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God’s Love Made Known in Christ Crucified

Category Book Excerpts
Date May 21, 2024

To assert that the message of the cross is wholly one of divine love (as some have done) is to destroy its meaning. For it is only in the recognition of the holiness of God that the sufferings of Christ, which brought forth the cry, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,’ can be truly understood. Apart from divine justice that cry is inexplicable. In the words of Thomas Robinson, ‘Sin is nowhere seen so terrible, nor the law so inflexible, as in the cross of Christ.’1Suggestive Commentary on Romans, vol. 1 (London: Dickinson, 1878), p. 239.

Yet 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.’2Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), p. 175. 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.’3Owen, Works, vol. 9, p. 604.

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.’4Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), pp. 45-46.

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.’5See the usage of the word in John 7:7; 14:17, 22, 27, 30; 15:18, 19; 16:8, 20, 33; 17:14. 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.6‘God’s Immeasurable Love’ in B. B. Warfield, The Saviour of the World (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 120.

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.7Calvin, The Gospel according to John, 1–10, trans., T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 74.

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 directed, 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.’8Owen, Works, vol. 15, p. 70. The italics are in Owen. 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.’9Ibid., vol. 1, p. 422.

Elsewhere the same writer says: ‘There is nothing that at the last day will tend more immediately to the advancement of the glory of God, in the inexcusableness of them who obey not the gospel, than this, that terms of peace, in the blessed way of forgiveness, were freely tendered unto them.’10Ibid., vol. 6, p. 530.

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.’11R. L. Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, vol. 1 (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), p. 308. ‘It is our happiness to believe that when we see Jesus weeping over lost Jerusalem, we have “seen the Father,” we have received an insight into he divine benevolence and pity.’ An evidence of this can be seen in the pleading of God with sinners in the Old Testament, e.g., ‘For thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not’ (Isa. 30:15). ‘Our utmost that we can, by zeal for his glory or compassion unto your souls,’ writes Owen on proclaiming the invitations of the gospel, ‘comes infinitely short of his own pressing earnestness herein.’ Owen, Works, vol. 6, p. 517.

Christ’s example, that reveals the very character of God, remains the permanent standard for the church. The same love of which he spoke to Nicodemus, and which he showed to the multitude, lies in his command that ‘repentance unto remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:47). And the apostles understood it when they preached indiscriminately to the Jerusalem sinners, who had rejected the Son of God, the astonishing news that God has sent Jesus ‘to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities’ (Acts 3:26).12For the way in which the gospel message is individualized in apostolic testimony see also Acts 2:38; 3:19; Col. 1: 28; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9.

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).13‘It would hardly be in accord with our Lord’s intention to press the point that the prodigal was destined to come to repentance, and that, therefore, the father’s attitude towards him portrays the attitude of God toward the elect only, and not toward every sinner as such.’ Geerhardus Vos, ‘The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God,’ in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. R. B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), p. 443. 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. As John Murray has written:

There is a love of God which goes forth to lost men and is manifested in the manifold blessings which all men without distinction enjoy, a love in which non-elect persons areembraced, and a love which comes to its highest expression in the entreaties, overtures and demands of gospel proclamation.14Murray, Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 68.

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.’15MS sermon of Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall on Mark 16:16, preached on 10 January 1864. 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.’16John Duncan, quoted in ‘Just a Talker’: The Sayings of Dr John Duncan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997) p. 221.


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