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  • Writer's pictureRick LoPresti

Is God's love unconditional?

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

There are some very popular sayings about the love of God. “God loves you unconditionally” and “God hates the sin but loves the sinner” are two of them. These statements give us a comforting and hopeful portrayal of God. They make us feel that although we fall short of the high standard of God’s holiness, we can still find His acceptance because of His love. However, the question about them is not: how do they make us feel? It is: do they hold up to scriptural scrutiny? The answer is: only in part and at that with careful qualifications. This may seem like a startling and controversial position, but that is irrelevant to whether or not it is true. That is all that really matters. Truth is vastly more important than feeling good. If what makes us feel good is not true, then it is utterly empty both in the short and long term.

We now live in the world of George Orwell’s 1984, where language is arbitrary because truth no longer matters to some people. They freely change language and redefine words to suit their unholy philosophies. This is nothing new, but it is rampant today. Satan wants us to live in confusion in a world where there is no foundation for any beliefs. He wants us to believe in whatever makes us feel good in the moment regardless of how baseless it is. It is the worldview that says I am my own source of truth and values and there are no external absolutes that govern me, especially those of God. I am my own god. This is what the serpent introduced in the garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-7), and he is still selling the same lie today. Most people are buying, and the price is their eternal soul.

Before we discuss whether or not God’s love is conditional, we must have a Biblical definition of what that is. Today there are many false definitions of love, and they include unbiblical definitions of God’s love. There is one main Hebrew word translated love in the Old Testament – ahab (verb) and ahaba (noun). Like the modern English word love, it has one main meaning with many connotations depending on the context. It can mean love from one person to another, either familial, friendly, sexual, or material. It can also mean spiritual love to and from God. There are three main Greek words for love – agape, phileo, and eros - but only the first two appear in the New Testament. The word agape apparently was coined for the New Testament because it does not appear in secular Greek literature. While this word does include the meanings of affection, good will, love, benevolence, and brotherly love, it also has an aspect that is often left out of modern definitions of love. It is the altruistic, self-sacrificing love that is more concerned with blessing others than being blessed (Acts 20:35). One way to understand things is by looking at them in contrast to their opposites. The book of Proverbs has many such statements comparing and contrasting things. So, looking at love as putting others first, we can contrast it to lust which is putting yourself first. Lust is not just sexual lust, although that is certainly a good example of it. Lust is the desire to satisfy carnal appetites regardless of what negative impact doing so may have on others (or for that matter even ourselves). Phileo is the Greek word for brotherly love. Eros is sexual love, and that word does not appear in the Bible.

Let us now look at the love of God in the Old Testament. The first reference to God’s love is Deuteronomy 4:37: “And because he loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in his sight with his mighty power out of Egypt”. This speaks of God’s love for the patriarchs of the nation of Israel. This is love in the context of faithfulness. God made promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob about their descendants, and He kept them. This is the most common context of God’s love in the Old Testament (Deut 10:5, Deut 23:5, Ps 47:4, Is 43:4, Is 48:14, Jer 31:3, Hos 11:1, Hos 14:4, Mal 1:2). Solomon (Neh 13:29) and Zion (Ps 78:68, Ps 87:2) stand as representative recipients of God’s love for His people.

There is more about us loving God through keeping His commandments than there is about God loving us. There are twelve references in Deuteronomy alone (5:10, 6:5, 7:9, 10:12, 11:1 & 13 & 22, 13:3, 19:9, 30:6 & 16 & 20). God promised to love and bless those that keep His commandments (Deut 7:6-13). He loves the righteous (Ps 11:7, Ps 33:5, Ps 37:28, Ps 45:7, Ps 146:8, Is 61:8), and He loves them that love Him (Prov 8:17). God’s love was directed primarily towards Israel, the people of the covenant, in the Old Testament. However, He also loved all mankind in a broader sense (Deut 10:18). He was the particular Father to Israel (Is 9:6, Is 64:8, Jer 31:9), but He also created all mankind (Mal 2:10, Acts 17:26-29). As a Christian parent has love for all men but has particular love for their children, so God the Father loved all men in a general sense in the Old Testament, but He had a specific love for the people of His covenant – the nation of Israel (Ex 19:5-6, Deut 4, Deut 32:10, Mal 1:3 w. Rom 9:13). By definition, a covenant is conditional.

Although God expressed His love by making a special and unique covenant with Israel, He also warned them that unrepented sin would forfeit the benefit of His special love (Lev 26, Deut 28, 1Ki 8, 2Chr7). In fact, their special position with God would exact greater accountability. Although the Lord would attempt to bring them back to Himself with chastisements, this pattern would continue until their destruction. They would become so depraved that they would eat their own children out of hunger when they were besieged by their enemies (Lev 26:29, Deut 28:53-57). This was fulfilled in the days of Elisha (2Ki 6:25-30). The Israelites sinned to the point that God’s love for them turned to hatred (Lev 26:30, Deut 32:19, Ps 78:59, Ps 89:38, Ps 106:40, Jer 12:8, Hos 9:15). Another way to see this is to look at the word abomination. There were some things called an abomination which were only to be an abomination to Israel such as things that were not to be eaten (Lev 11, Deut 14:3). There were other things called abomination to God because they were and are serious moral sins. They are described by a different Hebrew word than that which was to be an abomination to Israel, although it is basically synonymous. They are more than violations of ceremonial Old Testament laws. They were and still are violations of God’s morality such as:

Incest and other sexual sins (Lev 18:22-30)

Sodomy (Lev 18:22, Lev 20:13, 1Ki 14:24)

Idolatry and its accompanying behaviors such as human sacrifice (Deut 7:25-26, Deut 12:31,

Deut 13:12-15, Deut 17:2-5, Deut 20:18, Deut 27:15, Deut 29:17, Deut 32:16, 2Ki 16:3,

2Chr 28:3, Is 44:19, Jer 32:35, Eze 7:20, Eze 8:6-17, Eze 16:36, Eze 18:13, Eze 20:7-8)

Offering blemished sacrifices (Deut 17:1)

Witchcraft (Deut 18:10-12)

Offerings from prostitution or the selling of a dog (Deut 23:18)

Remarrying a wife who had remarried after divorce (Deut 24:4)

Wickedness (Prov 8:7)

Cheating in sales (Prov 11:1, Prov 20:10 & 23)

The sacrifice of the wicked (Prov 15:8, Prov 21:27, Is 1:13)

The way of the wicked (Prov 15:9)

The thoughts of the wicked (Prov 15:26)

The prayer of him who refuses God’s commandments (Prov 28:9)

Adultery (Eze 22:11)

Marriage outside of God’s covenant (Mal 2:11)

In several of those instances, not just the acts but the people who do them are called an abomination:

Sodomites (Deut 18:10-12)

Crossdressers (Deut 22:5)

People who cheat others in sales (Deut 25:14-16)

Those who deviate from of change God’s commandments (Prov 3:32, Prov 11:20)

The proud (Prov 16:5), liars (Prov 12:22), killers of the innocent, those that plan wickedness,

those that hurry to mischief, and those that sow discord (Prov 6:16-19)

Justifiers of the wicked and condemners of the just (Prov 17:15)

Israel even made their religious activity hateful to God by their unrepented sin (Is 1:10-15, Amos 5:21). Her sins caused God to “divorce” her in the wilderness (Num 14:34). That entire generation died in the wilderness. He also used the same analogy about the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles (Is 50:1, Jer 3:8).

So we see that God’s love is not unconditional in the Old Testament. It is governed by the principles of His holiness and truth. It is expressed through covenant, which by definition is conditional. Only God’s truth can define His love, and He cannot love sin because He is holy. However, God did not become a different God in the New Testament. His holiness and truth are exactly the same, as is His hatred for sin. The change is only in His covenant with man. The covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the law He gave through Moses were primarily for the nation of Israel, although there were provisions in the law for Gentiles to partake of it as well. Some people quote certain passages in the New Testament to assert that God’s love is unconditional, but is that what they actually say? One such verse is John 3:16. It is one of the most famous verses in the Bible. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This verse says that God loved man so much that He came in the flesh and died so our sins could be forgiven. God did not die for just a select few. He died so that anyone could be saved. That is the most common context of the love of God in the New Testament (Mk 10:19-21, Jn 14:21-23, Eph 2:4-5, Eph 5:2 & 25, 2Thes 2:16, 1Jn 4:8-10, Rev 1:5). However, this only provided a conditional opportunity to be saved. We must believe in Jesus Christ. Biblical belief is more than a verbal acknowledgment or mental assent. It is putting your trust in Jesus Christ and making a decision in repentance to permanently turn away from sin and commit to a new life of obedience to Him. Jesus spoke of the Father loving Him and us partaking of that love by being in Him (Jn 8:42, Jn 10:17, Jn 13:1 & 34, Jn 15:9-12, Jn 16:27, Jn 17:23-26).

Salvation is based on God's forgiveness, which is a significant way we encounter His love. This directly relates to John 3:16. However, there are conditions to God's forgiveness. The Lord requires us to repent (Lk 24:47, Acts 2:38, Acts 17:30-31, etc.). Repentance involves a decision to turn from sin to God (Acts 26:18), and asking for forgiveness. Jesus said to ask and receive (Mt 7:7), and James said we have not because we ask not (Jam 4:2). Also, God placed the condition of us forgiving others on receiving forgiveness from Him (Mt 6:12-15, Mt 18:21-35).

People who quote John 3:16 should also quote other verses in that chapter such as verse 5: “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” This is fulfilled by completing what Peter said to do in Acts 2:38: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Even after that, salvation is still contingent upon following the Lord. People quote Romans 10:9-10 and Ephesians 2:8-9 out of context. While it is certain that God does not base the initial act of salvation on our works because they will never be good enough to merit His salvation, discipleship is indeed contingent upon being a disciple – one who follows a teaching. Romans 10 and all of Romans has much to say about this. The book of Romans starts, continues, and ends with statements that show faith is not separate from obedience (Rom 1:5, Rom 10:16, Rom 16:25-26). Ephesians 2:8-9 is immediately followed by verse 10 which some fail to quote: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” There is much more to be said about faith and obedience. You can read the book “Faith and Works” by this author for further study. The doctrine of Calvinism is false; but even if it were true, salvation is still conditional upon faith. Other things can also connect us to the love of God such as being filled with His Spirit (Rom 5:5, Gal 5:22), giving (2Cor 9:7), and chastisement (Heb 12:6).

Romans 8:35-39 is often misunderstood and taken out of context. Romans 8:31-35 contains 7 questions. They are all related, but for this discussion let us focus on the one in verse 35: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" Paul then lists 7 things that cannot do it. Then in verses 38-39 he lists 10 more things. There are observations that must be made about these 17 things to correctly interpret this passage. All of the things listed are external. They are outside of us. They are mostly outside of our control. Also, we must make note of one thing that is not listed. It is internal and under our control. It is our own behavior - our choices. Nothing external can separate us from the love of God if we abide in our choice to keep His commandments. Jesus said no man can pluck us out of His hand (Jn 10:28-29). However, if we choose to depart from Him and live in sin, we will separate ourselves from Him and pluck ourselves out. "Behold, the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear:

But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear (Is 59:1-2)."

Another popular passage that is used to attempt to prove that God’s love is unconditional in the New Testament is Matthew 5:43-48. In it, Jesus tells us to not just love those that love us, but to be like God and love even our enemies. This reminds us of Romans 5:6-10 which tells us that while we were enemies of God through our sin, Jesus died for us. Thank God for His great love for us and His desire to save us from our sins. However, this like John 3:16 does not say that God’s love is unconditional. Not everyone will be saved. We must believe and obey the gospel to be saved (2Thes 1:8, Heb 5:9, 1Pet 4:17). Jesus said, “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say (Lk 6:46)?” He also said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments (Jn 14:15).” God loves all mankind as our Creator in a general sense and He took responsibility for us even though our sins were not His fault. He came in the flesh and died to provide us with the opportunity to be saved (Jn 1:1-14, Jn 14:7-11, 2Cor 5:19, Col 2:8-12, 1Tim 3:16). However, we can forfeit that opportunity like Israel by refusing it. God gave man the power of choice right from the garden of Eden until now (Gen 2-3). He wants a relationship with us based on love, not coercion. Love can only be love when it is chosen. We can choose to continue in sin and forfeit the opportunity His love provided. Romans 2:1-12 reflects directly on this. It states clearly that the judgment of God is against all sinners but His goodness leads us to repentance. God is good to all because He is good and because He is reaching to sinners to turn them from their sins to Himself. However, refusal to repent leads to eternal judgment. God is patient and longsuffering to us because He knows the eternal punishment that awaits the unrepentant (Num 14:18, Rom 2:4, Rom 9:22, 1Pet 3:18-21, 2Pet 3:9 & 15). God does not leave Himself without witness (Acts 14:15-17). Nobody will have an excuse when they stand before Him in judgment (Rom 1:20, Rev 20:11-15). He will avenge Himself eventually on His enemies (Deur 32:41, Lk 19:27, Lk 21:22, Rom 3:5, 2Thes 1:8). Can we imagine the eternal torment the lost will have when they realize how good and gracious and merciful God had been to them in this life to bring them to repentance and how He gave them opportunity to be saved but they refused?

Another popular phrase among some is “accept the Lord as your personal Savior”. That is neither a scripture nor a scriptural principle. The issue is not whether or not we accept Him. It is whether or not He accepts us. There is also a difference between acceptance and approval. While we do not measure up to God’s perfect standard of holiness, by His grace we can live according to His word. When we err, we repent and He forgives us (1Jn 1:5-2:5). He is willing to save us, but only according to His word. God is only obligated to His word. He does not have to love us on our terms. It is only on His terms. Those who refuse His terms face eternity without Him in the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15). So, there is the general love of God for His creation. He provides good things even for those who reject Him (Mt 5:45), but that has nothing to do with salvation. That has to do with the goodness of God. Even in that He is making the effort to lead men to His salvation (Acts 14:15-17, Rom 2:4). He expressed His love to all mankind by choosing to be our Savior. This was to bring us into a covenant relationship with Him (Mt 26:28, Heb 8-10). A covenant is not one way. It is two parties entering into an arrangement together with each party having responsibilities and conditions. God is faithful. He will always uphold His end of the arrangement, and His end is immeasurably bigger than ours. The question is: will we uphold our end? He will help us do it, and His commandments are not grievous (1Jn 5:3). However, we should not deceive ourselves into believing that God’s love is unconditional. Does God love the sinner and hate the sin? In the sense that He wants to save us in this life and the next, the answer is yes. Should we excuse our sins under the banner of “God’s love is unconditional”? Absolutely not. This is the fatal doctrine the apostles warned us about (Rom 6:1-4, 1Cor 6:9-11, Gal 1:6-9, 2Pet 2, Jude, etc.). God’s wrath and judgment will not be poured out on sins, but on unrepentant sinners. The only escape is through Jesus Christ (Jn 14:6). To escape we must follow the escape route He provided (Lk 21:36, 1Cor 10:13, Heb 2:3, Heb 12:25). To know Him is to love Him by keeping His commandments (1Jn 5:1-5). Then we can be delivered from the fear of judgment (1Jn 4:18); not by a false premise of superficial comfort, but by the power of God.

While the idea of God's love being conditional is not as comfortable as His love being unconditional, we must know that a difficult truth is better than a convenient lie. The lie may be easier to swallow but it doesn't address the root of the problem. The problem is not with the love of God. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-8). The problem lies in us, and when we deal with it Biblically, we get Biblical results. The reason so many people try to identify as Christians but don't experience what God promised is because there is so much false doctrine making it easier to supposedly be a Christian. God is not about making it as hard as He can on us, but the only way to God is with the truth (Jn 14:6).

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