Last month, I wrote a two-part post questioning whether God loves everyone. To review: after looking at examples from both the Old Testament (pre-flood people and the Amalekites) and the New Testament (Pharisees, false teachers, and godless men), I concluded that no, God does not love everyone. Within the past two weeks, I’ve had two extended conversations with two different people about this topic. These have spurred me to look more deeply into what theologians have written about it.
In last week’s post, I mentioned R.C. Sproul, one of my favorite theologians. He wrote (in Tabletalk magazine, May 2004) about three different kinds of love that God has. The first one is what he calls the love of benevolence, which means good will. We see this phrase in Luke 2:14, when the angels appeared to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” In Ezekiel 33:11, the Lord says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” R.C. rightly said, “His judgments upon evil are rooted in His righteousness, not in some distorted malice in His character.”
The second kind of love is called the love of beneficence, which is kind actions. For example, Matthew 5:45 says, “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” When we put together the first two kinds of love, we can see that God’s good will is manifested in kind actions toward all people.
There is a third kind of God’s love that theologians call the love of complacency; because the meaning of this word has changed so much since Jonathan Edwards used it almost 300 years ago, perhaps something like “positional love” would be better. (Thanks to my wife for this term!) This love is the special delight and pleasure that God the Father first of all takes in Jesus and then extends to us who trust and obey Him. Zephaniah 3:17, for example, says, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” (Thanks, Dennis Jernigan, for putting this verse to music; that’s what brought it to mind!) Notice that this is also saving love; it is thus conditional and not universal. This third kind of love is shown only to those who are God’s people. In contrast, the first two kinds of love are shown to all people, unconditionally and universally. When I wrote last month about whether God loves everyone, it was in reference to the special, third kind of love.
As I was studying and researching, I thought of the rich young ruler that Jesus spoke to; the encounter is recorded for us in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark 10:21-22 says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” I was struck by the fact that Jesus loved him. What does that mean? I think it’s very evident when you read the entire account that Jesus had good will toward this man. I think it’s also clear that Jesus loved him in action by taking the time to talk with him; the man also strikes me as very earnest because Mark 10:17 says, “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him.” Now, did Jesus love him in the third sense, meaning that this earnest young man believed and was saved? It doesn’t appear so because verse 22 tells us that he went away sad. Some have hypothesized that this young man was Mark (the author of this gospel), Joseph of Arimathea, or even the apostle Paul, which would mean that he eventually came to saving faith in Jesus; however, this is only speculation. Ultimately, we will find out in heaven whether this man was saved.
In summary, we can say that God loves everyone in terms of His good will and kind actions toward the entire human race. However, there is a special kind of love that He has only for His people. And I daresay, that is the most important love of all.