By Kevin DeYoung
The question is deceptively difficult. The Bible speaks of God’s love in several different ways. D.A. Carson, in his excellent book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, mentions five (16-19):
1. The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father.
2. God’s providential love over all that he has made.
3. God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world.
4. God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect.
5. God’s love toward his own people in a provisional way, conditioned upon obedience.
After giving a brief biblical explanation for each way, Carson explains the danger of emphasizing one aspect of the love of God over the others.
If God’s love is defined exclusively by his intra-Trinitarian love, which is perfect and unblemished by sin, we won’t grasp the glory of God in loving rebels like us.
If God’s love is nothing but his providential care over all things, we’ll struggle to see how the gospel is any good news at all because, after all, doesn’t he love everyone already?
If God’s love is seen solely as his desire to save the world, we’ll end up with an emotionally charged God who doesn’t display the same sense of sovereignty we see in the pages of Scripture.
If God’s love is only understood as his electing love, we’ll too see easily say God hates all sorts of people, when that truth requires a good deal more nuance.
And if God’s love is bound up entirely in warnings like “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21), we’ll fall into legalism and lots of unwarranted self-doubt.
Talking about God’s love sounds like a simple theological task, but it’s actually one of the trickiest. I’ve heard of churches debating whether their kids should be taught “Jesus Loves Me” (some of the children might be reprobate, you never know). I know many more churches which so emphasize God’s all-encompassing love for everyone everywhere, that it’s hard to figure out why anyone should bother to become a Christian. The fact is that God loves everyone and he doesn’t. He hates the world and he loves the world. He can’t possibly love his adopted children any more than he does, and he is profoundly grieved by our sin. The challenge of good theology is to explain how the Bible provides warrant for all those statements and how they all fit together.
Any one truth about the love of God pressed to the exclusion of the others will make for a distorted deity and deadly discipleship. “In short,” Carson counsels, “we need all of what Scripture says on this subject, or the doctrinal and pastoral ramifications will prove disastrous” (23).”