We continue in our reflections on Affective Theology by turning to God’s expansive love. God’s triune self-giving was his ground for both creation and salvation—and why the seventeenth century Puritan Richard Sibbes spoke of God’s “spreading goodness.”
God’s expansive aims are evident throughout the Bible. At our creation humans were told, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). And later God again instructed Noah’s family to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” In time the man Abraham was selected to sire a family to become a source of God’s “blessing” to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). Abraham’s family expanded to become as great as “the number of the stars” (Genesis 15:5). God later invited this extended family—Israel—to become “a kingdom of priests” active “among all peoples, for all the earth is mine” (Exodus 19:5-6).
This continuing impulse to share reveals God’s dispositional being. The best-known text for this is John 3:16-17, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus used key verbs that explain God’s love: “give” and “send.”
So, the aim of God’s love was and still is transitive, reaching out sacrificially to the world with his love. The gift of the Son, along with his purpose to give the Son over to perverse religious leaders, and then to Roman forces in order to be crucified, is the gospel—“good news.”
It doesn’t end there. Before his ascension to heaven Jesus revealed his expansive disposition in commissioning his followers to make disciples as they traveled to “all nations.” And he gave them a cascading progression: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
What did they witness in Jesus? His love. This love elicits a desire for new life—as a response to God in all who finally see him as lovely, and as one who first loved us. Jonathan Edwards said this in his Religious Affections (Works, 2:242): “the first foundation of a true love to God … [is recognition of] the supreme loveliness of his nature.” But this attractiveness is invisible to self-devoted hearts. And we only recognize this prior blindness as the Spirit opens the “eyes of your hearts” (Ephesians 1:18). Jesus promised to draw “all people to myself” in his crucifixion. The context tells us the “all” referred to national groups—and in John 12 to Greeks in particular. And the crucifixion points to the Son’s ambition to die on behalf of all who receive him.
This brings us to a key caveat. God’s love, revealed in Christ and applied by the Spirit, attracts some people, but not everyone. God’s expansive love, in other words, is not a call to universal salvation. Love relationships are mutual bonds and the promise of God’s love in John 3:16 was immediately confronted, three verses later, by the lack of reciprocal love in humanity, as “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Without the Spirit’s presence in a heart no soul seeks God except for selfish gain—and that doesn’t work!
So here we have the contentious question of “predestination”—a Bible truth we can’t just dismiss if we claim to trust God’s word. The seeming paradox is that God does not desire that any should perish; but he also makes it clear that only the “elect” will be saved. If God actually wants all to be saved, isn’t it up to people to decide? Or when the Bible also says no one actually seeks God, how are any saved? Can these apparent contradictions be resolved?
Let me offer an affective reading of the Bible, with the heart as the bonding point of faith rather than human free will. David, for instance, responded to God as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). This sets up a compatibilist solution to the apparent dilemma that forms if we pit God’s will against the human will. The “will” argument focuses on determinations to choose—so either we choose God, or he chooses us. Arminians vote for the former and Calvinists the latter. But the heart, as the responsive center of the soul, can be “drawn” to change, without being violated. And a hard heart can also resist change, even if the Spirit is wooing the person.
The parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22 illustrates this. A king sent out wedding invitations, but no one responded. So, next he sent out his servants to find people on the road, “both good and bad.” The servants then pressed this unlikely group to attend, and the wedding hall was filled. Predestinarian-like language ended the parable: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” The selection matches the blind-man and the subsequent sheep-and-good-Shepherd sequence in John 9-10. Jesus, with just one responsive heart (the once-blind man), said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
This approach brings us to see another feature of God’s overflowing heart. He engages all of us as people he knows and cares for personally. In Matthew 10:29 Jesus promised, “even the hairs on your head are all numbered” so we have “more value” than we realize. In Psalm 139 we are told that every day of our lives are “written” beforehand—“when as yet there was none of them.”
Let’s return to the problem of our blindness to God’s love. This first appeared in Adam and Eve when they both hid from God after their rebellion. They were once “naked and unashamed” but after the fall their souls were curved-inward-on-self. As Paul put it, they “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). This orientation then shapes every part of life, including our perception of God. The fallen human heart always reshapes God to be like we want him to be. Conversion only comes when we “repent” of human assumptions and meet the true God, revealed in the Son, and offered by the Spirit. Only his appearance corrects our view.
Faith, then, rises or falls in the human soul based on every person’s view of God, and God is wonderfully attractive. But for all who persist in loving darkness instead, God allows that desire to stand. Yet some, with the Spirit’s persistent wooing, ultimately receive God as savior. And this as a response to his prior expansive—and captivating—love.
Next week we will take up the question of God’s glory as a critical feature in Affective Theology. It’s a good place to complete our series.