In the previous blog we already saw that God loves simply because He is love – not because of something He sees in the objects of His love. In fact, He unconditionally loves all, including His enemies, and we are enjoined by Christ to likewise love our enemies in order that we may be children of our Father in heaven (Matt 5:44-48).
Therefore, those of us who believe in the whole testimony of the Scriptures, must seek to understand how these clear declarations concerning the unconditional nature of God’s love complement, rather than contradict, other statements in Scripture which place conditions upon God’s unconditional love. How can God’s love be understood as unconditional while at the same time being conditional? Jesus Himself, while teaching that God loves all unconditionally, on more than one occasion presented His love as being conditioned upon our response to His love. Here are the main examples:
“He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (Jn 14:21)
“for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.” (Jn 16:27)
“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. 24 He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me.” (Jn 14:23-24)
All of the above statements indicate that there is a certain conditionality to God’s love. Many a casual reader would say that they are two distinct and irreconcilable truth-claims and conclude that Jesus was simply contradicting Himself. Others either ignore the unconditional passages, claiming that God only loves those who fulfill certain conditions, while those of the other extreme ignore the conditions altogether, claiming that God’s love is entirely one sided and that our lack of reciprocation does not in any way affect our relationship with God.
However, if we believe that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and that the entirety of His Word is truth (2Tim 3:16; Psa 119:160; Jn 17:17), we will often discover that what at first seems to be paradoxical and even contradictory, can actually be seen to be a complementary truth when rightly understood.
Keeping in mind that God, being love Himself, loves all, including His enemies, it becomes evident that Jesus is saying that, while God loves all unconditionally, and nothing we have done or can do will change that, if we want to experience His love in a love relationship with Him, there are conditions.
If you want to positively experience His love as love, you must first love the Son and believe that the Father sent Him (Jn 16:27). In fact, Jesus warned those who were unwilling to recognize Him for who He was, being God the Son incarnate, the Savior of the world, that they would die in their sins unless they believed (Jn 8:24). Does that mean that God did not love them? No! God is love and His love never ceases, and it is over all His works (Psa 145:9-10). However, they will not know His love until they receive His Son and have the love of God poured out in their hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5).
While God even loves the ungodly, Jesus said that if we want to experience His love in relationship with Him, we must keep His Word. That is what Jude meant when he said that we are to keep ourselves in the love of God, even though nothing nor anyone can ever separate us from His love, ontologically speaking (Jude 21; Rom 8:35-39). God’s love never ceases, but if we don’t obey His Word, we will not experience it as love, but rather it will manifest in the form of discipline or judgments which don’t seem like love to those who are undergoing them (Heb 12:10-11; 1Cor 11:31-32).
I find it helpful to keep in mind the fact that God’s love towards mankind is spoken of as being a paternal love. God is said to be the Father of the whole family, both in heaven and on earth, and He therefore loves all unconditionally, including His enemies (Eph 3:14-15; Mal 2:10; Matt 5:44-45).
Most of us understand paternal love to be unconditional. My parents weren’t perfect, but I always knew that they loved me and wanted the best for me, even during my rebellious years when I shamed their good name and caused them so much grief. I knew that nothing would have gladdened their hearts more than for me to come to myself and return home to them.
The parable of the Prodigal son illustrates beautifully the Father’s heart towards His wayward children. Although the Prodigal son did not appreciate his father’s love for him and didn’t enjoy his father’s love experientially in the far country, the father’s love for him had not diminished in the least. Some of my readers may have been abandoned by their earthly fathers, and others may have even been abandoned by their own mother. But Jesus said that we are evil fathers in comparison to our heavenly Father who is perfect love (Matt 7:9-11). The psalmist said: “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me” (Ps 27:10). Such is the Father’s love for us. To those of you who have been abandoned by your mother, Isaiah speaks these words:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isa 49:15)
The amazing thing is that God spoke these words to His people at a time when He was judging them for their abominable deeds, including even sacrificing their own children as burnt offerings to Moloch. While it was necessary for God to judge them severely because they failed to heed His warnings through the prophets, He wanted them to know that His love for them was unconditional – even beyond a mother’s love for her own child!
Did they experience His love in a loving relationship while they were being invaded by their enemies and taken captive? No. But, did God’s love for them diminish during that time? Certainly not! For those of you who have children, I would ask: Were you ever angry with them because of their disobedience? Did you ever discipline them? Did your anger and disciplinary action mean you had stopped loving them? Quite the contrary! If you were not angered and failed to correct their rebellious actions, it would be an indication that you did not really love them (Pr 13:24).
The fact that your child is not enjoying a loving relationship with you while being disciplined by you, does not mean that you do not love him unconditionally. It is the same way in our relationship with God: “whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb 12:6 cf. Pr 3:12). Would the child interpret His anger and discipline as loving them? Probably not. But that does not mean that he does not love them, but simply that they are not experiencing His love as love toward them at the moment, but rather as discipline.
Just as with the father in the parable of the Prodigal son, God will at times give people over to their own desires, since they do not desire to retain the knowledge of Him (Rom 1:24-28).
But does He ever stop loving them? No. He is even at times said to have indignation towards them because of their obstinate rebellion, and He may give them over to a reprobate mind (lit. “disapproved mind”) and cast them off for a time, but not forever, because He is love, and His love never ceases. He said of rebellious Israel, after assuring them in Isaiah 49 that His love for them is more faithful and enduring than that of a mother:
“With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.” (Isa 54:8)
So we see that, even in His wrath, His love for us never ceases. Even when He withdraws His presence and lets us suffer the consequences of our own stubborn willfulness, He will never reject anyone forever because His love never ceases. As Jeremiah said to Israel in Lamentations when they were undergoing God’s severe judgments and felt that God had forever abandoned them:
“The Lord will not cast off forever. 32 Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. 33 For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” (Lam 3:31-33, cf. Mic 7:18).
For my Calvinist friends who would argue that this promise only applies to the elect, I would point out that, when Jeremiah says, “the children of men,” it speaks of the whole world of humanity and not just the elect of Israel. Here we see that God only casts off the obstinately wicked from His presence for a time in discipline as a last resort: He does not afflict anyone nor grieve them willingly, because He loves us all unconditionally in spite of our rebellion, just as any loving father loves his children, except that He loves us infinitely more than any father ever could.
So, taking into consideration all that we have seen, it becomes apparent that, when Jesus said that “God will love us if…,” or that “He loves us because…,” He does not mean that God stops loving us when we are disobedient, it just means that we will not experience His love as love in a loving relationship. On the contrary, His disobedient children experience His correction and broken communion rather than His loving embrace. However, as soon as one of His children repents of His sin and rebellion, the Father again receives him with hugs and kisses, because He has always loved us with an everlasting unconditional love.
In the next blog, I will consider the passages which indicate that God hates some while loving others. Some of our Calvinist brethren understand this as meaning that God only loves the elect and actually hates all those whom He has not sovereignly chosen unto salvation. Such a view must deny or explain away all that we have seen so far in these two blogs concerning the universal scope of God’s unconditional love. Does God really hate in the sense that sinful man shows hatred towards his enemies? That is what we will be considering in the next blog.