One of the most radical teachings of Christianity is that of God’s love. It does not merely teach that God is loving. Any human being is also loving! At the very least, any human being can be loving in the right circumstances and toward the right people: for example, parents can be loving toward their children, just as friends can be loving toward each other. But in the case God, Christianity teaches in a much more radical way that God Himself is love. Thus, the Apostle John writes: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).
The extent of God’s love is demonstrated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God (John 3:16). Although there is a sense in which all human beings are the sons and daughters of God, insofar as He has created them all and is continually sustaining them in life, Jesus is the Son of God in a special sense. Jesus and the Father relate to each other in a way that no human being can relate to God. Jesus is special in the eyes of the Father in a way that no mere human being can be special. For this reason, it is all the more impressive that God “did not withhold His own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Rom. 8:32). God accepted that Jesus, His only Son, be crucified in order to offer Himself up for the sins of all humanity. This is how much God loves!
The Apostle Peter emphasizes precisely this point in his sermon to the crowd that gathered around him on the day of Pentecost. Pay close attention to the words he uses:
You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.Acts 2:22-23 New Revised Standard Version
His sermon begins with clear condemnations. “You have killed the Son of God!” This message cuts his audience right to the heart. They are filled with dread at the words being addressed to them. They realize the gravity of their crime, which was nothing less than the murder of God’s chosen. They ask Peter what they should do. Peter’s response is especially noteworthy:
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.Acts 2:38-39 New Revised Standard Version
Did you catch that? The persons whom Peter earlier condemned as guilty of the death of Jesus of Nazareth — these very same persons are now the ones to whom the promise of the Holy Spirit is destined! You have crucified and killed the very man attested to you by God with signs and wonders and miracles of all kinds. Therefore repent, because the promise of forgiveness and salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit is for you!
This is the most marvelous quality of the love of God. God loves human beings so much that He even makes use of their evil and hatred against Him in order to do good to them. This gives a more impressive meaning to the statement of Paul that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). It is not just that we happened to be sinners, but God took pity upon us and did something good for us in order to save us. What God did in Jesus Christ was even more radical than that. He opened Himself up to our hatred and opposition to Him. Jesus Christ suffers tremendous opposition from sinners, even to the point of being crucified outside the city gates and exposed to the taunts of passersby, precisely so as to do something unspeakably good for the very persons crucifying Him! God makes Himself vulnerable to the full force of human sinfulness precisely so as to do good to the very murderers of His Son, Jesus Christ.
It is one thing to love a person who hates you. It is another thing to do good to a person who hates you. It is yet another thing to do an unimaginable good to a person who hates you in such a way that accomplishing this good means exposing yourself to the wrath and hatred of that person. But that is exactly what God does in Jesus Christ. Precisely through the death of His Son on the cross, God makes possible the salvation and redemption of His Son’s killers. God loves the murderers of His Son.
There is a final point worth making here. Peter does not say that God loves sinners. That is far too general. That kind of formulation is too imprecise. It might leave us wondering if God also loves us in particular. Plenty of people love animals, but they may not love some animal in particular. Peter does not talk like this. He says very clearly: The promise of the Holy Spirit is for you. That is how we should think about things. This “you” that Peter uses refers to all of us. Every single person, because of his or her sins, played a role in the death of Christ. But for that reason, it is also true that the death of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of the Holy Spirit is for each one of us. Anyone who can be called “you” is included in what Peter says. This means that God loves you, as well.