I have been thinking a lot about the "unconditional love" of God. This is commonly asserted by many Christians, and most often in relation to sin, "God loves us unconditionally in spite of our sin." However, is this sentiment really biblical and what is meant when people say this? I ask you to think honestly about this question.
Increasingly people are being lulled into a false standing with God which seems to hinge on some perversion of God's love. The purpose of this article is not to attempt to divorce man from God's great love, but to ensure that we are truly abiding in His abounding love.
For a doctrine that has become so central to the contemporary church, Scripture is relatively silent on this issue. That is why many asserting that "God's love is unconditional" must deduce that it is so. They seek to appeal to what might be called your sense of reason saying, "God's love must be unconditional because...[fill in the blank]" Yet, there is not one Scripture which states that all have God's love unconditionally. Is God's love undeserved by all? Yes! Yet, undeserved does not mean unconditional. At the very least this concept should be supported by God's word if it is to be believed. Otherwise, it is likely false - no matter how warm & fuzzy it makes us feel.
So, what does it mean biblically to say that God's love is unconditional?
unconditional: not limited by conditions; asserting that the existence or occurrence of one thing or event does not depend on the existence or occurrence of another thing or event.God's love simply exists, for He is love (I John 4:8). It is not dependent upon anything else for - like His very nature - He (and it) just is. Yet, the fact that God's love exists unconditionally does not mean it is received by man unconditionally.
I Love Them That Love Me
And if obedience is the evidence of our love for God, then where does that leave sin?
"He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him." John 14:21
"Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." John 14:23
"For the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God." John 16:27
Scriptures state repeatedly that God loves those who love Him. Why would God say this if all receive His love unconditionally? If He loves all the same, then what is the point of such statements? If we truly examine the Scriptures, we will see that being recipients of God's love is only explicitly referenced for those who are considered His people. It is a promise of our inheritance in Christ Jesus.
The Biblical truth then is not that, "God loves me in spite of my sin." but that "God is love, in spite of my sin." Our sin does not stop God from being love, but our sin can surely place us outside the bounds of receiving His love (Hebrews 10:26-27). We should not be asking, "Does God love us?" but "Do we love God?" If we do, then we will obey His commands.
Abiding in God's Love
Lamentations 3:22-23; Psalm 86:15). Neither does it imply that God's love is not offered equally to all (John 3:16; Revelation 22:17).
God "loving those who love Him" is not a barometer by which we measure God's love, rather it is the standard by which we measure our response to His love. It simply affirms the reality that - although God draws man to Himself via His love - many do in fact reject His love. Some do this outright, never responding to His invitation for eternal life. Others might receive His love initially, but not continue to abide in it.
"And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold." Matthew 24:12
"Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." Revelation 2:4-5
The quality or quantity of God's love does not change when we sin; rather continued sin illustrates our response to that love. God's love must be received by us for it to apply to us. We do realize that God's love does not abide in everyone, right (I John 2:15)?
"But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." John 1:12-13
The goal is to have God's love (which exists unconditionally) living inside of us (which is conditional). We must enter into His love by turning in faith to Jesus Christ. His love must be perfected in us. If this is so, then our obedience will be the sign that we are abiding in that love (I John 1:6-7).
"And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them." John 17:26
"If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love." John 15:10
"But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him." I John 2:5
"For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous." I John 5:3
"And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it." II John 1:6
Don't be deceived by those telling you that God's love will keep you in spite of your continuing willfully in sin. The Lord keeps those who love (obey) Him.
"The LORD preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy." Psalm 145:20
Remember, the issue is not primarily the presence of sin, but the absence of a passionate love for Him. Persistent sin is merely the [rotten] fruit resulting from a lack of love relationship with God.
God So Loved the World
but that has been previously covered. My purpose in raising it here is to examine whether it is an example of all men being given God's "unconditional" love.
"We love him, because he first loved us." I John 4:19
Did love lead the Father to offer His only Son for our sins, and likewise lead Jesus to sacrifice Himself? Absolutely! It would have been impossible for us to love God without this sacrifice for we would not be able to be born again and become partakers of the divine nature.
Was that act unconditional? At one time (even at the point of writing this article) I would have said, "Yes! Jesus died once and for all to be a propitiation for the sins of the whole world based upon His own Sovereignty and compassion for mankind. Therefore, the love God exhibited in offering us redemption through Jesus Christ was unconditional because He required nothing from man in providing it." However, even as I was typing that, God asked me, "What about Abraham?"
God called upon Abraham to sacrifice His "only son" as a pattern and figure for what God would later do with His only Son, Jesus (Genesis 22:1-2). Yet, when God saw that Abraham was willing to do this and had faith that God would restore the life of his son (Genesis 22:5; Hebrews 11:17-19), God stopped him and substituted a ram for the sacrifice saying:
"And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice." Genesis 22:15-18
For more on how this willing sacrifice was a shadowing of Christ's sacrifice, see here: Why did God tell Abraham to kill his son Isaac?
However, look again at God's response to Abraham. God assures Abraham that "because" he was obedient & faithful in this way, God would bring forth a promised seed. We know from Scripture that this seed is Christ.
"That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith...Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ." Galatians 3:14, 16
Could God still have sent Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins even if Abraham had refused to offer Isaac? Of course. God's plans are unchangeable and He is limited by nothing other than His own will. However, that is the point. It was God's will to predicate the sin-sacrifice of His Son on the obedience of His servant. Since Abraham did not withhold his son, God would not withhold His own Son. Although God had promised to send this seed from the beginning (Genesis 3:15), at the same time we must acknowledge that He was looking for a response from man before bringing that to pass.
There was a certain type of faith (as witnessed by obedience) which God was waiting to see in man before bringing about Jesus' sacrifice. Similarly, He is also looking for that same faith in man before applying this sacrifice to our lives (Romans 4:1-25).
Our salvation through Christ - made possible by God's great love - is conditioned upon faith in Him and is the vehicle whereby that love is received by us as His sons & daughters (Hebrews 12:6; Galatians 5:6; I John 3:1, 4:7; Revelation 3:19).
Apart from just that type of faith (the faith of Abraham - faith working by love through obedience):
- We are not saved (Ephesians 2:8; I Peter 1:9)
- We are not justified (Romans 5:1)
- We are not pleasing God (Hebrews 11:6)
- We are not being kept by God (Psalm 31:23; I Peter 41:5)
- We are not being filled with the life and power of God (Ephesians 3:17-19)
- We are not promised to receive the blessings of God (Romans 8:28; I Corinthians 2:9)
- We are not promised eternal life (James 1:12, 2:5; Revelation 2:10)
- We are not called saints of God (Revelation 14:12)
- We are not promised to be recipients of God's love (Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 3:17-19).
"But if any man love God, the same is known of him." I Corinthians 8:3
Jesus' death on the cross is an illustration of God showing forth to mankind His great love (Romans 5:8). However, if that sacrifice/love is not received, then this same loving God will send such persons to Hell for all eternity. So why are so many going around preaching a Gospel of "unconditional love" when it is not the existence of God's love which saves us, but our submission to it?
Why Not Unconditional?
God's love exists unconditionally for it is part of His nature; it is who He is. Yet, that alone is not what brings about the salvation of each lost soul. God's love provides the sacrifice, but apart from receiving that love within, man will still be lost. When we reassure others that God's love is "unconditional" for man, we not only put forth a concept that is absent in the Scriptures (and at odds with Scripture), but we deny the truths about the conditions God establishes upon which man may be reconciled with Him.
Some believe it would be unrighteous for God not to love all unconditionally, but that is because they do not perceive the nature and purposes of God. There is a key principle which is missing from man's understanding about God - even amongst many Christian, - and that is this: God only has communion with Himself. From the beginning, God's purposes have been to have His image and glory reflected across the Earth. Man was made to be in God's "image" so that he could fellowship with God (Genesis 1:26; Romans 8:29).
"Can two walk together, except they be agreed? " Amos 3:3
The word "agreed" above also means betrothed. This implies more than just a mental alignment, but two becoming one (I Corinthians 6:17, 12:13). Why is there a condition for man to receive God's love? Because God is looking to regenerate Himself in us, and for that to happen, we must be one (in agreement) with Him.
God is looking for Himself in us and only has communion with us to the extent that He is alive within us (I John 1:1-7; I Corinthians 1:7-9). God only acknowledges Himself (Hebrews 6:13-18). He only answers Himself (I John 5:14). God only receives that which is like Himself (Ephesians 5:25-27).
"That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me." John 17:21-23
Herein is revealed the beauty and magnitude of Jesus' sacrifice, in that it is the way for us to become like Him. Through being born again and the power of His word, He is planting seed within us that will produce the nature of Christ (Galatians 4:19). Apart from the Father looking at us and seeing Jesus within us, God does not receive us.
It is in error to take the Scriptures about God's love for us and state that these apply to man regardless of his obedience to God. What good does it do for food to exist, but I never eat it and die of starvation? What good is it for water to exist, yet I never drink and die of thirst? So it is to know of the existence of God's love, yet never submit to it. For all who are thirsty, come drink of the waters which are freely given...but you must come and drink (Revelation 21:6, 22:17).
The existence of God's love is not what saves man. Rather, we are called to respond to, partake of, and be transformed by it. Our hearts must be directed to abide in that love as a willing sacrifice (Romans 12:1; II Thessalonians 3:5).
"Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life." Jude 1:21
Again, the focus is not, "Does God love you?" but "Do you love God?" God's love exists unconditionally. It is not limited or nullified by our sin. Even when we sin, we can still avail ourselves of His love...and we must do so. When we do, He promises to forgive (I John 1:7-9). Receiving this love is the only way that our sin can be covered so that we may enjoy His love and communion with Him.
"If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha." I Corinthians 16:22