Sometime within the past few months a close friend wrote me with this question: When presenting the gospel to an unbeliever, can we legitimately say "Jesus loves you" when we know that there are many who will ultimately die, still at war with God, and will thus experience His judgment and wrath for all of eternity? This question naturally leads to a follow-up question as to whether or not we can also say to the unbeliever, “Jesus died for your sins,” since many who hear the gospel will reject it, die, and spend eternity in hell?
I have dealt with the second question in a post on 11/22/07, and my fellow team member, Robert Fraire, posted regarding that question on 7/17/09. So I would refer anyone interested in that question to locate those posts in the blog archive and read them.
However, the first question regarding whether or not we can legitimately tell an unbeliever to whom we are presenting the gospel that “God loves you” is not one which I have specifically dealt with in the past, so that will be the subject of this post.
This question is interesting because there are passages which sound like God does not love sinners. Perhaps the most direct statement is found in John 3:36 where Jesus said, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” At the same time, we have those great passages such as 1 John 4:8, 16 which state that “God is love.”
So what is the answer? The answer is that it depends on whether we are speaking of God’s general love for all His creation, or His redeeming love which is given only to those whom He has elected and chosen to love in a redemptive way. If we are speaking of His general love for His creation, we can tell every person “Jesus loves you” or “God loves you.” He demonstrates that love by sustaining His creation and providing for the needs of His creatures. Jesus said that God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). It is that rising sun and falling rain which provide the necessary food for mankind, and thus our Lord meets the needs of everyone, regardless of their relationship to Him. Therefore, His general love for mankind is demonstrated by His care, generosity, and benevolence in meeting man’s physical needs.
God also demonstrates His love for mankind in general by His provision of the opposite sex. When God created Adam, He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). God understood that man needed a companion who would complete him emotionally, in addition to providing physical intimacy. So He showed His love for mankind by providing Him with a partner of the opposite sex who could meet those needs.
But if we are speaking of God’s redemptive love which takes the rebellious sinner and draws Him to Jesus Christ, then regenerates him to new life and grants him the faith to believe in Christ’s substitutionary death, then we cannot say “God loves you” to everyone in that sense, because that love is placed only on the elect. So we must be careful that we don’t go too far and make it sound like God loves all people redemptively because He does not. And those who remain in their rebellion against Him are those of whom Jesus was speaking when He made the statement in John 3:36 that I mentioned earlier—“the wrath of God abides on him.” So while God does love the unbeliever in a generic, general sense, He does not love the unbeliever in a redemptive sense.
Now, someone might say, “But doesn’t Romans 5:8 tell us that ‘God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’? Doesn’t that mean that God loves everyone the same?” No, it doesn’t. This particular verse speaks of both God’s love for “us” and Christ dying for “us.” Obviously, it is important to answer whether or not the “us” is a general statement regarding all mankind or a statement regarding only those who are the elect. The answer is found in the context of the verse. Even a superficial reading of the passage reveals that when Paul says “us,” he is speaking to those who have “been justified by faith" (Rom. 5:1). So Rom. 5:8 is not a statement regarding either God’s love or Christ’s death for all sinners. In fact, it is the opposite; it is a statement regarding God’s relationship with the elect. So one cannot appeal to that verse to support the position that God loves all sinners equally.
So the answer to the question is, Yes, God does love all sinners in a general sense, but He loves only a certain limited number of sinners (those who have been elected to eternal salvation) with a redemptive love. The rest of the sinners who are not elected to eternal salvation are the objects of His eternal wrath.