Is God’s love “unconditional”?

August 17, 2015

odenI’m reading Thomas Oden’s theological memoir A Change of Heart, and I did a double-take when I stumbled across the following passage. Oden describes how, in the ’60s, he spent time integrating the psychotherapeutic ideas of Carl Rogers with his own “demythothologized” version of Christian theology (which he has long since renounced). Here, he describes how successful his efforts were—unfortunately:

At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy.

Soon I began to hear the phrase unconditional love on the lips of homilists and priests as applied to God… The phrase quickly entered into the common vocabulary of psychological literature, sermons and books, especially for pastoral writers struggling to find ways of making God’s forgiveness plausible…

Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.

In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these homilists mentioned the wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.

I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes me wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.[1]

While I haven’t preached God’s “unconditional love”-without-qualification in some time, I’ve taken for granted that it still expressed some truth about God’s love for us. But why? The concept isn’t found in scripture. Yet, since my formative years in Southern Baptist youth group, I’ve heard that God loves us unconditionally.

As a first-generation MTV viewer, I’m sure I was even influenced by this 1983 video by Donna Summer and Musical Youth!

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 89-90.

25 Responses to “Is God’s love “unconditional”?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Yeah! A theologian who winces at the notion of “unconditional love”! As you say, it is pretty difficult to find such a teaching in scripture. Instead, we see God responding to people as they act in a fashion which corresponds to the goodness or badness of their actions. The Old Testament is full of this. I don’t see the New changing that (indeed, except for “symbolic” rules or practices in the Old Testament, we are basically taught that “not one jot or one tittle will pass away”). In fact, “as a man sows, so shall he also reap.” “God will give to everyone according to his works.” Ananias and Sapphira.

    About my first attempt at Christian writing 20+ years ago was a short paper entitled, “God’s Conditional Love.” (Unfortunately I don’t think I can put my hands on it anymore.) Also, I subsequently wrote a short book called, “The Wrath of God.” (Curiously, I could not find anyone who would publish it! 🙂 ) In short, my view of God’s love is that it is “conditional” from beginning to end. I mean, what is hell? Also, if someone believes as you do that you can lose your salvation based on actions post-conversion, isn’t that on its face an admission of conditionality?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes, insofar as we usually understand the concept we call “love.” This is why I believe the term “unconditional love” is unhelpful. Because it’s come to mean—as Dr. Oden says in his book—”unconditional acceptance,” or “unconditional positive regard.” To love, we commonly believe, is to accept; it is to regard positively. God, as revealed in scripture, clearly doesn’t do this.

      If Dr. Oden is right—and this was shocking to me—no one used the term prior to the ’60s, in response to his own popularizing of Dr. Rogers’s ideas related to psychotherapy.

      I haven’t read all the comments below, but I think you and Grant agree that everything God does comes from the wellspring of his love—even hell doesn’t contradict love. Hell exists in the interest of justice; and a truly loving God must also be just.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Oh dear, you’ve bitten off a big one here!

    In his book, “The Attributes of God”, A. W. Tozer says, “The love of God is the most difficult of all His attributes to speak about. You may not understand God’s love for us. I don’t know that I do myself. We are trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. It is like trying to take the ocean in your arms, or embrace the the atmosphere, or rise to the stars. No one can do it.”!!

    He continues, “When we say God is love, it means that love is an essential attribute of God’s being. It means that in God is the summation of all love, so that all love comes from God. God’s love conditions all of his other attributes, so that God can do nothing except He does it in love.”

    And finally, “If I were to try to talk about the greatness of love I would only run in circles, because I can’t speak of that which cannot be spoken of. But, to break it down a little, this love of God is an attribute of God, which means it is eternal, immutable and infinite. It never began to be, and it can never end. It can never change and there is no boundary to it.”

    So we know that God’s love is not conditional, as we use the term. But, it is also not inconsistent with His other attributes, like Justice, Righteousness or Omniscience.

    We also know from Paul that NOTHING can seperate the bride from the love of the groom. The love of God demands that the ultimate destination of the saints is heaven. Hell is also a place where people go because they belong there. God doesn’t get mad and say, “Get out of here and go to hell!” No, the sinner goes where he belongs, by the nature and gravitational pull of his life, which is toward hell”, says Cluny in the Celestial Country.

    Oh the depth, and richness of God’s love…

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Grant, permit me a response. I agree that love is an essential attribute of God, which can never “change” in its essence. However, as you also note, so is righteousness. But what do we know about righteousness? We know that it “responds” differently in different situations, depending on what it is responding to. It responds differently when it is facing disobedience than when it faces obedience. So we see that the unchanging “essence” of God does not mean that it acts the same way all the time.

      Why is not love the same way? God “does nothing except He does it in love,” as you quote from Tozer. I agree. That means that when God punishes, he does it because of his love in action based on what God is facing. Similarly with blessing. So what that necessarily means, then, is that God’s love is “conditional” based on its “application” in given circumstances. This is what is meant by saying God’s love is “conditional” rather than “unconditional” (as distinct from “unchanging” in its “nature”).

      So, what is love? What is its nature? While it has mysterious aspects (like all of God), it is not beyond comprehension in certain of its aspects (also like a lot of other things about God). And what we see is–love is something that demands a response and acts differently depending on what that response is. If a man woos a woman, and she accepts, then certain things will follow, such as a lifetime relationship. Whereas, if she says no, then other things will follow, such as no long-term relationship. Similarly with God (which the marriage relationship is given us as a picture of God’s relationship to men). He “woos” all. But whether there is an eternal relationship arising from that or not depends on whether we say “yes” or “no.” And also, the relationship is closer or less close depending on the yeses or no’s as to more specific things than the marriage or not, just as it is again in the earthly marriage relationship. So, I conclude that love is inherently conditional in nature. (More could certainly be said, but that is the “essence” of my position.)

      • brentwhite Says:

        And what I think you imply here is that this “conditionality” is a two-way street. For example, in your “wooing” analogy, it would be unloving for the man to keep making overtures to the woman once she has thoroughly and finally rejected him. I’m persuaded that this captures at least part of the truth of hell (although I won’t be dogmatic about it)—as Lewis says, the “doors are locked from the inside.” I hope so… that certainly makes sense to me.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, thanks as to the thermometer example. As to hell’s being “locked from the inside,” as Lewis states, I don’t think I can agree with that. Those who reject Christ are in the “hate” (cold) range of the “scale.” God is punishing them.

        Recall the parable about the king who went away, the populace sent a message saying they did not want him to rule over them, and when he came back, he said, “Bring them in and kill them in front of me.” Pretty startling! I think that definitely shows “hatred”–the “low end” of the thermometer.

        Again, the point of my thermometer example is to say that the whole “range” of emotion or relationship is the “love scale,” but if the position on that “scale” is below the “dividing line” of acceptance or rejection of Christ, this moves into the “hatred” end of the picture. (Not all the same, as my example indicates, but all on that end of the scale.) Remember “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” There is no question but that “hatred” is one of God’s emotions. My point is that this is commensurate with the “love” nature of God because that nature defines the “whole range” of emotion or relationship that is the essence of what love is–offer of beautiful and eternal relationship, accepted or rejected, if accepted, then eternal love, if rejected, eternal hatred (to one “degree” or another on both ends of the scale).

        In the only picture given us in the New Testament of someone actually in hell, the rich man is “in agony” and desirous of some relief. He does not enjoy being there! Also, Jesus repeatedly says, “Cast them into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Don’t you think that sounds like hatred? Don’t you think that is a place no one wants to be in? Jesus says of Judas, “It would be better for him if he had never been born.” Love? Yes, if understood as “part of the scale,” but that “spot on the scale” is in the hatred range.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Lewis explains what he means with some nuance. Others have as well. Like I said, I’m not dogmatic about the point, and I think it only captures some of the truth of hell.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    I think that you state your position very well. If I understand you, you believe that God’s love for us is conditioned by our response to His extension of love to us. Is that correct?

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    Then I have to respectfully disagree. It may be splitting hairs, but his love is not changed by our response, but the way he deals with us may be. But, however he deals with us, it will be in love.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Well, I don’t think you are “splitting hairs,” but there is some “trickiness” in how words are used here to convey the thoughts. What I think is that God is, indeed, always acting out of “love.” The question that likely divides us is: “What is love?”

      To my understanding, based on substantial scripture (as I read it, of course), love is an “offering” which is given to all, but which demands a response, and what that response is determines how the “offeror” then acts towards the “offeree.” If someone means by love something like “happy feelings” or “wishing you all the best,” then I disagree with that as being love in its “essence.” That is part of how love REACTS when the offer of a relationship with God is accepted (or a closer relationship with God develops once the relationship itself is accepted or entered into). I believe C.S. Lewis once said something to the effect that “Anger [or some such similar word] is what love bleeds when it is cut.”

      Picture this probably weak example of what I am getting at. Consider a thermometer. We say it is either cold or hot (or colder or hotter) depending on how much it is above or below “normal.” But what the thermometer actually does is measure the presence or absence of “heat” (or the “degree” of heat). We can say that the whole “scale” is a “heat” measurement, but we can also say that something is “hot” at certain levels and “cold” at others. Somewhat similarly with “love”: we can say that the whole “scale” is one of the presence or absence (or degree) of “love.” But we can also say that above a certain “level” we have “love” and below that we have “hate” (or a greater or lesser “degree” of love or hate). What I want to say is that the whole continuum of the “love scale” is what love is in its “essence”–it is not just the “happy” part of the “scale.” Whether love is manifested as the “happy” or “well-being” aspect depends on whether God’s “relationship” offer is accepted or rejected. If it is “accepted,” then a “warm” relationship is created (happiness and wellbeing). If it is rejected, then a “cold” relationship is created (anger, or even “hatred”). And there are “degrees” of both depending on obedience (enhancing the relationship) or disobedience (hindering the relationship). “If you love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15.

      If I may quote a couple of verses which I think support my overall view: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” “Grieve not the Holy Spirit.” See also Romans 2:4-6; John 3:16-21; Matthew 25:14-30; Matthew 25:31-46; etc.

      So, that is my “picture” of love, and how the God of love manifests his “love” on his total “scale” of the “love relationship.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        This thermometer analogy is good, Tom! Our problem, culturally, which has infiltrated church, is that we don’t recognize the thing being measured as “love” until it crosses a certain threshold. In reality it’s love up and down the scale.

        But deep inside, each of us knows that true love can’t tolerate, excuse, condone, or ignore evil. I think our main problem is that we don’t like acknowledging the evil for which we’re responsible; we don’t like conceding that we’re sinners whose sins deserve punishment. We’re usually quite happy to acknowledge other people’s sins!

    • brentwhite Says:

      “However he deals with us, it will be in love.” I strongly agree with this, Grant.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    Now you’re getting through to me with those verses. As difficult a concept as God’s love is, God’s wrath brings even more controversy. I am completely with you on the response of wrath vs love. The full spectrum of God’s “pleasure” is beyond my comprehension, but it’s not beyond my ability to believe that it is part of the “Attributes of God”.

    Excellent points.

  6. bobbob Says:

    i know i am coming late to the party. what an excellent discussion! we have to remember that we use finite language to discuss the infinite. in math, ‘infinity’ is a concept not a number. same with God: His infinite nature is only a concept to us, and just like in math, we can talk only vaguely about it. we talk about how a variable approaches infinity, but really we mean the variable’s tendancy to grow without ceasing. a really good description of each and all of God’s attributes!! infinity times infinity is nonsense. brent, as EE, knows this. but that doesn’t mean we can’t use it to conclude meaningful results.

    what AM i trying to say? God’s love towards us doesn’t mean He feels warmly or wants to give us a hug when we are sad. it demands that He fulfill his righteous law in justice, and His love demands mercy through the Cross. or something like that. feel free to add/ correct.

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    Another good point. We created beings are trying to understand, and describe, our creator. We can only do that in anthropomorphic terms. By definition, our attempts will fall short of the mark. But, isn’t it a joy to try?

    • bobbob Says:

      it’s joy because He gave us reason and so long as we acknowledge ours is limited we are free to use it to explore and describe our relationship with Him and His great creation.

      it is fun to see, daily, secular calvinists (dawkins and gervais spring to mind) as they try to write God out of the equation. we are just a bunch of molecules doing what molecules have always done. react. cant choose just react. i did not murder him… my molecules made me do it.
      more infinity x infinity!!

  8. Grant Essex Says:

    I don’t think the words secular and Calvinist belong together. I have many Calvinist leanings myself. Properly understood, it’s a beautiful thing.

    • bobbob Says:

      what meant was that there are those atheists who think that there is no free will cuz our molecules are doing what the big bang set them out to do. would you like the term ‘molecular predeterminists’ better? it was mostly a joke.

  9. veritasvincit Says:

    I have great respect for Tom Oden. I have not read his book. However, the idea of God’s love being unconditional precedes Carl Rogers.

    Remember, there are four (at least) Greek words for love: eros, storge, philia, and agape.

    As I understand it, the Gk word used in the NT to describe God’s love toward man is agape. (Note: I believe it takes those four ideas and more to even begin to have an idea about the love of God, but that’s a discussion for another time. I believe agape also appears in the Septuagint. Unconditional love is as close as the English language can come to describing the idea behind agape love.

    It works for me.

    God’s love towards man is not conditioned upon man’s response. God never stops loving sinners. God’s love toward man does not increase or decrease depending upon the person’s response to Him.

    Jim Lung

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Jim, certainly your view has a large following, particularly among many “evangelicals” today. However, I am not sure I can agree with it. If your position is correct, why did God say, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated”? (Malachi and Romans 9). I think there is plenty of “hate” language in the Old Testament, and God does not change in his essential character. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Even Jesus said, “Shake the dust off your feet [if they don’t accept your message]; it will be more tolerable for Sodom in the day of judgment for them.” Also, “Be not deceived, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” “Cast them into outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It sure seems like God’s love “decreases” depending on human response!

    • Grant Essex Says:

      Again, God speaks to us in many places, in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old, God’s Glory came and dwelt among the people. It was a pillar of fire in the wilderness, and a Shekinah Glory in the Temple of Soloman. God said, “Let them make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them”. When the people fell into false worship of other god’s and idols, God withdrew, never to return to the Temple.

      In the New Testament, Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to Him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). Notice: in order for the Father and Jesus Christ to dwell with a person, that person must be obeying Christ’s words.

      So Tom, I’m not seeing God’s love decrease, but I am seeing him either come close and dwell with/in us, or withdraw/pull back. It may be the same thing though, depending on how you define love.


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