Is "Unconditional" the Best Description of God's Love? Don't Answer Too Quickly.

This is a difficult subject to tackle because there's so much false teaching circulating about this description. We need discernment

I was writing a devotion examining the claim that God's love is unconditional. But before I finished, I mistakenly published it and it went out to subscribers.
I was disappointed that I'd scheduled it incorrectly. But I believe God used my mistake for good (Romans 8:28). A number of readers wrote me with questions, and I'd like to address those questions before sharing the edited devotion. That means this may take you five or six minutes to read instead of the normal one minute.

QUESTIONS FROM READERS:

1. God loved us while we were yet sinners (1 John 4:19; Romans 5:8). Doesn't that make His love unconditional?

No.

God offers salvation to all men. But it's not an unconditional offer. His salvation is given only to those who believe.

"If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them." 1 John 4:15-16 

Some Christians believe you can separate God's salvation from His love, saying salvation is conditional, but God's love is unconditional. But that's not logical. If the greatest act of God's love is conditional (John 3:16), that means His love is conditional. Sadly, we've come to view conditional love as something evil, but that depends on the conditions, and God's conditions are holy, perfect, and loving.

Using the word "unconditional" for God's love has helped advance the heresy of universal salvation and caused casual attitudes toward sin. 

This is a difficult subject to tackle because there's so much false teaching circulating about this description. We need discernment
2. God's love is not based on our goodness. Doesn't that make it unconditional?

No. 

It's true that we aren't saved through our goodness. But only those with faith are saved. That's a condition. People without faith are not saved.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." Ephesians 2:8-9 

3. Aren't God's promises unconditional?

No.

For example, when God promises never to leave us or forsake us (Romans 8:38-39), that's a fully trustworthy, unchanging promise. But it's conditional. It only applies to believers. Those who don't believe will one day be eternally separated from God in Hell (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

The one promise that might be considered unconditional is the promise that the sun rises on both the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45), but that is a temporary promise. It only applies on earth.

However, for the sake of argument, let's say some of God's promises are unconditional. Would that make God's love unconditional?

No. "God is love." His love is the very core of who He is. All of His attitudes, actions, values, expectations, promises, rewards, and punishments flow from His perfect love, and they contain many conditions. 

In fact, God defines our love according to those conditions. Jesus says:

"Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them." John 14:21

"If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love." John 15:10

Does this mean we are saved by obedience to God's commands? No. It means obedience to God's commands is a sign that we are saved. When Christians disobey God's commands, He rebukes and disciplines us because His love has standards. It's not unconditional.

4. Doesn't agape mean unconditional?

No. 

Thomas Nelson’s Bible Dictionary explains the meaning of agape love: 
 
"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." [underlining mine]

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.

When people say God's love is unconditional, they believe they are saying it is the highest form of love. But the definition of unconditional is "not subject to any conditions." And God's love is never described as such in Scripture.

But it's more than a misuse of words. It has led to a number of false teachings and misunderstandings. For example, many Christians are offended by scriptural passages about God's wrath. They believe a "loving" God should accept all lifestyles and forgive unrepentant sinners. 

5. Isn't unconditional the same as eternal, perfect, holy, loving, forgiving, patient, and persevering?

No. 

Those wonderful descriptions are found in Scripture along with many other accurate descriptions of God's love. However, none of them are synonymous with unconditional love.

Most Christians who use the term unconditional are well-meaning. I used to use it myself before I saw how often it was misapplied. And when I researched it, I found it's a term that originated in secular psychology.(1)

God has adequately and accurately explained his love in Scripture.

Why is our favorite description for His love a secular description, not found in Scripture—a description that promotes false teachings, casual attitudes toward sin, and numerous misunderstandings? 

That concerns me, and I hope it concerns you.

Now, that answers the basic questions I received, so please read the updated article below that generated those questions.

Footnote:

(1) Eric Fromm, a secular psychologist, introduced the term unconditional love (source).

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"I do not think it means what you think it means"

This is a difficult subject to tackle because there's so much false teaching circulating about this description. We need discernment.
When someone tells me God's love is unconditional, I feel like quoting a line from Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."(1)

Unconditional love has a secular definition meaning love without conditions. If someone truly had unconditional love, they'd love people without expectations and without disappointments. And they'd certainly never rebuke, correct, or punish those they loved.

If your neighbor had unconditional love for her son, she would never punish him even if he did something harmful, destructive, or evil.

If a wife had unconditional love for her husband, she wouldn't care if he was unfaithful. If a teacher had unconditional love for her students, she'd give them all A's whether they did their homework or not. 

Love without conditions is impossible, and if it were possible, it would be evil.

Godly love – genuine biblical love – always has conditions. That’s because it's just and pure. It rewards belief and godliness and punishes unbelief and ungodliness. It demands repentance and perseverance.(2)

If God's love were unconditional, He'd treat evil people exactly the same as godly people. He'd have no wrath and no expectations.

Some people insist God's love is unconditional because we don't earn our salvation. It's a free gift. It's true that we can't earn it, but God places a non-negotiable condition on salvation: it's only given to those who believe. 

And after salvation, God continues to have expectations and conditions for rewards and punishments (Hebrews 12). Jesus explained, "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent" (Revelation 3:19).

God's love is the most wonderful love in the universe, and that's why it's not unconditional.

⮞ See God's Love Is Better Than Unconditional for more insights on this subject.

Footnotes:

(1) If you are unfamiliar with Princess Bride, this line was used because one of the characters kept using a word that didn't prove true.

(2) See Is God's Forgiveness Unconditional?

Below are some other respected resources and Bible teachers who explain the error of the term "unconditional" better than I can:

Gospel Coalition - Does God Love Everyone the Same? 

Bob Russell on the Myth of Unconditional Love

Berean Publishers on Unconditional Love

R.C. Sproul on Unconditional Love

Gospel Coalition - Why God's Love Is Better Than Unconditional

You might also read these two articles by John Piper. He says God has both unconditional and conditional love.
I think it's confusing to define God's love with two opposite terms, but at least Piper addresses the conditional aspects of God's love.

Is God's Love Unconditional? 

Hope for More Than Unconditional Love


Bible Love Notes

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