Friday, November 8, 2019

Understanding Unconditional Love

I was recently listening to a sermon in which the minister used the term “unconditional love,” and it gave me a mini-epiphany. It’s a concept that I have occasionally had arguments over because I am not very fond of it. I even briefly discussed it in a previous article. While I still back that position, this was an opportunity to reevaluate it and gain some perspective. And perspective, it turns out, is the issue.

Acknowledging Exclusivity

“Unconditional love” can be a dangerous phrase because it is often used to imply a “cheap grace.” It claims that God loves everyone no matter what we do and that therefore nothing can separate anyone from God’s love. This quickly becomes an argument for universal, all-inclusive salvation. Under this view, no one way is the right way to come to God. All ways are right because God will accept whatever we do. He will also forgive every error without calling it to account, if there is even any such thing as error at all.

As I pointed out in that previous article, such a position is biblically untenable. It is also philosophically nonsensical. All religions are inherently exclusionary, such that if you follow the precepts of one, you will irrevocably violate some doctrine of all others. They are contradictory to one another and therefore cannot all be true at the same time and in the same way. Speaking hypothetically, they could all be wrong and the truth has yet to be discovered. However, we can already know that they are certainly not all right.

The most exclusive point of Christianity is, of course, the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus claimed to be the Savior of humanity. He understood Himself to be the one and only way for us to have a right relationship with God and to enter into eternal life. This is the sole way to understand His unusual comments in John 10:7, 9 about being “the gate for the sheep.” His point was that there was no other viable entryway into God’s kingdom aside from having faith in Him. Jesus makes this even more explicit in John 14:6, where He says,

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

That exclusivity is one of the reasons this is my favorite verse of the Bible. Everything centers around Christ, so the world needs to know Him.

And everything does center around Him. Jesus did not just make these claims. He proved the truth of them. I constantly refer back to His resurrection because of its absolute necessity. That moment needs to be at the center of our understanding. In it, Christ opened the gate and made it possible for us to share in the resurrected life that He experiences. But faith in Christ is not merely about believing that promise. It is about believing it because it actually happened. It is a fact, something we can be sure of, and something that confirms the hope of what we believe. Everything has to revolve around it, which is what the Apostle Paul explained when he told the Corinthian believers that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

The streak of relativism in our culture is not comfortable with something this demanding. At least, not when the relativists are not doing the demanding. That is why the concept of “unconditional love” is so appealing to them. If there is a God, then they at least do not want to have to be accountable to Him on His own terms. They would much rather determine them for themselves. The truth, however, is that God does have terms, and they all come down to whether we are willing to admit of our need for Jesus as the only one who can save us.

Unselfish Love

I stand by that, and by my preference for the use of “unlimited love” over “unconditional love.” However, I do see now why that has occasionally bothered some people. Not the relativists, they are always going to be bothered. I mean, I understand why other Christians have taken issue with my claims about God’s love being conditional.

They are looking at it in terms of why God’s love is offered to us. That is something we ultimately cannot know. We are not worthy of it. We are small, we are brief, we are weak, and above all, we are defiant. It is amazing that God would notice us, and even more so that He does not simply wipe us out. It is all we deserve. Instead, He offers us grace, and did so at the cost of the life of His Son (Rom. 5:6–11).

That is unfathomable. We cannot really think of a reason for it, there is no way for us to understand it. With us, everything takes a prerequisite. We care for people because of what they have done or what they can do for us, and eventually, if they do not do enough, we will stop caring. Our devotion has conditions to be met before we will even offer it. God’s love is not like that. He cares for us in spite of the fact that we have nothing to give and while we have no way to induce Him to maintain His commitment.

Balanced Perspectives

What we are left with, then, are two sides of the same coin. The nature of God’s love is unconditional. He offers it to us without any thought for Himself, and with nothing to gain other than us, ourselves. Experiencing God’s love is, however, very conditional. It is only accepted by acknowledging the solitary way that it has been made available, which is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God’s love is not unconditionally received, even if it is unconditionally extended.

Ultimately, I feel I better understand the reasons why other Christians use the term “unconditional love” than I did just a few days ago. With that understanding, I can hopefully be less antagonistic about it. For myself, however, I will still continue to avoid using it. It is not that the concept is lost on me. It is, however, lost on our culture. God’s love costs us nothing, but there is an exclusive way to experience it. It is important for us to find language that conveys this all-important truth.

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