Think about the word unconditional - completely without conditions:
If a mother has unconditional love for her child, she will love him the same if he enjoys murdering his siblings or if he is godly and fair.
If a husband has unconditional love for his wife, he will love her the same if she sleeps with other men or is faithful to him.
These are descriptions of unconditional love - love with no conditions. They are neither Biblical, possible, nor good. They don't represent God's love.
The phrase "unconditional love" didn't become popular in Christian teaching until the 1960's and most people believe it originated in the teachings of atheistic psychologist Erich Fromm.
The word "unconditional" is never used in Scripture to define God's love. Let me repeat that: God's Word never uses the word "unconditional" to describe God's love.
God's Love is patient, long-suffering, sacrificial, pure, holy, just, fair, perfect. But His love has limits for those who reject Him and aspects of His love have conditions. Please don't stop reading here - read on and learn what Scripture says.
Some people may use the word "unconditional" to mean that God gives His love while we're still sinners (Romans 5:8) or to mean that His love can't be earned and is undeserved (Ephesians 2:8). These things are true.
But there are many other aspects of God's love that are conditional, and the popularity of the term "unconditional love" has led to a great many errors in Christian thinking and action.
Why is the term unconditional misleading?
1. Because God's salvation is the greatest act of His love, and it is not unconditional. It can't be earned. It's not based on how good we are. But it is only given to those who believe in Christ as their Savior. That is a non-negotiable condition (John 14:6).
The word unconditional (without limits or conditions) goes beyond the biblical word grace which means undeserved, unmerited, not earned. Christians have long had a problem of abusing God's grace, and supposing God's grace is unconditional magnifies that problem (Romans 6; Romans 8:12-13). (See "Are You Weary of Cheap Grace?") And that leads to the second point:
2. Scripture is full of instructions, commands, warnings and expectations - all conditions - for those who are loved by God.
This is why Christ tells us to "count the cost" before committing our lives to Him (Luke 14:25-34). Many passages of Scripture explain God's expectations (conditions) for those who follow Him (John 12:26). These are not conditions for salvation, but they are conditions for those who have been saved.
These conditions determine God's favor and they affect our growth and well-being. All of these conditions flow from God's perfect love.
Genuine believers understand they can please or displease God. And they will seek to please him. Note the passion of the Apostle Paul in regard to pleasing God - Philippians 3:7-16. (See "Christians Can Displease God" and "Is God a Permissive Granddad?")
Even among those who are saved, there are differing eternal rewards. (See "A Trophy for Everyone," "Discipline, Punishment, and Condemnation," and "God Punishes" for a Scriptural understanding of God's rewards and punishments for believers.)
3. The term unconditional encourages the common misunderstanding that God views all sins the same. This view distorts God's holy character and downplays the serious nature of sin. We cannot know God and believe that he views gossip and child rape on the same level. Scripture teaches us He doesn't, but the word "unconditional" implies He does. (See "Lies Some Christians Believe" for a more in-depth explanation of how God views sins differently).
4. And lastly, the term "unconditional" makes justice impossible. Justice, by its very nature, is based on conditions; and justice is an element of God’s perfect love. Love without conditions would treat God-hater and God-lover, victim and criminal, godly and wicked, atheist and Christian exactly the same. There would be no justice, no reward, no punishment, no hell. (See
"Why a Loving God Sends Men to Hell")
Christians are saved from the eternal death we deserve because Christ paid for our sins - God fulfilled justice by sacrificing His son. If God's love had no conditions, Christ would not have needed to die.
Some elements of the word "unconditional" apply, but overall the word is a poor description of God's love.
Let me repeat this because it is extremely important that we get our knowledge of God from Scripture: the term unconditional love doesn’t appear in Scripture or in definitions of the Greek word agape.
God's love is better than unconditional and we must get our view of His love from His Words, not the words of a secular psychologist.
Is this simply a "word thing"? I don't think so. I think it is accompanied by misunderstandings that affect our faith.
Below are some other respected resources and Bible teachers who explain the error of the term "unconditional" better than I can: Thomas Nelson’s Bible Dictionary:
"AGAPE [ah GAH pay] — a Greek word for love used often in the New Testament (John 13:35; 1 Cor. 13; 1 John 4:7–18). Contrary to popular understanding, the significance of agape is not that it is an unconditional love, but that it is primarily a love of the will rather than the emotions. The New Testament never speaks of God loving unbelieving human beings with emotional love or a love that expects something in return. But He loves with His will (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). The reason for this is that God can find nothing enjoyable about a sinner on whom His wrath still abides. So He loves by His will; it is His nature to love."
Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., Harrison, R. K., & Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1995). Nelson's new illustrated Bible dictionary. Rev. ed. of: Nelson's illustrated Bible dictionary.; Includes index. Nashville: T. Nelson.
"agape (ah-gahʹpay), the principal Greek word used for ‘love’ in the New Testament. Of the three words for love in the Hellenistic world, it was the least common. The other two words were eros, which meant sexual love, and philos, which meant friendship, although their meanings could vary according to the context in which they appeared. Agape, because it was used so seldom and was so unspecific in meaning, could be used in the New Testament to designate the unmerited love God shows to humankind in sending his son as suffering redeemer. When used of human love, it means selfless and self-giving love."
Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row, P., & Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). Harper's Bible dictionary. Includes index. (1st ed.) (14). San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Bob Russell on the Myth of Unconditional Love
Berean Publishing on Unconditional Love
John Piper on Unconditional Love
Christianity Today on Unconditional Love
R.C. Sproul on Unconditional Love
Gospel Coalition -Why God's Love is Better than Unconditional