Perhaps the most well known verse in the Bible is John 3:16, and rightfully so. It is clear, it is succinct, it is full of hope and promise, it is beautiful:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
This verse gloriously exemplifies the general love that God has for the entire world, and what theologians identify as the “general call” to salvation. God loved the fullness of humanity such that He offered His son to pay the penalty for our sin. Anyone. All. Whosoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish, but will be saved. It is tempting, and extremely dangerous, however, to bring our personal and cultural understanding of love to the Scripture, and to utilize such a glorious promise as John 3:16 to negate a much more profound type of love which God has for His children.
While God does indeed have a general love for the world, and while the offer of salvation includes, in part, a general calling for everyone, there is also the much more beautiful love which God has for His children which He equates to the love of His bride. We are taught clearly in Scripture that the Church (everyone who believes, and everyone who was saved by faith from the people of Israel) is the bride of Christ. Husbands love their brides in a unique way. They love their friends, they love their sisters and mothers, they generally love the women in the church or community, but the love for a bride is specific, incomparably strong and special.
“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God’.”
– Rev 19:7-9
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
– Eph 5.25-27
This special love that God has for the Church is also known as electing love. I know, I know, it sounds so cold and impersonal. If God chooses us and makes us able to love Him then it is not true love, right? We are not robots, we choose and experience our love for Him personally. But let’s set aside our offense and look at how Scripture defines it for us.
Before Christ came, God set apart the people of Israel to be His chosen people. Abraham was a moon worshiper whom God set apart and declared to be the father of His people. He chose Abraham and He chose the Jews for no other reason than His own prerogative:
“The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you.”
– Deut 7:6-8
It was God’s choice alone, and God chose Abraham and the Hebrews simply out of love:
“Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.”
– Deut 10.14-15
He did not have the same, choosing love for all of the other nations – it was special for Abraham and his descendants. It was a choosing love. It was as setting a bride in a special place of honor before all other women – never to be matched and never to be diminished.
Jesus gives us another analogy to help us grasp this fact: He calls us His sheep. After Jesus died on the cross and paid the punishment for sins, he broadened the call from the Hebrew people to the entire world. It was God’s intention from the beginning to bring in people from every tribe, tongue and nation, but it was through the work of Jesus on the cross that the electing love was broadened by grace and no longer identified by Law. Jesus says that there are “sheep” (believers) from other “folds” (nations) who need to be brought in (John 10.16). Interestingly, however, Jesus says that His sheep hear His voice and know Him – stating clearly that belief comes only because one already belongs to Jesus:
“Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand’.”
– John 1-.27-28
Jesus stated that the men listening did not believe in Jesus because they were not His sheep. Our natural inclination would lend us to believe that these men were not Jesus’ sheep because they did not believe, but Jesus reverses the order: He chose first, and their belief was contingent upon their identity as sheep.
This is exemplified clearly in Jesus’ teaching of New Birth: The Holy Spirit blows and gives life to whomever He pleases, and we can neither understand nor direct where it moves or to whom it gives birth:
“Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
– John 3.7-8
The Holy Spirit gives us Spiritual birth by His own choice, and based on that new birth we believe. Yes, we are believing. Yes, we have that responsibility. But we cannot help but believe when we have been made alive in the Spirit. The things of God are irresistibly beautiful and we long to love, know and serve Him. We are His sheep. We are His bride. We are also His children! Not everyone is a child of God:
“No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”
– 1 John 3.9-10
How, then, can it be that “whoever believes shall be saved”? John himself goes on to explain in the following verses:
“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. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
– John 3.16-18
The one who does not believe is already judged, because he is not a sheep, he is not part of the bride, and he has not been given new birth. D.L. Moody gave a beautiful example of how we might understand this tension in our Spirits. He used to teach regularly throughout his ministry that the pearly gates of Heaven could be imagined to have a sign overhead reading “Whosever will may come”, but upon entering into the gates if one were to look at the back side of the sign it would read, “Chosen before the foundation of the world” (John 3.16, Eph 1.4).
Jesus loves His bride with a special, choosing love. It is not based on anything we have done, but on His providence and grace alone. If we attempt to merit His love and choice, we greatly disgrace His love and work on the cross. When He loves us, He gives us new birth and when we are awakened Spiritually we cannot help but turn to Him, cling to Him, and love Him. Because we are His sheep and we hear His voice and we know Him. We are His bride, and He teaches husbands to love their wives in the same way He loves us: giving up everything for us, loving us lavishly, dying for us, and presenting us to God holy and blameless. Let us rejoice in that great love today, and not diminish it by equating it with the general love that God has for the entire world.