God's Distinguishing Love

by Mitch Cervinka


Does God love all men without exception, or does He love His elect only? In this treatise, we seek to demonstrate that God has a special, unique love for His elect which He does not have for others.

First, we will consider the logical implications of saying that God loves all men. Second, we will consider the Scriptural testimony that God loves only His elect. Third, we will examine some of the texts often cited to prove that God loves all men. Last of all, we will consider the practical value of the doctrine.

The primary thought to keep in mind is that the mighty works which God has performed to save men are always motivated by His surpassing love: God will save each and every person He loves.


If God did love all men

Is it logically consistent to believe in God's sovereign grace, and also to believe that God loves all men? What if our Sovereign God really did love all men what would that imply?

When we consider that God can and will save whomever He pleases, then, if God truly loves all men without exception, how could anyone be sent to hell? When you combine God's sovereignty with universal love, you must logically arrive at Universalism! Universalism is the belief that all men will ultimately be saved.

Historic Calvinism avoids this conclusion by teaching that God does not savingly love the non-elect. Arminianism avoids the conclusion by teaching that God is not sovereign in salvation. To be consistent, you cannot have both God's sovereignty and also universal love without concluding that hell will be empty.

Okay; there is another way out. That is to assume that God's love is not very loving. Perhaps we could say that He sort-of "loves" all men, but not enough to save them from their sins. Of course, if that is true, then you had better not point to the sacrifice of Christ as the demonstration of His love. After all, if God loved men enough to send Christ to the Cross for them, then He surely loves them enough to do everything necessary for their salvation. Indeed, that is precisely what Romans 8:32 teaches us (concerning God's elect!):

Romans 8:32 ; He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?

So here are our choices;

Calvinism .. God loves His elect only, and His sovereignty guarantees their salvation.

Arminianism .. God loves all men, but because He is not sovereign, many will be lost.

Universalism .. God loves all men and will sovereignly save everyone.

Superficialism .. God loves all men, but not enough to use His sovereign power to save them.

Irrationalism .. God has a deep, sincere love for all men, and is sovereignly able to save all men, and it's a paradox why all men will not be saved.


For me, the choice is clear: Calvinism is the clear teaching of Scripture. For that matter, the doctrine of distinguishing love is also firmly rooted in Scripture, as we shall now see.


Scriptural Proofs of Distinguishing Love.

We are all familiar with the various "proof texts" for universal love. We will examine some of them shortly. First, however, let us note that Scripture often says that God does not love all men without exception.

1. First of all, the Bible plainly says that God hates certain people;

Psalm 5:5 ; The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity.

Psalm 11:5 The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, And the one who loves violence His soul hates.

Malachi 1:2-3 "I have loved you," says the LORD. But you say, "How have You loved us?" "Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" declares the LORD. "Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness."

Romans 9:13 Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

Do you object that "hate" only means "loves less"? Even if we grant that explanation in these verses, we still see that God does not love all men equally. May we not at least conclude that He loves some enough to save them from their sins, and others He does not love enough to save?

But does such an objection fit the facts? Is it really true that God loves the non-elect in some lesser, but positive way? Do not forget that the non-elect will spend eternity in torment! God will not reluctantly send men to hell. On the contrary, Scripture declares that God is angry with them, and that they are an abomination to Him, and that they richly deserve eternal hell. (So do we, for that matter, apart from Christ).

Deuteronomy 25:16 "For everyone who does these things, everyone who acts unjustly is an abomination to the LORD your God.

Psalm 2:4-6 He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger And terrify them in His fury, saying, "But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain."

Psalm 76:7 You, even You, are to be feared; And who may stand in Your presence when once You are angry?

Hebrews 12:29 for our God is a consuming fire.

Revelation 14:9-11 Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name."

2. In contrast, Scripture declares that God's elect are the special objects of God's love. It was because of His distinguishing love for them that He chose them to be saved;

Ephesians 1:4-5 In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,

It was because of His distinguishing love for them that He redeemed them by the blood of His dearly-beloved Son;

Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,

It was because of His distinguishing love for them that He regenerated them by the Holy Spirit;

Ephesians 2:4-5 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

If God loved all men in this way, would He not have predestined them to adoption, and given Christ for them, and made them alive together with Christ? If God truly loves an individual, would He permit that individual to be tormented for all eternity?

3. Scripture says that nothing can separate God's people from His love;

Romans 8:38-39 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This passage is meant to comfort and assure us of God's continued faithfulness to us, and of our ultimate salvation. But it says something very significant about God's love; namely, that God's love is not fickle. His love is a deep, genuine, abiding love. If He has set His love upon an individual, His love will never fade or grow cold. It is unthinkable that God could be so unfaithful as to abandon someone He loves. The love which sinful people exhibit is often as changeable as the weather, but such a "love" is not worthy of our glorious God.

If God today loves the non-elect, He must forever love them; even once they are burning in hell (if such a thing were possible). But if God loves the reprobate who are burning in hell, then what comfort or assurance does Romans 8:38-39 give us? This passage is sheer nonsense unless it is understood that God saves everyone He loves.

4. God's elect are uniquely referred to as "beloved of God";

Romans 1:7 ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Colossians 3:12 So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience;

1 Thessalonians 1:4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you;

2 Thessalonians 2:13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.

Make no mistake; the word "beloved" is simply the adjective form of the Greek word agaph, "to love". God loves His elect, and this is the very reason why He chose us, redeemed us and regenerated us.

So then, why does He love the ones He loves? It was His sovereign good pleasure, in eternity past, to set His love upon these certain ones, and, out of this sovereign, distinguishing love for them, He does everything necessary to secure and ensure their eternal salvation.


Objections to God's Distinguishing Love.

True Calvinists usually have better sense than to try to read universal love into passages which speak of the death of Christ as an expression of God's love. Nevertheless, there are some who suppose that John 3:16, for example, teaches that God loves all men without exception.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

It should be obvious that, if "world" in John 3:16 means "all men without exception," then John 3:16 teaches a Universal Redemption.

However, this "universal" interpretation of John 3:16 is based solely upon the assumption that "world" (Greek: kosmo) means "all men without exception." Scripture abounds with examples that kosmo does not necessarily mean "all men without exception" (see, for example, Romans 1:8; John 12:19; John 17:9; 1 John 2:15; etc.).

It is not valid to take the first part of the verse out of the context of the remainder of the passage. John 3:16 does not say "God so loved the world period!" Rather, it says that, because of His love for "the world," He gave His Son to accomplish a stated purpose to save believers.

The verse becomes nonsense if we understand "world" to include those who will never believe in Christ. It would then say, concerning the non-elect: "God so loved those who will never believe that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that those who do believe will not perish but have eternal life." Those whom God loves in John 3:16 must be the same ones who benefit from the death of Christ, or else there is no consistency of thought or sensibility to the passage. John 3:16 cannot include anyone who will never trust in Christ, for the death of Christ provides no stated benefit for such people.

If the only ones who benefit from the death of Christ are "whoever believes in Him," then these are the only ones whom God loved. If God loved any of those who will not believe in Christ, then the verse must explain to us how they benefit from the sacrifice of Christ. It does not do this.

The word "world" may properly be thought of in either of two ways: (1) The earthly world of mankind, contrasted with heaven; or (2) the world of Jew and Gentile, contrasted with Israel alone. The former use emphasizes God's condescension. He looks down from heaven with compassion on those sons of men whom He has chosen. The second use emphasizes the ethnic universality of God's grace it is not limited to one nation alone God has chosen men of every nation, race and language.

In either case, the word "world" does not denote "every man without exception." The scope of God's love within the category is circumscribed by the qualifier "whoever believes in Him."

A more convincing argument is made from Matthew 5:43-48, which commands us to love our enemies and thereby follow God's example:

Matthew 5:43-48 "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? "If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

However, it is very striking that the display of God's love in this passage is not that greatest display of love; the sacrifice of His dear Son at Calvary. Rather, it is sunshine and rain. We should remember that these are only temporal blessings, and that the non-elect will someday be cast into hell fire, never again to enjoy the sunshine and rain which God presently gives them.

This passage also affirms that tax collectors show love to those who love them. (The Greek word is agaph. Those who mistakenly suppose that agaph always refers to God's love or to Christian love should take special note of this.)

These facts taken together suggest that it is not deep, abiding, heartfelt love that is meant, but rather kind actions. Our deeds toward our enemies are to be loving in the sense that they meet genuine needs and are perceived as acts of good-will and kindness. We may hate what men do to us or our families, and we may hate their blasphemies, but God patiently bears with them, showing them kindness, and so should we.

Paul teaches us to do good to all people, but especially to other believers;

Galatians 6:10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.

We are to have a different kind of love for believers than we have for unbelievers. Our love for believers is to be patterned after our Lord's sacrificial love for us;

John 13:34 "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

Was it heartfelt love for God's enemies which prompted David to pray "I hate those who hate You"?

Psalm 139:21 Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?

Is it heartfelt love for their enemies which prompts the martyrs to cry out to God to avenge their blood?

Revelation 6:10 "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

Romans 12:19-20 provides an illuminating commentary on Matthew 5:43-48:

Romans 12:19-20 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord. "BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD."

Paul does not teach us against desiring vengeance. Rather, he cautions us against taking action to obtain vengeance. It is God's place to take vengeance upon our enemies on the day of judgment. In the meantime, we are to do good to our enemies, knowing that this will increase their accountability before God, and thereby increase the punishment they will receive. It is an act of faith to exercise restraint and to show kindness to our enemies, believing that God will deal with them more harshly as a result.

Yet, we are to forgive our enemies, as God has forgiven us (Matthew 6:12; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). Remember that both our Lord and Stephen exemplified this when they prayed for the forgiveness of their murderers (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). A true saint should never lament the salvation of his greatest enemy (e.g. don't follow Jonah's example: Jonah 2:10-3:1). Look what a precious gift the church received when Christ reached down and saved her persecutor, Saul of Tarsus!

But how can a true Christian desire God's judgment upon an enemy if we are to forgive our enemies? The answer, I believe, lies in the following considerations:

1. We are to forgive others in the sense that we relinquish any desire to take personal vengeance against them. This is precisely what Paul teaches us in Romans 12:19-20.

2. We do not know whether a particular enemy is one of the elect or not. Perhaps God has chosen this enemy from all eternity, but has not yet regenerated him. We should request that God would forgive them, knowing that salvation is in the hand of our Sovereign God, to give or withhold as He pleases.

3. We are not guaranteed that God will grant our request for the forgiveness of an enemy. We can have the firm assurance that we will one day rejoice with the angels in heaven when either (a) God grants him repentance, or (b) God judges him for his sins and stubborn unrepentance.

4. Our kind actions to him now will be instrumentally used of God to bring glory to Himself in either outcome.

In either case, we are to show kindness to our enemies. This is the import of the statement "Love your enemies," for this agrees with the sense in which God loves His enemies He displays goodness to them for a season, but (in the case of the reprobate) that season will one day come to a fearful end! We should never imagine that our Lord would have us "love" our enemies with a greater love than He has for them.


The Comfort of Distinguishing Love.

The question of whether God loves all men or His elect only is not merely an academic one. Repeatedly, Scripture calls upon us to consider the great things which God's love has wrought for us;

1 John 3:1 See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.

Ephesians 1:4-5 In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,

Ephesians 2:4-5 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

This teaching is brought to its inescapable conclusion when the apostle asserts our assurance by saying that nothing can separate us from God's love;

Romans 8:38-39 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Every child of God should take comfort in knowing that, as His dear children, God has a special love for us, which will not allow us to perish in hell. We should take comfort in knowing, that as Christ's bride, our Lord has a special, distinguishing love for us which He does not have for others (Ephesians 5:25).

He does not love every person in the world, but He does love His own, who are in the world...

John 13:1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.

Christ's love for His own people is both distinguishing and enduring.

When we assert that God loves the non-elect, we slander God's pure, saving love, by alleging that God's love is so superficial that He will not exercise His sovereignty to save them. What a blasphemy to assert that God will cast many of His beloved people into eternal hell fire! Such a "love" is unworthy of any but Satan himself!

There is great comfort and assurance in knowing that you are the object of God's love. Let us never barter this away for the Arminian's cheap, superficial counterfeit.

Ephesians 3:14-21 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, ; to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.


Other Voices.

A. W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 74.

Since God is sovereign, and since He is love, it necessarily follows that His love is sovereign. Because God is God, He does as He pleases; because God is love, He loves whom He pleases. Such is His own express affirmation: "Jacob I have loved, but Esau have I hated" (Romans 9:13). There was no more reason in Jacob why he should be the object of divine love than there was in Esau. They both had the same parents, and were born at the same time, being twins. Yet God loved the one and hated the other! Why? Because it pleased Him to do so.


A. W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 122.

Let us look more closely at some of the operations of God's love. First, in election. "We are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit [His quickening] and belief of the truth" (2 Thes 2:13). There is an infallible connection between God's love and His selection of those who were to be saved. That election is the consequence of His love is clear again from Deuteronomy: "The Lord did not [1] set His love upon you, nor [2] choose you, because ye were more in number than any people" (7:7). So again in Ephesians: "In love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will" (1:4-5).

Second, in redeeming. As we have seen from 1 John 4:10, out of His sovereign love God made provision for Christ to render satisfaction for their sins, though prior to their conversion He was angry with them in respect to His violated Law. And "how shall He not with him also freely give us all things?" (Ro 8:32) another clear proof that His Son was not "delivered up" to the cross for all mankind. For He gives them neither the Holy Spirit, a new nature, nor repentance and faith.

Third, effectual calling. From the enthroned Saviour the Father sends forth the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33). Having loved His elect with an everlasting love, with lovingkindness He draws them (Jer 41:3), quickens into newness of life, calls them out of darkness into His marvelous light, makes them His children. "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God" (1 Jn 3:1). If filiation does not issue from God's love as a sure effect, to what purpose are those words?


John Gill, Expositor (Winterbourne, Ontario: Online Bible, 1977), on John 13:1.

having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them to the end. The objects of his love are described by his property in them, "his own"; by whom are meant, not all mankind, who are his by creation; nor the Jews, who were his nation and countrymen according to the flesh; nor the twelve apostles only, whom he had chosen; but all the elect of God, who are his own, by his choice of them, by the Father's gift of them to him, by the purchase he made of them with his blood, and by his effectual call of them by his grace: ... for though whilst in this world they carry about with them a body of sin and death, are liable to many snares and temptations, and are involved in the troubles, and exposed to the hatred of the world, yet are, and always will be, the objects of the love and care of Christ. The acts of his love to them are expressed both in time past, and to come: "having loved" them; so he did from everlasting, with a love of complacency and delight, which he showed as early by espousing their persons to himself, by undertaking their cause, by taking the charge of their persons, and the care of both their grace and glory, and in time by assuming their nature; and having done all this, "he loved them to the end": and which he showed by dying for them; and continues to show by interceding for them in heaven, by supplying them with all grace, and by preserving them from a final and total falling away; and he will at last introduce them into his kingdom and glory, when they shall be for ever with him; and so that love to them continues not only to the end of his own life, nor barely to the end of theirs, but to the end of the world, and for ever; ...


John Gill, Expositor (Winterbourne, Ontario: Online Bible, 1977), on Ephesians 2:4.

for his great love wherewith he loved us; the love of God to his chosen people is very great, if it be considered who it is that has loved them, God and not man; who is an infinite, unchangeable, and sovereign Being; and his love is like himself, for God is love; it has heights and depths, and lengths and breadths immeasurable; it admits of no variation nor alteration; and is altogether free, arising from himself, and not from any motives and conditions in men: and if the persons themselves are considered, who are the objects of it, men, sinful men, unworthy of the divine notice and regard; and that these are loved personally, particularly, and distinctly, and not others; nakedly, and not theirs, or for any thing in them, or done by them, and that notwithstanding their manifold sins and transgressions: to which may be added, that this love is represented as a past act; and indeed it is from everlasting, and is antecedent to their being quickened, and was when they were dead in trespasses and sins; and is the source and spring of the blessing next mentioned ...