It is something of a cliche to say that ‘God loves us unconditionally’. But what does this mean, and how true is it?
If it means that…
- God’s love is not manipulative or biassed
- God’s love is enduring – not giving up when the ‘going gets tough’
- God’s love is unmerited, undeserved, not based on anything lovable in ourselves
- God’s love for us is antecedent to our love for God
…then we can enthusiastically agree that God’s love is unconditional.
But if it means that…
- God’s love is amoral, having no regard to the bad things we have done
- God’s love accepts us as it finds us, and leaves us there, unchanged
- God’s love does not require any condition at all for its exercise
…then we must demur.
One of the problems with an undifferentiated ‘God loves us unconditionally’ is that it tends, thoughtlessly but inexorably, towards universalism. It cheapens grace, by sliding too easily over the immense problems that must be overcome in order for the ungodly to be reconciled to God. And it fails to distinguish between God’s general ‘salvific stance’ (Carson) towards the sinful human race (Jn 3:16) and his effectual, electing love (Deut 7:7f; Eph 5:25).
In short, it has too little in common a full-orbed account of biblical teaching, and too much in common with the popular psychology of Carl Rogers’ ‘unconditional positive regard’ and of Thomas Harris’ ‘I’m OK – you’re OK’.
And then we must reckon with the fact that Scripture does sometime speak of God’s love being directed in a provisional or conditional way. The clear implication of Jn 15:9f; Jude 1:21 is that believers might not ‘keep themselves in the love of God’.
D.A. Carson, The difficult doctrine of the love of God, 17-22.