The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God
If most people in our country were asked to name a characteristic of God, I believe the most common answer would be “love.” The Bible says, “God is love”. Yet the “love picture” of God our society holds today bears little resemblance to the picture we see in the Bible.
Years ago I went to verify a serious rumor. If true I was going to challenge the person’s sin. The person readily admitted her adultery but then said it was of no importance to me since God didn’t have a problem with it. I was quite surprised by this answer since it was someone attending our church. “What?” She believed that because of God’s unconditional love all she needed to do was say “sorry” when it was all over and everything would be fine. Jesus did not died an agonizing death on the cross to free people to do or think that!
Years ago, when society believed in the judgment of God – telling people about the “love of God” was incredibly great news. Today, if you tell someone God loves them, you may well get “of course God loves me, why wouldn’t He?” A single phrase captures the radical change in understanding of God’s character – that phrase? God’s love is unconditional. The rest of what I say today is so counter-cultural that many of you will have trouble hearing what I say. Because false thinking about God’s love is so deep in our culture – I am going to have to take longer to show you the problems with society’s view than I do showing what the Bible says.
PROPOSITION: The current claim that ‘God’s love is unconditional’ is Biblically deficient and an inaccurate picture of the wonder, magnificence, scope and depth of God’s love.
I. Today’s definition: God’s love is unconditional
A. Unconditional love means there are no ‘conditions’
In our cultural today, the common understanding of God’s love is that God’s love is unconditional. Unconditional love simply means there are no ‘conditions’ for it. God is to love a person regardless of whether the person loves God or not. Unconditional love is to be shown regardless of what a person does or what they believe. Any conditions to love would mean a person must earn love and that wouldn’t be love. We have all seen the problems with performance based love.
B. Unconditional love implies absolute acceptance/freedom
Closely aligned to this, unconditional love implies absolute acceptance. Love is to be freely given no matter what. We must be accepted no matter what. In fact Americans use the phrase “God accepts you no matter what you do.” This “acceptance” is seen in a permissive, unstructured environment. Whatever actions we take, others should love us unconditionally. We need to be free. Unconditional love means freedom of choice. As one person put it, “we shouldn’t be punished for the choices we make.”
C. Humans can’t thrive without receiving unconditional love from those around
Psychologists today believe that unconditional love is a basic human need that is essential to a person’s sense of well-being. Heavy weight therapists Alfred Adler, Abraham Maslow & Carl Rogers all believed that a person needs to be loved and accepted unconditionally or they can not blossom and become all they should be. And you’ll find the same claims on Christian radio or in Christian books.
II. Problems with our current understanding of ‘unconditional love’
With such a universal agreement on the fact that God loves unconditionally, it may seem strange to you that I would question this wording. Does God’s love come without any conditions at all? Is it really UN- or without conditions? Remember if we have an incorrect picture of God’s love, then we can not know true love. Let’s look at scripture and I encourage you to have an open mind as we do. This is VERY counter-cultural
A. It is not Biblical John 15:9-10 (Daniel 9:4; Jude 21)
READ John 15:9. In v 9, Jesus told the disciples “to remain in His love”. There is something the disciples MUST DO to continue in Jesus’ love. That’s a condition. HOW do we remain in Jesus’ love? READ John 15:10a. We must obey Jesus’ commands to remain in His love. That’s an even stronger condition. To make this point stronger, Jesus shows this is how the Trinity works READ John 15:10b. In the perfect love of the godhead, the eternal Son of God obeys the Father and thus remains in His love. We can not get by the conditional aspects of God’s love – this is right from the mouth of Jesus. Look down at v 14. READ John 15:14. When we have words like “if you” or commands like “remain in & keep yourself in” they speak of conditions. When we meet those conditions one result happens, when we don’t mee those conditions, another result happens. I’ve also listed Daniel 9:4 and Jude 21 to demonstrate two other times that God’s love has a conditional aspect to it.
B. Proponents rarely support view with actual verses John 3:16; Prodigal son
Turn to John 3. Well surely the numerous Christian writers and speakers who talk about God’s unconditional love must have many passages of scripture they point to. Actually I have now been listening closely for over a decade and I virtually NEVER hear them refer to a particular passage in the Bible to prove their point. Try it – just listen for any evidence given when they talk about God’s unconditional love. There have been a few times they mention a particular passage, but when I turned there, I found it either didn’t teach unconditional love OR it actually taught the opposite. One example they give is John 3:16. READ v 16a. Now that seems like proof of unconditional love, doesn’t it. God loves the world – John uses the word “world” to include people who are opposed to God – God so loved those who didn’t care about Him so much that He gave up His one and only Son. YET WHEN WE CONTINUE, a condition is mentioned. READ v 16b. The ones who receive eternal life are those meet a condition – they believe in Jesus. READ v 18. That conditions of God’s love are real and they are absolute. Believe in Jesus, eternal life – don’t believe in Jesus, condemnation & hell.
The other illustration of unconditional love I have heard is that of the prodigal son. They claim the Father loved the son in an unconditional way. REALLY? Would the father have had the same reaction if the son came and said, “Dad I’ve run out of all the money you gave me, so give me more.” No – the father’s reaction would have been totally different. The prodigal son also met a condition – he repented.
C. It is not found AT ALL in writings of church history
There is a reason why you hear so little Biblical support for the unconditional love of God – it isn’t there. Don’t take my word for it. I have found NO Bible-believing Christian teacher or theologian anywhere in history who has used that term until the past few decades. I have around 1,000 commentaries and theological books on my computer – when I searched for the simple phrase “unconditional love” there was not a single instance – not one. Yet when I searched on God’s love, the list overflowed. Imagine, not a single early church father used this term to describe God’s love yet the love of God was one of the most important characteristics of God to them. Not one Protestant Reformer used this phrase to describe God’s love yet they were countering the idea one had to work their way to God’s grace. Surely it would come up there. Not one missionary or evangelist or theologian used this term before the 1960’s even though they devoted their whole lives to bringing the Good News of Jesus to everyone. (The first recent instance I could find was Paul Tillich who I question as an evangelical and is a philosopher rather than theologian.) But since the 1980’s this claim of the unconditional love of God has exploded.
D. It is a common thought of cult groups & false beliefs
While it was never used by Christian pastors or theologians, it was a common thought in certain cult groups. In the early 1800’s the Universalists claimed that God’s love was unconditional – that meant God loved everyone the same – which meant everyone is going to heaven no matter what they believe or do. They said any talk of hell or punishment by God was sub-Christian belief.
The claim of unconditional love is a common thought behind MANY false beliefs of our day. People today claim it is wrong (& bigoted) to say “Jesus is the only way to heaven” Why? Because that makes God’s love conditional on believing in Jesus. All religions are just different paths to God.
Those calling themselves Christians but promoting life-styles the Bible would consider sinful, point to the “unconditional love of God” for why God approves of that which the Bible disapproves. There are many others. Leaders know one must change values before changing structures. This radical change from history in how people look at the love of God has allowed many other changes in our morality which would have never been considered before.
E. It is self-focused and not consistently be carried out
When I listen, I hear a huge “self-focus” in this talk about unconditional love. Everyone else is to show it to me regardless of what I do. We consider it our right to receive it from God unconditionally. That is an awful lot of “me”, “I”, & “my rights.” Interestingly I see people regularly expecting others to show it to them, but make little effort to show it to others. Because it is not representative of God’s real love, humans simply can not consistently carry it out. Those who claim it is necessary, like psychologists, don’t practice it. Just watch what happens when their clients can’t pay anything at all and want many more sessions – somehow things get conditional again.
F. It ignores and can’t handle the reality of sin
That’s because the concept of unconditional love being promoted really ignores the reality of sin and can’t handle major sin. What of the child abused by her father, the wife beaten by her husband, the student dealing with the bully and the charmer who is always lying & cheating people? “No conditions?”
G. It does not take responsibility for own actions
The idea that God and everyone around me should accept me and show me love regardless of what I choose to believe or choose to do really is a mask for refusing to take responsibility for my own actions. Often alcoholics don’t break through their excuses until family members gang up and make conditions – you either admit your addiction and go into treatment, or we are going to withdraw our interaction with you. Its this conditional love, sometimes called “tough love,” that really transforms.
H. It is ‘feeling based’ which does not last
As I have dug into this modern claim of unconditional love, I have found that it is really “feeling-based” at its core. Feeling based things never last. Marriage based on feelings doesn’t last - but marriage based on covenant does. It also assumes there are no absolute morals – again because the real basis is feelings.
I. It doesn’t understand the difference between ‘condition’ and ‘earning’
The argument for unconditional love sounds very convincing at first but it really has a major logical flaw – having conditions in love is not the same as earning love. God never asks us TO EARN HIS LOVE. Every Sunday you come here, you hear the prime example of this. We say, “no one can work their way to heaven.” We can not EARN God’s love, His grace or His forgiveness. But to receive God’s grace and forgiveness we must humble ourselves, repent of our wrong and believe Jesus is the only way to heaven. Conditions, yes – earning love, no. Our evangelical faith uniquely stands for this because it is based on the real definition of God’s love.
III. The complexity of God’s love
Sometimes I feel like a solitary voice in our culture crying out “don’t ever say God’s love is unconditional – its not Biblical.” But I stand with a huge witness through history and the Bible. In our culture, it is almost impossible to understand what God’s love IS, until we make very clear what it isn’t. Let’s turn the corner now and see what the Bible says God’s love is – I called this teaching “the difficult doctrine of the love of God” because it isn’t simplistic. It is more wondrous than we can imagine. There are 5 aspects of God’s love – NOT five different loves – but 5 aspects of the same love. They are all always at work.
A. Love within the Trinity – Relational love John 15:9-10; 3:35; 5:20
The first aspect of God’s love is the love of God for each person within the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Back to John 15:9, Jesus said, “As the Father loved me, so I have loved you.” I call this “relational love” and it is our ultimate example of perfect love. Some of you may have heard that agape love is the highest love, followed by a lesser love called phileo or friendship love. That can’t be true because BOTH the word agape and phileo are used to describe the perfect love between the Father and the Son within the Trinity. Just compare John 3:35 and 5:20.
B. God’s love for what He has made - Providential love Gen 1 (it was good)
The second aspect of God’s love is His love for what He has made. Now the Bible does NOT use the word “love” in this regard but the theme is not hard to find. After each aspect of creations in Gen 1, God says it’s good. It’s the product of a loving creator. I call this providential love. Jesus uses it to make several strong moral les-sons. LISTEN CAREFULLY: this is the ONLY aspect of God’s love that is the same for everyone regardless of what they do. God sends the rain on the just & unjust alike.
C. God’s love for the world – Salvific love John 15:13; 3:16, I Tim 2:3-6
The third aspect of God’s love is His love for the world. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” In John’s writings, “world” very much includes those who are opposed to God and His ways. However much God will judge that world in the future, He also stands as the one who is compassionately and intensely inviting all, even enemies, to take the one undeserved way He has made available so we are not condemned with others. There are not many ways because we don’t even deserve to have the one way. That is why it is nonsense to believe God condemns or pre-destines people to hell before they are ever born. We are called “evangelicals,” because IN LOVE we are committed to bring this good news of Jesus to everyone so they can have a chance to repent of their sins and trust Jesus as their Savior & Lord.
D. God’s love for the elect – Covenantal love Deut 7:7-8; Eph 5:25-27
The fourth aspect of God’s love is His special love for the elect. In your outline, I’ve given an example from both the Old and New Testaments. Whether it is Israel in the OT or the church in the NT, God sets His affections on true believers in ways He doesn’t on anyone else. I call this “covenantal love” because it is simply by God’s choice and not something we earn. Nor does it have conditions in and of itself. This is the only aspect that could be considered “unconditional” but using that word out of context would deny the other aspects of God’s love which are at work at the very same time. The better, Biblical term is that “God’s love is unfailing”
E. God’s love shown in provisional ways – Conditional love (Point II A above)
Finally, God’s love is shown in provisional ways. If we obey Jesus, special blessings come – and those blessings are far beyond anything we deserve or earn, so they are from love. This conditional love is also a key part of God’s discipline of believers so we can mature and become like Jesus. It is this one aspect of God’s love I spent the first ½ of our sermon on. It is still ONLY one of the aspects.
IV. Important applications
These different aspects of love are how life really works best. I am committed for life to seek the long term best for my daughters – that’s unfailing love. But a conditional aspect is also always at work - my daughters knew that if they came in after curfew, there were privileges taken away. These are simply different aspects of love working at the very same time. We need to get back to basing our understanding of love on God’s complex love rather than a quick slogan. The direct application of God’s love to life is amazing.
A. We each need to be overwhelmed by God’s love I John 4:19
It starts with personally being overwhelmed by God’s love. That empowers us to love others deeper and longer. As I John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.”
B. If we focus on just one aspect of God’s love, it becomes error
This multi-faceted picture of God’s love reminds us if we just focus on one aspect, then it becomes error. If we see the love of God as only the providential aspect then it becomes a mysterious force like Star Wars. If we just focus on just the conditional aspects tied to obedience, we either go to merit-theology or begin to wonder if we are good enough to enjoy the love of God. We’ll never totally understand how all the aspects of God’s love work simultaneously, but we dare not simplify it.
C. Transforming love needs both a conditional and unfailing aspect
When we hold both the conditional aspect and the unfailing aspect at the same time, it becomes a love that is transforming for humans. The commitment aspect upholds us when we are weak and the provisional aspect keeps positive obedience forefront. When we love, the covenantal part keeps us from running away when things get hard and the conditional part helps tame sinful pride & wrong actions. A parent needs to be able to say “Don’t expect to treat your sister like dirt and me to treat you like gold.” In fact, the alternative to the conditional aspect in love is very twisted, unsatisfying and abusive relationships. If a child keeps getting, when they treat their parents like dirt, then they have learned you can treat people badly & still expect love in return.
D. Seek relationship (love) not barter (love)
The wrong use of the conditional aspect of God’s love reminds us not to make love something that is earned. Seek relationship rather than love which is really barter.
E. “God loves us despite what we are,” not “God loves us just as we are” (avoid encouraging pride)
And our word choice makes a big difference – in describing God’s incredible salvific love some have chosen the words “God loves us just as we are.” But modern people have taken that to mean they don’t need to change anything which violates the provisional aspect of God’s love. Instead we should say “God loves us despite what we are” – that magnifies the greatness of God’s undeserved love but also reminds us that God expects us to work towards change.
F. Look for and reward the good in others
Because the conditional aspect of God’s love would much rather reward than discipline behavior, it reminds us to make a priority of looking for and rewarding the good in others.
G. Take the first step in relational problems
Because the salvific aspect God’s love reaches out to us even while we were God’s enemies, we are each encouraged to take the first step towards reconciliation when there are relational problems.
This is but a small taste of the incredible value of seeing God’s love rightly. Let’s now turn to communion where we see several different aspects of God’s love at work simultaneously.
- Salvific love – the way God intensely reached out to us is incredible. Jesus was willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary for our salvation. And God calls out to us to COME.
- God chose us – He worked in our lives before we knew it. Jesus died while I was yet a sinner.
- Communion reminds us of the conditions of God’s grace. We can’t earn it – we can only humble ourselves to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus.
- Communion pictures the perfect love of the Trinity. If there wasn’t perfect love it was no sacrifice for the Father to give up His one and only Son.
- And because God loves ALL His creation, His offer to repent goes to everyone – just and unjust alike. And when Jesus returns, the curse which is even on nature will be lifted and corruption will be taken out of all aspects of our physical world.