When I first encountered Reformed theology I completely rejected it. For nearly two years I fought against it with every possible argument I could conceive of. It wasn’t until I embarked upon a journey through the Scriptures that I was confronted by the biblical teaching of God’s love for His people. At the forefront of my argument against Reformed theology was my desire to defend the biblical doctrine of God. It had been my contention, considering verses such as John 3:16, that the saving love of God had been manifest to all people without exception. That is to say, I did not believe that God’s love was demonstrated in varying degrees. According to my presuppositions concerning the character of God, I believed there was no difference between God’s love for the sinner and His love for the saint.
As I carefully contrived every argument against Reformed doctrine, I was frustrated time and again when it came to the Bible’s teaching about God’s special, saving love for His people. This perplexed me. How could a loving God not love everyone in the same way?
Towards the culmination of my study of the Scriptures, I joined a group from my church on a missions trip to Haiti. While there, a friend from the church shared about a recent experience she had had with her hair stylist who was a practicing homosexual. As she shared about her ongoing conversations with her hair stylist, she explained enthusiastically that she just keeps telling him that God loves him unconditionally, to which he would usually respond, “I know God loves me just the way I am.” To him, such a response was perfectly reasonable. To her, such a response was perfectly acceptable. To me, such a response was perfectly atrocious.
Afterwards, I asked her a very simple question: “How can you be so certain that God loves your homosexual friend unconditionally?” I went on briefly to explain what I had come to understand about the Bible’s teaching concerning God’s special love for His people, namely, that although God does indeed love all of His creatures in some way, He unconditionally loves only those who are His children in Christ. What is more, I asked, “if God unconditionally loves your homosexual hair stylist why would he ever consider repenting and believing on Christ? If God loves him just the way he is, why should he surrender his life to Christ?” That night, hours after our conversation, I was summoned by our pastor to follow him outside the mission walls for a little talk. Based on the conversation I had with my friend earlier that day, I was charged to be a “heretical Calvinist.” After fifteen minutes, and after many tears, I was fired from my staff position and stripped of all responsibility that very night.
When I returned from Haiti, I packed my books, and with great sorrow in my heart, I left the church in which I had become a Christian. Soon after, I began an extensive study on the love of God in the Johannine corpus. I immersed myself in John’s gospel account, his epistles, and the book of Revelation, attempting to provide the biblical definition of God’s love according to the apostle John. The biblical teaching about God and His love for His people burst forth from the pages of Scripture, and by God’s grace I finally came to grips with the doctrines of grace as biblically defined by Reformed theology.
John’s first epistle demonstrates the clear distinction between those who are in Christ and those who are of the world. At the end of 1 John chapter 2, John calls his recipients “little children” (v. 28). Then, at the beginning of chapter 3, John reminds the children of God of His love for them: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (3:1a). In verse 10, John goes on to explain, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” Further, in verse 16, John writes of the love of God in the death of Christ: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.”
Perhaps the most well-known passage about God’s attribute of love is 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” Too often, however, this three-word phrase is stripped from its immediate context in which John expressly defines God’s special, saving love for His people. Usually, this verse is used as a proof text for the unconditional love of God for all people without exception. However, as John clearly explains, the unconditional love of God is only manifested to those who are in Jesus Christ: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (vv. 9–10). “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (v. 16). “We love because he first loved us” (v. 19).
During my journey to Reformed theology, it was the doctrine of God’s saving love that convinced me of God’s electing grace, and it is the love of God that continues to sustain my life in Christ.