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  • Writer's pictureTrace Pirtle

God's Love: Conditional or Unconditional?

The popular view among Christians is that God's love is unconditional. But does God's Word agree? This post examines God's love and whether the Scriptures support unconditional or conditional love for every human being.

Some friends and family have lovingly accused me of overthinking what I hear from contemporary Christians. The asserted conclusion that God's love is "unconditional" is one of them. So, I decided to see what God says in His Word about the topic.

First, A Couple of Overthinking Assumptions

#1. "God Loves ME Unconditionally." Let's see if we can agree on my first overthinking assumption. When people talk about God's unconditional love, they are saying, "God loves ME unconditionally!" Unfortunately, we live in a "Me-Oriented" society (which is counter to scripture, but that's another discussion). This "Me First" attitude runs rampant in Christian churches today. It perpetuates the misunderstanding that God is here, especially for them, not the other way around.

The person assuming God's unconditional love perspective may be a progressive, prosperity-oriented, or keyhole narrow Christian. However, they could also be non-Christians who follow vastly divergent religions and philosophies. The point is God's unconditional love is applied to many belief systems.

So is God's love unconditional for all? Specifically, do contemporary Christians who promote God's unconditional love apply this belief to non-Christians? It sure sounds good in cultural sensitivity training classes. But do we have a conflict if the Christian is referring to the God of the Bible? Just wondering.

#2. The God of the Bible. My second overthinking assumption is that we are talking about the God of the Bible. I'm not addressing any other religious texts or systems of faith. I'm assuming, albeit hesitantly, that readers of this post all share a common belief that the 66 Books/Epistles of the Holy Bible are God's inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word. And the Bible is as valid and reliable today as it was in the beginning. According to the Scripture,

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John 1:1

If we agree that the Bible is God's Word, then let's see how we apply it to His unconditional or conditional love.

God's Love: Unconditional or Conditional?

Disclosure. It's difficult for me to remain completely objective with this question. Why? Because coming from contemporary Christians, God's "unconditional" love reminds me more of humanistic psychology than of the Scriptures. Specifically, we are seeing Jesus through the lens of Carl Rogers. Who?

Humanistic Psychology. For example, Carl Rogers (1902-1987) is recognized as the founder of humanistic psychology. Among other theoretical orientations, I studied, applied, and taught Rogers' Person-Centered Approach my entire professional career. First, let me provide you with a few key points from this approach. You may or may not see the similarities.

Carl Rogers believed in the inherent strength and goodness within every human being (much like the television personality Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers). Carl Rogers believed that we each have an "actualizing tendency," an inner desire to reach our full human potential.

When people have problems in life, many will seek counseling/therapy. From a humanistic, Person-Centered perspective, three core conditions are "necessary and sufficient" for positive growth. They include:

  • Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR)

  • Accurate Empathic Understanding (Empathy)

  • Congruence (Be Genuine, Real)

For a person with a presenting problem, all the therapist needs to do is reflect the above core conditions. And, like a planted seed, the person will grow to their full potential. The therapist is essentially a gardener who waters, fertilizes, and keeps the weeds out.

Finally, the Person-Centered Approach accepts the person "just as they are." They are assisted with problems only to the degree that they see the problem getting in the way of what they want. No value judgments. No inherent right or wrong. No moral compass beyond the one within the person.

And, most importantly, we need to show them UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD. If you recall the old (and new) commercials that promote "You Be You" (UBU), then you understand the essence of this humanistic approach.

Does this sound familiar to what we hear in churches today? Or, have I been so steeped in humanistic, existential, cognitive-behavioral, and psychodynamic theories that I can't objectively interpret the Bible?

Define "Unconditional." I began questioning my biblical discernment and defaulted to a fundamental of research; provide an operational definition of terms. How are we defining "Unconditional"?

Just as we would expect, even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines unconditional as "Not conditional or limited; Absolute, Unqualified."

IF "unconditional" means absolutely without conditions, THEN anything that has conditions by definition is no longer unconditional. It then becomes conditional. It seems elementary, common sense.

In "normal" life, when the average person reads or hears an "IF-THEN" statement, they immediately recognize it as "conditional." So why do we abandon this form of discernment when we apply it to God's love?

Perhaps some can explain it away with,

"'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways, My ways,' says the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.'" Isaiah 55: 8-9

I get it, and I agree. However, I can only partially agree with this example. A trusted Brother-in-Christ encouraged me in a text message, "trust the Holy Spirit will lead you!" His message is consistent with God's message.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths." Proverbs 3:5-6

The Holy Spirit is leading me to question the popular "God's love is unconditional" narrative. He is leading me to open my eyes, read and study God's love on His terms, not the world's or humanistic psychology terms.

"God's Love Can't be Conditional, Can it? While in prayer and following the Holy Spirit, a thought interrupted my focus. "God's love can't be conditional, can it?" Of course, as a sinner, I want to believe that God's love for me is unconditional! But God was reminding me of how deceptive the enemy can be. I flipped to the Book of Genesis and read about the fall of man,

"Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 'Did God really say, you must not eat from any tree in the garden?'" Genesis 3:1

That's when God confirmed that I was on the narrow path, not the broad path. The enemy, craftily using humanistic psychology, deceives us into believing a lie. A lie that says, "God loves you just the way you are. You don't need to repent because He will always love you unconditionally, just like Mister Rogers and Carl Rogers."

Now that is crafty. Crafty enough to lead the sheep far astray from the true Shepherd and down a slippery slope into the lukewarm abyss.

Familiar Verses As Examples of God's Unconditional Love

Wondering which Bible verses are used to support the claim that God's love is unconditional? If you can't think of any, ask Google. I did.

I discovered websites offering a laundry list of Bible verses. Each seemed to have been included in the list simply because they included the keyword "love." Unfortunately, if you study them, you find examples of God's conditional, not unconditional, love.

Let's begin with one of our all-time favorites,

John 3:16

"For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16

I would completely agree that God's love for the world is unconditional IF He had told the Apostle John to strike out "that whoever believes in Him" from the verse. If John's words are God's Words, God clearly established a condition for His love. In this case, believing in Jesus is the condition. I don't see the blank check or rubber stamp kind of unconditional love in this example. Do you?

John 14:21

"Whoever has My commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show Myself to them." John 14:21

I'm not sure God could be more transparent with His conditional love in this verse. First, John 14:21 assumes that you believe in Jesus as expected by God in John 3:16. IF we do believe in Him, THEN we will keep His commands. Consequently, we are loved by Jesus and the Father. I read nothing that implies "unconditional" in this verse.

John 3:17

"For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. John 3:17

I see God's love for us in this verse. However, we find the condition in the following verse,

John 3:18

"He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe in Him is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." John 3:18

None of this should be shocking tabloid news. And I've only included a few examples from the Book of John.

So let's say someone finds a verse that for them "confirms" God's unconditional love for every individual, regardless of beliefs or behaviors (the all-inclusive, progressive position). They use John 3:17 as validation. They say, "I'm loved unconditionally just the way I am because God sent Jesus to save, not condemn me."

If that argument is made, how do they explain away Jesus saying in His own words,

John 14:6

"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." John 14:6

Jesus is emphatic about how narrow the gate really is. He's telling us there is only ONE WAY. Take it or leave it. Sounds pretty conditional to me, and I'm good with it!

Finally, and this is enough confirmation for me, Jesus tells us,

John 5:21-22

"For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will. For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son." John 5:21-22

No matter how hard we try, we can't escape the Biblical fact that God gives the power of judgment to His Son, Jesus. Jesus is the Gate Keeper. Jesus controls access to heaven, eternal life, hell, and eternal damnation.

Since many are fond of denying sin, hell, and the mean God that sends them there in favor of a gentle God who loves them unconditionally, how do we explain this? Jesus said,

Matthew 7:21-23

"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name? And I will declare to them, I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" Matthew 7:21-23

Since God gives us free will, we can deconstruct God's Word and reinterpret it as we see fit. That is within our freedoms within limits.

However, if we do, we do so knowing that we have departed from the narrow path and joined the multitude on the broad path. Therefore, we must assume responsibility for our actions and be prepared to give an account when we stand before Jesus.

Thus, if God asked me, "Is My love unconditional or conditional?" I would say conditional based on His Word in the Bible. How could I, a sinner, expect God to give His only Son while I was still a sinner and not expect some conditions? Why would I expect Jesus to offer Himself as payment for my sins (and yours) without a few non-negotiable conditions? I am eternally grateful.

Another Possibility

Before I end this reflection, I'd like to offer one more possibility. A possibility that strips away the unconditional and conditional modifiers of God's love. After all, modifiers like these are lowly cultural lenses through which we view our world, not necessarily God's Word.

We have Progressive-Christians and Conservative-Christians and identify ourselves as African-Americans, Euro-Americans, and all the other _____ - Americans possible in the American salad bowl. Both women, men, and non-binary (??) freely hyphenate their last names.

The result? It reinforces the first and diminishes the second. I'm not sure that's what God expects from us, especially as Christians. Time to cut out the modifier that precedes "Christian." We are either Christians or not.

So, in response to our justification for concluding that God's love is either unconditional or conditional, what if God's response to our respective answer was "WRONG, BUT THANK YOU FOR PLAYING! PLEASE TRY AGAIN."

How about this? God's Love: Perfect

Concluding Thoughts

The question, "Is God's love unconditional or conditional?" challenged me more than I expected. Frankly, I was somewhat aligned with the popular view of God's unconditional love, especially for those who believe in His Son.

But that condition alone sets us up for a series of "If-Then" conditions in the Bible that, if read "as is," show God's, justifiable conditional love. So I began recognizing how much humanistic psychology influences the popular notion that God's love is unconditional.

God's Word, if read critically, does not support this cultural construction. However, as I've maintained, I'm simply a passerby on this journey, and I could be wrong in my study of the Bible. So, I decided to revise my answer to God's question, "Is My love unconditional or conditional?" I say God's Love is Perfect.

My Prayer For You. Heavenly Father, I pray You will bless every reader who has endured this long post! May they experience Your perfect love and guidance as they wrestle with their own questions. May they see through the crafty lies of the enemy and remain laser-focused on You through our Lord and Savior Jesus. In His Perfect Name. AMEN!

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About Me

Image of Dr. Trace Pirtle sitting on park bench identified as Jesus.

Greetings, I'm Trace!
I'm a retired counselor education professor who spent 35 years in the "helping professions." I'm an "all-in" believer working full-time for our Lord Jesus Christ. I've included my personal testimony if you are interested. 
May God bless you beyond your wildest dreams!

In His Service,

Trace Pirtle

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