|Title: Letter to an Evangelical|
A Letter to an Evangelical
Subject: Loveless Ministry?
This paper arose out the concern of a friend. When he first sent it I tried to do a short response but the further I went with it the more important I felt it was to try to cover a variety of aspects to this problem. That meant more and more words and for that I apologize. Nevertheless, if you want to think more fully than a mere surface response, I have tried to not only pick up the things my friend said, but also consider various associated difficulties. Because this has developed into a lengthy ‘paper' it may be that I have repeated myself, but that won't hurt. For the purpose of navigation, at the end of each Part I have put a link back to the Contents above, each heading of which above acts as a link to each Part of the text.
Part 1. The Concern of the Evangelical
I have a friend, an evangelical who I respect and who helpfully recently raised some questions about the nature of personal ministry or even of evangelism. I would say from the outset that that the evangelicals are my background and so I value their emphasis on Bible knowledge and its basis of salvation.
The main points my friend raised were as follows:
He expressed his primary concern in the following words: “ My contention was that the NT never uses the love of God as a motivation for unbelievers to turn to Him.”
In his subsequent argument he went on to suggest that “ in the Gospels and Acts, at least, the love of God for unbelievers is never mentioned at all” .
He raised the suggestion that God only loves those who are chosen and put doubts over John 3:16 and John 16:27 as limiting God's loves to believers.
My friend writes about God's love, “the way I understand God's love for sinners (is that) It is certainly not sentimental love; rather, as in John 3:16, it is directed at their need for salvation - nothing else .”
He concluded “so I have steered clear of telling unbelievers that God "loves" them”.
John Piper, one of the world's deepest theologian-pastors, wrote a book simply called ‘Think' with a fairly obvious challenge. It is a good challenge to think these things through on a day
Part 2. Initial Responses
As an initial response, I believe my friend's concern might be better expressed as “I fear that our loving approach to sinners may miss a) the requirement to repent and b) the good news of Jesus dying on the Cross for us. I would be the first to say that these are essentials of belief for salvation to come, but I believe this whole debate starts and finishes with the nature of God (see below).
As a second response, I believe my friend's concern arises out of a misunderstanding about praying/prophesying over non-believers which simply expresses God's love for them as a preliminary to them facing the facts about their own shortcomings (sins) and God's feelings about them.
In what follows
I will remind us that God's very being is described by the apostle John in “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16).
We will consider the primary question about God's love for sinners being absent in New Testament and see the fairly obvious reason for this.
We will consider the possibility of God who only loves the redeemed and look at the two sets of verses to which my friend has appealed, and look at their reality.
We will consider how failure to convey God's love to sinners lacks understanding of just what love is and also how it is impossible to deny God's love for any person.
I will show how expressing love opens the heart to receive the truth which might otherwise be rejected.
I will suggest that a ‘words only' Gospel falls short of the needs of today and also of the approach seen in the New Testament.
Part 3. The Nature of God
I suggest the following need to be considered, first a simple dictionary definition:
'Love' = “warm affection, attachment, liking, benevolence or strong benign feelings for.”
Then more specifically in respect of God seen in the Bible: "selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards all others" This is the agape love we so often talk about.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word, Hesed , has these senses together with the sense of mercy, faithfulness and goodness, again emphasizing the 'enduring benevolence' found in the general definitions above.
In the New Testament the Greek words, agapao (verb) or agape (noun), usually have a strong sense of a deep and constant expression of wellbeing and goodness towards others. (There is nothing sentimental about this love).
The Logic that MUST follow this
“God IS love” (1 Jn 4:8,16) therefore EVERYTHING God thinks, says or does MUST BE an expression of love. Everything!
God has that ALL the time towards EVERYONE; He CANNOT STOP being love , expressing love.
We should not see this as purely an end of the first century revelation, although I believe the apostle John saw it more clearly than any of the other Gospel writers, for the Lord revealed it to Moses in powerful terms:
Ex 34:6,7 “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger , abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
A study of the Old Testament shows it is full of references to God's love. We will make the point later, that the Jews of the New Testament would have known this aspect of God and therefore not need to emphasise it.
We will consider later on the various forms this love can take for the big question here must be, can God shut off His love, or can it be expressed at the same time as His wrath. We'll look at that later.
Part 4. Understanding Scriptural Progress: chronological or historical context
Behind this Part are the assertions from our critic that the NT never uses the love of God as a motivation for unbelievers to turn to Him ,” and that “ in the Gospels and Acts, at least, the love of God for unbelievers is never mentioned at all”. In this Part we will consider this general assertion and then in the next Part go on to consider the two particular sets of verses he has trouble with.
Starter Question – is God's love for specific groups mentioned at all in the Gospels?
It is all very well to ask if God's love for unbelievers appears in the Gospels but the prior question should be, is it mentioned for believers, and if not, why not?
The Synoptic Gospels
To ease towards an answer, I would suggest we first need to understand when and why the four Gospel accounts were written. T he Synoptic Gospels were written easily within 40 years of Jesus' life, with John some 25 years after the last of them.
The Synoptic Gospels are filled with teaching disciples how to live, but say virtually nothing about the character of God Himself. Why? The answer has to be that the context is the Jewish people, a people who have a long history with God and who will know all the Old Testament verses about His love.
Use a concordance and look up ‘God' in the Gospels, and in the Synoptic Gospels the amazing truth is that there is NO reference that describes the character of God as such.
We can infer many things such as
God's character or nature is virtually hardly ever mentioned. Why? Because the Jews knew what it was from the OT scrolls.
The fact that His love is not mention in respect of unbelievers, OR believers, is irrelevant because
The Gospel of John
John declares his purpose in writing: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30,31)
He writes, probably near the end of the first century in a time when
Now the Gnostics made up two gods, a bad one of the Old Testament and a good one in the New Testament. John's intentions to counter this heresy only comes to the fore in his letters.
In his Gospel, John says:
The amazing thing here is that although the revelation of who Jesus is, is greatly extended beyond the Synoptic Gospels, especially using picture language, the revelation of God Himself is NOT extended except as so far as it is in respect of Jesus – which is why John 3:16 is so important.
Why? Again, John comes from a Jewish background, the church is born out of that background and everything is seen in that context, a context where the nature or character of God as a God of love was not questioned.
In a later Part we will see how Jesus DEMONSTRATES by his very life and ministry what John came to see later – that God IS love – and so is Jesus.
What about Acts?
Today's critic might say, “Surely if we are making such a thing about God's love, we would find the same thing in the various sermons found in Acts.”
A review of Church history shows that at different times in history, different aspects of the truth (never a new truth) came to the fore in terms of understanding. Examples might include:
The divinity of Christ as the only begotten (= comes out of) of the Father was fought over in the first three hundred years of the existence of the Church.
The Restoration under Luther brought justification through faith.
The Azuza Street happening at the beginning of the 20th century brought the person and work of the Holy Spirit onto the agenda, initially through the Pentecostal movement.
The Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century brought gifts of the Spirit and baptism of the Spirit to the wider church, and the start of awareness of ‘the body of Christ'.
The Restoration Movement of the later 20th century brought discipleship to the fore in a new way, together with personal accountability and a new understanding of ministry gifts.
The Toronto Blessing brought a new awareness of the power of the Spirit, especially in ministry.
To emphasise the point we are making, once the Church gets under way, it seems that understanding of existing revelation comes to the fore in stages and each one of those stages means that there is a particular emphasis.
Observe the ‘sermons' in Acts
1. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, (Acts 2:14-40) first of all explains the prophetic outworking of what has just happened and then shows how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was all part of God's long-term plan, fulfilled using the sin of the Jews. It was expressly preached to Jews (2:22). Within this he shows Jesus in the light of prophetic scripture. It is a message with a Jewish historical context, to Jews, about Jews.
2. Peter outside the Temple (Acts 3:12-26) speaks again to Jews, puts his message about Jesus into a Jewish historical context, laying the guilt for Jesus' death firmly on them, but then showing how this fitted the prophetic context, which would have been meaningless to a Gentile audience.
3. Peter before the rulers (Acts 4:8-12) gives a brief challenge to the Jews, in a Jewish context.
4. The disciples praying (Acts 4:24-30) provide an interesting point. No reference to God's love is mentioned because they are focusing on His Lordship in a prophetic Psalm (2) context applied into the present circumstances.
5. When Stephen speaks (Acts 7) he is simply laying down a history of the Jews and is not seeking to make any particular point about God.
6. Paul's message in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) is different in that he was speaking into the Greek Culture, into a location where philosophy reigned. His presentation thus starts with recognizing an altar “To an unknown God” who he then explains is the source of all life, the Creator of all things. That was his context and emphasis.
We could continue this right the way through Acts but the truth is that throughout that period the current emphasise was on putting all that had happened into an historical context that was mostly all about Jewish history with the Lord, and in one place in a Greek context of philosophy.
Nowhere is there any attempt to use the character of God as a motivation to receive salvation. If we were being mischievous, we might suggest that God is not holy because holiness is not an emphasis of any of these sermons. The simple answer is that holiness was a ‘given', something accepted by the Jews as a character of God, as was love. Thus there was no mention of either of them. (The fact that Paul was rejected by the Athenian philosophers makes one speculate, would he have done any better if he had expanded on the character of God to include His love?)
Into the Epistles
In Romans we find: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8)
The emphasis of Paul's passage is that God showed his love by planning and them bringing into being His plans while we didn't have a clue – this Paul called it a mystery a number of times.
Our critic at this point cries, “But the Cross was only for those who would receive it and this is therefore God's love only for the ones who will receive His salvation. At which we have to point you to two later Parts to consider that aspect.
When the Context Changed
By the end of the 1st century the context had changed.
Love as the Emphasis for Today
We might add that God's love becomes the new emphasis this century because of the loss of love in family living, together with the hardness towards sinners that evangelicals as the prime purveyors of the Gospel conveyed in the previous century.
One might wonder if this emphasis has also come to the fore, partly as an outworking of the experiences of believers in both the Charismatic movement and the Toronto Blessing, both of which were environments where God's love came to the fore.
Part 5. Specific Scriptural Concerns
Concern over John 16:27
My friend states the following in respect of Jn 16:27:
Unfortunately, this is some bad logic and is a good example of things going wrong when quoting out of context. Let's look at the bigger context in John 16:
23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. 25 “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. 26 In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.
The context clearly shows that Jesus is teaching his disciples (yes, believers) that their relationship with God in the days to come will mean they can ask the Father things and expect Him to answer because they ask in his (Jesus') name. It is all about bringing reassurance to the disciples, NOT prescribing who or who not the Father will love. When he says, “the Father himself loves you,” in v.27, he is implying, “because the Father himself loves you, because you have come into this relationship with Him through believing in me, this is why He will be answering you and doing what you ask.”
It is the logic of the relationship: you believe in me – you have come into relationship with Him – you ask Him for things – He loves you and so He answers because of your relationship with me.
His point is NOT to say God only loves people who have a relationship with Jesus. The emphasis is on encouraging these disciples.
Queries about John 3:16
My friend comments on Jn 3:16 as follows (May I break it up with bullet points to clarify the different points he makes):
“Just a comment on John 3:16.
Most translations say "God so loved the world that ..." This is misleading because it does not mean that "God loved the world so much that ...".
The word "so" here doesn't qualify the word ‘loved' at all (in the original).
Rather it is used to refer back to what was said in verse 15 and means "in the same way".
In fact, verse 15 also uses the word "so" and there too it means "in the same way".
Verse 15 says, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
When Jesus said "so" in verse 16, He was saying that, in the same way that has just been described (so), God loved the world and gave His only son so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Thus the love of God for the "world" (the word in Greek is kosmos , which means the created order, not normally the people within it) is a saving love (agapeo).”
Let's make some comments about what he says above:
The parallelism of the snake and Jesus is already made in verse 15 therefore John did not need to repeat it in verse 16. My understanding of the original is, “For so God loved…”, a style of writing used by John.
A study of virtually every modern (and not so modern) translation and of all the main paraphrase versions hold to the “God so loved the world,” approach and one wonders how one can change it in the face of such varied and extensive scholarship over such a long period.
The ‘love' word is the agapeo word and even if we took the ‘so' out of the equation we still have God's "selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards all others" before us.
The ‘world' word kosmos is said by my friend to mean the created order not normally people within it, but that is a personal interpretation. It is also illogical, we would suggest, to speak in one breath either side of this phrase of God sending His Son to die, to then apply his death to a physical planet.
Robertson in his ‘Word Pictures of the New Testament', along with a number of other key evangelical scholars, suggests it means “The whole cosmos of men, including Gentiles, the whole human race,” and reminds us of Rom 5:8, “ God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
(Whatever that “while we were still sinners” means chronologically, it certainly indicates a God who loves sinners before they are saved. Yes, it may be argued that that is ‘saving love' but we will never know who that includes until the end of the world and every saved person has been revealed. See our arguments shortly.
The death of Christ, as an expression of God's love, for the salvation of sinners, has been at the heart of the Gospel for two thousand years and it is a courageous or unwise man who would fly in the face of the scholarship of that period of time.
We say again, that last verse highlights perhaps more than any other that God loved us while we were sinners.