The “Heresy” of Particular Love
In my previous post on this subject, I noted that Jerry Falwell had declared of Liberty University:
“We are not into partcular love or limited atonement. As a matter of fact we consider it heresy.”
I stated that Falwell had taken two distinctively Christian doctrines or concepts and called them heresy. Falwell spoke of particular love and limited atonement. While it seems Falwell is lumping these two concepts together synonymously, they are in fact two distinctive concepts. Today we will briefly examine whether or not “particular love” is a biblical concept.
What is “Particular Love?”
“Particular love” seems, at first glance, to be the idea of loving certain individuals in a special way. Also at first glance, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this idea. It is a simple fact of human nature. Each of us practices such love. I love my wife in a way which I do not love other women. I love my family in a way which I do not love other people. And I love my church in a way which I do not love other churches. Every person reading this surely must agree with this assessment.
But Falwell, it seems, has connected this idea with limited atonement. That is to say, Falwell is asserting that “particular love” teaches the idea that God does not love everybody. Since Jesus only died for Christians, then the logical conclusion is that God only loves Christians, right?
Wrong. Such a conclusion, even if one concedes the first part of the syllogism, is so utterly false and unbiblical it boggles the mind. Why?
In my post on John 3:16 (you can read it here), I showed that it was very clear that God does, in fact, love everyone. “God loved the world.” There is no contesting this explicitly clear statement. The entire Bible is filled with statements describing God loving. 1 John 4 makes it explicitly clear that no one is able to love unless God loves first. So it is very clear that God does, in fact, love everyone.
Feeling It Doesn’t Equal Doing It
Unfortunately for Falwell, it seems he has conflated the emotion of love with the act of loving. Just feeling love does not necessarily equate into expressing that love. More specifically, having love for a group of people does not mean that love is expressed in the same way to every member of that group. And so we move right back to the assertion of the first paragraph in the previous section: God does not love every individual in the same way.
How do we know this biblically? Again, return to John 3:16. The Greek of this verse makes it explicitly clear. The Greek word most English versions translate as “so” actually means in this manner, in this way or as I like to say, this is how. Most Christians, when they read “For God so loved the world” will actually think, For God loved the world so much. Such a reading is incorrect. The correct reading is “For God loved the world in this way” or “For this is how God loved the world.” So we see that while God does indeed love the entire world, He has chosen to express that love in a specific way. This is what is really meant by “particular love;” God loving in a certain way rather than generally.
To see the illogic of Falwell’s understanding, let’s look at it this way. I love my sisters in Christ deeply and in an abiding manner. I also love my wife deeply and in an abiding manner. If Falwell is correct, then I must love these women and my wife equally and without distinction. That means I must take these women out to dinner, provide for them, emotionally connect with them, have sex with them on a regular basis, perform all the husbandly duties for them. Do you not see the absurdity? It is just as absurd to insist that God must love Christians and non-Christians just as equally. Jesus does not perform husbandly duties for those who are not His bride. Ephesians 5 makes it clear that He does these things for the Church alone.
It is clear, then, that the love of God for humanity is not expressed generally.
How Does God Love?
Returning to John 3:16, it again becomes obvious just how God loves the world. He sent the only begotten Son. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how God loves you, Christian or non-Christian. That expression of love is so limited, so particular, and so biblical that I have trouble understanding why Falwell is even objecting. 1 John 4:9 makes it clearer by repetition: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. This passage is nothing more than a restatement of John 3:16 and should be considered exactly synonymous.But the problem, and this is where Falwell totally misunderstands this concept, is that there is a purpose behind expressing God’s love in this way.
Why Does God Love This Way?
Both John 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 lay out the purpose behind God’s expression of love: that those who believe in Jesus will live forever. God wants to give eternal life to humans. In fact, the Bible explicitly says God wants all people to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). But He is not going to pass it out arbitrarily like animal crackers and apple juice in children’s Sunday School. Just like I don’t give the same kind of love I give my wife to other women, God does not give eternal life to just anyone. No, He gives it only to a certain type of person; one who believes. Just as I only share my bed with one woman, God only shares His eternal life with one type of person.
Let’s take the sexual intimacy anology once again. Is it really love to share your bed with a person who does not love you? Do you really want to have sex with a person who is not emotionally invested in you? A person who has no desire for you beyond carnal benefit, a person who does not think highly of you, a person who does not want to share their life with you? If any of us have a shred of integrity and self-respect, the answer must obviouly be a resounding “NO!”
So by the same token, why would God share His eternal life with a person who does not believe in His Son, a person who does not care for Him, a person who only wants worldy gratification from Him, a person who thinks very little of Him, a person who does not want to commit their life to Him? If you can answer that question, you are a much smarter person than I. In fact, you are even smarter than the professors I have been privileged to sit under.
Who Does God Love?
At this point we come to the crux of Falwell’s misunderstanding of particular love. God makes His love manifest only to those who believe in Jesus. What Falwell is failing to comprehend is that while God loves everyone, not everyone experiences God’s love. That experience is left only for believers.
Such a concept is testified to practically everywhere in the Bible. The Psalms, for example, are awash with statements to the effect that God expresses His love to those who obey Him, who do right, who are just and upright in their ways. In fact, the Psalms are explicit that God hates (yes, hates) those who do not. Psalm 5:5 is a glaring example of that. Wicked people do not experience the love of God. Quite the contrary, they experience God’s hatred of sin. Perhaps the most famous and controversial expression of this idea is from Romans 9:13, quoting Malachi 1:2, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
A Right Response
It is fitting for us to conclude this examination with that verse, Romans 9:13. What is really disturbing about that verse is not that God hates Esau. What is disturbing is that God loves Jacob. God hates evil. He absolutely hates sin. He despises it. It makes Him sick! And by all accounts Jacob was one of the worst of sinners. That God loved Jacob at all is mind-boggling. Astounding! Why? Because, as Joseph told his brothers, Jacob’s sons, what was intended for evil, God intended for good. God loves particularly because He intends for evil people to be saved. And He extends that love for the purpose of saving them. And He will only allow those to be saved whom meet the criteria of that love. That is mind-boggling and life-changing to understand.
Jerry Falwell does not understand this. I think that he knows exactly what I have just written, and that he agrees totally. But in his rush to condemn “limited atonement” and all who believe in it, he has trampled a core Christian concept.
“Particular love,” as we have seen, is a totally biblical concept. It is not heresy. God has expressed His love through Christ. This expression of love makes it possible for only those who believe in Him to experience it. That we believers experience such love ought to make us bow down on our faces in humility and awe and praise and worship and glorying in the One who so loved us. Excuse me, in the One who loved us in that way.