In the last post on D. A. Carson we looked at the reasons why he considered the love of God to be a “difficult doctrine.” We agree that our view of God’s love has been greatly distorted but we disagreed as to the reasons why. In the following post I will lay out Carson’s own interpretation of a Biblical view of the love of God. In the process it will become evident that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment prohibits one from thinking logically about the very nature of God as love. We believe the reason for this is because it splits God in two. Carson is trying to reconcile the “God who loves the world and wants everyone to be saved” with the “God who has the power to save yet withholds this power from most …for His glory.”
But the Bible is emphatic that “God is one” and that He has one purpose. Therefore all that He does will be in alignment with this one purpose: to be glorified in all the earth where every knee will bow and every tongue confess and worship Him as Lord, which is our greatest joy and pleasure. His mission is to be glorified by restoring His image-bearers to being fully alive by making “all things new.” (Irenaeus) If God is one, ALL that He desires will be accomplished and “His word will not return to Him void ” (Isaiah 55:11).
If God is one then His judgment is one and His fire is …one fire. His judgment and fire, though a double-edged sword is still one sword and it will bring about one end: death defeated, the works of the devil destroyed, all things new, God reconciling all things to Himself until He is “all in all.” It is theologically impossible that the one purpose of God will produce a small realm of worshippers in the New Heavens and Earth while consigning another population, exceedingly more numerous, to a place where Carson says sin and punishment, pain and evil, will cycle forever in a place called “hell.” This eternal cosmic rebellion and hatred toward the Sovereign Lord of the universe is somehow, according to Carson, part of this one purpose of God–the purpose of the God who has also said that He “loves the world” and will “make all things new.” But these two paradigms are contradictory and indicative of not one God but two gods with two opposing purposes.
This is absolutely incoherent in light of the very nature of God which we are told is one. He is one: in goodness, love, light, life, mercy, justice and holiness. He is not two. We are two. That is why we are judged not Him. But we judge Him to be two and not one. To judge means literally “to separate” (krino). God sees that we are two (double-minded) and only He can differentiate and divide the good from the bad in us. We are two and need Him to heal us and make us of one purpose, one heart, one will…a truly free will; free to choose the good, free to choose Him and not for any other reason than for the love of Him. This is the one God who is coming and saving us from our divided hearts and making us one with Him and one with one another (John 17) This is His one purpose.
So you will see in the following paragraphs how Carson finds himself in “the conundrum” once again by making God two instead of one. This gets very confusing for us and quite messy for him.
On page 16 Carson begins to launch into five ways he perceives the Bible portrays the love of God. And his observations are right on target. Trouble is, for him that is, if you put them all together you have just revealed and presented the doctrine of the ultimate redemption and reconciliation of all!
Let us summarize for you all five of the facets of God’s love and place them together as Carson himself has stated them. He calls them the “five distinguishable ways the Bible speaks of the love of God”:
First he speaks of the “intra-trinitarian love of God” as the foundation for a relational and personal love of God. This is a very good base for developing an understanding of God’s love as relational. Then he observes how “God has a providential love over all He has made.” This is evident in His attention given to “even the sparrow that falls.” But here is where Carson begins to speak in two minds. He ends this point with saying that this love is only realized by “His people” when he just got through saying it was an all-encompassing love for His entire created order! (pg 17)
Next Carson gives a more Arminian view of God’s love in relation to:
“God’s salvific stance toward His fallen world. God so loved the world that He gave His Son (John 3:16). I know that some try to take κόσμον (‘world‘) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s Gospel is against the suggestion…God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into His love for the elect…However much God stands in judgment over the world, He also presents Himself as the God who invites and commands all human beings to repent…’As surely as I live…I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live…’ (Ez. 33:11).”
Thus far Carson declares his belief that God loves the world of sinners and invites and even commands all to repent and come to Him. Indeed Carson lays out Scripturally how God desires and commands that all the wicked repent. Again, a very specific Arminian interpretation.
On page 18 Carson begins his point number four, a distinctly Calvinist position in which he claims to confess: It is “God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward His elect. The elect may be the entire nation of Israel or the church as a body or individuals. In each case, God sets His affection on His chosen ones in a way in which He does not set His affection on others.”
This point conjures up all kinds of objections for the Arminian or anyone who is willing to question his final conclusion here. And for the general Bible student, if election was first revealed to Abraham as an election for the world to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen 12) how is it that Carson has shrunk it down to an election about and for one’s own self? And what does Carson mean when he says that the elect may be referring to the entire nation of Israel? Is he quoting Paul in Romans 9 where he states that “All Israel will be saved”? If Israel was so often judged as more evil than even Sodom, Egypt and Assyria (Ez. 16, Isa 19) then how is it that Israel is rewarded as God’s only elected ones to be saved? (along with their spiritual offspring, ‘the Church’.) This is especially evident when we note that these prophecies grant final restoration and salvation status to Sodom, Egypt and Assyria–nations clearly not representative of the “elect”!
Finally, his point five is where his Calvinism really falls apart. In an effort to hold together the incongruent pieces of “unfailing love” and “eternal conscious torment” Carson states: “Finally, God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward His own people in a provisional or conditional way–conditional, that is, on obedience.” He “clarifies” for us how this conditional love has nothing to do with our salvation but rather it is about:
“our relationship to Him once we do know Him. ‘Keep yourselves in God’s love,’ Jude exhorts his readers, leaving the unmistakable impression that someone might not keep himself or herself in the love of God…Clearly this is not God’s providential love; it is pretty difficult to escape that. Nor is this God’s yearning love, reflecting His salvific stance toward our fallen race. Nor is it His eternal, elective love.”
Wait a minute, did Carson really say that God has a “yearning love” for the whole world? Is he saying God yearns for the salvation of all? Did he actually make these claims in tandem with his other statements about God’s love being a selective love for only the elect? And did he actually imply that one could lose their salvation by “not keeping themselves in God’s love?” What then is the definition of love according to Carson?
Further on, Carson continues to isolate this “conditional” mode of love that God has specifically for His elect. He develops his case by comparing this love with that of a father who will discipline, as a father should, all His children who wander out of His love. (pg 20) He points out to us how he himself as a father might impose “restrictive sanctions,” giving his wandering teens a “bawling out” which he defines as a “falling under my wrath.”
Wow, he used the word “wrath” in conjunction with his own children as a picture of the other side of God’s fatherly love! He said that when his children have earned the privilege of going out for a meal, a concert or fishing with him it is an example of “remaining in his love.” But if instead they are grounded and disciplined for bad behavior it is only a matter of a “different manifestation” of his love, says Carson. Wow, ONE God, ONE love in two manifestations! That’s it Dr. Carson. You’ve got it!
Well, just to prove that we did not hear him wrong, listen to his conclusion:
“…His people live under His love or under His wrath, in function of their covenantal faithfulness. ‘He will not always accuse, not will He harbor His anger forever; He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His live for those who fear Him…As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him…’ This is the language of relationship between God and the covenant community.”
Well, if you are listening and you are a Calvinist you should be crying “legalism” since Carson is placing “conditions” on God’s love here (even though that IS what the Bible clearly seems to be saying). If you are an Arminian you might agree that we can lose our salvation and that God’s salvation is indeed conditional. Other Arminians and Calvinists hold to the hard line of “once saved, always saved.” But that, we have to admit, has led to insidious “antinomianism” (the belief that we are not under law and that no matter what we do God has to bless us/save us because He is, after all, a God of grace).
Other’s just live in the uncomfortable tension of not really knowing; not knowing if they are in or out, or have lost eternal life or just some kind of blessing. They never quite know if they have done enough to prove that they have been saved by grace or if they are self-deceived. Perhaps they are not really elect. They feel like it, sometimes, but often not. This is exacerbated by those beaming happy-all-the-time Christians that make you feel like you must not be “saved” because you do not have their experience. But it is supposed to be objective not subjective. “But I am just worried…and the truth is my energies are spent on making sure I have believed enough or that I am truly one of the elect …or that my obedience is reflective of a true faith in Christ and that I am not subliminally trying to earn my salvation…I am just really tired…and really weary.” …ad infinitum
So, what is the answer?
The only logical and Scripturally harmonious solution is to see that the Gospel is the objective news of an event that changed the final destiny of every man, woman and child who ever passed through this universe –from death to life. Jesus is the Savior of the WORLD who came to seek and to save that which was lost; to defeat “the last enemy of death” and “to reconcile all things to Himself by the cross” until “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” making “all things new” until God is finally “everything to everyone.”
Only at this point can we consider that there are conditions upon God’s blessings. Note that there are no conditions upon His love as even Carson points out above, but only upon His blessings…those experiences of “remaining in His love” like unto to a meal out or a fishing trip: the experience of a relationship. And God’s wrath, while never a pleasant or desirable thing, has one purpose as well…to bring you home, even if it kills you and He must raise you from the dead…He will bring you home if you are a prodigal son.
This is the only sane way to read the Bible; otherwise the false threat of “eternal conscious torment” alongside the very Biblical concepts of accountability, consequences, justice, judgment, wrath, and “hell” all get rolled up into one confusing terrifying mess. It’s because they represent two ways–two ways of rendering a view of God’s character and His purpose: One we are told is redemptive and the other is the opposite of redemptive. The only answer is to return to the Shema which says “The Lord thy God is ONE.” And hats off to D. A. Carson who admitted that a father can have two ways of expressing his one purpose of love: “blessing” and “wrath.”
So far Dr. D. A. Carson has not earned the title of a true Calvinist. But neither would he be named among the Arminians. So what do you call someone like him who straddles the fence of Arminianism and Calvinism? We will find out in our next and final post on D. A. Carson.