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Is God’s love conditional?

Published: 5 May 2018 (GMT+10)

It is important for all Christians to be able to ‘give an answer’ when called upon to defend God’s character. Tom, U.S. asked:

If God loves humans unconditionally then why would he destroy them all in a global flood no matter how sinful they were? It would seem God’s love is conditional. The condition being the lack of sin.

Lita Cosner, CMI–US, responds:

You asked why God would destroy all those people in a global flood if He’s loving, but really if this is a problem, it’s bigger than that, because the Bible teaches that all who perish without trusting Christ for the forgiveness of their sins will die. So we have to ask not only why God would destroy all those people in a global Flood, but what about the billions of unbelievers who have died since then?

God is perfectly loving. This is consistently portrayed as one of His attributes at a foundational level. When Moses requested to see God’s glory, God proclaimed:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–7).

This statement is referenced over and over again throughout the rest of Scripture—just a search for “steadfast love” will reveal how much that’s attributed to God. But notice that God’s justice is also emphasized. Both are glorious attributes of God, and neither diminishes the other. In fact, God’s justice is part of God being perfectly loving. If you’ve ever been wronged and longed for justice to be served, or even more if you’ve seen a loved one wronged and wanted justice for your loved one, you can understand how wanting guilt to be appropriately judged is not a bad thing. In fact, that can be a godly impulse when it’s informed by what Scripture teaches. And the reason that can be a godly impulse is because God is perfectly just and will make sure absolute justice is served. That’s a problem for us, because all of us have sinned—we’ve all done things that deserve judgment, even if we were only judged by our own moral standards, even before we consider God’s perfect standard.

That’s why the first attribute in that list mentioned, “merciful”, is so important. Mercy is God’s unmerited favor to sinners. How can God forgive iniquity and transgression and sin—three terms covering all sorts of offenses to God—while remaining true to His nature and enacting perfect justice? The answer is found in Christ.

In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the blood of sacrificed animals covered over the sins of the people, but it could never atone completely, and it could never be a perfect, final sacrifice. It had to be repeated over and over again. It pointed to the need for a final sacrifice, a perfect atonement.

It is in Christ that we can understand how God can love sinful humans without neglecting justice. Jesus lived a perfect life, keeping God’s Law and never sinning. Then He willingly shed His blood on the cross as a sacrifice for sin. On the third day He was raised as proof that His sacrifice was accepted.

How is this applied to us? When we believe in Christ and trust in Him alone for the forgiveness of our sins, God applies Christ’s sacrifice as payment for our sin—meaning we no longer face condemnation. And Christ’s righteous life is credited to us, as if we’d perfectly obeyed the way He did. So legally, we have an ‘innocent’ standing before God the moment we believe and trust in Him. As we walk as believers, there is a process of sanctification, where God progressively makes us actually more righteous and Christ-like. This process continues through this life, and will be completed at the resurrection of the dead, when believers will be given new perfect bodies and we will be incapable of sin, nor will we want to.

It can’t be emphasized enough how costly our salvation was—the Son of God had to undergo the most horrific experience possible. He is the holiest being, and He had to become sin for us. He was perfectly righteous, and he had to experience the judgment that each one of us deserved. The physical pain and anguish was bad, but far worse was the spiritual separation and judgment.

So the question isn’t “If God is perfectly loving, why would he allow all those people to die?”. Rather, we should marvel at the amazing love of God to save anyone, especially when the price was the death of the Son of God.

Ultimately, people are condemned because of their sin. People who perished at the time of the Flood were guilty of the same sins as are committed all around the world today. God has given a way to escape judgment, but there is no other way. Can you imagine the insult to Christ if anything else could save us, when He gave His life and took on the judgment for sin in our place?

So God’s love is conditional in a sense. We have to come to Him through Christ, and only through Christ. But those who do so will find Him to be a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
US $14.00
Soft Cover
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Q J.
I believe the premise of the article is incorrect. We read in ancient literature that some greater king "loved" a lesser king or vice versa. The words for "love" in the OT - and particularly depending on which part of the OT and what era/epoch it was - and "love" in the NT (the Hellenic Period) are incongruous and we can't retroject NT thinking back onto OT scripture. In the NT, "love" is defined by the Koine Greek terms "agape", "philios", and "eros" - I know there's a fourth, which I fail to recall at this moment. By then, vocabulary and worldviews had altered to the point where they could distinguish between different kinds of love. But in the OT passage you cite, the word "love" covers a multitude of meanings, including the kind of affection that accompanies approval. When in the passage in Exodus you cite God addresses His people about "love", He's not saying "I love you conditionally", because we know that almost 2000 years later to King David He says that His love never fails and He loves unconditionally. But.... and this is the big "but"... God doesn't approve unconditionally. So, like the father of the Yorkshire Ripper during an interview, who loved John Sutcliffe and had an undying love for him but was deeply disappointed and broken-hearted by his heinous crimes, in the same way our Father in Heaven loves us with an undying love, but that doesn't translate into automatic de-facto approval and an instant pass into God's perfect Heaven. God loves everyone in Hell. He weeps over them. He feels their pain. But He doesn't approve of them. This is sobering and we should keep this in mind in our personal journeys with Jesus.
Christopher W.
Although all these answers are true, the opening question poised misunderstands what "Love" is. A relationship based on Love demands that the other party always has the option to walk away. Without that option the relationship is enslavement - no matter how pleasant. Who wants to be a slave ?

There have been a few horrific instances of people being held against there will in "loving relationships" - which we can all see to be a false and horrific state.

No one would like to live with someone who didn't like their company, simply moving in for the money and free food ? Why do we expect God to be any different ?

Lets reverse the question - should people be free and have free will to do whatever they want to do. I think everyone will agree that this is what we want and expect.

Its rather like an engaged couple who split up because one of the couple changed their mind and decided to marry a previous boyfriend/girlfriend, then saying that its not fair because the person leaving the engagement didn't get to live with the jilted spouse to be.

I think that once people understand that love is two people choosing each other such false ideas evaporate.
Paul M.
I read this article because I thought it was a good point about salvation in Noah's time. I agree with all of your points, but historically, if someone turned back to God before the flood, are we to understand they would get a spot on the ark? Or if not aware of the ark; a place in paradise? Arguably, we could see people in heaven who repented as the flood waters raised higher, although this is not stated in the bible. In all such cases I rely on God's justice being perfect and astonishingly merciful, but I would be interested how it played out historically.
Lita Cosner
There would have been room on the Ark for anyone who believed and repented in Noah's day, but once God shut the door on the Ark, it didn't open again. The Bible is silent regarding whether anyone repented as the water rose higher. We may say that, just as the thief who repented still died, but gained a place in paradise with Jesus, the same thing would happen for someone who died in the Flood who repented before they died. But Scripture is silent regarding whether this actually happened.
jim M.
Good answer, but is there a difference between God's love for the lost and His love for his children?

Does God love some of His children more than others? For instance, look at Jn 14:21 & 23 "...he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”" and "“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." And 16:27 "for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God."

It almost sounds as if the Father's love is conditional on our loving Jesus or stronger for those who do. Does God love unbelievers who reject His Son?

John 17:23 "I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." The Father loves Jesus' disciples as He loves Jesus. Does He love others in the same way?

And does God really love the wicked? Psalms mentions that God actually hates the wicked. Jn 3:36 speaks of His wrath against unbelievers.
Lita Cosner
We must affirm that God shows love to all people, because God gives the common graces of life to all people: "the rain falls on the just and the unjust". Also, the call of the Gospel goes out to all: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son".

However, we must also affirm that God loves those who believe in Christ in a way that is distinct from the rest of the world, because we alone are forgiven of our sins and are assured of eternal life in the resurrection. For comments beyond this though, I would refer you to your pastor who would perhaps be the better person to help.
Gian Carlo B.
I'm not quite sure I'm convinced at this though. I will grant that God's Soteriological Directive is contingent, given we have to come to Christ to be saved from our sins. But God's love for us? No, I disagree it's contingent, unless you are arguing that God saving us=God loving us. However, I'm of the position God's love is unconditional and independent whether He must save us from our sins. Consider this classic example when picturing how God won't send unbelievers to Heaven against their will: Let's take for granted that God's infinite love for us moves Him to want to save us, but He created us as free creatures. Let's presuppose that in Judgment Day, God has divided the damned from the saved. Will this entail God stops loving the damned or has stopped loving the damned? Well no. If anything, it will grieve Him. Because it's not because He was unable to save them, He would, but why did He chose to let them be damned? You guys say it best: They chose to reject God. They don't want to be beside His presence. They hate Him. He still loves them, but He has to, painfully in a sense, let them go their way, just like Romans 1 puts it clearly. This is how I can conceive unconditional love but with conditional pre-requisites to be saved. Judaeo-Christian salvation must be conditional by nature, it's inevitable. Otherwise it's illegitimate. However, God's love is unconditional in the following ways: As per John, He loved us first, and we responded, He loved us so much He sent His only Son to die and be ashamed in our stead. That love cannot possibly be achieved conditionally. What comes after, namely, the soteriological implications and directives, well that's a different although related matter.
Joe W.
I am surprised how seldom God's righteousness is used in Creationist's writing about His punishment of sin. Often His love and mercy is used as in this article-with good effect. Yet they are not the foundation of His judgement. In the following verses the Holy Spirit's work is to convince the world of sin, righteousness and judgement. We too readily skip over righteousness and move directly to judgement.
Joh 16:8  And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: 
Joh 16:9  Of sin, because they believe not on me; 
Joh 16:10  Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; 
Joh 16:11  Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.
 His love and mercy are better used in relationship to His provision, not why He judges.
Ian B.
Lita - you first came to my attention through your writing - here I could see a broad understanding of the Word of God. The more I read from you, the more I come to love you. God bless you as you serve Him in Truth.
mike S.
Hi Lita, Thanks for another helpful gospel response to the question. I have a couple of observations. Firstly, would it be correct to say that God chose Noah and his family to be saved out of that worldwide judgement? And that He did so purely out of His free grace and mercy, not because Noah was in some way worthy of salvation. Noah and his family were sinners too 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' And is it not true that God chose all who become recipients of His saving love 'before the foundation of the world'?
So in that sense also, God is conditional in His love, is He not? Not that His love is somehow earned, but that He has the sovereignty in the whole matter of salvation as well as in everything else. Keep up the great work. Mike.
Bill P.
Even in The Days of Noah The Lord God showed mercy. For 120 yrs Noah preached what was coming while he built The Ark. The Ark was big enough to allow more people to be saved. All they had to do was believe Noah's witness and repent and The Lord would have brought them to The Ark to be saved w/Noah's family. I believe this w/all my heart.
Did any believe and repent ??? No ! Not one person humbled themselves and repented of their evil. It is the same today. Jesus Christ is The Ark and This Gospel has been preached for 2,000 yrs. now. Thanks be to God many have come to this saving knowledge and repented, and The Lord Himself through His Holy Spirit is bringing them to The Ark to be kept safe while The Lord pours out His Wrath. Sadly though many are responding the same way the world did in Noah's day and are refusing God's mercy and grace even believing they will stop The Lord from fulfilling His Word and doing His Will.
The Lord has gone beyond being fair even shedding His own blood to save any who would repent and trust Him. It's time the world stop making excuses and blaming The Lord for the evil in this world. We did this to ourselves and God showed His Love towards us by giving us a way out of this mess we brought upon ourselves.
Even so return soon Lord Jesus. Amen.
Greg A.
Little children certainly died in the flood too and so the world questions if God really loves. We must remember that God sees the heart (1 Samuel 16:7) even of little children. And God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). Also, the name of every person that would ever be born was originally listed in the Lamb's book of life and God has revealed that when time began, many names were blotted out (Revelation 13:8 and 17:8). So God knew who would and would not follow His voice. God also reveals that He chose the times and places that all persons of history would be born (Acts 17:26-27) and so we can presume that all who died in the flood deserved that judgement (note that Noah's father Lamech had died before the flood and Methuselah, his grandfather, died the year of the flood-this is very particular in that they were not a part of the judgement). But take heart, Acts 17:26-27 also reveals why God chose the times and places of everyone's life--He did this so that men would seek Him (maximum pressures in life to drive people to Him) in HIS HOPE that they would find Him. God is eternal and so we can presume He eternally thought through a trillion different possible ways to place people throughout history so that they would find Him--if they ultimately would not follow God then they have no excuse (Romans 6:20). Indeed, even if someone came back from the dead to warn them, they still would not follow God (Luke 16:31). God gave us a free will-He is not a liar to take it back; He revealed that He MUST allow everyone to grow up into either wheat or tare or else all would be destroyed (Matthew 13:29)-He must be consistent with Himself. He IS LOVE...He longingly wants us all; He describes Himself as the Prodigal's father that RUNS to his Boy! (Luke 15:20)
Simon S.
This is right on the money. The amazing thing isn't that God doesn't save all, it's that He saves any of us!

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