Can God Love All People?

Calvinist John Piper answers the question he himself frames and thus poses: "Why can't God eternally love those who don't believe in Him?" (link) Is there not at least one obvious and inherent flaw in the question? In eternity past, prior to the existence of any creature, the people "who don't believe in Him," from Piper's Calvinistic point of view, do not believe in Him by His own eternal decree that they not believe in Him. So, if God cannot love "those who don't believe in Him," then that is God's own problem, for He decreed the matter thusly. But there is another inherent flaw.

From Piper's theological perspective, the so-called unconditionally elect also do not believe in Him, not until He regenerates them and hence causes them to believe. How can God, according to the logic of Piper, love the unbelieving unconditionally elect if God cannot eternally love (or from eternity past cannot love) those who don't believe in Him? The only reason the so-conceived unconditionally elect believe in Him is because, according to a Calvinistic philosophy, God decreed, rendered certain, and brings to pass by His own monergistic inward activity for them to believe in Him.

An uncomfortably odd aspect to a Calvinistic philosophy -- and Calvinism is an eminently philosophical system -- is that, in essence, when God unconditionally elected certain ones unto faith and salvation, He was also unconditionally selecting who would love Him, not a love for Him deriving from the heart of that creature, but by the necessitated effects rendered by God Himself. That notion is bizarre at best.

The logical fact that the theory of unconditional election is arbitrary in nature should be obvious: there is no reason why God should unconditionally elect one person unto faith and salvation and not another since all sinners are equally sinful; nor is there any reason, biblical or otherwise, why God unconditionally elected this many and no more (or no less). But there remains a discomfited peculiarity in the concept that God unconditionally chose who would love Him by His own monergistic means. What kind of God unconditionally pre-selects who will love Him and then inform all of humanity that there are consequences to "those who reject me," but that He will show "steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Ex. 20:5, 6)? This passage and Piper's theology do not corroborate.

I also think that Piper is inconsistent in his theological claims. Rebutting the notion that God forces anyone to love Him, he responds, "Anyone who loves God genuinely loves God freely." That is, simply, a betrayal of Calvinism. Anyone who loves God genuinely loves God by God's decree that they love God, and that such was brought to fruition by necessity, and by God's own design. According to Calvinistic ideology, no one does any act freely, not believing in Christ and certainly not loving God!

Piper continues his train of thought: "That is what it means to love God. To love God is to see God as infinitely worthy of being loved. To love God is to see God as beautiful and worthy and satisfying." Fine, and well, but the person only loves God because God unconditionally pre-selected the individual unto faith and salvation -- whereby he or she then loves God by a love given to the person by God. This notion of freely loving God betrays Piper's own theology. He wrote an entire book on the subject matter entitled When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy. In this book he notes that rejoicing in God, desiring God, and loving God are all gifts from God. In Piper's consistent theology no one freely loves God. But let us focus on the word force.

Piper (and other Calvinists) want to avoid suggesting that God forces anyone to love Him, or obey Him, or serve Him. But what, exactly, is force? We think of an officer forcing someone into the back of a law enforcement car, or a master forcing a slave to perform hard labor, or an ungodly man beating his wife into submission and thus forcing her, on pain of worse consequences, to doing whatever the man commands. Force is the capacity to necessarily cause or effect change, a flow of energy, or an active power. (link) Force may encounter resistance but that resistance is utterly futile. Force cannot fail to effect its intended goal or purpose toward any object conceivable.



Piper refuses to concede to the issue of God forcing a person toward belief in Christ, or toward love of God, while insisting that no one has free will, that no one can believe in Christ apart from the monergistic power of the Holy Spirit in one's inner being, and that both belief in Christ and love for God must derive from the effectual activity of God Himself. Does God's inner monergistic activity effect change within the unconditionally elect regarding faith in Christ and love for God? Yes. Then that admission is tantamount to force when properly defined. Could the unconditionally elect fail to believe in Christ and love God once God regenerated the spirit of the individual? No. Then that admission is tantamount to force when properly defined.

Now, in unwitting practicality, Piper concedes as much: "It is not only ridiculous and wrong, but it [i.e., God forcing one to love Him] is inconceivable, because that is not what love is. When God brings about love -- and yes, he does -- when God brings about love for himself in a heart where it didn't exist before, he does it by opening the eyes of the blind to see the irresistible beauties of Christ so that we freely delight in him." Here there is a monergistic and effectual cause -- the very notions of force -- a capacity toward causing change via an active power. But let us digress.

Piper is convinced that no one could or ever would love God apart from God first regenerating the spirit of those whom He has unconditionally elected to effect such change. Within this framework he answers the question regarding the incapability of God eternally loving those who will not believe in Him; and, yet, the very inherently divine love of God was the singular motivating factor propelling Him toward offering salvation to a world of unbelievers. (John 3:16) The problem of St John's confession at John 3:16 for the Calvinist is two-fold: 1) the word "world" can in no sense be rendered or conceived of as "the unconditionally elect"; and 2) this, then, indicates that God not only can but actually does and has from eternity past love those who do not and will not believe in Him. Let us, in closing, consider the first point mentioned here.

To whom does the word "world" refer at John 3:16? Dr. Terry Miethe writes:
Again, this is an important assertion. The question is, Where does the burden of proof lie? Douty mentions the following works: Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament, Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, Robinson's A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Souter's Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Berry's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Arndt-Gingrich's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbott-Smith's Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Tasker's New Bible Dictionary, Everett F. Harrison in Baker's Dictionary of Theology, and John D. Davis in his Dictionary of the Bible (both Harrison and Davis list John 3:16 as referring to mankind, though both are Presbyterians).1
The word "world," in salvific contexts, indicates the world of all unbelievers (in God graciously offering salvation to them from a salvific heart of love toward them) or to believers (in passages regarding recipients of salvation by grace through a Spirit-induced and enabled faith in Jesus Christ) and can in no sense refer to the so-called unconditionally elect -- not biblically and certainly not lexicographically.

Even Calvinist scholar D.A. Carson concedes the fact that the love of God for the whole world -- meaning all sinners within that world -- refers to all people without qualification and not to some imagined unconditionally elect: "I know that some try to take κόσμος ('world') here to refer to the [unconditionally] elect. [Calvinists conveniently omit the qualifier.] But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John's Gospel is against the suggestion."2 To suggest that God cannot eternally love those who do not believe in Him is not only to limit God with a man-made philosophy, as well as betray the fact that all people are initially unbelievers, but also to question an essential attribute of God's nature -- that of love (1 John 4:8). He can and He does love an entire world of unbelieving, and believing, sinners; otherwise no one could or would ever be saved by the love of God.

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1 Terry L. Miethe, "The Universal Power of the Atonement," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 73.

2 D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 17.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.