So is God’s love for sinners unconditional? I think the better phrase is contra-conditional. I understand why Christians often refer to God’s unconditional love. Salvation through Christ is God’s pure gift of love to undeserving sinners. We cannot earn it. We receive it apart from anything in us but in shocking contradiction to what we are. And from time to time, for expediency’s sake, I refer to God’s unconditional love.
Still, we need to keep three things in mind when we do use that term.
- First, someone had to pay a price in order for God to carry through on his love for sinners, a tab which the bridegroom gratefully picked up.
- Second, the Bridegroom and his Father require the bride to turn away from other lovers and devote herself entirely to him, apart from which she remains under God’s wrath: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
- Third, those who truly love Jesus will obey his commandments: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21).
Why is it important to keep these three things in mind if we use the language of unconditionality? …Emphasizing only the “pure gift” nature of God’s love tempts us toward theological liberalism and ecclesiological pragmatism. Theologically, universalism will make more and more sense. Ecclesiologically, church membership and discipline, which signify the line between the church and the world, will make less and less sense.
Better than “unconditional love,” I think, is the phrase coined by David Powlison: contra-conditional love. God loves us contrary to what we deserve. After all, there are always conditions on God’s love, like the three just mentioned. Most fundamentally, his love is always conditioned by his holiness. Still, God gives us the gift of his love even though we have lived contrary to his holiness and his law. He loves us, we’ve been saying, because of his love for the Son and because of the Son’s work of righteousness. Our salvation depends on Christ’s righteousness, not our own.
Loving us for Christ’s sake means that God loves us with a purpose – to conform us to the image of Christ, that the glory of Christ might shine all the more through us.
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.(Eph. 5:25-27)
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.(2 Cor. 3:18a)
The fire of the Father’s affection for the Son is so great that he wants hundreds of millions of faces to look just like Jesus’s face. It’s ultimately about Jesus.
*From Jonathan Leeman’s The Rule of Love: How the Local Church Should Reflect God’s Love and Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), pp. 99-101.