Is God's love conditional?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: Would you please respond to the following quote? It is from one of my friends who objects to Christianity. “The combination of God`s love in return for limitless faith — and his wrath for anything less! — sounds more like a threat than an invitation — and I find that extremely discomforting. If ever I found religion, it would have to be of a faith that is accepting of everyone and anything — one that is expressed in a manner that is palatable.” Thanks in advance.

Answer: Thank you for forwarding this objection to the faith — you are a good friend! Unfortunately, your friend’s objection is not answerable as it stands. You see, it sets up a false dilemma which is a common practice among God’s critics.  They do this by inserting a false statement into a sensible-sounding assertion. This produces a syntactically valid statement — a sentence that sounds like it should be answered… but which cannot… because it is a logically invalid statement.

Now, I’m not saying that we should be insulting or impolite as we unscramble our critics’ incoherencies, but answering a false dilemma on its own terms requires that you agree with an illogical statement for the sake of argument… and you should not do that. Instead, hit the reset button: show the error and ask for clarification.

We won’t do that today, though. I’ll use the question’s misstatements as jumping-off points to discuss their underlying problems. So let's start with the misrepresentations of God's love as expressed in the following: “The combination of God`s love in return for limitless faith — and his wrath for anything less!…”

This is a good example of an “earnest seeker” sneaking a false assertion into a question. You see, God’s love is not conditioned on faith… or on anything else… but he just slid that in boldly like it was a well-known fact. Remember, just because a sentence sounds good and makes syntactic sense does not mean that its content makes logical sense… and I advise you to question all questions. But for this one, since it requires assent to the false assertion that God’s love is conditional, do not address it as it stands… but this is an opportunity to teach.

God’s love cannot be conditional because it is his preemptive strike against sin — and logic demands that things which occur first cannot be contingent upon anything that comes after. God applied love to every person before any person had ever applied faith… and the fact that we can find at least one credible instance of God acting prior to us in love defeats the notion that God’s love is definitively conditional… which was foundational to your friend’s false dilemma.

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, NIV)

In like manner, Romans 5:8 places God’s love firmly before any salvation event.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
(Romans 5:8, NIV)

So, not only is your friend's statement tacitly incorrect about God’s love being conditional, it is wrong about any love being conditional. Love… or at least any love worthy of the name… cannot be conditional and still be love. Such a relationship might include some of the feelings that we associate with love, but trading affection for performance is not love. It is rather some variation on control, slavery or employment. I'm continually amazed at the number of people who do not understand what real love is, how it works and what it costs. Real love takes work. Real love runs counter to popular notions about it.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43–48, NIV, emphasis mine)

Many suppose love to be — of necessity (and often only) — connected to those heady feelings typical of young love. So, when those feelings are gone, then they suppose that love is gone too. But that's when love begins. Now, don't misunderstand me, love will always be connected to feelings. But these feelings should mature as our relationships mature — when we no longer need to be coddled by a rush of endorphins.

Love's habit is to put the other first — even when the cost to self is great… although a quick scan of humankind shows that we humans are not especially lovable… but neither are we diligent in faith. So if God waited for us to fulfill any of his requirements before he loved us, then he'd never get a chance to show his stuff. But God is love — it's one of his attributes (1 John 4:8) — and all of his loving deeds flow from that place.

I was happy to see, however, that your friend found the love-versus-wrath issue “discomforting,” for indeed it is! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is (and should be) divisive — this by definition and by Jesus’ own declaration. When our Lord cut a swath through Galilee and Judea, people fell on one side or the other depending on their humility (Mat 10:33-42). You see, Jesus manifested the most gentle mien when teaching, healing, or comforting the humble people of his day. But when facing arrogant men — those people with power, embedded religion and (supposed) superior knowledge — he called them out for being hypocrites (Matthew 23)… and once he even got physical! (John 2:13-17)

In this we see how the Gospel was designed to work: those who understand their need for a savior love it, and those who think that they already have the answer hate it. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most divisive and disquieting news in the history of humanity, and it shall remain so until the eschaton — this, again, by definition and by design. As such, any notion that religion should be palatable is way off the biblical mark… but I also find it strange theologically and socially; here are two reasons.

First, a sovereign God has no obligation to satisfy the shifting tastes of humankind — which pretty much defines palatability. Herein we see the most basic problem: your friend postulates too small a God — one who is neither sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent… he defines God as human-like. Note this well: any God whom mortal beings could find as palatable — that is, any god that they could understand or control — is no God at all… and he is certainly no god worth having.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
(Isaiah 55:8–9, NIV)

Second, every person who participates in religion (and we’re talking billions, right?) is participating in one that they find palatable — and with thousands of religions available, I must assume that your friend could find a palatable one out there somewhere. That is the problem, of course… palatability. Any religion that people find as palatable, God hates — and here’s why.

Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship between a believer and Jesus Christ. The mechanics are simple: God draws all persons to himself. As we draw closer to God, his light reveals the impassable gap between his holiness and our sin. Only a sinless person could bridge that divide, and Jesus — singularly qualified as sinless, and singularly effective in bridging the gap between humans and God — has atoned for our sins with his death on the cross. Jesus is, therefore, the only way to God… a notion most unpalatable among the politically correct. But this leads to the best part.

When people trust Jesus to carry them across the gulf of sin to God, they become “born-again”— born into God’s family, forever enjoying the benefits as children of God. God then uses the language of family to emphasize the relational character of Christianity and to deemphasize his judgment and wrath. Subsequent sins cannot condemn God’s children (Romans 8:1), so they are handled in family court.

By way of contrast, all religions are organizations, not families. They are no different in essence than the Elks, Wal-Mart, or IBM. Any organization may have among its membership people, who are a part of God’s family, but no organization is intrinsically godly… and any organization may be used to build-up or to destroy! Why then, do so many people equate religious organizations with legitimate godly enterprise? Because they get their information from the wrong sources.

Not many years ago, unscrupulous men sold “medicine” out of their horse-drawn wagons. These elixirs had no real medical value… and some were downright harmful! But in that day, the consumers-at-large had a natural advantage over us: the vendors could only sell to those who gathered around the wagon. So their venues were limited by time and distance to the small number of places that they could physically visit. But that's no longer true.

Today we enjoy instant (and constant) communications — but this comes at a price: the wagon never goes away. We take daily counsel from snake-oil salesmen, all the while ignoring the primary source for information on God and the universe — the Bible. We have become lazy in our thinking, merely consuming rather than sifting through the constant prattle of the world for God’s nuggets of truth… and the sales pitch hasn't changed a lick over the centuries: "Come here! I have something that will change your life!" No, he doesn't. Step away from the wagon.

It's time to unplug — to listen to what God has to say about God. The Bible itself — and not what someone has written or said about the Bible — is the primary source for God's self-revelation… although his creation and plain-old reasoning are enough to know the divine. But beware — we have an enemy. And he is well-motivated to keep us swirling in a distracting din — to keep us from the godly contemplation that is a unique gift to us.

Fortunately, we do not have to put up with his noise. We can withdraw at will when we find the will. But even without the quietude, God still draws us (John 6:44) — he calls us through the din — and the earnest seeker shall always hear his voice, for God has promised it — and he is faithful in all things (Deuteronomy 7:9).

But is your friend an earnest seeker? It’s hard to tell from here. And besides, could we even know such a thing? Not really… but we can watch for some clues and make some judgments. For instance, an earnest seeker’s primary motive would not be to complain, object or be clever; he would have come to find truth primarily. Is this where your friend is? I’m not convinced. But motives aside, our job is still to answer with kind consideration, and I feel that you have such a relationship with your friend — and may God bless you in this service.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20170116 Is God's love conditional?).

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