Reflections on Unconditional Love
The concept of unconditional love is among the best-known and most-beloved of all Christian doctrines, and for good reason. God’s love for his children is unmerited; there is nothing that we can do to earn God’s love so there is nothing that we can do to be separated from it either.
Nevertheless the more I think about the idea of “unconditionality” the more unease I feel about the concept.
What does it mean for something to be truly unconditional?
In the description above it is pretty clear that the lack of conditions is purely on the side of the one receiving love and yet to speak of the unconditional love of God certainly requires very special conditions to be met in God. God’s love for us depends on his nature, on his character, and perhaps especially on the gift of Jesus Christ.
So “unconditional” love is not unconditional on the side of the lover.
But this raises some more problems. Is it right and good and really loving to love that which is evil?
I think on this point the Bible gives us a very clear answer: Certainly not! Micah rebukes those who hate good and love evil (Mic. 3.2). Amos warns the people that unless the people “hate evil and love good” they will be destroyed (Amos 5.15). Paul says nothing different to the Romans, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Rom. 12.9).
So it seems that true love, good love, has quite a lot to do with the object of love as well. To love that which is evil is evil. So if God is good, which He is, everything he loves ought to be loved.
This is distressing!
If this is so, how can God love me, you, the world?
How can God remain good, and love perfectly, if there are truly no conditions for the object of love?
I think the answer must be, strictly speaking, He can’t. There must be conditions in the object of His love, but I think that once we understand these conditions the opening assumptions of this post become all the more beautiful and true.
Why does God love the world-apart-from-Christ? Because it is his creation. Because we within it, those wicked and damnable souls, still retain his image. We are redeemable. God’s love of the world, so famously set forth in John 3.16, is the love of potential; it is a love expressed as the sending of Jesus Christ; it is the opening of the possibility of redemption. This potentiality has, of course, nothing to do with the merit of the individual. Men and women are only image-bearers by a divine act, and it is only by his mercy that we have retained it through Fall, Flood, and everything until now. And yet it is something in us, it is a condition that must be met in the object, and one which ought to shape the way we see ourselves and those around us. This is a rich, deep answer to an incredible question: Why does God love us?
Nevertheless, apart-from-Christ this love can never move beyond the love of potentiality and the offering of possibility. What is required is a further gift, the gift of faith by which the possible becomes actual and a new creation begins.
Why does God love those who are in Christ? Because we not only bear the creational image of God but also each day we are being made more and more into the likeness of the Son. Because the old man has been crucified and buried and a new man has arisen: if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. God loves those in Christ not just because of what we could be but because of what we are and what we are becoming. This too is purely a work of God.
I believe that this realization can have a powerful impact on the Christian’s self-perception. It is, perhaps, too easy to sing or say the words “God loves me just as I am” without realizing this beautifully accurate expression carries with it a great implication: I am an object worthy of the love of God, an object worthy not because of personal merit but because of two creational gifts. As creational, God’s love is also transformational: God loves the one-in-Christ because that one is being inevitably changed.
There is more to be explored in this direction, but this must wait for another time. These are preliminary thoughts and exploratory questions. I look forward to exploring this topic more in the future, and in the comments section below.