Does God love everyone? Is His love limited to His elect?


Depending on how one defines "love," the answer can be either that he loves everyone, or that he loves only the elect, or even that he loves only his covenant community. The Bible itself uses "love" in a number of ways, so this kind of ambiguity is to be expected.

A good place to start thinking about this idea is Deuteronomy 23:5, where we are told that because God loved Israel, he refused to curse them. In this context, God's love was for his covenant people. The covenant people certainly contained both elect (e.g. Moses, Joshua, etc.) and reprobate individuals (cf. Deut. 29:4). Also, the fact that God sometimes does curse people indicates that he does not always express love when determining blessings and/or curses. Thus, in this passage we find God loving some people who are not elect, but not all people who are not elect. In this sense, God can be said to love the covenant community (i.e. the church). Conversely, the implication is that God does not love people who are not in the covenant community, at least not in the same way. Many Old Testament passages speak of this covenant love in terms of aheb (ahab), a verb usually translated "loves," or chesed, variously translated as "lovingkindness," "mercy," "faithfulness," etc. This love causes God to be particularly kind and merciful toward the covenant community, but does not ensure their salvation. In this sense, we may say that it is a providential love, being limited to God's interaction with and governance of the world, not to his eternal decrees.

But it is also important to remember that God is in covenant with all people through the covenants with Adam and Noah, even if he is not in a special covenant relationship with them such as we see in Old Testament Israel and in the New Testament and modern church. This is part of the reason that we can say that God has a certain love for all mankind. Another reason we can say this is that God is the creator of all mankind, as well as of the whole world. In some sense, God loves his entire creation and all mankind, though this general love is not as great as his love for his covenant people. We see this universal love manifested in God's provision and care for all mankind. For example, in Matthew 5:44-46 Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies in order to be sons of the Father. That is, by loving our enemies we emulate God. The example Jesus provided for God's love of even the unrighteous was that God sends rain on the crops of the unrighteous. In a similar way, Jesus encouraged us to pray for our enemies. Both these are examples of a type of love that is not as great as the covenant love we see elsewhere, but which nevertheless takes pains to be gentle, caring and patient. There are not nearly as many examples of this kind of love in the Bible as there are of covenant love. Like covenant love, this love is providential and does not ensure salvation for those loved.

The third kind of love, which we might call electing love, is also related to covenant love because it is love which the Father and Son expressed in their eternal covenant of redemption in which they agreed to predestine and save those of us who are, as a result, elect. This is love "in Christ." That is, it is God's love for Christ himself, which extends to us only if we belong to Christ and are united to him or are predestined to become united to him. There are many examples of this kind of love in the New Testament. A good example of this kind of love can be found in Ephesians 1:3-6 (cf. Rom. 8:38-39). In that passage, Paul explains that God chose the elect before the foundation of the world because of his love for them in Christ. Unlike the other two types of love that are providential, this love is eternal because it transcends God's governance of creation and extends into the realm of his salvific decrees. Because this is love for Christ himself, it is much greater than covenant love and universal love. And because it extends to us only by virtue of our union with Christ, it is love God has only for the elect. This love cannot fail to save those who are so loved. We find a rather explicit statement of this distinction in 1 John 3:16. There, John taught that we know love because Jesus died for us (assuming limited atonement, this would be enough to prove the existence of God's special love for the elect). And John offered the following application based on this fact: Christians should lay down their lives for other Christians. That is, Christians are to express the same love that Christ expressed by loving the same people in the same way. That we are to love only Christians in this way indicates that Jesus and the Father love only Christians (i.e. the elect) in this way.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.