(conditional) unconditional love
Yesterday morning we had a visit from Mike Fuller who told the story of the Bible in 50 minutes. The audio is here. Towards the end he explained that the new covenant expresses the ‘conditional unconditional’ love of God. Immediately I thought that this is something that needs to be unpacked a little more because it is SO important.
It is often said in church and in conversations about the Christian faith that ‘God loves you unconditionally’. Last time I checked, I couldn’t find that statement verbatim in any version of the Bible I read. What I do see is the statement that ‘God is love’ and the embodied revelation of that truth ‘God is love’. But are those two truths the same?
What we see in Jesus is the perfect fullness of both grace and truth, of both mercy and justice. The encounter with the woman caught in adultery (John 8) is a classic case in point - he ‘neither condemns’ but also gives the clear instruction to leave her ‘life of sin’. When we read ‘God is love’ in 1 John 4, we can look back to Jesus and have confidence that this is true. But does this mean ‘God loves you unconditionally’?
When we look back further into the Old Testament, we hear stories of how God punishes nations for sin, sends plagues on innocent people and allows pretty shady characters significant power on a consistent basis (you can find worse if you look harder). So did the Old Testament writers just get things wrong? ‘God loves you unconditionally’ doesn’t seem to match with a God who allows His people to be taken off into exile because they disobeyed Him. In fact the exiles of Israel and Judah are expressions of ‘conditional love’. So which one is it? Has Jesus somehow changed God’s mood?
And if He did, is God still ok with us today? Indeed if we turn the pages on from 1 John 4 to the pages of our lives today we might be able to reconcile the statement ‘God loves you unconditionally’ with our comfortable Western lives but we struggle to see how the statement extends beyond the borders of our continent to the stories we see in the news.
Love is the very nature of God. It is an extraordinarily beautiful truth that is mysteriously both within and beyond our comprehension and experience. It is a truth that CAN be reconciled with the profundity of human suffering and evil because it leads us to Jesus, the one who suffered, died and rose to be the hope of the world and will one day be the author of a new creation.
The beautiful truth of ‘God is love’ is cheapened by the addition of ‘and He loves you unconditionally’. This addition rides roughshod over the loving God’s view of sin and its consequences for the sinner and for the world in which that sin takes place. God’s love reveals itself in grace and truth and in mercy and justice in their fullest measures but God’s love comes with an invitation for us to respond.
Much like the politician who rejects the premise of the journalist’s question, many today want to reframe the invitation of God in Christ. They see it as an invitation that requires no response because they believe it's an act that requires no response - ‘God loves you unconditionally!’ But God isn’t a journalist we can correct.
His scriptures ask us a question the church has repeated through the ages: “Do you repent of your sin and believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?” Salvation from sin and death to eternal life comes by God’s grace and can be accessed through faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This helps us not only to see the grace and mercy of God’s love but also the truth and justice of it - that we will one day see an end to sin and death in His judgement. A loving God has to bring justice. But judgement and unconditional love are not compatible.
When Mike said ‘God’s love is conditionally unconditional’ what he meant is that 'God is Love' and nothing can change His love but if we want to receive that love, if we want to receive Him Himself (and therefore life eternal), we must repent of our sin and believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In saying this he brought a helpful corrective to the one who says ‘God loves you unconditionally’. All this theology leads not just to a 'correct view' but actually draws me back this beautiful truth that ‘God is love’ which leads me not to think of what He can do for me or for anyone else, but just to Him and who He is. Love.