The Apple of His Eye

Some time in the early nineteen-thirties J. Gresham Machen spoke to a large audience in the chapel of the University of Chicago. According to the information given to the writer this noted spokesman for orthodox Christianity dwelt on the struggles of the church in the modern age. In speaking of the resources of the Christian in waging this battle against the modern foes of the church he focused his attention on the doctrine of election. To make plain to his audience what this doctrine means he spoke as follows: “I thank God that I learned at my mother’s knee that I am a Christian, not because of anything I have done or said or decided, but 1 am a Christian simply and solely because from all eternity God has loved me. It is this blessed assurance that has kept me through all the struggles and trials and heartaches that have marked my humble efforts in the church of Jesus Christ.”

What this perceptive and able man of God said so eloquently of himself could be said with precisely equal force of the church itself. What has kept the church of Jesus Christ through the troubled ages of her history? What has upheld the church in spite of dungeon, fire and sword? What has been the very life and strength and assurance of God’s people as they have stood and struggled in a hostile world, a world in which roaring lions and false angels of light arc always seeking to destroy the church? What has kept the church? What has been her strength, her life, her hope? Simply this fact; that the church is the object of God’s special love and concern, a love which, like God himself, is eternal and thus changelessly sure.

God’s Love for His Own

God tells us of this special love and concern in his Word in many ways. None of these indications of his love for his own is more telling and sparkling than the figure which speaks of God’s people as “the apple of his eye.” We find this remarkable figure in DeuterOnomy 32:10, Psalm 17:8, Lamentations 2:18 and Zechariah 2:8 (verse 12 in the Hebrew). It is also found in Proverbs 7:2, where, significantly enough, it is used to describe the very special regard in which God’s children must hold God’s law or teaching. The word “apple” fails to do justice to what Delitzsch calls a “dazzling anthropomorphism.” The word “apple” is found in the English translations (and in others as well) but not in the Hebrew original. Because of its globular shape the eyeball with the pupil at its center was described by the early English translators with the word “apple.” But the original Hebrew word is quite different. And here is where the remarkably beautiful quality of this “dazzling anthropomorphism” appears. In Deuteronomy 32:10 the Hebrew word for the pupil of the eye is literally “little man.” The little man refers to the tiny image of oneself that one sees as he looks into the pupil of another’s eye. In Psalm 17:8 we have a double rendering of the figure. Here the pupil of the eye is spoken of as both “little man” and “little daughter of the eye.” The latter rendering is found in Lamentations 2:18. In Zechariah 2:8 (verse 12 in Hebrew) the Hebrew word means “little girl of the eye.”1

No wonder Delitzsch refers to the figure as a “dazzling anthropomorphism.” The saint can see himself in the very eye of God. All of God’s children can see themselves in the very eye of God. No language could sharpen or portray more beautifully and tenderly God’s loving concern for his own. Reflections on the figure among commentators abound in expressions like the following: “the emblem of that which was most precious and jealously protected”; “that which is cherished with greatest regard”; “a figure used to describe the dearest possession or good.” The meaning of this striking figure has been captured by Calvin as he comments on Zechariah 2:8 (12). “I am disposed to regard this passage,” says Calvin, “as intimating, that the love of Cod towards the faithful is so tender that when they are hurt he burns with so much displeasure, as though one attempted to pierce his eyes. For God cannot otherwise set forth how much and how ardently he loves us, and how careful he is of our salvation, than by comparing us to the apple of his eye. There is nothing, as we know, more delicate, or more tender, than this in the body of man; for were one to bite my finger, or prick my arm or my legs, or even severely to wound me, I should feel no such pain as by having my eye or the pupil of my eye injured. God then by this solemn message declares, that the Church is to him like the apple of his eye, so that he can by no means bear it to be hurt or touched.”

It seems perfectly evident that God exercises a very special love and concern for his church, his people, his own. This is the whole point of the beautiful figure. Perhaps the point can be stated a bit more accurately by saying that the church, God’s people, God’s own are a very special and unique object of God’s love. At any rate it is clear that there is a relationship between the love of God and God’s people that is not shared by those who are not God’s own. Therefore to hold that God loves all men (church, non-church; elect, reprobate; believers, non-believers) with the same redemptive-redeeming love’ and that all are indiscriminately objects of that love, as Professor Dekker teaches, makes the figure of the apple of God’s eye utterly pointless. Thus to lose one of the most telling and heart-warming figures in the Word of God relative to his love for his own is something to think about earnestly. And, it should be noted, the point of the figure is not set aside by the suggestion that among those referred to in these several scriptural passages there were probably some who were not actually God’s own, the elect, and so God’s love goes beyond the elect. In most of these passages a distinction is made between those who are the apple of God’s eye and those who are not. (See Deut. 32:8–9, Psalm 17:7,9 and Zech. 2:8.) And this distinction is all that is required to make definite the point that there are those who are the special object of the divine love and concern and there arc those who are not. Indeed, those who are in very truth the special object of this divine Jove are the elect. However, since the final determination of the elect is God’s prerogative alone and will not be revealed until the end of the ages, the special object of his love as actual concrete historical entity is the true confessing church in its visible manifestations among men.

New Testament Evidence 

Earlier in this article it was stated that God tells of his special relationship of love to his people in various ways. How true. In addition to the particularly appealing expression discussed above there are other impressive figures and indications in the Bible of this precious tie between God and his own. One such figure is that of the church as Christ’s bride (II Cor. 11:2, Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9:22:17) with Christ as the bridegroom (Matt. 9:15 and John 3:29). This figure too is meaningless unless it be taken to reflect a special, unique and abiding love-relationship between the bridegroom and the bride, between Christ and his church. The figure is completely distorted if. we are to teach that God in Christ loves all men alike with the same redemptive love. It is wholly out of accord with the figure to teach that God loves all men indiscriminately with the same love and in this love Christ died for all men, but that because of sovereign election only those whom God has chosen are actually saved. Applying this kind of reasoning to the bridegroom-bride figure, we have the bridegroom speaking this folly to the bride,“I love all women with the same love with which I love you, but I have taken you to be my bride because you were destined to be my wife.”

A variation of the bridegroom-bride metaphor is found in Ephesians 5:28–30, where we read as follows: “Even so ought husbands also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He that loveth this own wife loveth himself: for no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as Christ also the church; because we are members of his body.” The whole point of the instruction is that the husband should cherish his wife with a warm and special love for she stands in a unique relationship to him, a most intimate relationship like that which obtains between Christ and his church. The whole thrust of the teaching is blunted to insipidity if there is no special tie of love between Christ and his church.

We do well in this connection to take a look at a chapter in God’s Word that has been a favorite of hosts of God’s children, namely, Romans 8. The chapter concludes with a grand peroration extolling the love of God and what that love means to the Christian. “For I am persuaded,” Paul exclaims exultantly, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). For whom is this love that nothing in creation or history can breach or negate? For all men alike? Not at all. It is for “them that are in Christ Jesus,” who have “the mind of the Spirit” as opposed to those who have “the mind of the flesh,” those who have the “Spirit of adoption,” those who are “joint-heirs with Christ,” those who are “called according to his purpose,” those whom God “foreknew…foreordained…called justified…glorified,”—yes, for God’s elect. It is completely mystifying to the present writer how one can hold to the opinion, after reading Romans 8, that God loves all men alike in Christ Jesus.

The church’s lot in the world is not an easy one. She is called to do all things to God’s glory in a world where men worship themselves, their achievements or their bellies. The church is called to live a holy life in a world of sin and crookedness, a life of moral and spiritual integrity in a world of tinsel and sham. The church is called to witness steadfastly to a gospel that men really don’t want to hear. The church is not of the world. Hence her lot in the world is one of trial, persecution, ridicule and misunderstanding. The book of Revelation depicts in panoramic view the lot of the church in history.

But something glorious sustains the church through persecution and peril and sword. And this glorious something is the conviction that the church is the special and unique object of God’s eternal, unbreakable and unfailing love. It is this love (or grace) that has redeemed the church, that gathers the church, that keeps the church and that guarantees her eternal blessedness. Yes, this love (or grace) is the church’s life, her surety, her hope. To make this love a common thing, shared by saints and reprobates alike, is to secularize this holiest treasure and is to shatter the church’s most precious possession. To teach that God loves all men indiscriminately with the same redemptive-redeeming love is to point a deadly arrow at the very heart of the church, the heart of that grace (love) that truly saves, actually saves, efficaciously saves, yes, saves to the uttermost.

Election Without Love

There is a facet of Professor Dekker’s views that is puzzling, to say the least. It is his teaching that, though Cod loves all men with the same redemptive-redeeming love in Christ, only the elect are actually saved. Not only does this teaching compromise the effectual character of God’s love (or grace), but it also posits a breach between God’s love and God’s election. Professor Dekker insists that God’s love is one (God’s Love for Sinners—One or Two?2 in Reformed Journal, March 1963). If God’s love is one and this one love has all men alike as its object, then an election that has only some men as its object surely cannot be in any way identified with this universal love. To be sure, Professor Dekker’s writings are not free from confusion at this point. He docs say of Christ’s atoning work that “its existential limitation is to be explained ultimately in terms of the sovereign disposition of divine grace” (Reformed Journal, Dec. 1962, p. 7). But he insists throughout that God’s grace (or love—Dekker identifies the two) is directed to all men indiscriminately. Surely there is confusion here. Such confusion can hardly be maintained. It seems to the present writer that this confusion poses a dilemma of which neither horn is satisfactory. On the one hand one could say with Karl Barth that God elects all men. Professor Dekker has rejected this position. Then he must take the other path and acknowledge a breach between God’s love and God’s election. Such a breach constitutes a blow at the Reformed faith at a very deep and sensitive point. It is the deep and sensitive point referred to so touchingly by Machen in the incident mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article. The child of God believes that the love of God which is his in Christ Jesus is an eternal love, and because it is eternal it cannot fail in its objective of eternal blessedness for those who are the objects of that love. This is the plain force of Romans 8:28–30 and Ephesians 1:3–6. Romans 9:11–13 renders the “purpose of God according to election” in terms of God’s love for Jacob and his hatred of Esau. The Canons of Dort captured this heartbeat of the faith and put it to superb expression, especially in I–9 and II–8, 9. Election is called “the fountain of every saving good.” It is made unmistakably plain that God’s “sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose” is that “Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation….” This purpose, we are told, proceeds “from everlasting love towards the elect.”

Cod’s love is not just an attitude. If it were only that it might be just an abstraction, an idea in the minds of certain visionary men. God’s love chooses, elects, saves, justifies, glorifies. This is the glory of the love of God which is described in the Bible. In one breath John on the island of Patmos speaks of “him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by his blood; and he made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto his God and Father…” (Rev. 1:5–6). There is an unbreakable continuity between God’s love and God’s saving work in Christ. a continuity that is from eternity to eternity, if we may speak thus. In his redemptive-redeeming love God binds in one whole his sovereign election with Christ’s redeeming work in history on Calvary and the actual saving of God’s children through the work of the Holy Spirit as he regenerates, sanctifies, preserves and glorifies the objects of that holy and efficacious divine love (or grace).

More than one student of the conceptions that have captured the hearts of men has pointed out that it is the deterministic thought-life systems that have most effectively held sway over the lives of men. Lurking always in the back reaches of Greek thought and life was the idea of necessity or fate as the final determinant of history. The powerful rule of the law of Karma in Hinduism and Buddhism is another illustration of determinism in the thought-life system of millions of people. We point also to the arbitrary predestination of the Muslim Allah with its consequent terrible fanaticism in the lives of his devotees. Marx’s doctrines of economic determinism with inevitable class struggle and proletarian rule have captured the impassioned devotion of hosts of people in modem times. Why have such deterministic systems held the devotion of so many people? Without doubt the anSwer to that question is a complicated one involving many cultural, intellectual and religious factors. But one point seems clear. In a deterministic system man rises above the limitations, frustrations, pettinesses and tragedy of individual existence by identifying himself with a grand purpose and mastery that transcend his own little cramped and troubled world.

The Christian of Reformed persuasion, basing his faith squarely on the Word of God, believes God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. Hence Christianity is also properly called a deterministic system. But, there are important differences between Christian determinism and non-Christian determinism. The writer would like to suggest that these differences stem from what he would call the basic point of difference, a basic point which, in the judgment of the writer, signalizes the unique grandeur of the Christian conception. At the heart of Christian determinism is love, the love of a personal God. It would be more accurate to describe this heart of Christianity as a perfect blend of divine love and absolute sovereignty viewed within the framework of God’s perfections of truth, holiness and righteousness. This divine love fused with absolute sovereignty establishes at the center of history a community of love, the church, whose supreme duty it is to love the holy God of truth and righteousness above all and one’s neighbor as himself. And a significant element in the life of this community of love is the divinely imposed obligation to proclaim this message of divine love in Christ Jesus to all mankind. Therefore just because of the sovereign and effectual workings of God’s eternal and sure love in history all of mankind is blessed with the impact of a love-message and a love-life proceeding from that community of love chosen by God in Christ before history began. It is just because of the presence in the world of this community of love chosen and maintained by the love (grace) of God that God’s love is a meaningful reality in countless ways in the affairs of men in general. Any failure to maintain the purity and uniqueness of that love that has made and kept the church as the apple of God’s eye is a blow not only at the church, but also at that love which is such a blessing to all mankind because of the presence of the loving and witnessing church in the world. This community of love, said Jesus, is the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Professor Dekker’s teaching of the universal love of God in Christ Jesus does not, therefore, spell enrichment for all men in the blessings of the divine love, but rather spells a dreadful impoverishment for all men.


Naturally there are many questions that confront us as we work in this sensitive area of theological concern. It is asked, for instance, what the relationship is between God’s love for “the apple of his eye,” his people, his church, and his love or loving-kindness directed toward all men generally. But care is called for in the handling of this and related questions. Such questions may lead us into an area that is off-limits for man. God’s Word teaches both. Of that the writer has no doubt. But pursuit of the question of the relation between what our words inadequately describe as God’s special love for his own and his general love for all men may involve presumptuous  invasion of those areas of mystery where we have to do with the fine nuances of the inner dispositions of the heart of God. Respect for proper limits upon our inquiry is called for here.

Finally the author of these lines hopes that they may help in some small way to illuminate the issues confronting the church today. It is hoped that these lines help to show that the theological path along which Professor Dekker would promote the cause of missions is not the path the church should follow. In all faithfulness and without personal animus of any kind this path must be called a false path, a path leading into a thicket of theological confusion in which dark shadows are cast on precious elements of the Reformed faith, especially upon that element that is the very heart of our faith and our evangelical witness, namely, the efficacious grace of God. It is sincerely to be hoped that Professor Dekker may come 10 see this too, and that not only the synod of the Christian Reformed Church meeting in June, but also Professor Dekker himself will heartily repudiate it. The professor’s concern for the more effective promotion of missions must be admired. The way along which he seeks this promotion must be rejected.

1. In Ps. 17;8, Lam. 2: 18 and Zech. 2:8 (12) we probably also have instances of the remarkable usage of the word “daughter” in the Hebrew idiom.

2. Prof. Dekker first taught that we should distinguish between redemptive and redeeming love (Reformed Journal, Feb. 1963, p. 14). He has since abandoned this distinction Acts of Synod 1966, p. 448).

Does God have a special concern for his church? Can this be denied without radically divorcing God’s sovereign election from his sovereign love? These and other issues involved in Prof. Dekker’s construction of the love of God are evaluated in the light of God’s Word, by the Rev. Edward Heerema, pastor of Bradenton, Florida, Christian Reformed Church.