November 27, 2012

A Reply to R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur on the Love of God

I just saw the following video posted on Sam Shamoun's Facebook wall (the old video link is dead, but the following is the same):

My Response:

Contrary to what both Sproul and MacArthur say in this video, the problem is not with telling people that God loves them unconditionally. In fact, Sproul admits that God does love all men with a love of benevolence (and this sense of love is unconditional), or a love of good-will in the rest of what he says (even as he does in this article on God's "Abundant Love"). Just because an unregenerate audience may misunderstand the point, that doesn't make the proposition false that God loves all men unconditionally (as His creatures), or establish that we ought not to say so. For example, are we to avoid saying that Jesus was a man because some in the audience may think He was a mere man and not also a divine person? Of course not.

The problem is when preachers merely say that God loves all unconditionally without also telling them of God's wrath against sinners, and that they stand condemned. This is what Sproul and MacArthur should have said, instead of conveying the idea (in their overreaction) that it is bad or wrong to tell all sinners that He loves them unconditionally. It is however true that, as Sproul says, God only has a love of complacency or a filial love for believers, or the obedient, so that is a kind of conditional love that is not for all. This does not negate the other truth that God, in another sense, has an unconditional love for all.

All of the Reformers and Puritans taught that God loves all men with a love of benevolence. Some (e.g. John Davenant, an English delegate to the Synod of Dort) even say that it is "plain blasphemy" to deny it since it is so manifestly taught in scripture and seen in providence. What scripture plainly affirms is never wrong to teach, and Jesus plainly taught that the Father loves all men as His creatures, and thus shines His sun on them and gives them rain, etc. However, we want to teach the whole counsel of God as well so that we do not leave perishing sinners the wrong impression by that truth, with the result that they are not properly warned about God's anger against them as sinners.

Note the wisdom in the words of John Davenant:
The general love of God towards mankind is so clearly testified in Holy Scripture, and so demonstrated by the manifold effects of God’s goodness and mercy extended to every particular man in this world, that to doubt thereof were infidelity, and to deny it, plain blasphemy: yet for all this, if any man shall go about to magnify the common love of God extended promiscuously to all men, that thereby he obscured the special love and mercy of God prepared for all eternity, and bestowed in due time upon elect men, this may lead the ignorant and unlearned into a dangerous error: And therefore obliquely to oppose the eternal free and absolute decree of Predestination or Election under the color of disproving an absolute decree for any man’s Damnation, befits not any Divine who acknowledges the truth of that doctrine which the Scriptures have delivered, St. Augustine cleared, and the Church of England established in the xvii Article.
John Davenant, Animadversions Written By the Right Reverend Father in God, John, Lord Bishop of Sarisbury, upon a Treatise intitled “God’s love to Mankind,” (London: Printed for Iohn Partridge, 1641), 3.

Notice that Davenant does not think it is wrong to teach God's common love to people. On the contrary, he even says it is "plain blasphemy" to deny it. However, he warns against merely teaching that to the exclusion of God's special love for the elect.

Spurgeon was spot on when he said:
Preach earnestly the love of God in Christ Jesus, and magnify the abounding mercy of the Lord; but always preach it in connection with His justice. Do not extol the single attribute of love in the method too generally followed, but regard love in the high theological sense, in which, like a golden circle, it holds within itself all the divine attributes: for God were not love if He were not just, and did not hate every unholy thing. Never exalt one attribute at the expense of another. Let boundless mercy be seen in calm consistency with stern justice and unlimited sovereignty. The true character of God is fitted to awe, impress, and humble the sinner: be careful not to misrepresent your Lord.
C. H. Spurgeon, "On Conversion as Our Aim," in Second Series of Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1978), 184.

These are the kinds of cautious and qualified statements we need to hear by our leaders, not unqualified denials of God's love for everybody. God loves all men unconditionally in terms of His love of benevolence, but only the obedient with a love of complacency or delight. This is what the Reformed have taught in the past, and it accords with God's inspired word.

During the exchange, MacArthur said:
Preaching that God loves you unconditionally is the wrong message. The sinner needs to be terrified about his condition. He doesn't need to feel comfortable in the fact that he's turned out so well, as R. C. put it.
You cannot faithfully preach the gospel message to a lost soul without at least conveying to the sinner that God stands ready, willing and prepared to receive them through repentance and faith in the gospel call. That, among other things, inevitably conveys God's goodwill to that sinner, and thus God's unconditional love of benevolence to that sinner. It is most certainly not the "wrong message." Sure, to merely say that, or to merely convey that idea, is not sufficient. One must say more than that, but not less than that. The unregenerate sinner does need to be terrified about his condition, but he also needs to know that there is hope for him while he lives in this world, and that there is hope because God, in his unconditional benevolent love to that person, has made a way for him to be saved.

Evangelists in Jonathan Edwards' day, such as Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, would distinguish between different kinds of sinners in their audiences. Frelinghuysen developed the skill of dividing "a congregation into various states and conditions of soul and then made personal applications in preaching to each group" (Beeke and Pederson, Meet the Puritans [Grand Rapids: RHB, 2006], 761). For example, there is the drooping or despairing sinner who feels too filthy to be saved, and there is the self-confident or arrogant sinner who feels no need to be saved because he is not sufficiently convicted of his sinfulness. It is wise to stress different attributes of God to various kinds of lost people, but not to the exclusion of other attributes, as Spurgeon said above.

To the drooping sinner, it is wise to stress the great love and willingness of God to save him, even though he abides under God's wrath in his lost condition. To the self-confident sinner, it is wise to stress the holiness and wrath of God against sinners, and to show how far he has fallen from God's standard as set forth in the law, but not to the point of omitting the crucial truth of God's benevolent willingness to save that sinner. It's a matter of stressing one truth to a certain kind of person, but not omitting other crucial truths in the process. The cross of Christ simultaneously demonstrates both God's love and His wrath against sinners. We are to teach both at the same time as we call sinners to repentance and faith, but we may have to stress some attributes more than others, depending on the kind of person we are talking to. Preaching that God loves all people unconditionally is not the wrong message, but it may become the wrong message if other crucial, gospel truths are omitted. That, I think, is the wise thing to say.

Update on 3-7-16: See also my second and more thorough response to Sproul here (click).

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