Erroll Hulse wrote a wonderful book called The Great Invitation: Examining the Use of the Altar Call in Evangelism. In it, he discusses the question of whether it is ever appropriate to tell sinners indiscriminately that God loves them and wants them to repent and be reconciled to Him. It's a marvelously balanced approach to the whole question, from a Calvinist who is defending the doctrines of election, the sovereignty of God, and the inability of sinners to choose Christ unaided by God's grace. I commend it to you.Soon after he made this comment, I posted two Erroll Hulse quotes on my blog. Here is another quote from that same book:
When we look at the revealed purposes of God, there can be no doubt at all about this matter. God's grace is exercised towards all and is expressed by his offering the gospel to all. 'For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men' (Titus 2:11). In Romans 2:4 Paul makes it plain that the object or exercise of the riches of God's goodness applied over a long period of patience is that men might come to repentance. As we view this text we appreciate the obligation that the expressions of God's love bring to men and women. The text is rich in meaning: 'Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you towards repentance?'Erroll Hulse, The Great Invitation (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 1986), 71–73.
The preaching of the gospel throughout the world is possible because a time of probation has been provided. During this time God shows his love, goodness and sincerity, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Two passages are frequently quoted in support of God's desire that all men everywhere should repent. These are important.
The first is 1 Timothy 2:4: '. . . God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.' An examination of this statement within the context shows that its application to unbelievers in general is clear. It is a general statement referring to unbelievers of all kinds. We should note that it does declare God's determination to punish some sinners, such as the sons of Eli (1 Sam. 2:25).
The second passage is 2 Peter 3:9: 'The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.' Some insist that this text refers to believers, but that view can be challenged. Why should God's longsuffering be directed to his elect people who love and serve him? Surely, as we see in Romans 2:4, the word 'longsuffering' (makrothumia) is used with reference to the impenitent? In the days of Noah, God's longsuffering was directed specifically to the ungodly. He could legitimately have sent them all to a lost eternity, but he provided a time for repentance. Surely it can be argued that since it is repentance that is awaited, it is the unrepentant that are intended in the text.
It is gratifying to read G. C. Berkouwer on this theme. He urges that we should take these texts as 'presented to us in the dynamic and living context of the calling to repentance and to the knowledge of the truth'. God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). It is in the context of the universal call that these texts come.
We can call God's love for all people 'benevolent' love, a love which does good to its subjects. This is distinguished from 'complacent' love, which is that love which delights in its objects. The complacent love of God is promised by our Lord to those who keep his commandments (John 14:23, 24). It is the love expressed towards those who have been adopted as sons and daughters of God (1 John 3:2; Rom. 8:32). 'Benevolent' love is expressed towards those who are antagonistic, the unreconciled and the unrepentant. This love provides liberally so that the hearts of men and women are filled with joy (Rom. 2:4; Acts 14:17).
What are we to understand by the love described in John 3:16: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son'? Expressed here is the wonder of God's love. He so loved. Two features make this love to be unique. The first is that so great a gift should be given because of this love. The second is what makes the love and love's sacrifice astonishing. It is the world that God so loved. What is it about this world that makes this love so great? If it was a beautiful worthy object for which God gave his supreme sacrifice, then we would not be surprised, but it is the world, in its sin, rebellion and ugliness, that God loved and sacrificed to redeem.
It is a mistake to take the meaning of 'the world' here as something referring to largeness of numbers. The context is referring to unbelief and to condemnation because men love darkness rather than light. It is the sinfulness and wickedness of the world that we are to think of. In spite of this unrighteousness, God's love prevails. Although the character of God's holiness is in complete contrast to the evil of this fallen world, yet he so loved this world, in spite of its degradation, that he gave his Son for it.
Erroneous, too, is the notion that we can make the word 'world' in John 3:16 mean all God's elect. If that was the meaning, John possessed the vocabulary to say, 'For God so loved the elect that he gave . . .' This he does not do. Nor does John say, 'For God so loved ever single creature . . .' John 3:16 views the world not in terms of elect or non-elect, but as a sphere representing fallen mankind as a whole, estranged from God, far away from him, guilty and deserving just condemnation, wrath and punishment. This is a horrible world full of war, wretchedness and strife. Yet God's image is upon it. It is his handiwork and the sinners who inhabit it are made in his image. Despite its appalling character he so loves it that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.