Owen on John 3:16 – Part 1b: God’s Love, the Reformed Perspective
Now we will consider “what we understand by the “love” of God, even that act of his will which was the cause of sending his Son Jesus Christ, being the most eminent act of love and favour to the creature; for love is velle alicui bonum, “to will good to any” [not necessarily to all]. And never did God will greater good to the creature than in appointing his Son for their redemption.”
Owen observes that God’s purpose in sending Christ, and His love for the elect, both work toward “the same supreme end, [which is] the manifestation of God’s glory by the way of mercy tempered with justice”.
“Now, this love we say to be that, greater than which there is none.” We see that his continual argument is that God’s love for His people is and always has been much greater than a universal concept of atonement will allow.
Owen holds that “by love here is not meant an inclination or propensity of his [God’s] nature, but an act of his will (where we conceive his love to be seated), and eternal purpose to do good to man, being the most transcendent and eminent act of God’s love to the creature.”
“It is the special love of God to his elect, as we affirm, and so, consequently, not any such thing as our adversaries suppose to be intended by it, — namely, a velleity or natural inclination to the good of all. For:
1) The love here intimated is absolutely the most eminent and transcendent love that ever God showed or bare towards any miserable creature… “loved,” with such an earnest, intense affection, consisting in an eternal, unchangeable act and purpose of his will, for the bestowing of the chiefest good (the choicest effectual love) … Whereunto, for a close of all, cast your eyes upon his design and purpose in this whole business, and ye shall find that it was that believers, those whom he thus loved, “might not perish,” — that is, undergo the utmost misery and wrath to eternity, which they had deserved, — “but have everlasting life,” eternal glory with himself, which of themselves they could no way attain; and ye will easily grant that “greater love hath no man than this.” Now, if the love here mentioned be the greatest, highest, and chiefest of all, certainly it cannot be that common affection towards all that we discussed before; for the love whereby men are actually and eternally saved is greater than that which may consist with the perishing of men to eternity.
2) The Scripture positively asserts this very love as the chiefest act of the love of God, and that which he would have us take notice of in the first place: Rom. v. 8, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us;” and fully, 1 John iv. 9, 10, “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” In both which places the eminency of this love is set forth exceeding emphatically to believers, with such expressions as can no way be accommodated to a natural velleity to the good of all. [We should take note that the use of “might” in such verses may itself be a cause of confusion to the modern reader – it does not indicate a conditional nor vague possibility, but the positive assertion of something that will indeed take place.]
3) That seeing all love in God is but velle alicui bonum, to will good to them that are beloved, they certainly are the object of his love to whom he intends that good which is the issue and effect of that love; but now the issue of this love or good intended, being not perishing, and obtaining eternal life through Christ, happens alone to, and is bestowed on, only elect believers: therefore, they certainly are the object of this love, and they alone; — which was the thing we had to declare.
4) That love which is the cause of giving Christ is also always the cause of the bestowing of all other good things: Rom. viii. 32, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” [i.e. consider forgiveness, sanctification, fellowship, glorification, etc. – are all men recipients?] Therefore, if the love there mentioned be the cause of sending Christ, as it is, it must also cause all other things to be given with him, and so can be towards none but those who have those things bestowed on them; which are only the elect, only believers. Who else have grace here, or glory hereafter?
5) The word here, which is ἠγάπησε, signifieth, in its native importance, valde dilexit, — to love so as to rest in that love; which how it can stand with hatred, and an eternal purpose of not bestowing effectual grace, which is in the Lord towards some, will not easily be made apparent.
And now let the Christian reader judge, whether by the love of God, in this place mentioned, be to be understood a natural velleity or inclination in God to the good of all, both elect and reprobate, or the peculiar love of God to his elect, being the fountain of the chiefest good that ever was bestowed on the sons of men. This is the first difference about the interpretation of these words.”
Praise God for His gracious, intimate, eternal, effectual love for His children!
The next set of posts will discuss the second matter, the object of this love, called here “the world”.