Is God’s love really unconditional?
“God’s love for us is unconditional. It never changes regardless of what we do or don’t do. He loves us just the way we are.” I recently heard a Christian I respect a lot make that statement and I’ve heard variations of it all my Christian life. But is it true?
I had the same misgivings when I read this quote from the bestselling book, Jesus Calling. (A book I do like by the way.) Here’s a portion of the reading for December 26. In it, the author assumes the voices of Jesus and says, “I am the Gift that continuously gives – bounteously, with no strings attached. Unconditional love is such a radical concept that even my most devoted followers fail to grasp it fully. Absolutely nothing in heaven or on earth can cause me to stop loving you. You may feel more loved when you are performing according to your expectations. But my love for you is perfect; therefore it is not subject to variation.”
Both of these quotes leave the distinct impression that God doesn’t love us or like us any differently whether we’re good or bad. Is that really true? If it is, it may be an explanation why so many Christians are behaving badly – thankful for God’s love but without any fear of him at all.
Is that really the God of the Bible?
It comes as a surprise to a lot of people that the phrase, unconditional love isn’t found anywhere in scripture – at least not in the top six versions I searched. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which it is true prior to our salvation. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8
The Bible says that God loves all humans, generally, but he uniquely loves those who by faith cry out to him for salvation and believe in his son’s divinity, death burial and resurrection. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” I John 4:10
Jesus didn’t die for us because he saw our potential for goodness, or because we were virtuous. We were sinners. Calvin called us totally depraved. So it’s not a stretch to think of God’s salvational love for all who have been or will be saved as unconditional before salvation.
And this much is also true, once a soul is truly born again nothing – no sin can cause us to lose this love of God. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 However, let’s not confuse God’s faithfulness to his promises with his feelings about our behavior.
Can God love us but still not like us at times?
So, here’s the question, after salvation does God really have no different feelings toward us whether we are good, or bad, forgiving or unforgiving, profane or holy?
If that’s true, then what happened in the Old Testament? Here you have Israel, God’s beloved people – the people of the promise sinning by worshipping the golden calf and God said to Moses, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” Exodus 32:10
Then God warned Israel with this before they entered the Promised Land. “But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it.” Leviticus 26:14-16 And when they later disobeyed God, he punished them in all these ways.
God punished Aaron’s wife with leprosy, sent snakes when they complained about manna and he sent “his people” into captivity twice because they worshipped other Gods. Clearly, even though God at one level loved Israel, there were times he didn’t like them at all when they deeply angered and displeased him. His feeling toward their sin was anything but unconditional.
New Testament “unconditional love”
“Yes, but that was in the Old Testament, when they lived under the law. We now live by grace” is the common argument. Well then, what do we do with these verses?
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 7:21
“For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater —has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” Ephesians 5:5-6
“If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.” I Corinthians 3:12-15
Jesus’ many teachings on the rewards he promises for our faithfulness and the loss of rewards if we aren’t, Paul’s teaching on discipline in I Cor. 5 and the judgment of believers based on what we did with our life in Revelation tells us one thing for sure. God likes those who act with mercy, justice and love and he’s unhappy with believers who don’t. It even says in Ephesians 4:30 that we can grieve the Holy Spirit by our sin. When we obey God, it delights him and when we don’t we sadden and anger him. And, I believe it’s dishonest, unbiblical and dangerous to think of God in any other way!
The danger of believing in unconditional love
I’ve been mentoring men for close to 30 years now and it’s been my experience that many of those who claim to be Christians, but are living in disobedience are grabbing on to the unconditional love idea like drowning sailors to a life ring. Why knock yourself out with holy living if Jesus is just as happy with you if you’re not?
While the unconditional love folks would probably never say that, trust me it’s what many in the church who are shamelessly behaving badly, do believe, and we better be careful to not leave that impression lingering out there. It’s a subtle variation on Love Wins and while we want to affirm the love of God, it’s only half the gospel if we don’t also speak of God’s justice, righteousness and judgment.
God hasn’t mellowed since the Old Testament. He still hates sin and punishes disobedience in this life and the next, even for believers. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Rev. 3:15-16
“Lukewarm living and claiming Christ’s name simultaneously is utterly disgusting to God.” Francis Chan, Crazy Love
Question: What do you think?
Following Jesus in Real Life