I few months ago I was preparing a lecture for Bible class at school. We were in the minor prophets, and I was listing some attributes of God’s love. “Unconditional,” I jotted down. Then I ran a quick search in Accordance to find a good reference to put with that word.
I couldn’t find one. Not a single verse in the Bible said that God’s love was unconditional. Instead, I found this one in 2 Samuel 7:15:
but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.
I was familiar with the story of Saul. He was commanded by God to annihilate the Amalekites, leaving no person or animal alive. But he disobeyed, bringing back Agag and the best of the flocks. So God removed His love from Saul. Which must mean that God’s love is not unconditional. Saul failed to meet the condition of God’s love—honoring God’s Word—and God’s love was removed from him.
I did a Google search on the question “Is God’s love unconditional?” and discovered that I was not the first to ask this question. One writer said the phrase “unconditional love” was popularized by the hippies. To them, unconditional love was a love that didn’t ask for any commitment. Think free sex.
That didn’t quite sound like God’s love.
And yet to say that God’s love is conditional seemed heretical. I can never earn God’s love. I can never deserve it. It is vast and it is freely given.
I decided to say that God’s love is “undeserved.” Romans 5:6-8 states this clearly:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
This little incident underscored for me again the importance of word choice in my writing and speaking, especially when I’m endeavoring to communicate truths from the Bible. Saying God’s love is unconditional gives the impression that no matter how we respond to God, God will still love us and we’ll end up in Heaven. That’s heresy. Saying His love is undeserved does not give that false impression.
When I attended Ellerslie a couple years ago, I was really blessed and challenged by the way that Eric Ludy often chose the Bible’s own words as he expounded on the concepts in the Bible. He even used the Greek or Hebrew words sometimes. This served two powerful purposes: It guarded against the subtle error that tends to creep in when we choose our own words with their own connotations, and it made the Bible come alive to me in new ways as I read it and understood the terms that Paul and other writers use to describe the Christian walk. Phrases like “in Christ” and words like “flesh” suddenly had much deeper meaning for me.
Eric’s use of the Hebrew and Greek words also added new dimensions of meaning to his expositions of the Bible. For example, the original Greek word translated “patience” in the KJV actually has the idea of endurance. To run the race with patience (Heb. 12) does not just mean running it without whining—it means running it with perseverance and determination.
Sometimes words and phrases the Bible does not use become so deeply ingrained in our church culture that we don’t even notice they’re not in the Bible. Take the statement that we are saved by “faith alone.” My dad did a search for that phrase in the Bible and noticed it appears once, in James 2:24:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Interesting. And yet many a pastor will preach with conviction that we are saved by “faith alone.”
So don’t underestimate the power of a word. Especially when expounding on the Bible, stick as closely as you can to the original terminology. And be wary anytime of the connotations words carry.