Thursday, July 29, 2010
Is God's love unconditional? Our pastor asked that question in his sermon. When he later implied that God's love is conditional, I became indignant.
As a little girl, one of the first Bible verses (I John 4:8) I learned was "God is love." When I was older, I memorized another verse (John 3:16): "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son; so that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life." As an adult, I read a passage (Matt. 5:45) where Jesus told His disciples, "God sends the rain on the just and on the unjust." While our pastor preached, I remembered part of a letter in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul wrote, "But God showed His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8) That all sounds unconditional to me.
Then what was I to do with this huge condition to God's love that I know - but ignore - when I talk about God's love? In the two verses following John 3:16, Jesus said, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." The Psalmist says in Psalm 103:11, "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…" (Emphasis is mine.) Not all of God's love is unconditional.
I sometimes wish that the English language were less ambiguous. Maybe then, I could find a word to describe God's love for the time before we confront our sinful condition and another word for our experience of God's love after we repent of our sin.
Everyone arrives in this world a sinner from birth. Each person experiences God's love in what is often called the "common graces" of God. To varying degrees, we all have ability to "eat, drink, and (sometimes) be merry." If God placed any conditions to this love, we could not function. Even though most of us take these common graces for granted, every single one of them is an expression of God's unconditional love.
God's highest expression of His unconditional love is Jesus' death on the cross. Jesus bore the death penalty for all of everyone's sin. By the Spirit of God, we confront our rebellion and either accept or reject His sacrifice. How we experience God's love after this confrontation depends on whether we accept this wondrous gift or not.
For those who refuse and reject the offer of forgiveness and peace with God, "common grace" love is all they ever know. For those who repent and accept this perfect gift, an explosion of love occurs. Ephesians 3:17-19 says, "… that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge …"
Imagine that you are a fish swimming in the shallow waters of a tropical bay. Sometimes life is beautiful, sometimes stormy. One day you and another fish discover the outlet between the two arms of coral reef. You decide to leave the bay and launch out into the deep. The other fish stays in the bay. Eventually he washes up on the shore, dead. You grow to match the possibilities in the boundless ocean.
This is an analogy for humanity and God's love. His "common grace" love is unconditional, but it doesn't last forever. For those who refuse Jesus Christ, it ends at death. For those who repent of their sins and accept Christ's sacrifice, we experience God's love translated into dimensions that surpass our knowledge. I find it impossible to express the magnitude of the difference between God's unconditional love to those who continue in rebellion against Him and the unconditional, boundless, eternal love He pours out on His children. I can only join the Apostle Paul when he says, "… to him be glory … throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen."