Those who think that God’s love for humanity is unconditional often feel that the alternative would be an invitation to legalism, to trying to save ourselves by meeting God’s requirements that were fulfilled in our place by the life and death of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, those who see God’s love as conditional often feel that anything else is “cheap grace” that amounts to an invitation to sin because we feel we are unconditionally loved despite our behavior.
If we look closely at what the Bible teaches, however, we find that the answer to this question does not lie on either side of this debate, but on both! Many verses show that God’s love for us is indeed unconditional and not based on our meeting some standard. The apostle Paul summarized this when he wrote: “… Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8, emphasis added here and below).
Yet other scriptures show just as clearly that God has a conditional love for us. Notice the words of Jesus himself: “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) and “The Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27).
So what are we to do with this apparent contradiction? The Bible clearly teaches that God loves us both conditionally and unconditionally! The answer can be seen in our own human experience that there are different kinds of love. For example, as parents we still love our children even when they misbehave and we have to correct them. Normal parental love is unconditional in the same way that God loves us unconditionally.
On the other hand, if a mate is unfaithful or unkind to us, we may well lose our feelings of love toward them. That is no different from the conditional love that God expresses to us based on our faithfulness and love of him.
This comparison is more than just a simple analogy because the Bible specifically compares God’s love for his people to both that of a parent (1 John 3:1, etc.), and that of a spouse (Hosea 2:19, etc.). To say that God expresses both kinds of love – what we might typify as parental and marital love – is no different than saying God expresses both unconditional and conditional love toward us.
When we understand this, we see that in one way – as our heavenly parent – God will always love us no matter what mistakes we might make. Even if, in his love, he has to punish us (Hebrews 12:6), his actions will still be based on the kind of unconditional love a parent has for a child. But the fullest and richest human love that we can know, that of individuals bound in total love of each other, is the kind of conditional love that God gives us according to our relationship with him.
In a way, this description of God’s love for us is a summary of the gospel itself. The first half of the gospel is that God, through his unconditional love, determined to save us (as we saw in Romans 5:6-8). The second half of the gospel might just as well be said to be that through his conditional love God is pleased to reward us (John 14:21). God loves us both unconditionally and conditionally. We cannot change the first kind of love, but the second kind of love that God feels for us is determined by the love we show for him (John 16:27).