March 6, 2016

A Second Critique of R. C. Sproul on the Love of God

It seems that the older Sproul gets, the more inclined he is to make injudicious statements, as if he is being bold in saying these things. His mentor, John Gestner, certainly had that problem. Mark Jones, in his friendly review of the recent Ligonier statement on Christology (and other posts here, here, and here), has seen some poor judgement in that area, but my focus here is on a recent, unwise statement by Sproul on God’s unconditional love.

At the 2016 National Ligonier Conference, Sproul addressed the topic of “The Transforming Power of the Gospel.” He talked briefly about what the gospel is not, in order to present what he thinks the gospel is. He first mentioned that the gospel is not “your personal testimony,” and then elaborated. He then stated the following (see minute 34:33–34:42):
And to say that God loves all people unconditionally is not the gospel; it’s not even true.
This is the statement I want to critique. It is not the only time Sproul has made such uncareful statements in my view (see my recently updated first criticism here). Not only does Sproul seem to be somewhat confused on the free offer of the gospel (see here), but he also seems to be confused on God’s so-called “unconditional love.” Consider his statement above. It has two claims in it:

1) “God loves all people unconditionally is not the gospel.”
2) “God loves all people unconditionally” is “not even true.”

The second claim is the main assertion that I want to critique, but let’s consider the first one as well in passing.

1) First, he said, “God loves all people unconditionally is not the gospel.” 

Has anyone, at any time, ever claimed that “God loves all people unconditionally is the gospel”? No. Of course not. No one has ever made that manifestly absurd claim. It’s a straw man and overreaction to what is actually being said or done by certain people. What we see in popular evangelistic meetings are preachers telling everyone present that God loves them unconditionally, in the context of also presenting the facts about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (i.e. the gospel), with little or no mention that the unbelievers are abiding under God’s wrath (or hatred of abomination). The listeners, therefore, do not adequately feel that they are in any danger of perishing. It is usually not so much what is said that is the problem, but what is not said. There is an overemphasis on the love of God to the extent that other vitally important gospel-truths are omitted, such as the holiness of God, which Sproul has been so rightly zealous to underline in his teaching.

It is not that these people are claiming that “God loves you unconditionally is the gospel;” rather, the problem is that they are saying that while neglecting to also mention other important biblical truths about God’s nature, which shine forth in the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ not only lets everyone know that God loves them personally as His creatures (which we will explain later), it simultaneously lets them know how much God is passionately disgusted with them as sinners, or as His enemies. Unbelievers are presently recipients of benevolent love, but they are also under a curse. In effect, the Father, through Christ on the cross, says, “Yes, I love you benevolently, and therefore desire your eternal salvation according to my revealed will through your repentance and faith in my crucified Son; but I am also so disgusted with sin and sinners that this sort of violent sacrifice is necessary in order that you might escape my coming wrath. Unless you repent, and receive my Son as He is graciously offered in the gospel, you shall yourself suffer the excruciating and eternal punishment necessary for your sin.”

It is this latter teaching about God’s holy hatred for sin and sinners that is regularly omitted in evangelistic encounters. That’s the problem. No one is actually saying that “God loves all people unconditionally is the gospel.” The reason that theological balance is lacking today is because so few actually know about the complexity involved in the biblical teaching regarding the love of God (hence the need for D. A Carson’s book on “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God”), and so they therefore don’t have a good understanding about the complex teaching of the hatred of God either. The two doctrines (i.e. God’s holy love and holy hatred) are interrelated. Faithful expositions on the meaning of the cross of Christ in evangelistic encounters must therefore present both doctrines, though the emphasis may vary in certain contexts (as I mention in the bottom portion of my first critique). I think this is Sproul’s underlying concern as well, but he is not articulating it carefully. That’s his problem, as evidenced in the first claim.

2) Let’s consider his second claim: “God loves all people not even true.”

There are different senses of the love of God according to the bible and historic Christian teaching. The early church fathers, the medieval schoolmen, the early Reformers, and especially the post-Reformation Reformed theologians all distinguished between God’s love of complacency and His love of benevolence, for example.

A) God’s Love of Complacency (from the Latin complacere, ‘to please’)

Typically, God’s love of complacency is presented as God’s love for all good things and beings (i.e. the righteous or saints). It is that pleasure or delight that God has for all that is good or virtuous. Inter-Trinitarian love is that highest delight and pleasure that each of the persons has for the others as perfect and holy. As Richard Muller says, “The amor directed inwardly and intrinsically toward God himself as the summum bonum, or highest good, and, among the persons of the Trinity, toward one another.”

God also takes pleasure in His creatures insofar as they reflect the divine image, or participate in holiness. We might therefore call this sense of love God’s “love of moral complacency,” in the sense that God is pleased with all that is good and holy. Jesus is talking about this sense of love when He said, “he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21). Whoever loves Jesus and keeps his word “will be loved” by the Father (John 14:23). This is that sort of love that Jesus commands us to “abide in” (John 15:9). “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:10). If you pursue godliness and righteousness, then the Lord loves you  in this sense (Prov. 15:9).

One can see that this sense of God’s love is “conditional,” in the sense that virtue in the creature is required in order for God to be pleased with you, or to take delight in you. Reformed theologians typically reserve this “conditional” sense of God’s love for His saints, or for believers only (which is how Mark Jones, of Ref21, is currently using the category). Does God love all people with a “love of moral complacency,” or with that special, exclusive love He has for the righteous? Of course not. God’s love of moral complacency is obviously conditional.

This is the sense of God’s love that is so neglected or not understood well today, and so theologians such as Mark Jones (on Reformation21, in his book on Antinomianism, and in the book A Puritan Theology) are seeking to remind the church about God’s conditional love of moral complacency. Whether or not God has a love of complacency for unsaved people insofar as they have virtue in them through God’s restraining grace is a debatable point. Some Puritans, such as William Gearing, seem to affirm a kind of general love of moral complacency, since even “profane men” still have “some reliques of God’s [moral] image in them,” such as the rich young ruler. Nevertheless, it is true that, classically speaking, God’s love of moral complacency is typically reserved for believers (or the “righteous” in this sense) alone, at least in terms of traditional Christian teaching.

Another subtle distinction arises among the schoolmen and later Reformed theologians. As Richard Muller notes, “The amor Dei universalis is frequently called by the scholastics complacentia, or general good-pleasure...” We might call this God’s “love of natural complacency,” or His love of all of His creation as such. It is what Jonathan Edwards seems to have in mind when he expounded on God’s “love of being” in The Nature of True Virtue and elsewhere. Very frequently cited among the theologians of the past is Wisdom 11:24 (RSV):
For thou lovest all things that exist, and hast loathing for none of the things which thou hast made, for thou wouldst not have made anything if thou hadst hated it. 
If God’s love of moral complacency is not well-understood today, then how much less is this rather technical sense of God’s love of natural complacency for all that He has made? Even Mark Jones does not seem to have this category in his thinking, even though he is becoming more and more refined in his understanding of God’s love of moral complacency. Jones seems to have been influenced by Samuel Rutherford’s categories (along with Thomas Goodwin and others) in his anti-antinomian writings. Rutherford does, however, seem to have this category of complacency in mind when he elaborated on “three sorts of love.” He includes the idea that God “loves all that he has made; so far as to give them a being, to conserve them in being so long as he pleaseth: he had a desire to have Sun, Moon, Stars, Earth, Heaven, Sea, Cloud, Air; he created them out of the womb of love, and out of goodness, and keeps them in being…” One can see that he, like so many others in his day, is alluding to Wisdom 11:24 (not as a canonical or authoritative book in that sense, but as making a true statement) in the context. Insofar as all of creation is something God has made, he loves it, and calls it “good” (Gen. 1:31), in the sense of it’s essence or being.

This specialized and unheard of sense of God’s love of natural complacency (as I call it) in modern times is “unconditional.” The Puritan Thomas Larkham (in The Attributes of God Unfolded, and Applied. Second Part. [London, 1656], 158–159), and also John Gill (see his Body of Divinity, Book 1, chap. 12: “...yea, even the devils, as they are the creatures of God, are not hated by him, but as they are apostate spirits from him...”) went so far as to say that God even loves the fallen angels in the sense that they are His creatures. Modern Christians (including R. C. Sproul) seem to know nothing about this so-called “piece of [seeming] blasphemy,” as Larkham calls it, but it is still true. Does God love all people unconditionally with a complacent love? In a sense one could say so (i.e. in the sense that Larkham maintains), if one has a love of natural complacency in mind, but not unconditionally with a moral complacency, or in the sense of love God has for the righteous. But there is no need to make this argument to point out the problem with Sproul’s statement. The frequently used sense of God’s “unconditional love for all people” is almost always taught under the category of God’s love of benevolence, which we shall consider next.

B) God’s Love of Benevolence

One might say God’s love of benevolence is twofold: common and special.

God’s common love of benevolence is that gracious good-will that He has for all of fallen humanity (not fallen angels), which is seen in His beneficent or good acts of providential care wherein He seeks to bring men to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Richard Muller rightly notes that, “the amor Dei communis is understood to be benevolentia in the strict sense of goodwill toward human beings...” (underlining mine). Jesus has this sense of God’s universal love in mind in Matt. 5:43–45. The Father, as He says, shows himself to “love His enemies” insofar as He grants all living people the common bounties of providence (though not equally, as Van Til carefully qualifies it), even on the “unrighteous.” Clearly this sense of God’s love is unconditional. R. C. Sproul himself, in his book “Loved by God,” acknowledges that God has a love for all people in this sense. He, like all of the Reformed theologians in the past, associates God’s “common grace” with God’s universal, benevolent love.

Muller rightly noted that “the scholastics” subsumed “the grace (gratia), mercy (misericordia), long-suffering (long-animitas), patience (patientia), and clemency or mildness (clementia) of God under the amor Dei,” but one should add that these things are properly subsumed under the amor Dei communis, or amor Dei benevolentia. If common grace is a manifestation of God’s common or general love, then how can one not see that it is unconditional? On the very basis of this sense of God’s common love, Jesus commands us to love our enemies, even if they are hurling insults and abuse on us. Jesus in effect is saying, “despite their moral condition as your (i.e. the saints) enemies, wish them well. Pray for them. Bless them. Have goodwill toward them, even as the Father, despite their hostility to Him, so graciously bears goodwill to them while they live in this world.” God’s common love of benevolence is clearly unconditional, even though His love of moral complacency (as I have called it) in the usual sense is conditional

Moreover, one cannot use texts affirming God’s conditional love of moral complacency to negate God’s universal and unconditional love of benevolence, just as one cannot use God’s conditional hatred of abomination (odium abominationis) for the wicked to cancel out the biblical teaching regarding God’s love of goodwill. As the Puritan Thomas Manton so well observed, “...the hatred of abomination is opposite to the love of complacency, odium inimiciti√¶ [i.e. a hatred of enmity or malice] to amor benevolenti√¶.” It is a mistake among the hyper-Calvinists to use “hatred of abomination” texts (such as Psa. 5:5) to negate God’s common “amor benevolenti√¶” (which is a false antithesis, since the opposite of benevolence is malevolence, or malice). The proper inference one can make from Psa. 5:5 is that, since God has a hatred of displacency or disgust for workers of iniquity, he therefore has no love of moral complacency for these people as sinners, not that He has no love of benevolence for them. They use also texts referring to God’s hatred of preterition (Rom. 9:13) along the same lines, or to negate amor Dei universalis or amor Dei communis. The only legitimate inference one can make from Rom. 9:13 is that God has no love of election (or a special sense of benevolent love) for Esau in contrast to those special blessings appointed to Jacob; one cannot conclude that God has no benevolent love at all for Esau, since the proper antithesis to a love of election is a hatred of preterition.

What the hyper-Calvinists don’t realize is that God simultaneously has an unconditional love of benevolence for all human beings in one sense, even though He abominates the human beings (including the unbelieving elect) who remain in their sins and under the sway of the wicked one (1 John 5:19). God hated Esau (both in terms of a pre-temporal preterition and a temporal abomination after he’s imputed with original sin, and especially when he’s in actual sin), yes, but He still blessed Esau, even as He also blessed Ishmael (Gen. 17:20), with great lands, many descendants, etc. As the Puritan Thomas Watson said regarding Pharoah, “Even the worst taste of God’s mercy; such as fight against God’s mercy taste of it; the wicked have some crumbs from mercy’s table. ‘The Lord is good to all.’ Sweet dewdrops are on the thistle as well as on the rose. The diocese where mercy visits is very large. Pharaoh’s head was crowned though his heart was hardened.”

We cannot use any texts referring to God’s hatred of abomination (i.e. the disgust God has for living, actual sinners) or His hatred of preterition (mere non-election before anyone has done acts of good or evil) to cancel out God’s unconditional, merciful love of benevolence for the whole human race. The people who make this mistake have no category for the biblical statement that God shall love some people “no more” (Hos. 9:15), just as they also have no category for an increasing or decreasing divine love of moral complacency. They have no category for the misery of the damned (i.e. the non-elect) being “aggravated by the remembrance, that God once loved us so as to give his Son to bring us to the happiness of his love, and tried all manner of means to persuade us to accept of his favor, which was obstinately refused,” as Jonathan Edwards excellently taught. This was unconditional mercy and a gracious or free sense of love that they (the non-elect) received in this world, but is eventually taken away.

Another sense of God’s love of benevolence is special, or for the elect alone. As Muller again notes, “the amor Dei proprius, or specialis, is directed toward the elect or believers only and is manifest in the gift of salvation.” We might call this a “love of election,” and it is a subset or special sense of God’s love of benevolence. It is also unconditional, in the sense that God has graciously elected some human beings (the elect) to be effectually granted a new heart unto repentance and faith, while others are unconditionally passed over (preterition) with respect to this free gift. Sometimes, as Muller notes, the “amor Dei specialis, is termed amicitia, i.e. friendship or sympathy toward believers,” but that is the idea of God’s conditional love of moral complacency, or that love he has for those in a condition of “friendship” since they are obedient “believers” of the gospel.

The picture of God’s love (at least as implicitly taught or implicitly categorized in the Reformed tradition) as we have presented it appears as follows:

Love of Complacency
Love of Benevolence
Natural (unconditional, or for all creation as such) Common or General (unconditional, and for all humanity)
Moral (conditional, i.e. for the virtuous or for saints) Special (unconditional, but limited to the elect)

Even though Sproul is emphatically not himself a hyper-Calvinist, his denial that God loves all people unconditionally logically entails a denial of God’s universal love of benevolence, which denial then constitutes a form of hyper-Calvinism (i.e. the modern kind seen mainly among the Protestant Reformed Church variety). The denial of God's unconditional love for all people is not in accord with the teaching of the original Reformers, or the later Reformed scholastic theologians. There are at least two senses in which we could say “God loves all people unconditionally” from the standpoint of biblical and historic Reformed theology: 1) in the sense of His love of natural complacency, and 2) in the sense of His common love of benevolence. Even if one rejects the first idea, it is abundantly clear from the bible, as well as from the historic Reformed tradition, that God’s common love of benevolence for all people is unconditional, and is therefore a true teaching.

The church needs to know about these things, and she needs to be more discerning, particularly when we have prominent leaders, such as Sproul, making nonsensical and injudicious statements. Not only is the recent Ligonier statement on Christology lacking in carefulness, but so are several statements that R. C. Sproul has said regarding the love of God. It disturbs me that no one at the conferences, so far as I can tell, seems to be correcting him in this matter. We hope that Sproul does not turn out to be as imbalanced as John Gerstner (one of Sproul’s mentors) was in his latter days. May God keep him from making further mistakes, and from the PRC form of hyper-Calvinism that Gerstner eventually came to embrace later in his life.

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