Rethinking God’s Unconditional Love

And then Steve raised his hand.

“No,” Steve said, “if God loves you unconditionally then he loves you unconditionally. If you add any condition to it, any at all, then it’s not unconditional.”

This observation was met with fierce outcrys of objection. All the men in the study who harp on works starting throwing proof texts at Steve. But Steve was adamant and fended them off with the simple logic of it all. Unconditional means unconditional. As in no conditions whatsoever. Add a condition, even if justified by those proof texts, and you can’t say, logically, that God loves us unconditionally. It’s not rocket science. It’s simple logic.

Anyway, all this launched us for about an hour into the classic debates about faith versus works and justification versus sanctification. And, as you might have guessed, we made very little progress in getting all this sorted out.

And all through the discussion Steve kept coming back to his core contention. Unconditional means unconditional.

And as the discussion wore on, Steve’s comment began to work on me. Unconditional means unconditional. So simple. But so radical and destabilizing.

And then in dawned on me.

Christians don’t believe in the unconditional love of God.

They really don’t. The love of God as described in most Christian churches is entirely, explicitly and unapologetically conditional. This is a data point so clear and obvious that we don’t even recognize it, even though it sits right in front of our noses. The love of God, as preached by most Christians, is a conditional love. God loves you … if.

If you are elect. If you have faith. If you repent. If you are holy. God loves you if.

If.

And yet, if you ask Christians “Does God love us unconditionally?” I expect you’d get almost universal agreement that God does. And yet, as we’ve noted, few Christian actually believe this. Most Christians believe God’s love is entirely conditional. God loves you if you are elect, if you have faith, if you are holy.

If.

During the discussion, and since, my mind kept coming back to Steve’s point, the point he made calmly, over and over. “If you add a condition to it then it’s not unconditional anymore. I think God loves us unconditionally. No matter what we do.”

And in that class, listening to Steve, I began to glimpse the true magnitude of the scandal of grace. I saw Jesus hanging on the cross saying, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”

Forgive them. All of them.

No repentance. No election. No faith. Forgive them. Unconditionally.

Listening to Steve that night, I think, for the first time, I began to glimpse the true shape of Christianity. I began to see the outlines and contours of a faith rooted in the conviction that God loves us. Unconditionally.

Sitting in the prison that night, I felt I had crossed over some threshold.

I saw something that night so huge and bright and beautiful I knew I’d never be the same. I knew I would never be going back.

For a moment, I think I saw the world the way Jesus saw the world from the cross.

I think I finally saw what it might mean to be a Christian.   

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rbeck@churchleaders.com'
Richard Beck is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Abilene Christian University and is the author of several books including Unclean, The Authenticity of Faith, and The Slavery of Death. Richard also writes about the intersections of psychology and theology at his popular and award-winning blog Experimental Theology. Richard is married to Jana and they have two sons. The Beck family are members of the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX where Richard is also involved in adult faith, prison and community ministries.