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Love and faith

Published: 14 March 2020 (GMT+10)

Alex B., Australia, asked in response to The Incarnate Word:

Is God’s love conditional, or is it unconditional?

Lita Cosner, CMI-US, responds:

The answer, in a way that might seem counterintuitive, is that it’s both conditional and unconditional. Personally, I like Don Carson’s take on the subject in his book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. But from a creation perspective, we can see how it must be both conditional and unconditional.

First, if there were any conditions to God’s love, we couldn’t fulfill those conditions because we’re sinful (Romans 3:23). So God’s providence in giving us the things we need to live like food and shelter and all the good things of life on earth, even though we’ve done nothing to deserve them, is a manifestation of God’s unconditional love toward His creation.

But there is a sense in which the specific love He shows to His people is conditional. All of us deserve eternal judgment in Hell because we’ve sinned. But Jesus, in the Incarnation, lived the perfect sinless life we couldn’t live, and then died the death that we deserved, and rose on the third day. This means that when we trust in Him, our sin is covered by His death (Isaiah 53:6), and His perfect righteousness is credited to us (2 Corinthians 5:21), so that God sees us with the righteousness of Christ. So the condition for this element of God’s specific love for His people who will enjoy eternal life in the resurrection on the restored Earth is that they trust in Christ alone.

So God’s love is both conditional and unconditional, but He even fulfilled the conditions through the obedient life and sacrificial death of God the Son.

CMI’s new podcast, Creation.com Talk, is drawing a lot of new people with questions. “Ste Hir” asked in the comment section of How to deal with hostile skeptics:

“Abraham believed God, and it was counted (imputed) to him as righteousness.” What did Abraham believe? I know Abraham believed God for his future but who did Abraham believe God was other than the only God, creator, sustainer and sovereign of the universe as his foundation for belief.

Lita Cosner responds:

People often ask how Old Testament people before the coming of Christ were saved, and the Bible is clear. They were saved by faith through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, just as we are, even though that sacrifice was in the future. In fact, Paul sets up the salvation of Old Testament saints as a theodicy problem in exactly the opposite way we would expect today. In Paul’s thinking, God was just for judging the Amalekites or the entire world in Noah’s day. The problem was that He didn’t judge Noah’s sin, or Abraham’s, or the entire nation of Israel. How could God justify sinners? Through the sacrifice of Christ, which cleansed the people of God; both those before and after crucifixion.

We know Abraham had some revelation of who God is, but this revelation was not as complete as an Israelite in Moses’ day would have had, which would have been still less than in Isaiah’s day. God did not reveal everything He intended to tell us about Himself until the Incarnation of Christ, who is the ultimate revelation as God in the flesh. The New Testament was written in light of this revelation so that we who have not seen Christ can nevertheless believe the entirety of what His coming showed us.

The simple answer is that people have always been saved by believing what they knew about God and trusting in Him for salvation. Today, for us, that means believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Peter C.
Hebrews 11:8-19 gives us an insight into what Abraham believed, as indeed does John 8:56. All Old Testament saints were saved by grace through faith in the coming redeemer, the seed of the woman promised in Genesis 3:15 who would bruise the serpent's head. Since Christ came, people are saved by grace through faith in the redeemer who has come and died for sinners on the cross of Calvary. There is and only ever has been one way of salvation as the Sunday School chorus has it "Only one way of salvation, only one door to the fold, Jesus alone for our sins could atone and there's no other way but through Him."
Chuck R.
The misunderstanding that people in Old Testament times were less knowledgeable of God than we are today is what fuels the questioning of how did they attain salvation through Christ if they were uninformed, and is caused by far too many sermons focusing on only the New Testament which leaves us with a misunderstanding of God (there is a reason God gave us a Bible that is 7/8 Old Testament). Job is a book that is almost completely ignored and yet has a depth and understanding of God that few even dream of, and through it all Job knew of his need for a Redeemer. Jobs example of refusal to compromise under any circumstance has become a rarity in modern Christianity because of the very wrong theology of New Testament only, "Jesus loves me" sermons, and our use it to give us license to accept that which God has rejected. From the very beginning when God walked with Adam in the Garden it has long been known that God desires an intimate relationship with us, "but I have called you friends", but in our quest to justify and allow ourselves an escape route we have ignored His Glory and Majesty and Dominion over His Creation which is reveled from Genesis through Malachi.
Lita Cosner
People in the Old Testament did know less about God necessarily, because they had not seen the Incarnate Christ, and they did not know the full doctrine of the Trinity (though there were hints of it). They did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit or the full Scriptures. So while they often knew more than we give them credit for, we certainly know more today.
Thomas C.
Seems God's love is common, as in common grace such that we are born into this world. Even though we start out as enemies of God, each merely human as a sinner. Then specific mercy reveals the possibility of becoming one of HIS children, saved by the work of Jesus the Christ and a salvific faith in that work by a sinner human. Hope manifested in HIS promises.
David N.
As always, Lita, you give great answers. One additional comment, is that though God's love is unconditional, the way we experience it is conditional. In John 14:21 Jesus said, "Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Hopefully the love of a parent for a child is unconditional, but the way the child experiences that will will depend on the obedience/behavior of the child.
Chris L.
Roman's 4:16 - 25. Tells us what Abraham believed and that it was counted to him as righteousness.
Norman P.
PS: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad." (John 8:56)
Norman P.
I love Bunyan's allegory, in Pilgrim's Progress, whereby Christian sees and understands so much more as he comes up as far as Beulah Land, in sight of the Delectable Mountains. As with Enoch, its all about a walk with God over time, and the relationship that develops. Thus it is said, Abraham was the Friend of God (James 2:23). For, whilst we were yet sinners, God commended his love towards us, by sending his own beloved Son (as with Issac) to die for us (Romans 5:7-9). Abraham saw this, by revelation of the Spirit, and believed. In his case, notwithstanding the drawing of God upon him by grace, he lived at a time that was so much nearer the great events of Creation, the Flood and Babel, albeit fallen man was already blinded by falsehood, just as today. Indeed, speaking of the Jews who rejected Christ, even though he came in their midst in accordance with all the prophets, Romans 11:32 tells us, "God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all." We may discern, here, the lofty heavenly purpose of a covenant-keeping God of love, who is bringing many sons to glory. And in accordance with his divine nature, it's by faith, working through love (see Galatians 5:5-6).
Daniel X.
In this statement, "If there were any conditions to God’s love, we couldn’t fulfill those conditions because we’re sinful (Romans 3:23)." I wish to point out that the counterfactual (if there were conditions...) does not specify which conditions, and so the conclusion (we couldn't fulfill them..) does not necessarily follow. An example condition is "you must be somewhat sincere some of the time" which is easily fulfilled by sinful humans. NB. Notwithstanding the above, I concur that the common grace of God is unconditional, as much so as common suffering (Luke 13:4), but for reasons other than what you silently assume (which is that God's conditions, were there to be any, could only be fulfilled by morally perfect agents )
Terry D P.
Re the question: “What did Abraham believe?” Jesus himself answers this question in these words: ‘Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ The Jews protested, ‘You are not yet fifty years old. How can you have seen Abraham?’ Jesus said, ‘In very truth I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.’ — Jn 8:56-58. Also, recall what God [aka Jesus, the Word made flesh] personally said to Abraham: THE TIME CAME when God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham’, he called, and Abraham replied, ‘Here I am.' God said, ‘Take your son Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a sacrifice on one of the hills which I will show you.' […] He said to his men, ‘Stay here with the ass while I and the boy go over there; and when we have worshipped we will come back to you.’ […] So Abraham took the wood for the sacrifice and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulder; he himself carried the fire and the knife, and the two of them went on together. Isaac said to Abraham, ‘Father’, and he answered, ‘What is it, my son?’ Isaac said, ‘Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the young beast for the sacrifice?’ Abraham answered, ‘God will provide himself with a young beast for a sacrifice, my son.’ […] — Gn 22:1-18. The Gn 22:1-18 scripture graphically illustrates what Abraham believed about salvation, because, as Jesus said: ‘Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day; he saw it and was glad.’
Ian B.
Very true Lita - we are judged according to what we understand about God and PUT INTO OPERATION. Therefore, we in the last times know more, and are therefore more accountable - this is only proper.
Ken B.
Hebrews 9:15 speaks about forgiveness of sins committed in Old Testament times on the basis of the death of Jesus.. 'a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant'.

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