You may remember that on Friday we talked about whether non-Christians can honor God. That was a helpful episode. I commend it to you — episode number 1145. Today’s question naturally flows from it, and it comes to us in the form of a follow-up email from a listener named Daniel. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the podcast. In your August 30th episode, you helpfully addressed the correlation between God’s love and election, and the fact that the two are basically interchangeable (if I understood you correctly). However, it leaves me with the question about how I’m to understand God’s love toward the non-elect. Does God love the non-elect? And if so, is that love of a different quality or characteristic than his love for the elect? Thanks for helping me make sense of such difficult issues!”
Well, I’ll try. Let’s remind ourselves that with all such questions, we are utterly, totally dependent on what God has chosen to reveal in his word. There is no way we can come up with answers to these kinds of questions without relying decisively on God’s word.
You should test everything I say by the word of God. My opinion counts for very little. God’s word counts for everything. Let me share with you some texts that show, I think, very clearly that God loves the non-elect, those whom he has not chosen for eternal salvation. Then I will show some passages saying that he has a unique kind of love for his own elect people, his bride.
In Matthew 5:44–45, Jesus says, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
“God has extended great kindness and goodness and patience and invitation to the whole unbelieving world.”
Paul, in Lystra, says to the crowd, “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16–17).
First Timothy 2:3–4 reads, “[Pray. Pray for your leaders.] This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Ezekiel 33:11 says, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
John reminds us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
From those texts (and many more, not just those), I conclude that there’s a real sense in which God has extended great kindness and goodness and patience and invitation to the whole unbelieving world of mankind. As Paul puts it in Romans 2:4, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
Now, the problem arises when folks go beyond Scripture and infer from those statements that God, because of his love for all people, cannot and does not elect some to everlasting life, but all.
In other words, they infer that since he loves all, he must love all in the same way — that he cannot choose to love some in a more focused, electing, redeeming, adopting, eternal way. But it seems to me that’s exactly what the Scriptures teach.
He does have a different love — an electing love, a saving love — for some and not all. This is totally owing to the abundance of his grace, since nobody deserves it.
Here are the texts where I get that idea.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:3–6).
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). I have a special love for my wife, but I hope I love all women appropriately.
“God’s love is totally free and, therefore, we should be utterly and eternally thankful.”
“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7).
“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James. To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:1).
“As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people,” and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”’” (Romans 9:25). There’s a sense in which those who are not loved in this way were not loved.
In Romans 8:28 — “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” — that’s a kind of love. God is working all things together for their good.
In John 17:9, Jesus is praying, and he says, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” So there’s a unique, praying love that he performs for them and not for others.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15).
“For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). There’s a sense in which his saving grace is extended to all, but there is a special application of it effectively to those whom he draws into faith.
My answer to Daniel’s question is that God’s love for the non-elect consists in genuine acts of kindness and generosity and patience and invitation. Just think about it. When we’re talking to an unbeliever, we are able to point out to unbelievers evidences of God’s kindness to them, not the least of which is that we and they should at this moment be suffering in hell, and we’re not.
“Our faith is not because we’re smarter or better or wiser or less fallen than those who do not believe.”
Nevertheless, every believer knows that we did not save ourselves. Our faith is not because we’re smarter or better or wiser or less fallen than those who do not believe. We know that grace alone, not merit, has opened our eyes and caused us to see the supreme value and beauty of Christ.
Therefore, we know that we have been loved with an everlasting love, a dying love. Paul calls it a great love in Ephesians 2:4. It raises us from the dead. It’s an electing love, a regenerating love, a preserving love that we will be loved with forever — a divine, glorifying love. And we know that we have merited none of this. It is totally free and, therefore, we should be utterly and eternally thankful.
While we have breath, we should be bent on bringing as many people as we can into this amazing grace, even if it costs us our lives, because that’s what it cost Jesus to bring us in.