For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already…
I would like to understand who God is and whom he loves. John says that God loves “the world”, which most people would understand to mean that God loves every man, woman, and child that he created to live in this world. John says that God “loved” the world, which most people would understand to mean that God wishes them good and not ill. That, in fact, God “gave his one and only Son”, and gave him to an end that we can hardly bear to imagine, was John’s measure of that love.
This is the picture of God that I was given as a child. Through years of studying the Bible, I have never had occasion to reject it. Nor do I see that the church wants to reject this picture of God, though I hear more and more frequently the expression of a doctrine that seems to shatter it. And so, again, I ask: Who is God and whom does he love?
Leaving aside the biblical evidence, if someone says that God chose some men, women, and children for salvation but not others, and that his choice was independent of any willful attribute of those chosen, then John’s portrait of God is suspicious, at best.
So far as I can see, to reconcile John’s words with Calvin’s doctrine, we must say one of two very strange things about those souls who are incapable of acknowledging Christ (and yet condemned to terrible punishment for rejecting him). First, that they are loved by God – and yet abandoned – or, second, that they are not part of the world he “so loved”.
In either case, the treasured picture of a tender, generous and rational God falls to the floor and shatters. No longer can we simply accept the teaching that Jesus was “distressed” by the stubbornness of his hearers or that he “longed” for the unwilling children of Jerusalem. (Why would he be upset or disappointed? He created them to be incapable of anything better.) Most important, we will have to reexamine the naive doctrine that the Lord “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”.
So who is God and whom does he love? I treasure the picture of God that I was given as a child but if it is not the true picture then it should be smashed. We ought not to keep it just because it is pretty. If it is our view that God is (and has every right to be) a tyrant, then we should try to write uplifting songs about tyranny.
Personally, instead of reinterpreting scripture in light of Calvin, I would prefer to see a careful examination of Calvin in light of scripture. The picture of the beautiful, generous God bears a strong resemblance to the Person and process I see described in scripture, wherein God’s response to us both precedes and follows our response to him, and is administered without coercion even from eternity past through his constant vision of all that was and is and is to come. Of course, he is sovereign. Does that prevent him from loving such as us or desiring that we all believe, even allowing some of his choices to hinge upon our choices? To say “Yes” is to make him smaller (not bigger), to distort his beauty, to challenge his testimony about himself and to damage his reputation.