Do the Scriptures present God’s love as being conditioned upon our behavior, or is it unconditional? Does He love everyone universally, or does He only love those who love Him in return?
John presents love as being the essential attribute of God’s very nature (1Jn 4:8,16). Is His love for all therefore infinite, eternal and indivisible from all His other attributes, or does His love somehow cease in a heartbeat for those who didn’t appropriately correspond to His love while still living?
Those of us who believe in a universal restoration of all have less difficulty embracing the concept of God’s unconditional love. But Traditionalists who believe that those who, for one reason or other, do not positively respond to His love in this life will afterwards be subjected to His wrath forever, are faced with a logical and moral dilemma, and they typically either deny that His love is unconditional or else deny that His love for all is eternal. Some actually become indignant when they hear someone glorying in the love of God towards all.
While admittedly, many have misrepresented God’s love as being permissive and affirming of people living in willful sin, others have overreacted to this extreme by limiting God’s love, just as they often do with God’s grace.
Since I consider this to be such an important subject, being that it determines how we perceive God and relate to Him, in the next couple of blogs I will be considering what the Scriptures actually have to say concerning this vitally important subject.
The Unconditional Love of God
Those who deny that God’s love for us is unconditional often begin by pointing out that the term “unconditional love” never appears, per se, in Scripture. However, they themselves make use of terms such as “unmerited love,” “abounding love” and “sacrificial love,” terms which likewise are not found in the Scriptures, yet all would acknowledge that they are descriptive of God’s love. The real question we must answer is whether or not God’s love is presented as being unconditional in Scripture, and I hope to demonstrate that it most certainly is. In the very declaration of John where he said that God is love, he defines His love as not being conditioned upon anything in us. He said:
“God is love… 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1Jn 4:8,10)
Here we see that God loves simply because He is love, not because the objects of His love fulfilled some preconditions. If love is conditional, what condition did we fulfill in order for God to love us and send His Son to be the propitiating sacrifice for our sins? I would remind those who would argue that this verse only applies to the elect, that He also loved the whole world and made propitiation even for those whom He knew would not correspond to His love this side of the grave (Jn 3:16; 1Jn 2:2). He loved us while we were yet dead in our trespasses and sins. In Romans, Paul is even more emphatic in stating that, in contrast to man’s love, God’s love is unconditional, when He says:
“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8)
The greatest demonstration of God’s unconditional love was when He sent His Son to die for us, being ungodly sinners. Rather than us fulfilling a precondition in order to merit His love, He showed His love toward us even while we were His enemies (Rom 5:10). Jesus further tells us that if we want to be like our Father in heaven, we must likewise love our enemies. He said:
“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48)
Conditional love only loves those who love us in return. But Jesus says that, if we only love in that way, then we are no different than the tax collectors, since even they love those who love them in return. We only become perfected in the love of the Father when we love even our enemies, just as He does. Conditional love says, “I love you because…,” “I will love you if…” or “I will love you as long as…” But unconditional love says, “nothing you can do or say will cause me to stop loving you.” Every human being – indeed, every rational being, has an innate need for unconditional love which only God can supply, yet religion all too often robs us of the assurance of His love for us.
Some Calvinists, when confronted with the undeniably unconditional nature of the Father’s love in this passage, attempt to categorize the love of God, saying, “Yes God has a ‘general love’ for His enemies in that he sends the rain, even upon the unjust, but it is not the ‘effectual or redemptive love,’ which He has towards His elect only.” According to this view, God loves His enemies unconditionally until they draw their last breath, but then His unconditional love somehow becomes unending wrath the moment they die.
They argue that God’s justice requires His eternal wrath. While that is a subject beyond the scope of this blog, God’s attributes are indivisible. His love and His justice have never been in conflict with each other due to the fact that Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice on the cross has eternally been an accomplished reality with God. Jesus was the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). His righteousness and peace kissed one another at the cross, reconciling all of creation unto Himself (Psa 85:10; Col 1:16,20). God was demonstrated to have been just in justifying those who previously sinned at the cross when Christ became the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (Rom 3:25-26 ). And the gospel is said to be eonian (Rev 14:6). Whatever that means, it certainly means that it continues being good news beyond one’s last breath (1Peter 4:6). The blood of Christ does not have an expiration date (Heb 9:12; 7:25).
God’s love even reaches beyond the grave into Sheol or Hades itself. Since God is love and He is present in all of creation, there is no escaping His love. The psalmists says:
“The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works. 10 All Your works shall praise You, O Lord...” (Ps 145:9-10)
“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell (Sheol), behold, You are there.” (Ps 139:7-8)
Given that God’s tender mercies are over all His works, including Sheol itself, how can anyone continue denying that God’s love is unconditional? As we will see in the next blog, while many are not experiencing God’s love, relationally speaking, His love for them is nevertheless inescapable and never ceases (1Cor 13:8). An old hymn I often find myself singing is “The Love of God.” It is still sung in many churches to this day, but those who believe that hell eternally separates man from the love of God must sing it tongue in cheek. The first stanza reads:
“The love of God is greater far,
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The wandering child is reconciled
By God’s beloved Son.”
The first line of the hymn is taken from Paul’s prayer for us in Ephesians 3 which says:
“For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named… 17that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height — 19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:14,17-19)
What Paul is saying is that we need a revelation of His love which exceeds our mental capacity to conceive – a knowing which goes beyond a mere intellectual comprehension to have His love actually being poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). This inevitably results in us being “filled with all the fullness of God,” since God is love. This is glorious! Those who think God’s love is conditional should ask Him to reveal to them just how wide is the expanse of His love; how high it reaches and how low it will go to reach out to the lost. I can assure you that they will never be the same.
In 1982, after my studies in seminary, I experienced this glorious fullness which comes from the love of God having been poured out in one’s heart by His Spirit as described by Paul. At that point in my life, I felt spiritually dry and realized that a mere intellectual knowledge of Scripture could not satisfy my thirst for God. I longed to experience His love and enjoy intimate communion with Him as I did when I first came to know Him. I determined to set aside my theological studies and seek the Lord to restore unto me my first-love.
One night I was lying in bed reading from Andrew Murray’s book “Abiding in Christ” when the Holy Spirit poured out the love of God in my heart in a way much too glorious to express with mere words. I have never been very emotional, but I felt so overwhelmed by His fullness that I could not contain the joy. All I could do was laugh and cry at the top of my voice. I could see as never before that I was one spirit with the Lord and that Christ was my very life. The Scripture came alive to me as never before as the Spirit opened my understanding.
Space will not allow me to go into more detail here, but this open heaven experience continued for some three months, at which time I cried out to God and said: “Lord, I want to make you known as I am knowing you right now.” I have always been painfully shy, and when I did get the courage to share with others what I was experiencing they just looked at me like there was something wrong with me. The Lord responded to me from John 12:24 where Jesus said: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” He showed me that, just like the grain of wheat, I needed to allow Him to remove things from my life that were keeping His life trapped inside of me, and that I would not feel His presence in the same way I had been experiencing it for a time, but that He would never leave me nor forsake me.
Gradually, the sense of His presence diminished, and I no longer saw clearly as I did in His presence. In the fullness of His presence, sinful habits fell by the wayside, and I felt free from all temptations. However, little by little, as I lost the conscious awareness of His presence, I once again began to struggle with temptations. I pleaded and pleaded with the Lord to restore to me that open heaven experience. I wanted to see as I saw in His presence, but the heavens seemed like brass. Then, one day at work, as I was agonizing over my condition, the Lord spoke to me, simply saying: “Isaiah 42:16.” As soon as I went for my 10:00 break, I opened my Bible to the text He gave me, and this is what it said: “I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.”
I knew in my spirit that the Lord was reassuring me that, even though it wasn’t in His purposes to remove my blindness at that time, He would never forsake me, and that, in His time, He would perfect the good work which He began in me. That glorious experience of God’s unconditional, unfailing love for me has given me the strength and assurance I needed to trust in His love through the many ways in which He has worked death in me over the last 40 years. I share more fully this encounter I had with the Lord in my book: “The True Grace of God.”
I believe with Paul, that we all need to know the width and length and depth and height of His love in an experiential way which goes beyond mere knowledge. We need to be fully convinced of God’s unconditional love towards us, just as Paul says in Romans 8:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter." 37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35-39)
Are you persuaded as Paul that nothing nor anyone in all of creation will ever be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ? If not, get before the Lord and ask Him to open your understanding and pour out His love in your heart by the Holy Spirit. I assure you; you will never be the same.
Some would rob us of this full assurance by saying: “True, no created thing can separate you from the love of God, but sin is not a created thing, and sin can separate you from God’s love forever.” However, it is very obvious that that is not what Paul would have us understand in his all-comprehensive declaration. Throughout the entire epistle up to this point, Paul has been demonstrating how the sin problem has been dealt with once and for all for the believer through Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice. In chapter 8 he begins with “no condemnation” for those who are in Christ Jesus and ends with “no separation” from His love. There is no condemnation because we have been justified from all sin through faith in Christ (Rom 5:1).
That Paul didn’t mean to say that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ except for sin in Romans 8:35-39 is evident from what he said just before that in verses 33 and 34. He said:
“Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.” (Rom 8:33-34)
Paul here poses the rhetorical question: “Who shall bring a charge (of sin) against God's elect? The obvious answer is no one, since it is God Himself who declared us righteous. He then asks, “Who is he who condemns (because of sin) if Christ Himself has died and rose and intercedes for us, being Himself the propitiation for our sins?” (cf. 1Jn 2:1-2). Again, the answer is that no one nor nothing (not even sin) shall be able to separate us from His love.
Mankind would have never been at enmity with God if we were not sinners, and Jesus says that God loves His enemies, and He loved us while we were yet in our sins. To say that God loved us unconditionally in our sin before being justified, but now loves us conditionally after being justified, goes against everything that Paul has been saying up to this point. Additionally, Peter says that love will cover a multitude of sins (1Peter 4:8). God’s love can cover a multitude of sins because of Christ’s expiatorial sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins, and not only our sins, but the sins of the whole world. Therefore, His love for all is constant and unconditional. Just as with the Prodigal son, the Father is waiting with open arms to receive each and every one of His wayward children the moment they come to themselves and return to Him – even those who despised their inheritance.
Contemporary Misunderstandings of God’s Unconditional Love
Much of the opposition to the truth of God’s unconditional love is due to the way in which many today have misrepresented it, presenting it as if it meant that God’s love was a permissive or all-affirming love. A love that does not hate evil and oppose evildoers is not really love at all but indifference. A righteous love cannot love evil and injustice. While God loves all unconditionally and therefore will not reject evildoers forever nor will He retain His anger against them forever as traditionally taught, His righteous love is angered by the obstinate rebellion of His people and when we fail to judge sin in our lives He often intervenes with judgments, even at times resulting in one’s premature death (1Cor 11:28-32). Just as any loving father corrects his son and is angered by the child’s rebellion, even so our heavenly Father disciplines His children and even scourges them if necessary in order that we may partake of His holiness (Heb 12:6-11). However, His mercies are new every morning and His love never ends because He doesn’t simply love – He is love.
In the next blog: “What is Conditional about God’s Unconditional Love?” I will be considering passages which many misconstrue as being a denial of God’s unconditional love. How are we to understand passages stating that God actually hates and abhors certain individuals? Do these statements somehow contradict or negate all we have seen so far concerning the unconditional nature of God’s love? Some statements made by Jesus also seem to present God’s love as conditional, such as John 14:21-24 and John 16:27. How are we to understand these passages? That will be the subject of the next blog.