In his essay-turned-booklet, God’s Love: Better Than Unconditional, David Powlison suggests that people who use the term often have good intentions, wanting to affirm four interrelated truths:

  1. “Conditional love” is bad—unconditional is shorthand for the opposite of manipulation, demand, judgmentalism.
  2. God’s love is patient—unconditional is shorthand for hanging on for the long haul, rather than bailing out when the going gets rough.
  3. True love is God’s gift—unconditional is shorthand for unearned blessings, rather than legalism.
  4. God receives you just as you are: sinful, suffering, confused—unconditional is shorthand for God’s invitation to rough, dirty, broken people.

These are true—and precious. But Powlison offers several responses. (I can only summarize and paraphrase here—buy the booklet to see the arguments in full.)

First, Powlison suggests that “there are more biblical and vivid ways to capture each of the four truths just stated.” “People currently employ a somewhat vague, abstract word—unconditional—when the Bible gives us more vivid and specific words, metaphors, and stories.”

Second, it’s not true that unmerited grace is strictly unconditional. Jesus Christ opened a way for us to experience the biblical love of God by fulfilling two conditions: a life of perfect obedience to the moral will of God, and a perfect substitutionary death on our behalf. Powlison writes: “Unconditional love? No, something much better. People who now use the word unconditional often communicate an acceptance neutered of this detailed, Christ-specific truth.”

Third, God’s love is more than conditional, for it is intended to change those who receive it. “Unconditional” often connotes “you’re okay.” But there is something wrong with you. The word “unconditional” may well express the welcome of God, but it does not well express the point of his welcome.

Fourth, “unconditional love” carries a load of cultural baggage, wedded to words like “tolerance, acceptance, affirmation, benign, okay,” and a philosophy that says love should not impose values, expectations, or beliefs on another. In fact, humanist psychology even has a term for it: “unconditional positive regard” (Carl Rogers).

Powlison says, “We can do better”:

Saying “God’s love is unconditional love” is a bit like saying “The sun’s light at high noon is a flashlight in a blackout.”

Come again?

A dim bulb sustains certain analogies to the sun.

Unconditional love does sustain certain analogies to God’s love.

But why not start with the blazing sun rather than the flashlight?

When you look closely, God’s love is very different from “unconditional positive regard,” the seedbed of contemporary notions of unconditional love.

God does not accept me just as I am;

He loves me despite how I am;

He loves me just as Jesus is;

He loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus.

This love is much, much, much better than unconditional! Perhaps we could call it “contraconditional” love.

Contrary to the conditions for knowing God’s blessing, He has blessed me because His Son fulfilled the conditions.

Contrary to my due, He loves me.

And now I can begin to change, not to earn love but because of love.

. . . You need something better than unconditional love.

You need the crown of thorns.

You need the touch of life to the dead son of the widow of Nain.

You need the promise to the repentant thief.

You need to know, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

You need forgiveness.

You need a Vinedresser, a Shepherd, a Father, a Savior.

You need to become like the one who loves you.

You need the better love of Jesus.

For a complementary perspective, see John Piper’s answer, “Is God’s Love Unconditional?

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12 thoughts on “Why God’s Love Is Better Than “Unconditional””

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    This is a really good post! Thanks for sharing it, JT!

  2. PJ Lincoln says:

    Brilliant and graceful commentary, JT.

    I am continually blown away by the Power of God’s love. This is not just some grandiose statement for me; in the span of six months, the Lord has taken a broken me, healed me and shown me a better, happier way to live my life.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t still tough days and rough moments because there are plenty. The difference is, I now have Him to fall back upon, no matter what happens. It’s given me a peace I’ve never known before.

  3. usama a. says:

    Good post. Drew me back to 6 years ago being in small group telling people unconditional love was not a good phrase. I was a new believer coming out of another religion and I thought it was a lacking phrase.
    Thanks for the post this was very helpful for me.

  4. Contraconditional? What a gripping way to put the matter of God’s love as expressed in Christ’s great work on Calvary and as it is applied to sinners, who ill-deserve such wonderful blessing. The convert of a friend of mine responded, when he asked her why she had responded so readily, “O, it was so wonderful that I could not resist it.” Ibnterestingly enough, my friend’s last name was Spurgeon. Forty years later, he came to accept the view of Grace being irresistible and about the same time he found out that he was some kin to C.H. Spurgeon. Life is delightfully funny at times. Thank God! As a former Atheist who had a vision or a hallucination (how can one say?) in which I saw Jesus standing before me, with an arm raised like He was knocking, facing me, looking at me. And this when I was an Atheist, saying there was no God. An hour or so later he did more than Rev.3:20 says. He opened the door like it says in Acts 16:14 and, like C.S. Lewis, for the first time in my life I cried tears of joy.

  5. Bruce Russell says:

    The New Covenant, like the Old (and any) Covenant is conditional (Hebrews 5:9). But the New Covenant pursues it with a circumcised heart and New Creation power.

  6. steveprost says:

    While Piper and Powlison are complementary, they are saying very different true things. Powlison biblically says the love of God is so much MORE than un-conditional, but nowhere actually denies its unconditionality… Piper biblically says God’s love is only unconditional in some (fundamentally important) respects.

    Un-, or contra-, conditional love is a wonderful idea when used to think about ultimate causation of all forms of His love, for who gets the credit. But it is inaccurately and fatally used in teaching that often implies (or scolds those who suggest otherwise) it is reason to relax concern about our efforts and character. Instead, Scripture stresses that the degree of reward of enjoying God’s love on earth, the degree of reward of enjoying God’s love in eternity, and even the question of whether we make it to heaven as persevering saints or instead prove ourselves ultimately as mere professors, is very conditional upon our own character, efforts, strivings, and doings. Although the conditional tie of these types of love to our own efforts always depends on a prior unconditional love, it is the conditional aspect that is far more emphasized in pages of both Old and New Testaments than the contraconditional.

    1. Bruce Russell says:

      Steve:

      Where are you preaching on Sunday?

      Bruce

  7. Elaine says:

    Thank you so much for this post. God has been showing me just how shallow my understanding of the gospel is because of the weakness of terms I stand on, rather than seeking to grow in the knowledge of the unspeakable love of Him who bore the wrath that I deserved.

    “Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.

    “That’s why, when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the followers of Jesus, I couldn’t stop thanking God for you—every time I prayed, I’d think of you and give thanks. But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!”

    Ephesians 1:7-10, 15-19

  8. Emma Bail says:

    Your post is really helpful to me. Thanks for clearing some misconceptions we have about God and love. The four truths should be repeated daily by everyone as a reassuring thought about God’s love for all of us. Look forward to reading the book.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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