I just finished reading a brief, to-the-point, systematic treatment of The Difficult Doctrine of the love of God by Don Carson. Although it was brief, it was juicy.
Carson tackles some of the hardest and seemingly irreconcilable elements of God's being: his love and his sovereignty; and his love and his wrath. All of these elements of God are undeniable in the sense that the plain reading of Scripture reveals them. Carson takes it a step further, unpacking a solid theological basis for demonstrating that God's love is not irreconcilable to his sovereignty nor to the expression of his wrath.
Carson argues that God's love is expressed in five ways: the intra-Trinitarian love in the Godhead; providentially to all he made; salvifically toward fallen creation; effectively toward his elect; provisionally or conditionally to his own people. Once he sets up these categories, Carson goes on to argue that were we to remove any one of these categories, we would reduce God to something less than he is: omniscient, omnipotent, immutable, sovereign, transcendent, holy, loving, just, merciful and so on.
Ordinarily, when we consider God's love and his sovereignty we suppose their to be some tension. How can a rigid God elicit emotion, concern, heartache or love for his creation when he stands above it, abstracted from it? To a certain extent, it depends on which of the five expressions of God's love you are thinking about. Carson turns the pages of the Bible and finds that our God is emotional. However, unlike us, his emotions to not govern his actions or override his will. We may will to love our wife, but fail in an instant when we are told to wash the dishes. His sovereignty never comes into play when he sees his people floundering in the desert or his Son on the Cross. Our failure to comprehend this, is more the uselessness of projecting our ontology into God's being. Extrapolating the closed set of our being onto the larger open set of God's will never yield a null intersection. And so, rather than discard what biblical teaching we have, we must accept it. No contradiction can be found between the sovereignty of God and His love. It is a failure of comprehension. And that is fine, given what we are trying to comprehend.
God's wrath is often driven out of our consciousness because we all understand its dreadfulness. And yet God is love. How are these two characteristics of God held together? Surely they are each other's antithesis. This antithesis appears to be stronger than that perceived to exist between God's sovereignty and His love because God's wrath, like his love, is borne of emotion. And it is felt to be undeserving of God's ontology because, as Carson points out, it is not one of His intrinsic perfections. Rather, it is the consequence of one of His perfections: namely his holiness. The simple reconciliation of God's love and wrath can be found in the Cross. It is there that God pours out his wrath and demonstrates his salvific love for humanity. (Carson does address the issue of atonement, but I will not summarise it here). It is also effective for the elect and a demonstration of intra-Trinitarian love.
Reading Carson's The Difficult Doctrine of the love of God is not a night time read. Its arguments, whilst set out well, are finely woven with a few digressions. Most importantly, he demonstrates that God's love impels his followers to love with a heart spiritually nourished to become more like its Creator.