Since God is gracious, does that mean His love is unconditional? Today, Derek Thomas helps us think carefully about Scripture’s answer to this often-misunderstood topic.
NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining me today on the Ask Ligonier podcast is Dr. Derek Thomas. Dr. Thomas is senior minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Colombia, South Carolina. He’s also one of our teaching fellows here at Ligonier. Dr. Thomas, Rene calls in to ask, “Is God’s love unconditional?”
DR. DEREK THOMAS: Is God’s love unconditional? This has become something of a mantra in the last half century or so, and suddenly in our time it’s now very, very common to hear from the pulpit and in writings and so on that God’s love is unconditional. And I’m never quite sure what people mean when they say that. It sounds wonderful and it sounds as though they’re defending the notion of grace—that you can’t earn grace. So, there are no conditions that can be fulfilled in order to receive and experience the grace of God. But we need to step back and ask some more important questions here. Let’s think of it, first of all, from the point of view of God. And then let’s think of it, secondly, from the point of view of man.
Let’s think of the point of view of God. Let’s think of what we call the covenant of redemption—the decision, or the decree, in eternity to save the elect—that there is an agreement, a pact, between the Father and the Son to save the elect. Well, that salvation is only possible on the condition that there is a redeemer.
Now, there were those in the time, say, of the Puritans and in the time of the Westminster Confession—and this view goes back into late medieval thought—that prioritizes the will of God. John Owen, for example, in his early days, thought that God could simply decree salvation by divine fiat without any conditions whatsoever. But John Owen then changed his mind and wrote almost a thousand-page book defending the notion that divine justice needs to be satisfied in order for the elect to be saved. Well, if there is a condition, the condition is the satisfaction of divine justice. That’s a condition—it’s something that has to take place in order for the decree to become effectual.
Now, when we speak of it from the point of view of man, you can have conditions that are not meritorious, but they are necessary. So, one of the conditions for salvation is faith. One of the conditions for salvation is repentance. They are necessary. Without them—without faith and repentance—there is no salvation. And faith and repentance is something that we do. We do it because God enables us to do it, but there is still a responsibility on our part to believe, to exercise faith, and to repent all of our sins. And those are conditions. Without them, there can be no salvation. But they’re not meritorious conditions. They are non-meritorious but necessary conditions.
So, the use of the phrase “unconditional love”—it sounds wonderful, and it sounds as though it’s defending free grace from some form of legalism or something. But it lacks nuance, and it lacks—both from God’s side but also from man’s side—that there are conditions that must be met in order for salvation to be procured and in order for salvation to be applied.
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