Is God’s Love Unconditional?
I was struck recently by something R. C. Sproul had said in a question and answer session a few years ago. The question was posed to him, “When everyone is talking about the love of God and ‘God loves me just as I am’, how would you respond?” His answer was this:
The Kingdom of God is not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I think there are few things more dangerous than preachers out there preaching that God loves everybody unconditionally, because the message that is heard by the people who hear that is: “there are no conditions, I can continue to live just as I am living, in full rebellion against God, and I have nothing to worry about because there aren’t any conditions that I have to meet. God loves me unconditionally, and I don’t have to repent, I don’t have to come to Jesus, I don’t have to leave my life of sin. No conditions, no strings attached. God loves me just the way I am. He’s glad that I turned out so nicely.”
Is Sproul talking about a problem that he perceives within the Church, or is he talking about teachers of popular religion that dispense with Jesus altogether? Listening to the rest of his response, he never really clarifies, but he frames what he has to say as if he were speaking of a problem within Christianity. In other words, he finds the distinctly Christian proclamation of the unconditional love of God to be dangerous precisely because it lacks conditions. He fears that if we proclaim the Gospel of the unconditional love of God, what people will hear is a pseudo-Gospel of self-confirmation. Instead, presumably, we need to place limits on the way we talk about and conceive of God’s love so that there is never any confusion. Overall, Sproul’s summary of the Christian message seems to be this: unless you repent, God’s love does not extend to you.
Now, I have to confess that I am not sufficiently familiar with Sproul’s writings or theology to know whether this isolated interview accurately represents his thinking more broadly. Perhaps his language here is simply sloppy or imprecise (and, admittedly, offensive in its flippancy). I know many people hold Sproul in very high esteem, and I don’t want to attack the man in ignorance. I do, however, want to address his statements on this subject in this interview, because he is giving voice to a sentiment that runs pretty strongly in the Church (especially, I think, the Church in America). This sentiment, moreover, is symptomatic of a bigger theological problem in America, specifically the apparently widespread assumption that the statements “God loves us unconditionally” and “What we do matters” are in some sense antithetical. In other words, it is widely thought that if God’s love is unconditional then our sinful behavior is irrelevant (what we do doesn’t matter), but if what we do matters (if we are indeed called to repent) then God’s love is bestowed upon us conditionally (or, the most powerful and meaningful aspect or version of God’s love is bestowed conditionally). There are Christians who stand very strongly on either side of this supposed divide.
But this divide is illusory, a red herring, because it is based upon a faulty understanding of love (on both sides, if there are indeed two sides). The Christian proclamation is and has always been that God loves us unconditionally, meaning he has taken the first step in loving us and drawing us to himself. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever should believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The “world” in John refers to all humanity, but often with a special emphasis on humanity in rebellion against God. It is not to be limited just to the faithful. For example, in John 17:9, Jesus says in a prayer, “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” The “world” is differentiated from those who believe in Jesus. When we believe in Jesus, in a sense we “leave” the “world”. That category no longer applies to us. But the love that sent Jesus to the cross according to John 3:16 was the love of God for the “world”, for all humanity in rebellion against God. God’s loves required no precondition. God just loves because (according to a different Johannine text, 1 John 4:8) God is love. He cannot not love us even in our sinful state, because to do so would be to deny himself.
But doesn’t the Bible also say that God abhors the wicked in Psalm 11:5? Sproul himself makes reference to this verse in the above mentioned interview. Psalm 11:5 does indeed say this, but the Bible also says in Romans 5:8 that God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. This is the very definition of unconditional love, and love in its fullest sense, not just the limited and rather impersonal sense wherein R. C. Sproul permits the love of God to extend to sinners (benevolent love – God has a general good will towards everyone – and beneficent love – it rains on the just and the unjust alike). There is no greater love than that a man should lay down his life for his friends. These are Jesus’ own words in John 15:13.
Obviously, you could focus on the word “friends” and appeal to the doctrine of Limited Atonement (the L of the five-point Calvinist’s TULIP) to declare that Jesus died only for the Elect, i.e., those who would eventually become godly. The doctrine of Limited Atonement, however, is by no means a settled issue. It remains (for good reason) a minority position in the Church. But most importantly, this kind of thinking, where we focus on the meaning of the word “friends” and thereby try to limit the extent of what Jesus intended in John 15:13, bears a striking resemblance to the Pharisaic dispute over the meaning of “neighbor” in Leviticus 19:18 that Jesus completely overturned in his famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. When asked by an expert in the Torah in Luke 10:25-37 what he must do to inherit eternal life (he wasn’t asking an honest question of Jesus, he was attempting to draw Jesus into a conventional theological debate, to do a little theological jousting), Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, and strength”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”). The legal expert asked, “Yes, yes. But precisely who is one’s neighbor?” He was focusing on the word “neighbor” as a way of limiting the scope of the commandment to love others. This was, in fact, well trodden theological territory, and the legal expert was ready like a chess grandmaster to pursue a kind of theological game in the form of a dialogue down one of many well known lines. But Jesus disrupted this game right from the start by telling the story of the Good Samaritan and thereby transforming the original question. The legal expert had asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus said that the better question is “Who am I a neighbor to?”, and by asking the question in this way he changed its purpose from limitation to expansion. To suggest that the word “friends” in John 15:13 means that Jesus did not mean to die for all humanity is to twist Jesus’ words to limit the scope of God’s love for the sinner in exactly the same way the legal expert twisted the words of Leviticus 19:18 in order to justify himself.
The problem with people who want to invoke Psalm 11:5 is often that they conveniently forget Romans 5:8. There is an assumption amongst such people that for God to abhor the wicked is antithetical to him loving them. But God’s love isn’t like our love. It isn’t limited the way ours is. God’s abhorrence for the wicked does not limit his love for the wicked. Rather, it shows just how powerful his love really is. The heart and actions of the wicked are repulsive to God, but he draws near to them anyway. He freely offers them his love in the atoning death of Jesus, which took place regardless of any human response. That is the very definition of “unconditional love” – love so powerful that it can overcome the repulsiveness of my sin and draw close to me anyway in order to clean me up and heal me (again, the Good Samaritan springs to mind).
Because who, exactly, are the wicked? Who is it that God abhors? Is it really “those guys over there”? Or in the final analysis does the category “the wicked” include me? Again, I could try self-righteously to limit the intention of Psalm 11:5 by nitpicking the meaning of the word “wicked”. “Oh, that doesn’t mean me. It means those who do X, Y, and Z, all activities that I don’t do. Maybe I used to do them but I don’t anymore.” No, ultimately I must face the fact that my actions, past and present, include me among the wicked of Psalm 11:5, because even if I am being sanctified, I am not perfect. Though I am moving forward by the power of the Holy Spirit, I never reach a point where Psalm 11:5 is not near to me because of the desperate wickedness that lies in the depths of my heart. Isn’t this what Paul means throughout Romans, most succinctly in his quotation of Psalm 14:3 in Romans 3:10 (“There is none righteous, not even one”) and then in again in Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”). That is precisely why Romans 5:8 is so meaningful. My wickedness was (and is) abhorrent to God. God had no reason to draw close to me in Jesus. He had every reason to pull back from me. Instead, he chose to express his love for me in the most powerful way he could: by dying for me in Jesus.
All of this points to the biblical resolution of the two statements that the Church seems to want to set up as antitheses: “God loves you unconditionally” versus “what you do matters.” The biblical truth is that God loves you unconditionally, and that is precisely why what you do matters. If God didn’t love us unconditionally, if his love had conditions we had to meet in order to qualify for it (as R. C. Sproul seems to be claiming), what we do would never really matter, because we could never meet those conditions, or at least we could never be certain that we had met those conditions. If we are not utterly reliant on the grace of God for our salvation (yes, even after coming to Christ) we can never really be certain of that salvation. God’s grace is far more certain than my righteousness, even with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit working to sanctify my heart and mind.
On the other hand, if God isn’t all that concerned with what we do we couldn’t really say that God loves us. Why is this? Because we need to realize that “sin” is not some more or less arbitrary list of “do”s and “don’t”s that for reasons we cannot understand offend God. First, sin is really more an attitude or spirit that produces certain destructive behaviors than exclusively the behaviors themselves. Second, we are not being rebellious or presumptuous in asking “why is X a sin?” We are, in fact, seeking after the heart of God. We ought to want to know why this or that attitude or activity is a sin. Sin is not sin just because sin is sin. Sin has certain effects, and those effects are the reason it is bad.
What are the effects of sin that make sin bad? In short, sin is bad because it leads to death. Our sinful heart chooses to try to live without relying upon our creator, presumptuously relying instead on our own resources. But we were not designed to live without relying upon our creator. We cannot, in fact, live without relying on him, whether we like it or not. He is not only the creator of all that is, but he is the sustainer. He is the predicate of all existence. To try, then, to live independently on God, to rely upon ourselves, is foolishness of the highest order, and it is inevitably self-destructive. Not only do we drive a wedge between ourselves and God, trying desperately either to control God or to get God out of the picture altogether, we end up driving a wedge between ourselves, as well. Our sinful hearts push us to hurt each other in order to secure our own prosperity and safety. And once we set out us on this path of self-reliance we find ourselves in a downward spiral, suddenly faced with problems of our own making and lacking the power or resources to solve these problems without creating even bigger problems. The fact that sin is inherently self-destructive in this way is precisely why God hates it. He hates it because it destroys what he loves, not just because it offends his sensibilities. God abhors the wicked and their wickedness only because he loves them so passionately and unconditionally. If God didn’t care one way or the other about us, why would he care how we acted?
I have to think (I desperately want to think) that Sproul’s language in this Q&A video is just sloppy and imprecise. I know there are Christians who think, as Sproul states, that “there are few things more dangerous than preachers out there preaching that God loves everybody unconditionally.” In their zeal for the obedience of faith, they kindle in their hearts a righteous indignation against “free grace” or “cheap grace”. But the proclamation of God’s unconditional love (which is as biblical an idea as there is) does not necessarily entail, as Sproul seems to think, that there is no need to repent or to change one’s actions. I am not convinced that when we proclaim “God loves you just as you are” people automatically think “I don’t have to repent.” Nor am I convinced that the off chance that people might initially come to that conclusion should make us cautious about proclaiming the unconditional love of God. The good news of Jesus is, first, that God loves us with an incomprehensible and, yes, even unconditional love, and, second, that this love leads us to repentance for our benefit. We cannot sacrifice the first element for the second, because the call to repentance has no meaning without the unconditional love of God.