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Monday, August 20, 2012

God's Unconditional Love

I'm quite sure that this quote from a Christian article won't meet with much resistance: "The Bible says that God loves us completely no matter what we do." Yes, sure, we all know that. God loves unconditionally. Got it. Clear enough. We know.

But wait! Is that true? You see, we often pass off on some theological or doctrinal point without examining its veracity. Is it true? It sounds true, I suppose. But is it? If it is true, where in the Bible do you read it? Now that will be an interesting trick, because it's not in there. (Easy verification. Do a word search in the Bible for "unconditional" and you'll see.) Okay, so where do you acquire it? What in the Bible makes you think it's true? You see, I don't think most of us have even thought that far. So, why do I even ask? Well, while we are all quite sure that God loves us unconditionally, we read things like "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated" and I have to ask, "Huh??" You see, if Esau is loved unconditionally, why is he hated? And it's not just Esau. There are a lot of people whom God hates (e.g., Lev 20:23; Psa 5:5; 11:5; Hos 9:15).

"Oh, no," we will say, "God loves the sinner but hates the sin." Yes, you'll find that in Hezekiah 5:3. No, wait. That's not right. Hey, where exactly is that? You see, every time I read of God referring to sin and sinners, it appears to me that He sees the two as irrevocably connected. We're part of Adam's race, part of his sin condition, "by nature children of wrath". He calls sinners to repent. He connected the Pharisees with "your father, the devil". It seems too deeply connected -- the sin and the sinner -- to strip them apart.

Part of the problem is our hazy definitions. "Love", for instance, means "accepting, warm, affectionate". Or does it? Does love require acceptance? Does "unconditional love" mean "I embrace you in everything that you are and you do"? That certainly doesn't fit with biblical imagery (for instance, Jer. 18:7-11 or, say, Israel's 40 years in the desert for refusing to go into the land). Indeed, we read quite explicitly, "The Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives" (Heb 12:6). Further, "If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons" (Heb 12:8). So clearly the biblical version of love doesn't include "no conditions on how to behave or what to be in order to receive acceptance." That's not biblical love. In fact, Paul says that God's kindness, forbearance, and patience -- components of His love -- have a purpose; they lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4).

Now, clearly God's love is not earned. Moses told Israel that God chose to love them apart from any perceived merit in them; He loved them because He promised He would (Deut 7:6-8). God doesn't love us because we deserve it (Job 7:17). And we know that there are some conditions on God's love. Jesus said, "The Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God" (John 16:27). See that? "Because you have loved Me." That's why "the Father Himself loves you." Conditions. In fact, one of the all time favorite passages on the love of God actually lays out a key condition. John 3:16 says, "God loved the world in this way: He sent His only begotten Son so that those who believe in that Son will not perish, but will have everlasting life." (I rephrased it slightly to avoid a couple of very common errors in understanding what it actually says.) What is the condition? "Believe in Him." If you do that, you experience His love in the form of everlasting life. If you do not, you do not experience that love, but perish instead. Conditions.

God loves His own. Of that there is no doubt. His love cannot be earned. Of that there is no doubt. Indeed, God Himself defines love. Absolutely true. But I question the concept of unconditional love. Further, I deny the concept of unconditional love as it is currently applied -- that "I embrace you in everything that you are and you do" idea. God Himself chastises those He loves. There is absolutely no doubt that He punished Israel, the people that He loved, when they violated His laws. The ever-so-popular concept of unconditional love as an equivalent of unconditional acceptance is absolutely absent in Scripture. Love without consequences, in fact, is a contradiction in terms. Oddly enough, that kind of "unconditional love" might actually occur in human beings. It's wrong, unbiblical, a violation of the nature of God and the nature of love, but it probably does occur here and there ... you know ... as long as you aren't violating their particular threshold*. I would encourage you, on the other hand, not to look for that kind of illogical, irrational violation from God. You won't find it.
* I followed recently a discussion about "unconditional love" in terms of a parent "embracing and accepting" an offspring who "comes out" to a Christian parent. The suggestion of many commenters was that it was required. When one was asked, "So, what if they become intolerant bigots?", she replied, "I would send him out the door and tell him he wasn't welcome in my home if he was going to talk that way. I don't allow bigots in my home." Ummm ... what was that about "unconditional love"?


Bryan said...

Ok, so here is my question - what about Romans 5:8 "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (NKJV)

I guess to me - I could easily be wrong on this, as I am not a Biblical scholar by any stretch - but is that not a picture of unconditional love? He loved us before we loved him, because our love of Him is not natural. 1 John 4:19 says that "We love Him because He first loved us." There was no condition in His first loving us – so by that definition, would it not be unconditional?

Now, please don’t think that I believe God’s love can be earned, because I know it cannot – our salvation is a gift and not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9). But would this love He has for us, while we were STILL sinners – would that be viewed as unconditional? Now, I know to obtain this love, we must trust Christ as our personal savior - so then we would not be able to partake in God’s love unless we have come to salvation. So then it wouldn’t be unconditional. Yeesh, I feel like I am chasing my tail. What are your thoughts Stan?

Stan said...

First, we both agree that God's love cannot be earned. We don't deserve God's love.

Here's the problem. There are multiple places where God references "because" when He talks about loving His people. A key example I offered was Jesus's words, "The Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God" (John 16:27). That's a condition.

First, we eliminate the possibility of simple contradiction. So what do we have? I look to passages like Phil 2:12-13 where we are told to "work out your salvation" and concludes with "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." I am working out my salvation. How? God is in me providing will and power. So ... who is working? I think of David's "You are my Lord; I have no good besides You" (Psa 16:2). Does David have "good"? Well, yes. But what is the source of that good? God. So who is good?

Romans 5:8 is directed not toward all men, but toward "us" -- believers. Faith is a gift. So I must have faith ... which God provides, and I must work out my salvation ... which God provides, and I must be good ... which God provides. In the same sense, then, God chooses whom He will save and provides His love towards those whom He chooses not based on conditions in them, but on His purpose (Rom 9:11). Conditions that must be met (like "believe") then are met by Him on my behalf. In fact, it turns out that this is the summary of the whole Gospel in the end.

Thus, by "unconditional" I mean "Not conditioned on that which I provide".

Conversely, if God's love is unconditional, why is salvation not universal?

Your thoughts?

Mike said...

You can still love someone without tolerating their lifestyle or choices. You can still love your child no matter what they do, but that does not mean you have to allow them to act against your values in your home. "Unconditional Love" doesn't mean tolerating any sort of behavior.

Marshall Art said...

I have no hard problem with the concept of God's unconditional love in the sense that how He feels about His creation in general might be as such. However, I do have a problem with how and when this notion is mentioned or presented. It might be true that He desires that no one perish, but obviously the desire doesn't mean it won't happen and unconditional love does not legitimize behavior or guard it from punishment. It is another case of man projecting onto God what he desires of God, while ignoring what God desires from us. We might be called to love our enemies, but even that does not mean we must not punish them for crimes they commit or that we must not protect ourselves from the harm they will cause us.

The notion of unconditional love is merely a human construct designed to ward off reminders of what God has clearly revealed are sinful behaviors. It gives license to continue in one's sin. The kicker, however, is that His love does not mean His justice no longer exists, and living contrary to His will, as if His will has changed, carries consequences. Doing so indicates who a person is really worshiping.

Stan said...

Now that's for certain, Mike. Indeed, tolerating sin when we know sin does damage is not love.

Stan said...

Yes, Marshall, the real problem of the concept of "unconditional love" is its abuse. "My parents have to love me unconditionally, so I can do what I want." Take that to the next (erroneous) step: "If they love me unconditionally, it means that they embrace all that I am and do." Take that to the next step where we're talking about God's love, and it's a real mess.

Bryan said...

I totally agree with your statement Thus, by "unconditional" I mean "Not conditioned on that which I provide". Salvation is not of our works.

I’m not well versed in Universalism, but I think those folks figure EVERYONE is going to heaven. Well, John 14:6 says “Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We need Christ’s blood atonement to make our relationship right with God. I look at it as if God would be looking at Christ standing in front of me – covering me with His righteousness. Like one of the other commenters stated, just because He loves us doesn’t mean His righteous judgement will no longer exist. So unless you have trusted in His Son’s death and resurrection, then you will not be going to heaven.

Stan said...


I would argue, then (in agreement with what you said), that God's complete love is conditioned on our being like Christ ... which is a condition that Christ meets in us.

David said...

When I think of God's unconditional love for me, I think of it as a shorthand way of saying God's love for me by the conditions only He can set in me. Nothing we can do can be a condition for receiving His love, thus His love is unconditional. While it isn't universally unconditional, the condition needed to be met is for only believers, and they can only meet that condition through Him working in us.

But saying that because we are unconditionally loved means we are free to do as we please is equal to the heresy Paul argued against when talking in Romans about grace and sin growing together. It doesn't mean we are free to do as we please, but it is an assurance that we can't do anything to lose His love. To not say His love is unconditional just because people abuse it doesn't mean it isn't true, it just means people don't understand it.

It may be wise to avoid the term (since it isn't biblical) but to say it is absolutely untrue in all ways would be false. Maybe a different term would be better than unconditional.

Stan said...


This is precisely why I have a personal crusade around words. The problem is that words mean something, but in the English language (all living languages), those meanings evolve. Since words are the method whereby we communicate concepts, we have to use them. But when they change or vary from person to person, it gets very difficult.

In the use of words, the goal needs to be communicating from one person to the other. That means that I have to account for the other in my use of words. I could refer to "gay intercourse" meaning "happy conversation" (a term I read recently in a Jules Verne book) and almost no one would understand. "Marriage" is another example of a word and a concept whose use is prevalent but whose meaning is so obscured that suggesting what I mean by it comes across as radical.

So here we are with "unconditional" as an adjective for "love". Nearly everyone understands that to mean "You will love me no matter what I do." Couple that with a loose use of "love" to mean "feel warmly, embrace with acceptance, etc.", and you have a recipe for a disaster of understanding. That is not the love communicated in Scripture. So "unearned" might be a better term today because "unconditional" just confuses people.

Two people separated by a common language. Sigh.

David said...

Unearned, I like that.