Christian hip hop artist The Phanatick asked a good question in one of his songs: “I wonder, do we love his [God’s] truth as much as we love his love?” By the question, I think Phanatick is intimating how much people (especially Christians) love to talk about God’s love. Simply put, it makes us feel good, perhaps a bit tingly inside. In no way am I intending to downplay God’s love. But sometimes I wonder: Do we have an accurate understanding of God’s love?
To be sure, the love of God is beyond comprehension. He loves us in a way that no one else can or will. But what is the love of God? How can we describe it? One way we’ve all heard the love of God described is “unconditional.” But is that the best we can do? Let’s go on a little historical journey for just a moment.
Throughout church history, from the early church through the middle ages, theologians basically agreed on this issue. In the contemporary period, however, a major shift has occurred as to how the love of God is to be understood. We can call the historical understanding the “classical paradigm,” and more recent views the “contemporary paradigm.”
The Classical Paradigm
The classical paradigm represents the views of theological giants like Augustine and Aquinas. For these men, God’s love was expressed in his willing the good, or his benevolence (bene volere = good willing). Additionally, God’s benevolence was said to be linked to his sovereignty. Why? Well, because God’s benevolence came to people who were undeserving. God doesn’t love people who deserve to be loved. In his grace, he loves people who deserve the very opposite of love. The question must then be asked: If God loves people who don’t deserve to be loved, why does he shower them with love? Answer: According to Augustine and Aquinas, God showers undeserving people with love because he delights to do so! Amen. Hallelujah! The classical paradigm understands God’s love to be his unilateral sovereignty.
The Contemporary Paradigm
The twentieth century brought a shift with it in terms of how God’s love was to be understood. According Kevin Vanhoozer, the shift was brought about for at least three reasons: 1) the influence of process theologians (read: open theism), 2) the resurgence of interest in Trinitarian theology due to Karl Barth and Eastern Orthodoxy, and 3) sociopolitical movements such as Marxism and feminism.
What does all this mean? Twentieth century theologians describe the love of God in terms that are familiar to modern culture: sympathy, compassion, mutuality, solidarity, and inclusiveness (Vanhoozer’s words). Contemporary theologians suggest that the classical theologians present readers with a truncated version of God’s love, making it “attitudinal rather than relational.” (For brevity’s sake I will refrain from critiquing this position.) The bottom line is this: Whereas the classical paradigm sees God’s love expressed in his unilateral sovereignty, the contemporary paradigm sees God’s love expressed in his bilateral fellowship.
I don’t think we necessarily need to choose between two. God’s love is expressed in his unilateral sovereignty, but it’s also true that his love is relational. The doctrine of the Trinity makes this plain, and so does the fact that God communicates with his people in Scripture.
But is God’s love more than unconditional?
One of the byproducts of the twentieth century’s understanding of God’s love is the idea that it’s nothing more than sympathy, nothing more than a benign acceptance of sorts. Well-intentioned people describe it as “unconditional.” The well-known Christian psychologist David Powlison finds this language unhelpful. He says, “God cares too much to be unconditional in his love.”
How should we describe God’s love? Powlison helps us out.
First, God’s love is an active, intrusive love. God takes the initiative. He chose to create us. He chose to send his Son to earth to live and die for his people. He’s involved in our lives. In Powlison’s words, “He’s merciful, not simply tolerant. He hates sin, yet pursues sinners by name.” This God fights for us. This God is our jealous lover (James 4:5). God’s love isn’t some sappy, sentimentalized, detached acceptance. No, he runs to our aid. And as Powlison says elsewhere, “God’s love has hate in it too: hatred for evil, whether done to you or by you . . . the Lord’s love for his children is no tame love, no relational strategy. It’s not characterized by calm detachment or a determination not to impose his values on you. His love is good in a way that’s vigorous and complex.”
Now please understand. This doesn’t mean that God’s love is conditional. You don’t wait until you get your life together to come to God. You come to him as you are and he fixes you.
Second, God’s love is purposeful and transformative. Yes, God accepts us. Yes, he knows we’re sinners. No matter how much we’ve made a mess of our lives, he calls us to come to him. He’s fully aware of all of our secrets, our sins that no one else knows anything about. Despite all of that, he says, “Come to me” (Matt. 11:28-30). All that’s true. But God won’t let us stay there. Do we want to call this kind of love unconditional? As Powlison asks, “What words will do to describe the love of God that is spectacularly accepting, yet opinionated, choosy, and intrusive?”
God’s love is multifaceted: Accepting, longsuffering, powerful, purposeful, jealous, transformative, invading, disciplinary, enveloping, satisfying, amazing. Language is inadequate. That said, because the word “unconditional” carries so much baggage with it, perhaps when it’s used, we should bring some clarification.
 For those interested, much of what I’ve said thus far comes from Kevin Vanoozer’s essay, “The Love of God: Its Place, Meaning & Function in Systematic Theology,” in his book God, Scripture & Hermeneutics: First Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 71-95.