The Christian counseling movement often uses the phrase "unconditional love." They say that God's love is unconditional. What exactly is meant by this phrase?
God warned in Genesis 6:3 that His Spirit will not strive with man forever. Within the second commandment is the declaration that the Lord is a jealous God showing love to thousands of those who love him and keep his commandments (Exod 20:5-6). "The Lord loves the righteous" (Psalm 146:8). "I love those who love me" (Prov 8:17). "The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, But He loves him who pursues righteousness" (Prov 15:9).
John records these words of Jesus, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father.... If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him.... If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love" (John 14:21, 23; 15:10). These passages, as well as others, indicate that there are conditions attached to the love of God.
Neither Calvinists nor Wesleyan-Arminians advocate "unconditional love" in an absolute sense. Calvinism teaches unconditional election, using passages like Romans 9:13 which they interpret as an election of some individuals to salvation and others to damnation. Calvinism makes a distinction between common grace at work within the reprobate and special grace at work within the elect. For Calvinists the love of God is conditional in scope, but unconditional in duration. In Unconditional Good News, Neal Punt advocates "that all persons are elect in Christ except those who the Bible declares will be lost.... Those who will be lost are those, and those only, who wilfully and ultimately refuse to acknowledge God." Even this more liberal form of Calvinism denies absolute universalism. Punt believes the elect include all except the indifferent and disobedient. Only the heretical theory of universalism would advocate unconditional love in the absolute sense.
Arminianism emphasizes universal atonement and unlimited grace. For Arminians the love of God is unconditional in scope, but conditional in duration. Howard Snyder declared that insofar as God extends his love to all people without distinction, it is true that God's love is unconditional. Wesley preached, "The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all, and free for all." The grace of God is unconditional. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good. He sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous (Matt. 5:45). While all mankind experiences the grace and goodness of God, we cannot conclude that the entire race is born again. In fact the purpose of God's kindness is to lead sinners toward repentance (Rom 2:4).
The holiness of God cannot look with favor upon our sinfulness. God is love, but His love is a holy love. God's love for us is unmeasurable, but His love is not a careless love which is indifferent to our sinful condition. The love of God sent Christ to make us holy. Snyder wrote
"God loved our sinful race so much that he sent his Son. He will not, cannot, forgive and accept us except on the basis of Jesus' sacrifice. To do otherwise would betray the integrity of God's own holy character. The condition for God's love to reach us was the Cross...
-If God loved unconditionally... he would forgiveand accept every person no matter what, requiring no Cross." ("Is God's Love Unconditional?" Christianity Today, 17 July, 1995, p. 30).
Those who reject Christ will ultimately come under the awesome judgment of God. If God's love is thought of as a blanket acceptance, how can we conceive of Him sending anyone to an eternal hell?
The truth is that love, by its very nature, desires an appropriate response. Love can be spurned. Love can grow cold. Love can be lost. A sentimental popular song declared, "Though it makes Him sad to see the way we live, He'll always say, 'I forgive.'" However, Scripture warns that it is possible to so presume upon, abuse, and reject God's love that we exhaust His grace and mercy. God is long suffering, but His patience does have limits.
In the best sense of the word, "unconditional love" may be a phrase used to assure us that God's love is not manipulative. Those who are scarred by the disappointment of human relationships which were abusive may find comfort in the knowledge that God does not love us for what He can get out of us. Nor does God demand absolute perfection. It is not based upon our works of self-righteousness. He loves His Church even when it has spots and blemishes.
Yet He loves us too much to allow us to remain defective. In the worst sense of the word, this phrase may convey the meaning that God will take whatever we offer Him. It may be simply another expression of the "cheap grace" which Bonhoeffer opposed. Somehow the typical American churchgoer conceives of God as the overindulgent parent who wishes we would improve, but has no intention of disciplining. All too often preachers avoid repentance. They neglect to connect faith with obedience. Sinners feel they can trust in Christ and may never obey Him as Lord.
True grace enables us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly in this present age. Pseudo grace does not stop sinning to get saved.
A mistaken view of unconditional love demands no change of behavior, no commitment to Christ, and no submission to Him as Master and Lord.
The God of the Bible desires that we enter into a covenant with Him. The covenant He offers is conditional. Snyder observed that when God created humanity, conditions were there from the start. The death of Christ on the cross and our self-committing trust are the two essential conditions for experiencing God's love.
If we obey Him, we experience His love. If we rebel against Him, we fall under His wrath. The Bible offers no hope that at the final day of judgment we will all "pass" because of the "unconditional love" of God.