November 24, 2009

Bob Sheehan on God's Love to the Non-Elect in Reformation Today

Increasingly, there is a tendency among a vocal minority within the Reformed tradition, not only to emphasise the distinguishing and electing love of God, but also to speak of the non-elect in such a disparaging way that the impression that they give is that God loves his elect and despises the rest!
Bob Sheehan, "God's Love to the Non-Elect," Reformation Today 145 (May/June 1995): 13. This was originally a paper given at the Carey Ministers' Conference in 1995.

[Note: Given what Sheehan says below, he clearly means to refute the idea that God merely despises the rest, and has no love, kindness or benevolence for them, etc.]

It is sometimes gratuitously assumed by those who loudly declare God's hatred of the non-elect that priority and judicial hatred exclude all possibility of the non-elect knowing anything of the love of God in any way. This is a serious mistake.
Ibid., 14.

When God hates the non-elect with the hatred of priority, before he brings them to their full experience of judicial hatred in eternity, we must not assume that such hatred means that he ceases to care for them, show them benevolence, kindness, affection and love. There is a hatred that is not malevolent and devoid of kindness. Even when the judge has sentenced the prisoner to death, and that sentence is inevitable, he does not have to order the prisoner to be maltreated while he awaits execution in order to show how opposed he is to his crimes! Some brethren seem to think he does! Holy hatred will result in hell, but hell is not on earth.
Ibid., 15.

In Reformed circles there are an increasing number of 'Jonahs'. They are quite happy as long as they are saved and provided for by God and sit contented waiting for wrath on the people whom God has not chosen to be his own. To such, God shows himself to be of a quite different character. God had concern for the 120,000 small children of Nineveh and the cattle as well (Jonah 4:11). God is concerned for the welfare of cattle and children among those who are not his chosen race.
Ibid., 15.

Our Lord exhorted his disciples to love their enemies and do them good, not only because their reward would be great but also because by so doing they would be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the unthankful and evil (Luke 6:35). We are to love our enemies because God loves his. His mercy is the pattern for ours.

We may not pretend that the unthankful and evil are the elect before conversion. That would be special pleading: eisegesis not exegesis. The parallel passage shows that our Lord is speaking of common blessings such as the sun and the rain which both the good and evil, the elect and non-elect, experience.

Nor may we try to slide away from the verb 'love' and call it benevolence or general mercy, general kindness or common grace. We are called to love (agapate) and in so doing be sons of the Most High. There is no ambiguity here, except for those who want to create it.

We can say even to the enemies of God while they remain in the world, 'You are God's offspring, his creation, and he is kind to you. He does you good. He shows you kindness. He loves you. His creatorial care and providential provision proclaim this.' God does not despise the non-elect! He shows them love and kindness.
Ibid., 16.  

[Note: Again, Sheehan probably means to say that God does not merely despise the non-elect. He does hate them in one sense, but he also loves them in another sense, as Sheehan observes from scripture.]

As Jesus preached and healed all sorts of people, some who would believe and some who would not, the elect and the non-elect, he had compassion towards them because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). He did not look at the crowd with a distinguishing squint, with compassion on the elect but not on the non-elect! He had compassion on the crowd universally and promiscuously. This compassion to all, which so marked his words, was regular feature of his ministry (cf Matthew 14:14).

We may not pretend that the word compassion means something other than a manifestation of love. Loveless compassion is a repulsive concept, a contradiction in terms, nothing other than cold comfort. There is nothing so repugnant as charity shown without feeling for those who are helped. It is the worst sort of Dickensian hypocrisy and totally inapplicable to the compassion of the incarnate God. Christ had compassion on sinners, and so should we!
Ibid., 17.

When our Lord met the rich, young ruler, a self-righteous prig if there ever was one, it is said that our Lord loved him (egapesen: Mark 10:21). Of course, he did not love him for his sin but he loved him when he was yet under its power.

Some, alarmed that God's Son should be said to love such a man, allow their theory to colour the story. They assure us that as Christ loved him he must have eventually been saved, that he must have been one of the elect. Although he went away sad, he must, after he had turned the corner have had second thoughts and returned to be saved! How strange that the Holy Spirit caused all three Gospel writers to omit this from the account! There is more than a suspicion of special pleading here. The fact is that Christ loved him, sinner though he was, because Christ is the friend of sinners.
Ibid., 17.  

[Note: Sheehan is refuting Arthur Pink's interpretation of the passage here.]

Some brethren would like to blot Matthew 23:37 out of their Bibles. It is an embarrassment to their neat, systematic approach to God's work in salvation. We may not, however, blot out what is recorded by inspiration of God and what displays so much of the compassionate heart of the incarnate God. Nor may we explain it away so as to evacuate it of any real significance.

The Son of God, towards the end of his ministry, reflected with deep sadness over his unfulfilled longing. He had often longed to gather the Jews under his saving protection, but they would have none of it. Their determination to die grieved him deeply. He took no pleasure in the death of these sinners. He yearned that their attitude might have been different.

Analogies at this point are extremely difficult. All the works of God are unique because he is unique. There is always mystery when we relate to decretive will of God (What he has planned) to the preceptive will (what he has revealed as pleasing to him for us to do). This far we may go. His rejection by the Jews was neither a matter of indifference nor of pleasure to him. Their stubborn sinfulness caused him great grief. God never enjoys human unbelief. For wise reasons in himself he may choose not to over-ride it and compel them to come in, but that unbelief is not only an affront to his holiness but a grief to his heart.
Ibid., 19.

Is not the term 'hard Calvinist' so often an accurate description? It is utterly inappropriate for us to despise those who are under the priority and judicial hatred of God.
Ibid., 20.

Our understanding of God's attitude to the non-elect as they live upon this earth is not a merely academic matter. It will radically affect our preaching of the gospel and our approach to unregenerate people. We need to be sons of the Most High and followers of the Master in this matter. Are we?
 Ibid., 20.

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