Some Conclusions as to the Love of God

Late in 1962 an article by Professor Harold Dekker of Calvin Theological Seminary precipitated a doctrinal controversy in the Christian Reformed Church and beyond. That controversy concerned the love of God, particularly the universality of that love. In the light of what has since been written on the subject it ought to be possible at this time—it is now the second week of April, 1964 to draw some conclusions. What follows is an endeavor to do that.


Dekker has contended right along that Cod loves all men. A few of his critics to the contrary notwithstanding, Dekker is here on solid Scriptural ground. This is not to say that all the Scripture passages adduced by him as proof of God’s universal love arc pertinent. That is something else. Yet tho universal love of God is unmistakably taught in such a passage, among others, as Matthew 5:43–45, “Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy; but I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you, that ye may be the sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sendeth rain–on the just and the unjust.”

Likewise Dekker has right along taught that the universal love of God comes to expression in the universal and sincere offer of the gospel; that is to say, in God’s command to his church to preach the gospel to all men and his earnest overture of salvation to all to whom the gospel comes. There are those—the Reverend Herman Hoeksema, for instance—who have taken Dekker severely to task for that position, branding it as “sheer Arminianism.” But again Dekker is right. To quote but a few of several portions of Scripture which prove him to be right, in Ezekiel 18:2.3 and 33:11 God affirms emphatically that he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but therein that the sinner turn from his evil way and live, and II Peter 3:9 assures us that the Lord is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” In harmony with these Scrip·tore passages the Canons of Dort assert: “As many as are ·called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God has most earnestly declared in his Word what is acceptable to him; namely, that those who are called should come unto him” (III and IV, 8).

Let it be said emphatically that Scripture does not merely teach that God is willing to save a sinner if he repents of his sins and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. It teaches that God desires that the sinner repent and believe. As Calvin put it in his comment on Ezekiel 18:23, “God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who were perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety.”

[n stressing the universal and sincere offer of salvation through Christ’s death, Dekker teaches nothing novel, but is in the best Reformed tradition. John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, William Cunningham, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, and John Murray have all alike acknowledged that truth. Very recently Alexander C. De Jong has upheld it in The Well-Meant Gospel Offer, and, if 1 may be permitted to say so, I adhered to that tradition in For Whom Did Christ Die? and God-Centered Evangelism.

It is obvious that we cannot before the bar of finite and faulty human reason square this truth with the Scriptural teaching of predestination. But that may not keep us from affirming both. Anyone at all familiar with the Canons of Dort knows that they uphold unequivocally one as well as the other. Without making any attempt at reconciliation they teach, on the one hand, that not all, but only some, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom Cod, out of his sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, has decided to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion” (I, 15), and, on the other hand, as was noted above, that “as many as are called by tho gospel are unfeignedly called” (III and IV, 8). Calvin, as will be shown presently, did the same.

In short, there is a Scriptural universalism as well as a Scriptural particularism. That the Professor of Missions at Calvin Seminary would strongly stress that universalism is not only reasonable but altogether commendable.


It is evident that Dekker’s presentation of the universal love of God has occasioned considerable confusion. Regrettably, for much of that confusion—I do not say for all of it—Dekker is himself responsible. Suffice it to call attention here to four points in particular.

Dekker describes the universal love of God as “redemptive.” On that score many have criticised him sharply. In view of the plain teaching of Scripture that not all men are going to be saved, the question has been asked how the love of God can be redemptive if it docs not actually redeem. In other words, it has been charged that Dekker’s declaration that God manifests redemptive love to all men must of necessity result either in the heresy of universal salvation or in the heresy that the divine purpose can be thwarted by man. Now as a matter of fact Dekker draws neither of these conclusions. He avoids both by distinguishing between “redemptive love” and “redeeming love.” The question arises whether that distinction is valid. The answer is that, although it need not be condemned as invalid, it certainly is most confusing. A good dictionary tells us that the adjective “redemptive” may indeed have the vague descriptive meaning “connected with redemption,” but may also have the specific active meaning “serving to redeem.” And the propriety of employing the term “redemptive” as a synonym of “redeeming” cannot be denied. What adds materially to the confusion is the fact that Dekker refuses to recognize any qualitative difference between “redemptive love” and “redeeming love.” Surely, it is no wonder that the question has been raised how love that docs not redeem can be “redemptive.”

Dekker teaches that because of the death of Christ salvation is “available” for all men. But the word “available” is capable of various interpretations. Arminianism tells us that the death of Christ made salvation possible for all and that, in consequence, salvation is now available” for all in the sense that each and every person may rome into pos· session of it by the exercise of his unregenerate free will. The so-called Marrow-men of Scotland, such theologians as James Hog, Thomas Boston, and the Erskines, taught that, although Christ died only for the elect, he is “dead for all” and hence “available for all.” After the appearance of his first article on the universal love of God Dekker has explained that by “availability” he means that as a result of Christ’s death salvation is obtainable by all in the way of repentance and faith, sovereignly wrought by the Holy Spirit. Here Dekker is undeniably right. Yet one cannot help wishing that he had expressed himself unambiguously from the start. The term “availability” is by no means indispensable, nor is it necessary to express by anyone word the thought intended.

Extremely misleading is Dekker’s contention that it is perfectly proper to tell any and every sinner, “Christ died for you.” To be sure, the staunchest Reformed theologian will readily grant that all men share in certain benefits of the atonement, other than salvation. Says Charles Hodge, for instance, in his Systematic Theology, concerning the atonement: “It does not follow from the assertion of its having a special reference to the elect that it had no reference to the non-elect. Augustinians readily admit that the death of Christ had a relation to man, to the wholhuman family, which it had not to the fallen angels. It is the ground on which salvation is offered to every creature under heaven who hears the gospel; but it gives no authority for a like offer to apostate angels. It moreover secures to the whole race at large, and to all classes of men, innumerable blessings, both providential and religious. It was, of course, designed to produce these effects; and, therefore, ho died to secure them…There is a sense, therefore, in which he died for all, and there is a sense in whieh he died for the elect alone” (II, 545f.). However, the saying “Christ died for you,” when addressed to men indiscriminately, can have, and actually does have, a great variety of meanings. When uttered by a Universalist, it means: “Christ died to save all men, you included, and ronsequently you and all others will be saved in the end.” When uttered by an Arminian, it means: “God designed by the death of his Son to save all men, you too; but God will not and cannot bring that design to fruition in your case unless you pennit him to do so.” When uttered by Karl Barth, it means: “Christ became reprobate for all men, also for you; and the function of the gospel is to acquaint you with that fact.” Obviously, the statement “Christ died for you” can be misleading. Small wonder that Cunningham observed in his Historical Theology that it represents a mode of preaching the gospel never adopted by the Lord and his apostles” (II, 550). To say that this mode of preaching can be mislead· ing is to understate the case. In an environment in which Universalism, Arminianism, and Barthianism are rampant it is bound to prove misleading. But the presentation of the: gospel, while of course entailing explanation, must be unequivocal. The unconverted person must be told what Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). He must be told that, Christ having died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6), God in the gospel makes to every ungodly person a bona fide offer of salvation if he repents of his sins and abandons himself to the crucified Christ, and that God urgently invites him to repent and believe because he takes no pleasure in his death but in his salvation.

The most confusing factor in the present controversy remains to be named. The undersigned cannot suppress the wish that in his discussion of the design of Christ’s death Dekker had kept in sharp focus the very nature of the atonement. That would have precluded most of the confusion, possibly all of it. After all, Dekker’s terms “sufficiency,” “availability,” and “desire” do not describe the nature of the atonement. Scripture describes it by such categories as expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, and satisfaction. In other words, the big question is not for whom did Christ design by his death to secure certain benefits other than actual salvation, but for whom did Christ design by his death to expiate guilt, to propitiate wrath, to make reconciliation, to accomplish redemption, to satisfy divine justice; in short, for whose salvation did Christ die. The answer to that question constitutes the very heart of the Scriptural doctrine of substitutionary atonement, also of the Scriptural teaching of the extent of the substitutionary atonement.


Is the Love of God One?

Time and again Dekker asserts that the love of God is one. He has no difficulty finding Reformed theologians to support that position. Not only does he cite L. Berkhof and H. J. Kuiper but, in the March, 1964, issue of The Reformed Journal, also John Calvin. On that premise he bases the conclusion that a qualitative differentiation within the love of God is untenable. What is to be said of that argumentation? Dekker is both right and wrong. His premise is correct, but his conclusion is in error. If I may be pardoned for using a foreign phrase, his conclusion is a non sequitur. It does not follow from the premise. Let me explain.

Christian theology teaches the “simplicity” of God. By that is meant that the divine essence is uncompounded and indivisible. Yet in his Word God ascribes to himself various attributes. Here we are on ground where, I imagine, angels fear to tread, but it may be that God docs this because he is addresSing himself to beings with finite understanding. Perhaps for that reason the infinite God reveals himself in piecemeal fashion, if one may say so. In his Dictaten Dogmatiek Abraham Kuyper likens the divine essence to a ray of white light, the divine attributes to the colors of the spectrum which emerge when that ray shines through a prism (1,278). Man’s vision, it is intimated, can only be blinded by that white light. Although every illustration is imperfect, this one would seem to have some merit. But here a problem arises. It is the problem of tile relation in which the attributes of God stand to his essence and to each other. In dealing with that problem it is of the greatest importance to beware of extremes.

On the one hand, the error of the Realists of the middle ages must be avoided. They taught in effect that the divine attributes represent so many elements of which the divine essence is composed. To that Reformed theologians object because it does violence to the divine “simplicity.” To state the case succinctly, each divine attribute is the divine essence, and so are all the divine attributes. God’s essence being indivisible, so are his attributes. That is to say, they are one. Each of the divine attributes is one. But so are all the divine attributes one. Most assuredly God’s love is one. But one are also God’s love by which he saves sinners and his justice by which he sentences sinners to eternal death. The Slim total of God’s attributes is one.

It is not a whit less important that the error of the Nominalists be avoided. In the interest of maintaining the “simplicity” of God they confounded God’s attributes, making them all mean the same thing. To that Reformed theologians object because it is the equivalent of denying the attributes altogether. To return to Kuyper’s illustration, ·the colors of the spectrum are as real as is white light. Says Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology: “If in God .eternity is identical with knowledge, knowledge with power, power with ubiquity, and ubiquity with holiness, we are using words without meaning when we attribute any perfection to God” (I, 372). In his Dogmatic Theology W. G. T. Shedd says: “The divine attributes are objective and real, and not merely man’s subjective mode of conception. We cannot say that we conceive of God as omnipotent, omnipresent, wise, good, and just, but that in fact he is not so. These attributes are objectively real because the entire divine essence is in them” (I, 335). And in his mimeographed Dogmatiek Geerhardus Vos says that the divine attributes “are by no means to be identified with one another. Also in God love and justice are not the same, although they cooperate in perfect harmony.” He adds: “We may not, after the manner of Pantheism, let everything in God intermingle, for then our objective knowledge of God will have come to an end” (I, 7).

The conclusion is fully warranted that, although all the attributes of the incomprehensible God are one, yet they differ from one another qualitatively. That being so, it is altogether conceivable that, although God’s love is one, there exists a qualitative differentiation within it. Presently it will be shown that Scripture teaches such actually to be the case. Even now attention may be called to the divine declaration, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” ( Rom. 9:13). If God loves all men—and he certainly does—he must have loved Esau too. Yet this declaration makes it unmistakably clear that God did not love Esau with the same love with which he loved his twin brother. Otherwise words no longer have meaning.

Dealing with Complementary Truths

As was said above, there is a Scriptural particularism and there is a Scriptural universalism. The former is summarized admirably in the five paints of Calvinism as formulated in the Canons of Dort. The latter comes to beautiful expression in the universal love of God, notably in the universal and sincere offer of the gospel.

Now these are complementary truths. Incidentally, the Bible contains a great many complementary truths. And for the proper understanding of divine revelation it is supremely important that we deal properly with such truths. That problem becomes especially acute in. those instances in which complementary truths cannot be harmonized with each other by finite and fallible human reason. Of course, the Bible being the Word of God, there are no real contractions in its teaching; but it does teach a considerable number of apparent contradictions. We call them paradoxes.

How are we to deal with complementary truths, whether paradoxical or not, in the Word of God? The supreme principle to be observed is that we must subject our logic to the divine Logos. And that principle has its corollaries. Never may we uphold one of these truths so as to deny the other. To do that constitutes outright heresy. But neither may we stress one of these truths to the minimizing of the other. To do that constitutes, to say the least, incipient heresy. For example. to deny the deity of Christ while upholding his humanity, or vice versa, is outright heresy; and to stress the humanity of Christ so as to minimize his deity, or vice versa, is heresy too, albeit of a less blatant kind. The latter type of heresy, let it be said, is usually more illusive than is the former. In other words, heresy often begins subtly with an erroneous emphasis. To put the matter positively, in dealing with complementary Scriptural truths it is of utmost importance to maintain each without any compromise.

Of that procedure Calvin has given us a shining ex· ample. In commenting on Ezekiel 18:23 be confronted the paradox of the divine universal and sincere offer of salvation on the one hand and divine election and reprobation on the other. Did he uphold one of these and reject the other? Emphatically no. He upheld both. Did he, then, soft· pedal one in the interest of the other? He did nothing of the kind. Having set forth the sincere divine offer of salvation to all to whom the gospel comes, he went on to say: “If anyone should object—then there is no election of God, by which he has predestinated a fixed number to salvation, the answer is at hand: the prophet does not here speak of God’s secret counsel, but only recalls miserable men from despair, that they may apprehend the hope of pardon, and repent and embrace the offered salvation. If anyone again objects–this is making God act with duplicity, the answer is ready, that God always wishes the same thing, though by different ways, and in a manner inscrutable to us. Although, therefore, God’s will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned. Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainJy judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction and wishes them to perish.”

To come to the point at issue, the complementary Scriptural truths of particularism and universalism must, each of them, be maintained without compromise. At this point Herman Hoeksema has failed. In his zeal for Scriptural particularism he has compromised Scriptural universaIism. Sad to say, Harold Dekker also errs at this point. In his zeal for Scriptural universalism he depreciates Scriptural particularism. Dekker commits that error by steel· fast1y refusing to recognize a qualitative difference between God’s love for the elect and God’s love for the noelect. 1bat charge requires substantiation.

The Love of God and Unconditional Election

The Bible teaches that from eternity God chose out of the fallen human race a fixed number of persons unto everlasting life and that this choice was sovereign; that is to say, the ground for it did not lie in those who were chosen but in God himself. Yet that is not all. The Bible also tells us what it was in God that determined his choice. Divine sovereignty is not arbitrariness. In sovereign love God chose those whom he chose. Romans 8:29 records: “Whom he did foreknow he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Obviously, the verb know here has that pregnant meaning which it so often has in Scripture. It is the equivalent of love. So it is said that God predestined to salvation those whom he loved from eternity. Ephesians 1:5 teaches the same truth but states explicitly something additional. Beyond all reasonable doubt, the Revised Standard Version is right when it translates: “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ.” This destining was impelled by love; it was because God loved that he predestined. Significantly, the immediate context says that God chose us in Christ and that the grace of election was freely bestowed on us “in the Beloved.” To exhaust the meaning of that language may well be impossible. but it surely implies that God loved the elect with the same love with which he loves the Son. Most certainly God does not love the reprobate with that love.

There is, then, a love in God which is exercised by him toward the elect and does not apply to the non·elect. It is impossible to conceive of that love as being exercised toward those not predestined to eternal life, for the very character of the love impelling to predestination is such that predestination derives its determinate issue from it. There· fore the Canons of Dart record as “the express testimony of sacred Scripture” that “the grace of election” is “for some only” and “the sense and certainty of this election” are for God’s children cause for “rendering grateful returns of ardent love to him who first manifested so great love toward them” (I, 13, 15).

Surely, to identify that love with the love of God for the non-elect is an error. It must indeed be deemed a grave error. It greatly impairs the Scriptural doctrine of predestination.

The Love of God and Definite Atonement

The Bible teaclles that God designed by the death of his Son. and that the Son of God designed by his death, to save the elect, and them alone. That is not all. The Bible teaches that God the Father and God the Son not only designed to save the elect by tlle death of Christ but actually wrought by that death the salvation of the elect. Nor is that all. The Bible teaches most emphatically that the Father and the Son so designed and so wrought in love.

In Romans 8:31–39 the apostle Paul, having averred that God delivered up his Son for the elect and that Christ died for the elect, is risen again, and now makes intercession for them at the right hand of God, draws the glorious conclusion that nothing can separate the elect from “the love of Christ” or “the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Evidently God’s delivering up his Son and the Son’s dying for the elect are proofs of that love. Ephesians 5:25, 26 tell us: “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” That the love here spoken of was applicable only to the church appears unmistakably from its effective design of sanctifying and cleansing. And in Galatians 2:20 Paul speaks of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Evidently the reference is to saving love for, as Calvin has noted, all the saving benefits of Christ’s death are involved in the expression “gave himself for me.” On the basis of such Scripture passages as these the Canons of Dort assert: “As many as truly believe and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of Cod given them in Christ from everlastingand speak of God’s purpose to save the elect by the blood of the cross as proceeding from everlasting love toward the elect” (II, 7–9).