Does Unconditional Love Even Exist?
But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
Christians tend to make much out of this notion of “unconditional love.” Most of our readers have no doubt been on the receiving end of this idea that they need to love their abuser “unconditionally” because, after all, God loves us unconditionally. No matter what, He loves us.
We think not. Let us propose to you that there is no such thing as “unconditional love.”
It is true that in eternity past God elected His people to salvation. And he did so based upon nothing in themselves. Jacob and Esau were twins, yet before they were born and before they had done anything good or bad, God set His election upon Jacob. Christians will debate until Christ comes about the specifics of how this all works in conjunction with free will and so on. But for now, let’s just think about this matter of “unconditional love.”
When God decreed that He would love us, we were still sinners. Unlovable. So if by ‘unconditional love’ we mean that there was nothing in us to commend God’s love toward us, fine. Reformed theology calls this ‘unconditional election’ rather than ‘unconditional love’.
In the plan of salvation there were conditions
In God’s plan to bring us to salvation, there were conditions. Conditions that had to be met. You see it in both of the verses above. Namely, Christ had to die for us and be the propitiation for our sins. All the benefits we enjoy in Christ (forgiveness, adoption, justification, sanctification, regeneration, glorification, etc) are conditioned upon Christ coming and redeeming us. And we also had to repent and believe the gospel.
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
So it simply is not true that God loves everyone without condition. If He has anything that can be defined as “love” for His enemies (and many would argue that His common grace toward everyone is not the same as love), that kind of love is not the fullness of the love He has for His own people in Christ. And there will come a Day when all of humanity is sorted out into two groups (really, we already are) for all to see. Many (most) will hear Him tell them to depart from Him into outer darkness, while His sheep will be invited in to receive their inheritance.
But here is the point. Even those sheep are not loved by God UN-conditionally. Oh, there is no room for them to boast about their justification. Nothing that they did was in any way meritorious as far as “deserving” to be saved or somehow “obligating” God to save them. Even faith and repentance are gifts from God. But conditions were met, and God met them in Christ. There was indeed a price to be paid, only it was Jesus who paid it. He met the conditions. So we are secure in Christ. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. But it is not an unconditional love, you see.
Which brings us back to the case of the wicked abuser. God does not accept the wicked. God has one message to the evil man — repent and believe the gospel or you will remain under wrath and perish in hell. The good news has conditions — terms if you will. It is not (as seems to be so frequently preached nowadays) a declaration that “Christ has died, God loves everyone now unconditionally, and we will all live happily ever after in heaven no matter what.”
The same truths apply to our relationships. Unless the abuser repents and is born again WE do not relationally forgive and reconcile with him. Oh, we don’t go out and seek our own personal vengeance. And we don’t leave him lying in the highway run down by a car and bleeding — if we see him in that state, we call the ambulance and get him to hospital. And we can pray that God will forgive him, as Jesus prayed for the soldiers who carried out his execution, and as Stephen prayed for those who stoned him. But in praying those prayers, Jesus and Stephen both knew full well that for God to forgive those people each individual soldier, each person throwing stones, had to repent of his or her sins and come to saving faith. A prayer for one’s enemy to be forgiven may be uttered in simple words — “God, forgive him!” — but those simple words take as their presupposition the idea that God does not forgive a sinner who doesn’t have genuine repentance. Only those who repent, being born again unto saving faith in Christ, can enter the kingdom of God.
Three things we are to do for our enemies, with two caveats
Christians are instructed to do three loving things for their enemies, and two of these three are tempered by other biblical precepts.
- We are to refrain from personal vengeance.
- We are to do good (do deeds of mercy) to our enemies. But at the same time, we are called to be wise and not put our pearls before swine who will only turn again and rend us.
- We are to pray for our enemies that God will forgive them — that they will be granted repentance and saving faith. But we are not required to pray for the sin that leads to death.
In a sense, all these three things are linked by a common desire: in refraining from vengeance, doing deeds of mercy to our enemies, and praying for our enemies, we are desiring that our enemies repent and come into the kingdom of God. If that should transpire, we will meet them lovingly in the New Heavens and New Earth (if not before) and we will greet them with rejoicing and thanksgiving for the glory of God.
These things are really the limit of our “love” for our enemies. Because full love, relational love, forgiving love has its conditions. And abusers almost always fail to even want to meet those conditions.
Jesus’ atoning sacrifice was a once off. We are not called nor must we presumptuously think ourselves capable of replicating it for our abusers.
So the next time someone pulls the “unconditional love” card on you (“you must love your abuser without condition because God’s love is unconditional”) perhaps these thoughts will help you throw a monkey wrench into the gears of their thinking. We don’t claim to have all of this totally sorted out. This is the stuff that theologians will banter on back and forth for decades. But we know enough to realize that all of this common talk about God’s “unconditional love” is a perversion of Scripture and is a twisting of truth that does not line up with God’s Word. Don’t feel any obligation to yield to it.
A brainstorming exercise
Let’s brainstorm ways we can respond to someone who tells a victim of abuse, “You must love your abuser without condition because God’s love is unconditional.”
Here’s Barb’s attempt as a starter:
“As a born again believer, the Bible tells me that God elected me unconditionally to salvation. But God’s unconditional election is not exactly the same as ‘unconditional love’. God’s loving plan of salvation has conditions: Jesus had to die as a propitiation for sin, and I had to repent and believe.”
But Barb is always rather longwinded (says Barb) … so maybe some other readers can come up with more concise responses. And maybe some can come up with shrewd questions to put back to the advice-giver — see here and here for posts about asking shrewd questions.
our tag Unconditional Love
Posts that touch on praying for abusers
our tag Praying For The Abuser
Posts that touch on the ‘pearls before swine’ scripture