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The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths for a New Awakening

Category Articles
Date April 22, 2005

(This is an extract from the recently published book by Iain H. Murray)

If we ask why God was moved to exercise his holiness and justice in such a manner, at such a cost, in the sacrifice of his own beloved Son for our sins, the answer is ‘God so loved the world’. And it was love that led Jesus first to undertake his sufferings, and then to invite all men to enter into the love which his death proclaims. It is the Puritan Thomas Watson who quotes the words of Augustine, ‘The cross was a pulpit in which Christ preached his love to the world.’ On the same subject John Owen writes: ‘There is no property of the nature of God which he doth so eminently design to glorify in the death of Christ as his love.’

This brings us inevitably to John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world . . .’ On this text Smeaton says: ‘These words of Christ plainly show that the biblical doctrine on this point is not duly exhibited unless love receives a special prominence . . . If even justice were made paramount, the balance of truth would be destroyed.’

But what is the love of God to which John 3:16 gives this prominence? Does it have reference to the elect only or to all men? Some have answered that its immediate purpose has to do with neither; because, they say, ‘the world’ here does not have numerical so much as ethical significance: it stands for ‘the evil, the darkness, the sinner’. God so loved those who are utterly contrary to himself that he gave his Son to die for them! As B. B.Warfield has written on the love of God in this text: It is not that it is so great that it is able to extend over the whole of a big world: it is so great that it is able to prevail over the Holy God’s hatred and abhorrence of sin. For herein is love, that God could love the world – the world that lies in the evil one: that God who is all-holy and just and good, could so love this world that He gave His only begotten Son for it, – that He might not judge it, but that it might be saved.

The same writer concludes: ‘The whole debate as to whether the love here celebrated distributes itself to each and every man that enters into the composition of the world, or terminates on the elect alone chosen out of the world, lies thus outside the immediate scope of the passage.’ But granting that the message of the cross is one of love to those who by nature are the enemies of God, we are still faced with the fact that the text provides no justification for limiting this love to elect sinners. For if the elect are the ‘world’ that God loves, why is it that only some out of that world (‘whosoever believes in him’) come to salvation? There is surely a distinction in the text between the larger number who are the objects of love and the smaller number who believe. It would be a strange reading of John 3:16 to make those who believe correspond exclusively with ‘the world’ that God loves. Such a divine as John Calvin had no hesitation therefore in saying on John 3:16: ‘Although there is nothing in the world deserving of God’s favour, he nevertheless shows he is favourable to the whole lost world when he calls all without exception to faith in Christ, which is indeed an entry into life.’

If this is so, it is proof enough that there is a general proclamation of the love of God which comes to men in the preaching of the cross. Individuals everywhere may be directed, as Nicodemus was, to God’s love for the unworthy. We are by no means dependent on John 3:16 alone for this understanding. Surely the same truth shines throughout our Lord’s ministry. He, ‘the Friend of sinners’, did not limit love to the disciples, nor yet to those whom he knew would become disciples. We read, ‘When he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them’ (Matt. 9:36). Moreover we find this tender compassion individualized: of the rich young ruler, who turned away from Christ in unbelief, we are explicitly told, ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him’ (Mark 10:21). What but that same love can explain such words as, ‘You will not come unto me that you might have life’ (John 5:40)? Or the tears that accompanied, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’ (Luke 13:34; Matt 23:37)? ‘Love towards all mankind in general,’ John Owen wrote, is enforced upon us by the example of Christ’s ‘own love and goodness, which are extended unto all’. And Owen encouraged his hearers to dwell on the ‘love of Christ, in his invitations of sinners to come unto him that they may be saved’ . . . Some have sought to escape from the force of Christ’s example by referring it to his human nature and not to his divine. But as R. L. Dabney comments: ‘It would impress the common Christian mind with a most painful feeling to be thus seemingly taught that holy humanity is more generous and tender than God.’ . . . Universal gospel preaching is proof of the reality of universal divine love. It is the same love of which we read in Ezekiel 33:11: ‘As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die?’ When the Pharisees complained of Christ, ‘This man receives sinners, and eats with them,’ Jesus responded by speaking of the character of God: he is like the father of the prodigal son who ‘saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20). Christ’s unwillingness that men should be lost is the same as the Father’s. He desires that all men everywhere should turn and live . . . We conclude that the death of Christ is to be preached to all, and preached in the conviction that there is love for all. ‘In the gospel,’ said an eminent preacher of the Scottish Highlands, ‘the provision of God’s love for the salvation of sinners is revealed and offered . . . Faith is a believing God as speaking to me – a receiving of what is said as true, because it is the testimony of God, and receiving it as true in its bearing on my own case as a sinner because it is addressed by God to me.’ Another Scots Calvinistic leader put it still more strongly in the words: ‘Men evangelized cannot go to hell but over the bowels of God’s great mercies. They must wade to it through the blood of Christ.’

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