Is God's Love Unconditional?

Love in the Western world is a complex and often contradictory and confusing concept.

Little Jimmy Watkins was on the computer in his uncle's office. He started pecking out: "I am seven years old. My uncle’s computer is fun to play with. I am going to help him write his book on "What is love?" He begins:Billy Smith is in sixth grade, and he knows everything. Billy Smith says, “Love makes you feel warm all over your body. It makes you feel light-headed. It makes your stomach go flip flop.” I was in love last week because my stomach was going flip flop. Mom took me to the doctor. I got a shot where I sit down and I did not even get a lollipop.

The man on the TV says that love is giving. I gave Betty Green chicken pops. I gave Junior Jackson a black eye. But I think love is just giving good things.

And the man and the lady on the TV said that love can be put together. Last night I got out my Lego building blocks. I asked really nice and said to Dad, "Please Dad, “Can you help me make some love?” Daddy’s head turned red and the veins on his neck stuck out. And he said, “Never say that again!”

Despite just a seven-year-old mindset, Jimmy does point out some problems with this slippery word “love.” Part of the problem as most of us know is that we have one little word for emotions that are incredibly complex!

I say, “I love sports, steak, my wife, my best friend, war movies, and my children." But obviously, I don’t love my wife the same way I love steak. And I don’t love my children and grandchildren the same way I love my wife.

Practically all modern languages have but one word for love. However, the Greek language used in the New Testament had several different words for love, but primarily used only two main words - philos and agape.

1 John 4:8, Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” John says that God, as to the very essence of His nature, is agape. This doesn’t mean that love is God, although modern culture has attempted to enthrone love in that sovereign position. God is not an abstraction. The word "God" in 4:8 has the article, the word "love" does not, which construction in Greek means that the two words are not interchangeable. The absence of the article emphasizes nature, essence, character. The translation should read “God as to His nature is love.” This means that God is a loving God."

Love, as embraced and espoused today, is used to justify every choice and action that people make. Anything is acceptable as long as two people love each other. This is especially applicable as it relates to the issue of sex. If teenagers love each other and want to have sex, then their love, not biblical law, should be the determining factor. If a husband and wife want to have extramarital affairs in the name of love, then it’s right. If two people of the same sex love each other and want to have sex or get married, morality isn’t the issue, love is, and if they truly love each other that’s all that matters.  

Many people, probably even many Christians, think God's love is unconditional. And insofar as God extends his love to all people without distinction, it is true. But many have bought into the sentimental notion of unconditional love such as is evidenced in old popular church song, "Though it makes him sad to see the way we live, he'll always say, 'I forgive.' " This is fuzzy romanticism and cheap grace, not the good news of Jesus Christ.

The assertion that God’s love is unconditional has become fashionable in evangelical circles and is being carried to heretical conclusions by some today using distorted logic. They assume that because scriptures, such as John 3:16, says that God loves the world and doesn’t want any to perish that all are either already saved and just don’t know it, or that in the end all will be saved. This ancient heresy of universalism is rearing it’s deceiving head again today in epic proportions.  

It is certainly a pleasing message for people to hear and conforms to a certain kind of political correctness. In our desire to communicate to people the sweetness of the gospel, the readiness of God to cover our sins with forgiveness, and the incredible depth of His love displayed on the cross, many are indulging in a hyperbolic expression of the scope and extent of His love.

Authentic love requires conditions. Consider the couple, Dick and Jane Doe, who have been married for 20 years. Jane discovers that her husband has committed adultery, and Dick wants to continue the relationship. He also wants his wife to accept it and continue the marriage as well. What does real love mean for Jane in this situation? If she loves him unconditionally, won't she accept her husband on his terms - letting him continue sleep with another woman and her also - as an expression of her love? Or will genuine love require Jane to say, "It's either me or her"?  

This “either me or her” attitude toward love flows from God’s attitude toward all spiritual adulterers – “It’s either Me or your idols”!

The late theologian, R.C. Sproul asked, “Where in Scripture do we find this notion of the unconditional love of God? If God's love is absolutely unconditional, why do we tell people that they have to repent and have faith in order to be saved? God sets forth clear conditions for a person to be saved. It may be true that in some sense God loves even those who fail to meet the conditions of salvation, but that subtlety is often missed by the hearer when the preacher declares the unconditional love of God. People hear that God will continue to love them and accept them, no matter what they do or how they live. We might as well declare an unabashed universalism as to declare the unconditional love of God without a clear and careful qualification of what that means.”

If God loved unconditionally in the Rogerian sense (named after Dr. Carl Rogers) of offering “unconditional positive regard,” he would forgive and accept every person no matter what, requiring no Cross. But then the Christian message would be logically incoherent. It would be as shallow as the love of a person who always accepts another's destructive behavior without ever calling him or her to account.

Apart from God's grace, we can do nothing to save ourselves. Our works can never save us (Titus 3:5). But this does not mean salvation is unconditional. Jesus shows us the true nature of love and its breathtaking cost.

In his booklet, God’s Love: Better Than Unconditional, David Powlison writes: “Unconditional love? No, something much better. People who now use the word unconditional often communicate an acceptance neutered of this detailed, Christ-specific truth.”

God’s love is more than conditional, for it is intended to change those who receive it. “Unconditional” often connotes “you’re okay.” But there is something wrong with you. The word “unconditional” may well express the welcome of God, but it does not well express the point of his welcome.

Dr. Powlison continues: “Unconditional love” carries a load of cultural baggage, wedded to words like “tolerance, acceptance, affirmation, benign, okay,” and a philosophy that says love should not impose values, expectations, or beliefs on another. In fact, humanist psychology even has a term for it: “unconditional positive regard” (Carl Rogers).

“When you look closely, God’s love is very different from “unconditional positive regard,” the seedbed of contemporary notions of unconditional love.

“God does not accept me just as I am; He loves me despite how I am; He loves me just as Jesus is; He loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus.

“This love is much, much, much better than unconditional! Perhaps we could call it “contraconditional” love.

“Contrary to the conditions for knowing God’s blessing, He has blessed me because His Son fulfilled the conditions. Contrary to my due, He loves me. And now I can begin to change, not to earn love but because of love. You need something better than unconditional love. You need the crown of thorns. You need the touch of life to the dead son of the widow of Nain. You need the promise to the repentant thief. You need to know, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” You need forgiveness. You need a Vinedresser, a Shepherd, a Father, a Savior. You need to become like the one who loves you. You need the better love of Jesus.”