Wrapping Your Mind Around
WRAPPING YOUR MIND AROUND
When you consider that God is big and holy, and that you are small and sinful, it should come as no surprise that wrapping your mind around biblical truth is not always a piece of cake. As I began to say in last week’s “Of Boxes and Paradoxes” reflection, the Christian faith has its share of complexities which require us to be humble learners. As we engage with God’s Word, our basic rule of engagement should be: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5 ESV) The words of men, including our own words, aren’t worth very much. By contrast: “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6 ESV) I would much rather stand on God’s utterly reliable Word though I can’t wrap my mind all the way around it, than to stand in the counsel of men who offer seductive alternatives. In other words, I’d rather be guarded by the shield of God, than exposed to a world of lies.
So this brings to the continuation of last week’s reflection, which itself goes back to the recent sermon on 1 Timothy 2:1-7. First let me introduce the paradox in very simple terms, then we’ll attempt to unpack it in some detail. Here is the paradox: God loves all people but only saves some people.
Paul writes that “God our Savior… desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4 ESV). Now it is possible that “all people” means something like all kinds of people, thus casting a wide-angle lens over all the people groups of the world (i.e., every tribe and tongue) without intending to include every single individual. That is possible. You have to look closely at the context, because sometimes a word like “all” is indeed constrained in some way by the surrounding verses. But in the context of 1 Timothy 2:1-7 it is likely that “all people” is a reference to everyone, because: 1) Paul instructs us to pray for all people (v. 1); and 2) Paul highlights the truth that “the man Christ Jesus” is the one mediator between God and humanity (v. 5). But even if “all people” in verse 4 means all kinds of people, there are a number of other passages that show us that God does, in fact, love all people without exception.
God’s Love for All
So let’s get it firmly fixed in our minds that God truly does love all people. In Genesis 4, God pleads with Cain, though the man was wicked and would go down as a prototypical unrighteous man (1 John 4:12, Jude 11). In 2 Chronicles 36:15-16 we are told that although the nation of Judah was steeped in wickedness and would ultimately be judged, God had repeatedly demonstrated compassion by sending his prophets to His rebellious people. God’s compassion to Israel/Judah extends to the nations in general (e.g., Acts 14:17). God is merciful and kind “to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35 ESV), causing “his sun to rise on the evil and on the good” and “[sending] rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 ESV). Further, God has so orchestrated global history so that all people everywhere “should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27 ESV). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” – not at all meaning that God was enthralled with a wonderfully attractive world, but instead meaning that God took pity on a sin-sick world and, in great love, sent His Son to rescue it – “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). It is true that many refuse to repent and believe, but hear God’s plea: “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:32 ESV)
Of course, the best way to understand the heart of God is to gaze upon Jesus, the Word who became flesh and whose incarnate glory is the “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV). In the pages of the four gospels we encounter the only Man who always loved all of his neighbors, including his enemies and opponents. He knew that the majority of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were far from God and would perish, and yet He wept over the city and expressed His yearning to gather these stubborn people under His protective wings (Matthew 23:37-39, Luke 19:41-44, Luke 21:20-24). And remember that Jesus declared, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9 ESV). So if with the eyes of faith you can see Jesus yearning and weeping over a rebellious city, then you have true insight into God’s heart for a wayward world.
Application of God’s Love for All
The doctrine of God’s love for all people should energize our love for all people. Since God loves all people, we should pray for all people (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Since God is kind to the evil and the unjust, we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:43-45). Since Jesus sacrificed His body “for the life of the world” (John 6:51 ESV), it follows that Paul’s missional outlook is the only sensible one: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” and “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 9:19 and 1 Corinthians 10:33 ESV). The righteous heart expresses itself in love for all – and the originator of such love is not the charity of man but the character of God. Behold your God! Grasp His great love for you! Then reflect His love in every possible direction!
God Only Saves Some People
Every healthy, well-taught Christian knows that: 1) God has a benevolent heart toward all people; and 2) many people will ultimately perish. God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31 ESV) – and this judgment will not go well for many people (Matthew 7:21-27, John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:11-15). In fact, “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV) So even though God desires all people to be saved and doesn’t take pleasure in the death of the wicked, He does not, in fact, save every person. Many will “go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46 ESV). All biblically-minded Christians are in agreement on these points.
Some Christians navigate the apparent tension between ‘God’s love for all’ and ‘God only saving some’ by claiming that man’s free will is the decisive reason why many are not saved. “Yes, God wants all people to be saved,” they say, “but many choose to reject God’s offer of salvation.” Of course, it is undeniable that many choose to reject the gospel: “those who are perishing… refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10 ESV). Nevertheless, this “free will of man” explanation is not adequate. And the reason is simple: sinful people, left to their own free will, will always make choices that are consistent with their character – and since the settled character of all sinful people is corrupt to the core (Romans 3:9-20), they will never embrace Christ. In other words, a lively faith doesn’t naturally arise out of people who are dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1), who are oblivious to spiritual truth (Romans 3:11, Ephesians 4:18), and who have no desire for God (Romans 3:11, 18) – and the Bible says that these unflattering characteristics are descriptive of each and every one of us.
Given Scripture’s portrait of the heart of man, it is no wonder that people choose the way of sin and death. The real question is: how does anyone get rescued out of the muck? And the answer is: God’s sovereign grace. God looks out upon a world full of sinners all of whom are dead in their sin, and He chooses to impart faith and repentance to some, but not to all. Jesus put it this way: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37 ESV) and “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44 ESV).
In John 6:35-65, coming to Jesus is equivalent to believing in Jesus (see John 6:35). And in the verses quoted above, Jesus tells us the decisive reason why some people come to Jesus and believe: because the Father first of all chose to give them and draw them to the Son. Every individual whom God gives and draws to the Son actually does come to the Son and is received by Him. Everyone else is left in their sin and, as such, is utterly unable to come to Jesus. When God leaves sinners in their sin, we call it justice (they get what their sin deserves, and no worse). When God plucks some out of the fire, we call it grace (they get infinitely better than their sin deserves). Those who perish are treated fairly; those who are saved are treated unfairly – because grace and mercy are not fair, and Jesus bore the cost for us.
For Nourishment and Praise
Working our way through the paradox doesn’t mean we can wrap our mind around every aspect and implication (in this short reflection we have barely scratched the surface!). But in all humility we must learn to gladly embrace all that Scripture declares to be true. And what Scripture declares to be true is that God does indeed love all people, but He doesn’t love all people in the same way. In unfathomable love He has chosen to appoint some, but not all, to eternal life (Acts 13:48). And God’s holy wrath remains on all who are outside of Christ (John 3:36).
The doctrine of God’s gracious election isn’t meant to be a dry doctrine for heady souls, but rather nourishment for redeemed souls. The knowledge of God’s sovereign grace should awaken gratitude that God took pity on us when we were in bondage to sin and, no thanks to us, He breathed new life into our dead souls. The doctrine of God’s gracious election should also motivate evangelism because we know that God has indeed chosen some and thus the gospel message will not always fall on deaf ears. The understanding that God has chosen us, and not the other way around, should motivate fruitful service because God long ago decided to include us in His game plan: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV) The realization that God is the One who stooped low to save us should encourage our weary hearts: He will not abandon the work of His hands, but will be faithful to see us through until we have been glorified with Christ in the age to come (Romans 8:28-30).
Ultimately, God’s electing love is not meant to stir up angst and argument, but adoration and praise. As Josiah Conder rightly put it in his 19th century hymn "My Lord, I Did Not Choose You":
“My Lord, I did not choose you, / For that could never be;
My heart would still refuse You, / Had You not chosen me
You took the sin that stained me, / You cleansed and made me new
Of old You have ordained me, / That I should live in You.
Unless Your Grace had called me / And taught my opening mind
The world would have enthralled me, / To heav’nly glory blind
My heart knows none above You; / For Your rich grace I thirst
I know that if I love you; / You must have loved me first”
So then, let us think and live and worship as “vessels of mercy” (Romans 9:23 ESV).
NOTE: Header Image/Featured Image Photo by Lucas Marconnet on Unsplash