Perhaps the most telling sign a word has become clouded in its meaning is when it needs the help of another word to get the attention it once enjoyed.

word love

The word “love” is like that, unable to get much respect without something to qualify it. Hence we have an increasingly popular notion that love is not really love unless it is “unconditional.”

phrase unconditional love

The phrase “unconditional love” shines while “love” alone is suspect, under a cloud, charged with defect, in need of redemption.

The idea of love needing to be “unconditional” is relatively new. Popularity of the phrase stems from secular theories of human development that view humans as inherently good and infinitely valuable beings who are damaged (robbed of authenticity) by the social demands placed upon them. Unconditional love and acceptance are promoted as the cure or preventative for such injuries.

By definition, unconditional love means “loving people no more or no less regardless of what they say or do.” In a culture where there are no absolutes, the notion of unconditional love sounds really, really good– so good, the cliché of “unconditional love” often finds its way into the church. Thus, we hear that Christians should love unconditionally because God Himself loves unconditionally.

But the logic of unconditional love is flawed on almost every count:

  • Humans are not inherently good– rather they are inherently sinful.
  • Their “lostness” cannot be remedied by pop psychology– the cure for that is the gospel .
  • They are not infinitely valuable– God is the only being of infinite worth.
  • They can never be totally authentic– authenticity itself is not authentic, arising not from an individual values, but from the culture.
  • They are not necessarily distorted by the demands placed upon them– social demands function to suppress sinful behavior.
  • It is not possible for finite humans to love unconditionally– human love is necessarily conditioned by choices that weigh competing moral demands.
  • God himself does not love unconditionally– in other words, God does not idolize humanity.

The notion that “one is not loved more or less no matter what one does or says” really describes, not “love,” but “indifference.” But God is never indifferent. He is pleased by the good we do and made angry by the evil.

Although we are of limited value, God does care about us. That’s what grace is all about.

But we love our sins more than we love God, so He makes demands– His promises come with threats– explicit and implicit.

Biblical examples flood the mind.

  • Mk 16:16 is a classic example, “whosoever believes and is baptized will be saved”– there’s the promise– “whosoever believes not will be condemned”– there’s the threat.
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  • The most famous passage in the NT, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), holds out both a promise– eternal life– and an implied threat– the possibility of perishing.
  • Paul told the Corinthians that “God loves a cheerful giver”– 2 Cor 9:7, thereby implying God loves some types of “givers” more than others.
  • Jesus told his disciples, “God… loves you because you have loved me….”– John 16:27. If unconditional love were true, God would have loved Jesus’ disciple just as much as if they had not loved Jesus.
  • Paul also told the Corinthians, “… Aim for perfection… and the God of love and peace will be with you”– 2 Cor 13:11. If unconditional love were true, God would love the Corinthians just as much without their “aiming for perfection.”
  • Jude urge his readers to “keep themselves in the love of God”– Jude 21. Why would he say that if God loves unconditionally? If God’s love is unconditional, then a person is always in the love of God “no matter what he/she says or does.”
  • And on and on …

In all these passages, God’s love is clearly conditional. The real truth is that few ideas overturn as much scripture as the notion of “God’s unconditional love.”

So why do so many describe God’s love as unconditional. People seem to use the idea of unconditional love …

  • To address self esteem problems. . . . but telling people they are loved “no matter what” actually diminishes them by denying them the ability to act significantly.
  • To oppose the manipulative (conditional) “love” in dysfunctional relationships. . . . but the problem is not conditions, but selfishness. Unconditional love cannot be justified by false comparison with love that is not really love. True love focuses on the best interests of loved ones (1 Cor 13). The conditions that people often place on the giving of their love are frequently selfish, but the conditions that God places on his love are redemptive. All redemptive love is demanding love. By recasting real love as unconditional, we empty both human and divine love of their redemptive power.
  • To help children feel more secure. . . . but love that enforces no boundaries endangers the security of children. Children sometimes “act out” just to assure themselves their parents care enough to set limits on behavior. Actions have consequences. As they grow up, children can do things that can put them beyond their parents’ effective reach. Communicating that idea is not being mean– it is being honest– and responsible.
  • To promote piety and attract converts. . . . but irresponsible love subverts higher concerns through a perverse dynamic. Game out the logic of unconditional love and it will inspire an attitude within sinful humanity little different from the slander Paul addressed in Rom 3:7-8, “let us do evil that good may come.”
  • To make the church more inclusive. . . . but the universalism of unconditional love makes the church irrelevant.
  • To make Christian life more attractive. . . . but the cheap grace of unconditional love sidesteps the cross, the essence of Christian life. If the idea of unconditional love were to be indulged as being scriptural, then it would be comprehended by the concept of an unconditional discipleship directed toward God, not other humans. Putting objects of love between oneself and God puts those objects at risk. Unconditional love would be better characterized as sentimentality– “love” that is cut off from truth– “love” that doesn’t see the danger in caring about something more than God does.
  • To foster a better form of love. . . . but the notion of unconditional love is fundamentally incoherent in its being conditioned on the nature of the one doing the loving. Its ethos demands that finite creatures do something finite creatures simply cannot do. The result is not a higher form of love, but rather hypocrisy and disappointment when claims to unconditional love are inevitably falsified.
  • To exemplify the idea that “God is love. . . . but God cannot be reduced from a person who has preferences and makes demands to simply an attitude– cf. 1 John 4:8, 16.

Most of the preceding reasons no doubt stem from good motives, but they are fraught with negative implications. Chiefly, if God really does love unconditionally, then there’s really no need for the gospel. There would be no need for good news because there could be no bad news.

But mankind really does face the possibility of eternal bad news in its alienation from a God who is not just a loving God, but also a holy one. Put those two attributes together and the result is a demanding love that hardly fits the popular notion of “unconditional.”

But demonizing the phrase “unconditional love” is not the answer. Clichés are by nature used promiscuously and hyper-literalism often signals unhealthy preoccupations. There is, however, a web of unbiblical, unchristian ideas in which the use of “unconditional love” is but one of many telltale catchphrases. This post is thus concerned, not with the faddish use of “unconditional love,” but rather with the ideologically informed use of that phrase.

To be provocative, one could call the latter a diabolical deception whose power comes from the fact that it is almost true. The true part comes from the idea of grace. The false part is the idea that grace is not predicated on anything and expects nothing in return. That is what “unconditional” means.

In the New Testament however, grace is predicated on belief in Jesus Christ, and that belief is expected to carry with it the reality of a transformed life.


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