Carson on the love of God

Posted on February 24, 2009

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At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I love to talk about God’s love.  The consistent theme of God’s love throughout the Scriptures frames everything for me: relationships, evangelism, justice, marriage, sexuality, ecclesiology, preaching, everything.  God’s love is all-encompassing and serves as one of the primary motifs in Scripture for the way we understand the mission of Jesus to save sinners.

Recently, I have been wrestling through different aspects of God’s love as we have been attempting to unpack this doctrine in our “Ask Anything” College Ministry series.  Many of the questions, though not explicitly stating it, are really nuances of the same question: How can ______ be true about humanity/the world/Christians if it is also true that God is a loving God?

That led me to a book many are familiar with called The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson.  Carson is one of my favorite authors, and what I love about him is his profound simplicity and balance when it comes to dealing with complex theological issues. In light of some age-old debates about God’s view of sinners and sin, I thought I would summarize some helpful thoughts from Carson on God’s love.

First, Carson begins his book by explaining the difficulty of this doctrine:

One of the most dangerous results of the impact of contemporary sentimentalized versions of love on the church is our widespread inability to think through the fundamental questions that alone enable us to maintain a doctrine of God in biblical proportion and balance. However glorious and privileged a task that may be, none of it is easy. We are dealing with God, and fatuous reductionisms are bound to be skewed and dangerous

Carson continues his discussion be delineating some different ways the Bible speaks about the love of God. In my experience, when people debate and argue over the contours of God’s love it usually centers on an overemphasis on these nuanced, but important, distinctions:

  1. The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (Jn. 3:35, 5:20, 14:31).
  2. God’s providential love over all that he has made (Gen. 1; Matt. 6).
  3. God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world (Jn. 3:16 – I especially like how Carson takes “world” here at face value to mean the entire cosmos, not just the elect).
  4. God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect (Deut. 7:7-8, Eph. 5:25).
  5. God’s love toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way – conditioned, that is, on obedience (Jude 21; Jn. 15:9).

In summarizing these distinctions, Carson wisely warns:

It is easy to see what will happen if any one of these five biblical ways of talking about the love of God is absolutized and made exclusive, or made the controlling grid by which the other ways of talking about the love of God are relativized . . . (For example) If the love of God refers exclusively to his love for the elect, it is easy to drift toward a simple and absolute bifurcation: God loves the elect and hates the reprobate. Rightly positioned, there is truth in this assertion; stripped of complementary biblical truths, that same assertion has engendered hyper-Calvinism. I use the term advisedly, referring to groups within the Reformed tradition that have forbidden the free offer of the Gospel. Spurgeon fought them in his day. Their number is not great in America today, but their echoes are found in young Reformed ministers who know it is right to offer the Gospel freely, but who have no idea how to do it without contravening some element in their conception of Reformed theology” (emphasis mine) . . . In short, we need all of what Scripture says on this subject, or the doctrinaland pastoral ramifications will prove disastrous.

God’s love is universal, unconditional, wonderful, terrifying, holy, perfect, painful, and ultimately the source of our salvation. We need to recapture a love for God’s love.

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