The Love of God: Is it Unconditional?
Most of you who are reading our words rejoice that God is a God of love! Not all so-called “gods” may be characterized in this way. For instance, Allah is portrayed as a god of many virtues (99 of them), but he is not known to have the characteristic of love. The Hindu gods likewise may not be described as overwhelming love. Buddhism actually is atheistic for they don’t believe in a personal supreme being. However, Buddha (an exalted man) isn’t known for the virtue of love.
We can rejoice that God’s Word repeatedly makes reference to God’s marvelous and astounding love! Twice in the letter of 1 John, we read that “God is love” (4:8, 16). Notice that it doesn’t say that love is God but, rather, God is love! This is His character or nature. In the same Biblical book, we read of John’s exaltation, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God” (3:1). Indeed, God’s love is “great”—it is beyond our comprehension. It is eternal and will not end if we are His dearly loved children.
We might remember that God’s love is revealed in Jesus Christ and His work of redemption. Jesus declared, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16a). Paul also makes reference to this magnanimous love: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The apostle connects this love to our salvation experience: “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).
Whether we speak of God’s love as “great,” we know that it is far greater than we can imagine. Have you experienced this unique and wondrous love? It is the source of our salvation, thus we should often think of it and savor it, with deep gratitude in our hearts for this outgoing love, concern, and interest in our welfare.
But this subject raises an important question that we need to answer. Sometimes, when God’s love is mentioned, the speaker or writer may make reference to “the unconditional love of God.” Is this a true statement? Is this what Scripture teaches? Decidedly not. God’s love is not unconditional. Rather, it is conditional; it is contingent on our own response to God’s love. In addition, we can do that which will block, or negate, or cancel the love of God!
But this idea persists—and we’ve both heard or read of it. Maybe dozens of times over the years, we’ve heard of “the unconditional love of God,” and some of these times the speaker (or writer) makes the further comment, “You can do nothing to keep God from loving you!” It is true that God loves all people (John 3:16), although some would affirm that God doesn’t really love the unbeliever or sinner. In contrast, we do believe that God loves all people with a love that arises from His creative heart as well as His redemptive heart. But this is not the full story!
There are many places in Scripture where we read of God’s love extended not to everyone but to His beloved children. This special love is for those who are willing to believe in Him, obey Him, submit to Him, and follow His word. For example, Jesus said, “The Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father” (John 16:27). Why does God love us (in this case, the apostles)? “Because” they had loved Jesus and believed in Him (see also John 17:23).
Now return to John 14:21: “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” Again we see that when we obey Christ’s commands, we show that we love Him. But who is it that will be loved by the Father? It is the one who loves Jesus! Do we wish to be loved by God? Then we need to love the Lord Jesus and obey Him! In verse 23, Jesus said something similar: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” Here we see that if we love Jesus, we will obey Him. And if we lovingly obey the Lord, the Father will love him! While it may be true that God loves all people in a general way, this is referring to a special love reserved for His children and His children alone.
Is this Accurate?
There are scattered references to God’s love as it relates to His children, and these may be found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. For instance, in Hebrews 12:6, we read: “Those whom the LORD loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.” He doesn’t discipline all people, but only those He loves—i.e. His children. Let’s notice a few from the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures).
In Psalm 103:11, we read:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
God gives His lovingkindness to whom? Not to everyone indiscriminately, but to “those who fear Him.” The psalmist continues:
The lovingkindness of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting
On those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:17a). The next verse clarifies this even more:
To those who keep His covenant
And remember His precepts to do them.
To whom is God’s lovingkindness extended? To those who fear Him, to those who keep His covenant, and to those who obey Him.
In Deuteronomy 5:10, we again have a reference to Yahweh God: “. . . but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Notice likewise 7:9: “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments.”
These passages again show that God’s lovingkindness is given to people who love Him and keep His commands. This love is not unconditional, but it is very conditional.
Why Would Anyone Deny God’s Conditional Love?
As we noticed earlier, an important emphasis in our day is that of the “unconditional love” of God. People want to feel accepted and loved by God, apart from anything that they may do or not do. Further, many people are cautious about implying that a person may in some way “deserve” God’s love or even “earn” His love. Since this would be considered utterly false, we think that these people do everything possible to counteract this attitude by saying that we can do nothing at all to receive God’s love or maintain that love.
Many professing Christians want to ensure that God’s relationship with us is not cold, legalistic, and unemotional. They want people to think that they can do nothing at all to deserve or merit God’s grace or love. Thus, they emphasize the assumed “unconditional love” of the Lord. “God’s love for us arises out of His own loving heart and nature; we can do nothing to create or maintain such love!”
We find a danger in this teaching. First, any time that people teach a half truth, it is to be avoided and even condemned. At all times we must speak the truth and let others know the true character of God. Second, we must not shy away from the full counsel of God. If He says that He loves those who love Him and obey Him, we know that He means just that. Third, it would be a shame if we either believed or taught others that all they need to do is to believe in God or Christ, without respect to our response of love and obedience. Fourth, if indeed God only gives His special love to obedient and faithful lovers of Him and His Son, then it is utterly important that we submit ourselves to this in order to experience the marvelous love of God.
Let’s emphasize the wonderful love of God and often think about this “gift” that is precious and blessed. Let’s rejoice in God’s special, Fatherly love, but let us make sure that we believe and understand it, as well as teach it, in the way that His love is described in Scripture. God’s special love is bestowed on those who love Him, who love His Son, who obey Him and His will, and who are faithful to Him. It is a conditional love, one described on the pages of our Bibles!