘Jesus loves you’ t-shirts. I’ve seen posters outside church buildings telling the passers-by, ‘God loves you NOW.’ And I’ve sat through powerful evangelistic sermons centring on the declaration, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’

But my problem is this. I can’t find any New Testament writer or preacher using that language. Read through the gospels. Did the Lord Jesus ever say to the crowds, ‘God loves you’? Did he ever say it to any individual who had not yet come to faith? Did he ever say to anyone except his own disciples, ‘I love you’?

Read through Acts. There you’ve got the records of many sermons to the unconverted – to Jews, to Gentiles, to God-fearers. Did Peter or Paul ever preach to the crowds who gathered, ‘God loves you’? Such language is simply not there.

CREDIT Steve Rhodes
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John 3:16?

But God does love everybody doesn’t he? John three-sixteen! ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.’ Well, it’s a wonderful verse. But as many commentators have pointed out, it’s one thing to say that God loved that corporate whole which John calls the ‘world’. It’s another thing to say that he loved every individual.

If I read in a book that ‘the assassination of John F. Kennedy shocked the world’, I know that the writer isn’t claiming that every single human being was shocked by that event. Many people never heard or cared about what had happened there in Dallas. The writer is simply saying that the event shocked people of all sorts, all across the earth. Isn’t John using the word ‘world’ in exactly the same way? The verse cannot be used as a proof-text to prove that God loves every individual human being.

But there must be other verses that say it? Well, it’s very difficult to find them in the New Testament. There are scores of verses which talk about God loving believers, and saying that he loved them even before they came to faith. But when I’ve asked Christian friends which New Testament verses talk of God loving everyone, I’ve only ever heard two quoted.

The first is Matthew 5:43, where Jesus tells us to love our enemies, so that we may be sons of our Father in heaven – i.e. so that we may show a resemblance to him. Well, yes, that may imply that God, in some sense, loves people who are his enemies. But the verse doesn’t actually say it. Jesus could very easily have said, ‘your Father in heaven loves his enemies’, but he didn’t. He simply said, ‘He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.’

The second verse that friends have quoted is Mark 10:21 where we’re told that Jesus loved the rich young man who came to him and asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Well, that verse does tell me that Jesus loved (in some sense) that particular young man. But it certainly doesn’t assert that he loves every individual human being.

And even if these proof-texts established that God loves every individual (I don’t think they do), they still don’t show that it’s right to make ‘God loves you’ part of the message we preach to unbelievers.

What about the Old Testament?

But what about the Old Testament? Are there verses there that say that God loves everyone? Well, again, it’s very hard to find any. There are lots that talk about God loving his nation, Israel as a whole, and a few that talk about God loving particular individuals in Israel such as David or Solomon. But I’ve never found one that says that God loves every human being. In fact there are a number of verses which talk about God hating people. Here are two examples:

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‘You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not stand with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers’ (Psalm 5:5). ‘The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence’ (Psalm 11:15).

So, whether I’m standing in a pulpit preaching or I’m witnessing to an individual, I mustn’t say, ‘God loves everyone.’ Because the Bible never says that. And much less should I say to unbelievers, ‘God loves you personally.’ Because no Bible writer or preacher ever said it.

Inviting misunderstanding

Why is telling unbelievers that God loves them such a dangerous thing to do? Answer: because they are always likely to misunderstand what we mean. And they’re likely to do so in two ways.

Firstly, they are likely to take it as an affirmation of how deserving they are. Think about the English word ‘love’. It’s a word with a great breadth of meaning. But in nearly every context, if we say that a person loves someone (or something), we mean that person approves of that someone or something. ‘I love you’ means ‘I find something attractive, or desirable, or praiseworthy about you’.

I’m looking at a magazine. I say to my wife, ‘I love that picture.’ I’m telling her that the picture is grand, delightful, pleasure-giving. A lad proposes to a girl. He says, ‘I love you.’ He’s communicating the fact that he thinks she’s wonderful.

If we say to an unbeliever, ‘God loves you’, that is what many of them will think we’re saying. It assures them that God approves of them just as they are – that God feels pleasure as he looks at them.

But the fact is that God takes no pleasure in unbelievers in their unrepentant, unbelieving state. Read again the verses I quoted above about God’s hatred for sinners. He looks at human beings in their pride, selfishness, lust, greed, and he reacts with horror.

Read the string of verses that Paul quotes in Romans 3:12-16: ‘All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known…’ That is God’s view of human beings as they are by nature.

Think about the language the Bible uses about the very best qualities and deeds that unconverted people show: ‘We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.’That’s the ESV translation. The AV is more graphic: ‘…our righteousnesses are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). How would you react if you were asked to dress yourself in filthy rags? That may give you an idea of God’s reaction to fallen human beings. He finds them disgusting.

If we tell unbelievers that God loves them, what they hear is that God doesn’t really care that much about their sins. A mother exclaims, ‘Oh, I love you, you’re so beautiful!’ as she looks down on the baby in her arms. They’ll imagine that God’s view of them is much the same. And they’ll never understand the miracle of grace: the fact that God shows mercy to creatures whom he finds morally repulsive.

And then there’s a second way that unbelievers misunderstand the meaning of ‘love’. Many of them believe that love forbids anger or punishment.

A child is misbehaving. I say to his mum, ‘I think you need to teach him a lesson.’ She looks at me in horror.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, why not just send him to bed? Or cancel some treat he’s expecting.’

‘I couldn’t do that! He’d be so upset. I love him. I could never bear to see him cry!’

That’s the thinking that’s permeated much of our society. If you love someone you will never hurt them, regardless of what they’ve done. If you tell folk today that God loves them, then they’re left baffled when you try to talk about his wrath and his determination to punish sin. Love and punishment, for many today, are simply incompatible.

So what can we say?

So what are we to say to our unconverted friends? Have we no good news for them? When we have spoken of God’s revulsion against sinful human beings, his wrath that hangs over them, must we stop there? Is that our whole message – that God hates them and is disgusted by them? No, far from it. The Bible has much more to say about God’s attitude to sinful human beings. Let me list four great truths.

(1) God cares for sinful human beings. He is kind to them and indeed to all creation. Here are Paul’s words to the heathen people of Lystra: ‘He did not leave himself without witness, for he did good, by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness…’ (Acts 14:17).

God is constantly providing good things for unbelievers! Every meal that they eat is a token of his generosity towards them. And the reason he provides for them is that he genuinely cares about them and, indeed, all his creatures: ‘The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made… You open your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing. The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works…’ (Psalms 145:9,17).

(2) God pities sinful human beings. He is angry with them – that is true. He sees them as defiled and disgusting – that too is true. And yet he feels pity for them. The book of Jonah sets out that extraordinary fact so powerfully. In the opening verses of the book, the Lord declares that the sins of Nineveh have ‘come up before me’. They are offensive to him. And yet in the closing verses of the book he asks Jonah, ‘Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’ (Jonah 1:2; 4:11).

I remember talking with a prisoner serving a long sentence in a high security prison for a series of appalling crimes against children. I had sat in court listening to the recital of his crimes and been sickened by this man and what he had done. And yet, looking into his face I felt a deep pity for this ruined human being who would never leave that prison. And I knew that the pity I felt was just the faintest echo of the pity God feels for every guilty human being.

(3) God genuinely longs for sinful human beings to repent, to be forgiven, to be made whole.

He spoke through Ezekiel: ‘Say to them, “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”’ (Ezekiel 33:11).

He spoke too through the Lord Jesus himself. Think of Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son – or rather, of the two sons (Luke 15:11-32). Both sons were in rebellion against their father, one openly, one secretly in his heart. All the time the younger son was away, the father longed for him to return. And when the father saw his son ‘still a long way off’ he ‘felt compassion and ran and embraced him’ (vs 20). That’s how much the father desired his younger son’s return. But he desired his older son’s restoration just as much. When his son refused to come into the welcome-home party, the father came out and entreated him (v. 28).

That was Jesus’s picture of God’s attitude towards sinful human beings. He longs to see them come home from the far country. He longs to see them come out of the darkness and into the celebration. He is willing to run down the road to welcome them home. He is ready to entreat – beg – them to leave off their rebellion and to come back to him.

(4) God offers sinful human beings unimaginable privileges, joys, delights, eternal life in his own kingdom. The first task of every gospel preacher is to offer pardon and peace to rebellious human beings and to urge them to accept the offer. ‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5:20). But then we go on to tell them all the joys that will be theirs if they are reconciled to God.

The Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price…

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food…

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD; that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon… For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands…’ (Isaiah 55:6-12).

The Lord Jesus declared through the same prophet that he had been anointed with the Holy Spirit to ‘bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour… to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit…’ (Isaiah 61:1-3).

Good news for the world

We have so much good news to pass on to our unbelieving friends, neighbours, colleagues, family members. ‘God cares about you. God pities you. God longs for you to come home to him. God is offering you unimaginable blessings through his Son Jesus Christ.’ Yes, I could even say, ‘God loves you’ – if I explain that those are the things we mean by the word. If I talk about God’s love I must be sure that they understand what I do mean and what I don’t mean.

The real gospel isn’t cosy. It isn’t comfortable. But it is utterly wonderful. It’s about the grace of God – not to lovable people, but to horrible people, people whom he finds utterly offensive. It’s about the great Physician who invites the very sickest to put themselves into his hands – with all their running sores, their stinking wounds, their gangrenous flesh. It’s about the God who saves sinners and makes them his sons and heirs.

That’s the tract I want to put through people’s doors and into their hands – a tract that will give them a glimpse of that God and of his grace. That’s the message I want to preach to men, women, and children everywhere.

Unless otherwise stated all Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.