Recently I was asked by a young lady, a lover of the gospel as well as people, this question, "Does God love unbelievers?" She obviously was wrestling with working out her theology which stresses the sovereign love of God revealed in Christ to the elect with the very practical matter of sharing Christ with unbelievers, which she is doing. Surely the blanket statement "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" is too trite a thing to say to those bent on sin. Yet she wondered if you can communicate in any manner God's love to an unbeliever, knowing that the Bible says not only that God hates sin but that He "hates all who do iniquity" (Psalm 5:5)?
I answered her question with one of my own. Would God ask you to love someone He is not willing to love?
For Christ does tell us quite clearly that we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Then immediately after this command He offers the heavenly Father's example. God's practice is to cause the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the wicked and the just. By alluding to God's providence in this way, Christ was in essence saying the Father demonstrates love even to His enemies and thus so should we. Yet here is where careful distinctions are needed to avoid confusion.
Let us say a godly man has a beautiful, devoted wife that he adores. Let us also say that same man has a horrible neighbor who detests him, steals his property, and makes his life miserable. He is commanded to love both his enemy and his wife. But no one thinks his love to both will look the same! He will share an intimate, revealing love with his wife, yet will only be able to demonstrate a patient, restraining type of love to his neighbor who hates him.
So also God has a special, intimate love with His elect that they experience as they believe on Christ. He promises to come and, through the Spirit, dwell within them in this love (John 14:23). The Scriptures are filled with revelations of this love and use the word love almost exclusively to that end. Yet this does not limit God's expression of a more commonly known love that He has even for His enemies.
Though an unbeliever has not experienced God's redemptive love, this does not mean they have not known in real ways the general love of God for all of mankind. They enjoy the gifts of this world. They experience the patience of God and the restraint upon their evil. They have many benefits in living where the knowledge of Christ exists, offers of the gospel are made, and believers dwell. David Murray has written some insightful and encouraging pieces lately on what is known traditionally as "common grace" but what he has deemed "everywhere grace" (you read these in order at #1, #2, #3, #4). He is rightly helping us to see the overflowing bounty of God's gifts that exist all around us that even the worst of sinners gets to enjoy while on earth. Since hell is the ultimate removal of this everywhere grace, we must use its existence now to reach people.
This distinction is helpful when it comes to evangelizing an unbeliever or a group outside the church. Certainly it should encourage us to be kind and patient with them. Yet it can also help us in even how we speak to them. Though we should avoid the excesses of hyper-Calvinism and its reluctance to offer the gospel freely to all, we also need to be careful not to speak to unbelievers in the same way we do believers and thus blunt the gospel sword. Unbelievers are still God's enemies! Remember, a man loving his wife and loving his hateful neighbor will speak differently to both. The apostolic pattern bears this out.
When Paul was speaking to the unbelieving idolaters at Lystra or philosophers of Athens, he did not just blurt out, "God loves you! Christ died for you on the cross!" That would be speaking the language of special, personal grace to those who have not yet experienced it. It could have left the hearers thinking that special grace is cheap or that they did not really need to do anything. Rather, note how Paul appealed to the "everywhere grace" or "common grace" or "patient love" of God to help these people see that God has already been kind to them. He told them such things as "He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17), or "He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25). He did this to remind them of how patient God has been with them during this time, in order to press upon them the weight of their sin and unbelief. They needed to feel the conflict that the God who has already shown so much kindness to them was not pleased with how they have misused it with their sinning. A judgment awaited them if they remained in that state.
Then Paul told them of Christ who died and was raised to show His power over sin and death. Without using the language of special love so common in modern evangelicalism, he simply calls them and urges them to believe on the gospel.
So can you communicate to a sinner God loves him or her? Yes, but only if you are careful to do it in such a way that he knows he is also an enemy of God until he receives the gospel.