This word gets used quite a lot. When a child feels little self-worth, we might tell her she’s loved unconditionally. What is often meant by that is “you don’t need to earn my affection.” This is true of the love parents have for their children. Children don’t earn their parents’ love because that love is natural to us. In a conversation on love, Jesus comments love is natural even to the Gentiles, and is not something unique to believers (Matthew 5:43-47). If we are to approach this word – particularly in the phrase “unconditional love” – from a biblical perspective, we must properly define “unconditional.”
When Christians use the phrase “unconditional love” to describe God’s affections toward people, I know what they mean but is that necessarily what the sinner hears? What they mean is actually carried in the doctrine of Unconditional Election. This is the second of the Five Points of Calvinism or the U in the acrostic TULIP.
Unconditional election simply means there are no conditions upon which God bases his electing love. Recently, I discussed the doctrine of election in two sermons from my series on the Major Messages of the Minor Prophets (see Obadiah and Jonah). You can also find a detailed exegesis on this doctrine in my study of Chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Simply put, God has mercy on whom he will have mercy (Romans 9:15, Exodus 33:19). This election is not based on some foreseen reaction, which God takes into account. There is nothing in God’s wisdom and knowledge that suggests he needs to consider anything. He is omniscience, meaning he knows all things. And that means ALL things. Therefore, God elects whom he wills based on his sovereign grace and not on the conditioned responses of individuals.
When believers comfort others by saying God loves unconditionally, what they mean and what they ought to say is “God’s election is unconditional.” Sadly, very few are comforted by the doctrine of election.
What ends up happening – and you don’t need to search far and wide for examples – is people misinterpret and misuse “unconditional love” to mean “there are no conditions to God’s love.” This finds fullness of expression in the false doctrine of universalism, which teaches that God’s love wins out and every person will be the object of God’s affection and no human will be the object of God’s wrath. The real problem in interpretation is with the definition of love. The false understanding thinks God’s love is unconditioned because he is gracious. Yet it is the opposite that is true. God’s love is conditioned because he is just.
When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what must he do to be saved, the Apostle didn’t respond, “God loves you unconditionally, don’t worry.” When the Pharisees bring an adulteress to Jesus asking permission to stone her, Jesus invites the sinless to cast the first stone. After everyone leaves, Jesus doesn’t say to her, “I don’t condemn you because God loves you unconditionally.” No! Paul tells the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31) Jesus tells the woman, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11) Christ Jesus is the condition upon which God’s love rests. If Christ does not justify us, if Christ is not the object of our faith, then God’s love is not on us.