I hear a growing number of people using the phrase 'the unconditional love of God' and it's sounds very wonderful to my ears but when I read my Bible, from the very outset to the very end, there appears to always be a 'condition.'
In Genesis Adam is told he can eat of anything in the garden but 'stay away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil cos on the day you eat of its fruit - you die.' And in my way of reading the New Testament 'no one can come to the Father except through Jesus' and to refuse His name is to remain outside of His Grace. I know that the Father is not willing that any should be lost but that 'all' should come to salvation, but the 'but' seems very real to my understanding. Can you give me your view on this please?
Yes, phrases like ‘unconditional love’ come easily off the tongue. The language of love has a tendency towards inflation: nothing we say seems enough, so we push it and push it, forgetting that we may be undermining the value of the currency. ‘Unconditional’ is a bit like ‘absolutely’ (which seems to have replaced the word ‘yes’).
Still, it is about God’s love that people use the word ‘unconditional’, as you say. “This is the love I mean: not our love for God, but God’s love for us” (1 Jn 4:10). We can readily see that God’s love must be unconditional, because God is unconditional – not tied to any conditions. But how, you ask, are we to understand the many expressions in the Scriptures that seem to tie it to conditions?
When we read in 1 Jn 5:3, for example, that “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments,” the case seems even more difficult: it appears to be more about obedience than about love.
If I had to live on a desert island and was allowed to take only one page of the Scriptures with me, I think I’d take the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). This was a story composed by Jesus to tell what God was like. He could have inserted any number of conditions and qualifications into the story. He could have the son pleading with the father to receive him back, and the father eventually relenting but laying down strict ground rules for future behaviour. It would still have been a good story, but in fact Jesus put in no qualifications or conditions at all. The father had been scanning the horizon, missing his son, and when he saw him he forgot his years and ran towards him to embrace him. He didn’t even let the son get through his prepared speech. As soon as the son began, the father said to the others, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him….”
This story supersedes everything before it in the Old Testament and is the measure for everything in the subsequent Christian tradition. But we still have to find the key to interpreting those other statements that appear less generous.
I think it’s useful to think of the New Testament as a ‘how to’ book. Our faith is a way of living before it is a way of thinking. Christians were known as ‘followers of the Way’ (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22, etc.) before they were called Christians (Acts 11:26). Its purpose is to show us the way to live with this revelation of God in Jesus. When someone is showing us how to do something, we are not satisfied by absolute statements about the grandeur of the enterprise; we expect also instructions that take our ability and our situation into account. So John’s letter says: “The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” This is not to say that God is interesting only in our obedience. It’s not about God but about us: we are being given practical instructions.
“No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6). Significantly, Jesus said this in response to a practical question. He had been talking about going away: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” The practical Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:4-6). Some would like to see this statement as condemning all non-Christians to outer darkness. The correct context in which to see it is the opening chapter of John’s gospel: “All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). If all things came from God through him, then it makes sense to say that all things return to God through him. This is the Christian understanding of the Word made flesh. This is a practical ‘how to’ for us. Non-Christians too come to the Father, but how they come is not for us to figure out in practice. The focus of John’s gospel is always the Christian community, not humanity in general. Nowhere, for example, in his gospel does he quote Jesus’ saying about loving your enemies. If asked about it, no doubt, he would have quoted this saying (he would have no choice in the matter), but it was not his preoccupation.
It is good to remember, too, that it works in both directions: it is the Father who brings us to Jesus. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6.44); “No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (John 6.65).
I hope these few thoughts are helpful to you in some way, Tom.