After reading Janie B. Cheaney’s article in WORLD Magazine (September 19. 2015) entitled Aimless Affection, my heart was set to meditate upon a phrase often used glibly by the Christian community: unconditional love.
My first thought was, where does the phrase ‘unconditional love’ appear in the Scripture? Two minutes later, Bibegateway.com is my friend, and I have my answer: it doesn’t. At least, not in the first three translations I tried. However, Biblegateway.com, eager to please, sent me to 1 Corinthians 13, affectionately known as “the love chapter”. And remarkably, I found, as I think you would if you were to examine the passage, that the love described there is rather remarkably conditional. In fact, I might go so far as to say that God’s love, throughout all of Scripture, is very conditional. The question is, what are the conditions?
I think we would do better to think of God’s love as covenantal, rather than conditional or unconditional. A covenant (if we’re speaking about the Bible’s use of the word) is a relationship established and maintained by both love and law. It is stronger than a merely legal relationship because it is upheld by sacrificial love, but it is stronger than love alone, because it is premised upon reality, law and justice. This is because a biblical covenant is based upon God’s character, which is a mysterious and powerful interweaving of both love and righteousness; hesed and tsedekah.
And what are the conditions of that covenant? The law must be upheld, so that love that be enjoyed. This has not changed between the Old and New Testaments, despite what many progressive and liberal Christians would like us to believe. The basic function of the covenant has never changed: God demands perfect lawful righteous obedience from his people (1 Peter 1:13-16 || Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2). In the Old Testament, a temporary provision was made through the sacrificial system, pointing to the ultimate and final sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
We often misunderstand John 3:16, for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son… to read for God loved the world so very much that He gave His only begotten Son. The passage would be better translated for God loved the world in this manner, He gave His one and only begotten Son… Why? Because this points out how God’s love is very conditional. So what does God do? He satisfies His own righteous demands:
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3-4)
Love without boundaries is not love. Nowhere does the Bible teach us to allow others to harm themselves and others through sin. Instead, it teaches the exact opposite:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:1-2)
Does God accept us as we are? No; but He accepts Christ in our place. He takes us as we are if we come trusting in Christ, but he will most certainly not leave us there. Sometimes I think that we as Christians try and bring ourselves closer to God by reducing or softening the true nature of God: His holiness, His justice, His righteousness, His pure love and His law. But all this does is diminish the cross and sacrifice of Christ. You do not need to diminish God in order to draw near to Him. You need to lay hold of Christ in faith. See Christ, His work, His cross, His resurrection, His word and His promise as what it truly is: the enormous gift, the enormous sacrifice, the perfect love that covers over a multitude of sin.
When I was young, I knew that my father loved me, yes, but I didn’t truly understand or appreciate it until I grew older and began to see the kinds of financial and personal sacrifices that my parents had made for me. I did not need to say that my father really had only done what any good father should have done in order to esteem him. Nor do his sacrifices for me separate me from him, making me so unworthy of his love that I cannot bear to look at him. No, rather, understanding the enormity of the sacrifice communicates to me the true depth of his love for me, and in that, I am united to him more deeply than any deprecation of his character could have ever done.
Let us not make God less in order to draw ourselves close. Let us realize, through the precious truths of the Gospel, that it is God who has, at eternal and enormous cost, sacrificed to ransom us from darkness into His light. He has eternal righteous demands that come from His eternally righteous character, and He satisfied them in the perfect, eternal and once-for-all sacrifice of His Son Jesus.