RC Sproul recently answered a question unsurprisingly. The question: does God love everyone? Long answer for him is basically, God loves everyone in a certain way and that certain way is limited to acts such as sustaining the universe, “rain falling on just and unjust”, fun stuff like that. But really it is only the elect whom God loves in the way that is actually meant by the question, Sproul admits as much in his answer. God loves His Son and the elect for Sproul. But even this type of love for the elect is entirely conditional. Sproul comments, “when I hear preachers stand up and say that God loves us unconditionally, I want to scream. I want to say, then why does he call us to repent?.. he has placed an absolute condition by which he requires.” In this dreadful scenario, you are bound by the condition of repentance to meet the criterion for God’s love.
I am of the opinion that this is entirely false. Shocking. We have strong case in the New Testament which contains none of the caveats to which Sproul retreats. This is so plainly seen in Paul’s letters. I’m thinking specifically of Romans. Romans 5 should seal the deal. Let’s assume for a moment that Paul is an outlier. We are going to go through one of my favorite stories in the New Testament and measure Sproul’s position by it and, ultimately, show that – against all odds, against what we might like to believe, and against all well meaning theologians who say otherwise – the God of the Bible, the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus, truly loves humanity. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. According to Sproul, this should be enough.
Shout out to Jackie Lee.
Luke’s gospel is carefully crafted and chapter 24 is an obvious high point in the narrative. We get the resurrected Jesus on Emmaus, we get Jesus scaring the living daylights out of his disciples. A lot of fantastic stuff is packed into this chapter. But my reading of this chapter was enriched by reading Luke’s version of Jesus’ words at his crucifixion. The words of Jesus here may seem like this is some sort of Lucan revision of the “too-desperate” Jesus of Matthew and Mark, who portray Jesus crying out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Pss 22), but this could not be further from the truth. With our ears tuned to the Psalms we actually hear a Psalm of Lament in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ death.
In Jesus’ great time of distress before his death, he went to the Mount of Olives to pray. His disciples slept. They could not be bothered to join him in prayer at that time, even though he warned them that it is that they “might not enter temptation” (22.46). He was betrayed by Judas with a kiss (22.46-48). Peter himself denied Jesus, as Jesus foretold, later that night (22.54-62). While a great multitude of men and women mourned for Jesus as he went to his death (23.27), there is no reference to the eleven in this moment. Jesus’ closest friends do not follow Jesus on the road to the cross.
Pretty bad showing for the guys who hung around Jesus in his ministry. We have shown where the narrative explicitly harps on the rejection and abandonment of Jesus by his followers, but Luke narrates this implicitly in the echo of Psalm 31. In Jesus’ last moments in Luke, he both cries for the forgiveness of those in the crowd and “commits his spirit” to his Father, echoing Psalm 31. “Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach, especially to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many— terror on every side!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” (Ps 31.11-13). Jesus, echoing the broader lament of Psalm 31, evoked a story of being abandoned by those close to him. He became a “reproach” to his neighbors and an object of dread to his acquaintances. He was totally forgotten, like one who is dead. Jesus’ friends and neighbors are a cause for lament in Jesus’ death according to Luke, not just the enemies who have captured him. He was not only crying in distress because the devil and his pawns had made their final move on him, but also because of the “no” screamed by the absence of his followers.
Surprise. Jesus is resurrected by His Father and starts making His rounds. Now, it is imperative at this point for a good Federal Calvinist like Sproul that Jesus not go around acting like some hippie yoga deity that might just off and forgive those who abandoned Him. It is imperative for Sproul that Jesus make clear the condition that hangs upon what He has done in His death and resurrection (provided they were actually elect and His death atoned for their sins. Ah, limited atonement, such a balm for a restless soul!) Yet, we see Jesus do something wildly different.
Jesus’ first words to the 11 are “Peace to you!” (24.36). The eleven who abandoned Jesus are met by his declaration of peace with them. This is possible under one scenario. In Jesus’ death, in His abandonment, he achieved reconciliation between them. Jesus is able to go to his disciples without malice because of what he effected in his death and resurrection. This peace created between the two parties is a reconciliation, a narrative microcosm of God’s act in Christ. The disciples were confused, “startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit” (24.37). Before Jesus explained to them according to the Scriptures what had happened to him, they only had reason to be afraid. Not only because Jesus seemed to be a spirit, but because, as with the followers on the road to Emmaus, they had proven to be disappointed in Jesus’ death on a cross; they had fulfilled Psalm 31, seeing Jesus as an object of dread.
This isn’t Jesus being soft on sin. The enmity between Jesus and His disciples (or, the whole cosmos as Paul would say bluntly in 2 Corinthians 5) has been undone in this reconciliation. Repentance does not precede the effective death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not a condition. Repentance is a result of this reconciliation. God’s movement towards us is grounded in his eternal love and his love is not conditioned by us (John Calvin famously quoted Augustine while handling Romans 5 on this, “Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciles us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us..” Institutes, II.16.4). God shows his love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. You can say that without winking. The negative formulation of the gospel, so entrenched in certain evangelical articulations of the gospel is non-gospel. It is not a declaration of Good News, but a message about potential bad news and potential good news. Paul and Luke have no issues here. How it works out is complicated (cf Romans 11, boi) but Jesus’ death and resurrection are firm. Sproul thinks he’s being tough on sin, but he’s not. He has reduced it to faulty actions we rationally make and can rationally turn from — especially when the carrot of God’s love is dangled in front of our eyes and the rod of God’s wrath is placed on our ass.
This is not a God without judgment and wrath, but the judgment and wrath of God are a result of God’s Being as Love, revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Luke 23-24, we learn that God’s “yes” overcomes the disciples’s “no.” We learn that God rejects the disciples rejection of His Son and reconciles them, in love, before they make any moves toward Him. The Gospel, the actual Good News, is of God’s priority. It is not conditioned by us, and certainly not our repentance. There is no quid pro quo with God. “..God’s idea of Good News is opposed to circular exchange” (J.L. Martyn, The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians). The God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus loves in such a way that He arranges and enacts the appropriate judgments in order to achieve reconciliation. He has no interest in making contracts with humans to fulfill in order to be able to love them. He just loves them. This is something that can only be seen by focusing on Christ, as Calvin argues in Book II of the Institutes, but Sproul has ignored Calvin’s argument. More importantly, he has ignored the declaration of Christ.