The key word in that title is “can”. It all depends on how we understand “unconditional”. That’s what this post is about. I’ll warn you, this is long for a blog post, but please try to follow the reasoning. It could change your life!
John 10:17-18 says
17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
These two verses are lifted from John 10, where Jesus is telling the Jews that he is the good shepherd of the sheep. In v. 18, Jesus talks about the “charge” that he received from his Father to lay down his life and take it up again. This implies that the “authority” Jesus has to do both of these actions comes from the Father. And because Jesus does this (“For this reason”) the Father loves him. God the Father sees the love with which Jesus as as the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep and he loves Jesus for that. This should not lead us to think that God’s love for the Son has changed in any respect from all eternity, because the Father and Son’s intention to save the sheep in this manner is their eternal plan.
“For this reason the Father loves me…” But doesn’t this imply that God the Father is loving his Son conditionally?
We sometimes feel guilty when we love conditionally. But why? Why should I feel guilty for loving Vickie because she is beautiful (in manifold ways) to me? Would my love somehow be greater if it were unconditioned by anything in her? Yes and no.
First the “no”: Loving people because of the good that we see in them is a reflection of the way we see God love in this verse. The Father sees Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice his life for the sheep and he loves him for that!! So when we love because of what we see in the one we love, we are reflecting the way God loves.
Now for the “yes”: an unconditional love is greater than a ‘conditional’ love (the way we often understand ‘conditional’) because this reflects the way Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us not because of anything in us, but self-sacrificially.
But these two different ways of loving can not be separated because Jesus’ love for the sheep is not detached from God’s love. There is a basis, a condition, for his love for the sheep, but it is unconditional love only in the sense that the condition lies outside the sheep. He loves the sheep so that they may know the love of God.
The love of God is the condition for which Jesus loves his sheep. Here’s how we see this:
The scriptural basis for the Son’s ‘unconditional’ love for the sheep, (love that is not conditioned by anything in them) is found in Romans 5. There Paul points out that “Christ died for the ungodly”. (Rom 5.6) This is love, Paul says, because as v. 8 goes on to say, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
So putting the John 10 and the Romans 5 passages together, we see that the Father loves the Son because he sees this love for the sheep that is unconditioned by anything in those sinful sheep. But why does the Son love this way? The answer is the really cool part! He loves this way because the Father “charged” him to love this way. Jesus’ love for the Father is seen in his obedience to the Father’s charge (John 14:31) But why did the Father charge him to love this way? So that undeserving sinners would see and know and love the Son for his unconditional love that is shown in dying for undeserving sinners!!! In other words, so that Jesus would be glorified as infinitely worthy of being loved because of his willingness to love ‘unconditionally.’ Thus the love of the Father for the Son is the ground and the basis, the condition for God’s saving love of us.
This is why, when we love Jesus for dying on the cross for us, we are showing that we have been born of God. It is by the Spirit of God regenerating us and giving us the very life of God that we are able to love Jesus for doing this. We are loving Jesus “for this reason” as John 10:17 says, “because he lays down his life…”
One would think that everyone who hears the story of Jesus dying for undeserving sinners would love him for that, how could one not love him for that? Everyone loves stories of the hero laying down his life to save his friends, but startlingly this expected reaction from people is not what we usually see with regard to Jesus. The reason for this disconnect is because we all recognize the importance of a love that is conditional. It has to be based on something. No one would like a story that has the hero dying for the villain, if said villain then went on to continuously give pain and turmoil to everyone else in the story. Would we like a story that has the good guy dying for the bad guy so that the world goes on into infinity in some chaotic state–Picard giving his life for the Borg so that they can go on assimilating the universe to their perversity? But when the Bible paints us as the Borg–in other words, there is no condition for which God should love us–we hate that.
The only way we can love Jesus for his unconditional love is because of the condition, the ground, the foundation that the Father’s love for the Son lays. In this conception, the Borg doesn’t continue its rampage of destruction but is transformed into the image of the Perfect Man and caught up into the love of the Perfect Man and His glorious loving Father for all eternity.
So yes, conditional love is the basis for unconditional love. If not, then there is nothing to love, and love is perverse, like loving the Borg and enabling it to continue its destruction.
The application of this to my love for the lost, for the children of God, and for God himself is the following:
First, my love for the lost:
When I love others, I love them unconditionally the way Jesus loved me. I do not look for something loveable in them. I do not just “focus on the positive”. I do not even try to discern whether they are elect or not. This makes me appreciate the love of Jesus for me even more because that is how he loves me. And it makes me appreciate the love of the Father even more because he is the one who charged Jesus to love me this way, and who was willing to give the Son he loves over to death for me.
And yet, my love for God is greater than my love for his enemies, and is the ground and basis for it. My love for others is in the hope that they will see and love the Son for his unconditional love, the way the Father loves him. And that they will see and love the Father as the one willing to send his Son.
Thus, ‘unconditional’ love for the lost that doesn’t have this hope and is not anxious that the one loved would know and love God is not a true reflection of God’s love. True love for the lost yearns for the lost to know the love of God in the Father and the Son by the Spirit.
Second, my love for other believers:
When I love other believers, I am delighting in the love that they have for the Son. Thus, the more I see of Jesus in them, the more I love them because I see a greater love for Jesus in them. Even if a person is still an infant in their love for Jesus, I love them because I see that love for Jesus in them, and I hate everything in their life that is not of God because it is separating them from the full experience of God’s love.
Thus, an ‘unconditional’ love for the child of God that does not long for that brother or sister to know God’s love in greater measure is not a true reflection of God’s love. True love for the believer longs for that one to know in a deeper and deeper way the love of God in the Father and the Son by the Spirit.
Third, my love for God himself:
We do not love God unconditionally. Our love for him is gloriously conditional!! And rightfully so. We love God because of the fact that he has always been and always will be worthy of that love. And the point at which we see his worthiness most gloriously revealed is what John 10:17 points to. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord….” Jesus’ voluntary laying down of his life in unconditional love for the sheep is the foundation of everything that we love about God.
But saying that we love God conditionally does not mean that we stand on the outside looking in. It is not that we just appreciate what we see in God like spectators at a museum. It is the love of being adopted into a perfect family. By sending his Spirit into our hearts, God the Father has given us the love that he himself has for his Son. We love the Son from the Father’s perspective–delighting in his willingness to die for his enemies. And by that same Spirit, we are brought into the loving obedience of the Son to the Father. We love the Father from the Son’s perspective–delighting to do his will because we see that his will is to glorify and exalt us for all eternity because of our willingness to love unconditionally because of our love for him and desire to obey him.
Do you see the spiral? How can you get caught up in it?
- Reflect on the cross and love Jesus for it the way the Father does (John 10:17).
- Reflect on the cross and obey the Father the way Christ does (John 14:31).
- Reflect on the cross and love others the way Christ does (1 John 4:10-11).
- Help others get caught in this upward spiral by seeking to move them to do these three things as well (2 Thess. 3:5)
To think more about the love of God and what it means to love him and to love others, I recommend the following two books:
The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson.
Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves.