Is the Gospel for All People or Only Some People?

August 10, 2015

by Dr. Adam Harwood

*This a portion of an article taken from the Journal For Baptist Theology and Ministry and is used by permission.

Dr. Adam Harwood is: Associate Professor of Theology (occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology), Director of the Baptist Center for Theology & Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary 

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The goal of this article is to address the question: “Is the gospel for all people or only some people?” The answer to this question undergirds one’s theology and practice of evangelism and missions. By the word “gospel,” I am referring to the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus for our sins (1 Cor 15:3–4). By asking whether the gospel is for all people, I am not asking whether it should be announced to all people, but whether it concerns all people. One’s view of whether the gospel is for all people or only some people is revealed by one’s answers to the following questions:

  1. Who does God love salvifically, all people or only some people?
  2. Did Christ die for the sins of all people or only some people?
  3. Who does God desire to save, all people or only some people?

I assume the three questions above are valid for answering the main question. It seems legitimate to offer the possible answers of “all people” or “only some people” to the questions because there are no other reasonable answers. The reply of “no one” does not seem to be a viable answer for any of the questions. What Christian theologian argues that God loves no one salvifically, that Christ died for no one, or that God desires to save no one? The only possible answers to those questions seem to be “all people” and “only some people.”

Also, I assume that the answer to the three questions are related to and will assist in revealing one’s answer to the main question. For example, one who affirms that Christ died for only some people and God desires to save only some people seems to believe that the gospel is for only some people. It would seem inconsistent for one to answer “only some people” to two or three of the questions then affirm that the gospel is for “all people.” In what way would the gospel be for those people whom God does not desire to save and for whose sins Christ did not die?

Discussing Doctrinal Differences
Some Christian pastors and leaders differ on some or all of these three questions. Doctrinal differences among followers of Christ have occurred since the time of Christ. Certain differences carry less significance and deserve less attention. Consider as an example the question of whether one affirms a premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial eschatology. All Christians should affirm the future, bodily return of Christ. However, many different interpretations of Scripture arise when describing the sequence and precise timing of events at the return of Christ. The three questions above, however, carry greater weight than the views on the precise timing of future events. These three questions undergird evangelism and missions because they identify the objects of God’s salvific love, the extent of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, and who God desires to save. These three questions center on the doctrines of God, man, atonement, and salvation. In short, these questions are worth addressing.

Who Does God Love Salvifically, All People or Only Some People?
The first question which should lead us to answer whether the gospel is for all people or only some people is: Who does God love salvifically, all people or only some people? A. W. Pink has written, “When we say that God is sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whomever He chooses to love. God does not love everybody.”1

According to John 3:16, “God so loved the world” (ESV, emphasis mine). Neither the subject nor the verb are in dispute. Instead, the object of the verb is in question: ho kosmos (Greek, “the world”). Who is the object of God’s love, all people or only some people? In this context, kosmos does not refer to the physical universe (as in Acts 17:24) or to the system opposed to God (as in 1 John 2:15). Instead, the word refers in John 3:16 to people. Does the word refer to all people or only some people? Consider John’s use of the word kosmos elsewhere in his Gospel:

  • John the Baptist declares of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
  • Jesus is called “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
  • Jesus will give His flesh “for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
  • Jesus says He is “the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

In all of these verses, it is possible to interpret “the world” as a reference either to “only some people” or to “all people.”

Does God Love Only the Elect?
Consider some of the explanations that “the world” refers only to some people. Francis Turretin (1623–87) writes that John 3:16 “cannot be universal towards each and everyone, but special towards a few.” The love mentioned in that verse refers to “only those chosen out of this world.”2 Turretin interprets John 3:16 to say that God so loved only some people.

Consider also John Owen’s interpretation of John 3:16. He explains that “it cannot be maintained that by the world here is meant all and every one of mankind, but only men in common scattered throughout the world, which are the elect.”3 Like Turretin, Owen also interprets John 3:16 to say that God so loved only some people.

The interpretations of Turretin and Owen are problematic, because they set aside the plain- sense meaning of the verse for a view not found in this verse. Perhaps the view that “God so loved the world” means “God so loved the elect” can be established from other texts. But proper exegesis rules out this interpretation of Turretin and Owen. D. A. Carson also affirms that God calls out and loves the elect in a different sense than He loves other people. Even so, Carson disagrees with their interpretation of John 3:16. Carson writes, “I know that some try to take kosmos (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.” Also, “God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.”4

I do not accept the interpretation that “God so loved the world” means that God loved only some people. Instead, I affirm that God loved, and presently loves, every person. And to say He loves some whose salvation He does not desire seems to evacuate the plain understanding of the word “love.” First John 4:8 declares, “God is love.” Other biblical texts affirm God’s goodness and kindness toward His creation. The Baptist Faith and Message states in Article 2A, “God the Father,” “He is fatherly in His dealings toward all men.” It seems axiomatic to affirm that God loves salvifically all people. The implication of this view is that a faithful witness of Jesus can say to any person on the planet, “God loves you.” Those who affirm that God loves only some people or loves some in a non-salvific way can say only, “God loves sinners.” They wonder whether they should say to unbelievers, “God loves you.”5 Limiting God’s salvific love to only some people results in a disjointed theology and practice of missions and evangelism in which the gospel is announced to all people but is not for all people.

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1A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Alachua, FL: Bridge-Logos, 2008), 10.
2Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:405–08; in Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sover- eignty (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 49.
3John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1647), 328, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/deathofdeath.i.x.ii.html.
4D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 17. This citation of Carson is not intended to suggest that he interprets John to mean that God loves all people salvificially. Rather, the citation is only meant to establish that Carson rejects the interpretation of kosmos in John 3:16 offered by Turretin and Owen.
5D. A. Carson, “God’s Love and God’s Wrath,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (October–December 1999): 395, explains, “When I have preached or lectured in Reformed circles, I have often been asked the question, ‘Do you feel free to tell unbelievers that God loves them?’” He answers, “Obviously I have no hesitation in answering this question from Reformed preachers affirmatively: of course, I tell the unconverted God loves them.” Also, Albert Mohler, “The Power of the Articulated Gospel,” The Underestimated Gospel, ed. Jona- than Leeman (Nashville: B&H, 2014), 17, writes: “We don’t present the gospel with one hand behind our back, thinking about the person to whom we are speaking, ‘This might be for you . . . or it might not be for you.’ We don’t find refuge in the sovereignty of God in order to say that we don’t have to preach the gospel to all persons.” Emphasis his. Why would these theologians address questions regarding whether we should tell unbelievers God loves them or if the gospel is for unbelievers? Is it possible that Reformed theology leads some to conclude that God does not love all people salvifically and thus the gospel is not for all people?