Is Unconditional Love a Biblical Concept?

Yes and no. First of all, what is it? Unconditional love is the acceptance of a person without him or her meeting any conditions. In other words, it means having affection for someone without establishing limitations. So, unconditional love means loving someone irrespective of that person’s behavior.

This popular idea of unconditional love is quite contrary to much of what God says in the Bible. It’s because humans are flawed, evidenced by our unseemly acts. That’s why God provided laws that he commands us to live by. He did this for our own individual benefit as well as the overall good of society.

For example, God said to the Israelites in the second of his Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20.6 NIV). So, God says anyone who makes an idol and bows down to it or worships it hates him. When the Israelites did that, it made God jealous since they were worshipping something, or someone (demon), other than him who was their Creator. Notice that God says herein that he loves people who love him, and they love him by keeping his commandments. So, this text says God’s love is conditional in that he loves us when we keep his commandments.

Much of this biblical truth is contrary to what generally has been taught by modern psychology. It says such stringent requirements are legalistic and thus contrary to love and intimacy. On the contrary, consider the last six of God’s Ten Commandments, which concern human relations. The Fifth Commandment says children shall honor their parents. The rest of the Ten Commandments forbid murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting. That pretty much sums up the whole gambit of man’s sin against man. If we humans will obey these precepts, it will help us a lot to achieve love and intimacy. We won’t get it by accepting each other’s behavior no matter what it is. To do so would throw society into utter chaos, in which there would be no laws. “Everyone would do what was right in his or her own eyes.“ Thus, selfishness, hatred, crime, and all manner of injustice would run rampant. Laws are needed.

Now, to a certain extent God loves all people unconditionally even though they break his laws. For instance, he provides food to eat and water to drink for both sinner and saint. Jesus taught his disciples to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” because God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5.44-45).*

Furthermore, God loves people unconditionally by providing a remedy for our breaking his laws, and it has everything to do with our experiencing intimacy with him and with each other. In a word, it’s forgiveness. God will forgive us for our law-breaking, but this divine forgiveness is also conditional. The condition God requires for him to forgive us is repentance. That is, we must humble ourselves before God in prayer, confess our sins, and thereby acknowledge our guilt. And we may need to express heartfelt remorse as the occasion demands. Maybe we should even go to someone we’ve wronged, confess it, and ask for that person’s forgiveness. And in some cases, we may need to make restitution along with our repentance.

But repentance—confessing our sins due to breaking God’s laws—is not enough. God also told the Israelites to build an altar and perform animal sacrifices on it as a covering (atonement) for sins. But that was only a picture of the ultimate sacrifice for sins that was to come. For, God loved all humans unconditionally by sending his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for our sins (John 3.16). God will finally forgive us of our sins if we believe in Jesus dying for us. Thus, God’s forgiveness is conditional.

Then, where did this idea of indiscriminant, “unconditional love” originate? Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm first used this expression in 1934. He later developed it in his highly-successful book, The Art of Loving (1956). Fromm was an atheist who rejected authoritarian government, taught an unbiblical self-love, and argued strenuously against Christian faith. Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, who has been second only to Sigmund Freud as a clinical therapist, refined Fromm’s idea of unconditional love. Rogers’ parents were devout Pentecostals; but he apostatized from Christianity and adopted Taoism. Later in life, Rogers experienced and promoted the occult and rejected the concept of fidelity in marriage. He was a leader of the idea, “whatever feels right, do it.” Much of the church has accepted the expression “unconditional love,” if not some of its ramifications, which originated from these ungodly men.

There often is some truth in popular ideas; so it is with unconditional love. We humans often need to be less judgmental of others and more accepting of them. “Love the sinner and hate the sin” seems like good advice. (Yet, can a person be detached from his or her deeds?) But the “live and let live” philosophy is a half-truth, and it is wreaking some havoc in society. For instance, God established capital punishment for murder, with rules for discovering guilt, yet most nations now reject capital punishment.

Or take marriage. Unconditional love says a marriage partner must accept her or his spouse no matter what, even if a spouse commits adultery. Now, a single infraction of this sort may not need to end in divorce. But what about serial adultery or repeated physical abuse? Traditional marriage vows don’t provide any remedy for such transgressions, thus seeming to endorse unconditional love. Yet, Jesus taught that the victim of adultery has a God-given right to divorce (Matt. 19.8-9). Indeed, Moses had inscribed it in God’s Torah, at least for men (Deuteronomy 24.1), although that wasn’t God’s original design.

Some no doubt will interject, “what about God saying ‘I hate divorce’” (Malachi 2.16). Indeed he does; yet he divorced Israel (Isaiah 50.1). Why? Jews constantly broke his laws attached to the covenant he had with them, somewhat like a marriage covenant should be between lovers. Requiring marriage to continue no matter what spouses do encourages reprehensible behaviors that may endanger lives.

At times, we all have gone our own way by breaking some of God’s laws. But thank God his love reaches the vilest of sinners. The Bible says there is no sin God cannot forgive except the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12.31-32; Mark 3.29). Think of the penitent thief on the cross with Jesus.

Christianity goes through cycles. In the first half of the 20th century, much of the U.S. church was legalistic, advocating a works salvation. Nowadays, a portion of the church preaches cheap grace and easy-believism. The Bible teaches that salvation comes by faith, but faith that works (James 2.26).

Scripture says God is “intimate with the upright” (Proverbs 3.32 NASB). The book of Psalms begins, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked [from men like Erich Fromm and Carl Rogers] but their delight is in the law of the lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1.1-2). And Jesus told his disciples, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them…. Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14.21-24).

Unconditional love opposes justice. Ask the average person who has been very mistreated and s/he likely, and rightly, will tell you the guilty party should suffer punishment for their crime. Laws of government are necessary for the preservation of a civil society. Without them, there would be chaos.

Unconditional love is contrary to an important role in the prophetic tradition. Israel’s prophets are well known for repeatedly having rebuked the nation and warning it of God’s impending judgment.

Yes, unconditional love is contrary to God’s judgment as well. At the final judgment, when God will have wicked angels and people cast into the lake of fire, he sure won’t love them unconditionally.

And there is no reason to fear a God who loves unconditionally. In contrast, the Bible says “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111.10; Proverbs 9.10; cf. 1.7). Why fear God? He judges sin.

Not only does God institute laws for the betterment of society, he punishes law-breakers to try to convince them to reform. It works for some and not for others; yet God instills justice by punishing evil.

All of this is really just common sense. Human societies all over the world have legal systems that include a police force and judicial courts that enforce civil laws. Successful society can’t survive without them. Again, the only alternative is anarchy.

In sum, God’s unconditional love was demonstrated in the cross of Christ; yet God still requires that we meet the condition of believing in Jesus Christ with a faith that to some degree keeps the commandments of God and his Christ. But we all know that in this life, none us are perfect; we all still sin.

* All scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted. See also the post on 2/15/2015 entitled “Must Christians Forgive Others Unconditionally?”

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