Unconditional?

unconditional loveI notice this word unconditional being used a lot in Christian circles.  People talk about God’s unconditional love, or they refer to some of God’s covenants as being unconditional covenants.

This term unconditional is sometimes used as a source of comfort regarding our relationship with God.

Then some use it as a mandate in human relationships, saying, “Because God’s covenant is unconditional, your marriage covenant is unconditional.  So no matter how egregiously your spouse may violate the covenant vows…no matter how deeply they may wound you…no matter how treacherously they may abuse the covenant relationship, you must forgive, reconcile and remain in intimate marital relationship with them.”

But…is unconditional really a good word to describe our relationship with God?  Or with each other?

First let’s clarify that unconditional is not a biblical term.  Nowhere is the term unconditional found in the Bible.  I have queried multiple English translations (King James Version, New King James Version, Authorized King James Version, New American Standard Bible, Holmann Christian Standard Bible, Living Bible, and others) and have failed to find even one occurrence of the word unconditional in any of these English translations of scripture.  Feel free to query yourself using BibleGateway, or any other tool.  The word unconditional is not in the Bible.  Rather, it is a word used by some scholars to describe their understanding of the biblical message.

But is unconditional really a good choice of words?  Does this word adequately describe our relationship with God?

Let’s start by looking at one of the best-known Bible verses, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

“God so loved the world…” that’s pretty broad. The word world implies a comprehensive global application.  Based on this clause, we can conclude that there is no human whom God has not loved enough for Christ to have died for their sins.

But let’s look at the next clause, “…that whoever believes in Him shall not perish…”  See, there’s the condition.  Christ died for all, but not all will be saved.  Not all will have eternal life. Some will perish.  Only “whoever believes in Him shall not perish.”

“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18)

So, while God’s love may extend to all, relationship with God is not unconditional…nor is salvation through Christ unconditional.

In that same chapter, John records:

“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)

So, we see that the word believe, as used in scripture, is inextricably linked to the word obey.  This same theme, this linking of believe and obey, is repeated throughout scripture.

We could get into all sorts of deep theological debates about what, exactly, that means and how that connection is made.  We could discuss Ephesians 2:8-9 along with James 2:14-26.  We could discuss multiple facets and perceptions of both the all-sufficiency of grace and the necessity of obedience.  Yet, at the end of all those discussions and potential disagreements, we would still be left with the inevitable truth that somehow, someway, the scriptural use of the word believe is consistently inextricably linked with the word obey.  From a scriptural perspective, in our relationship with God, we cannot have one without the other.

So, we see that relationship with God is conditional on our believing and obeying Him.  Without trust and obedience, we cannot have relationship with God.

So…is unconditional really a good word to use in describing our relationship with God?  Does it accurately describe the relationship?  Isn’t it a little misleading?

Now, some of you may be thinking, “but what about God’s unconditional covenants?”  In studying biblical covenants, many scholars refer to conditional (bilateral) covenants and unconditional (unilateral) covenants.

Again, I must point out that these are extrabiblical terms applied by some scholars. Nowhere in scripture do we find these terms unconditional or unilateral used.

Personally, I see no basis for the concept of an unconditional covenant.  Rather, I see covenants (or a covenant…the New Covenant) between God and man for which man’s covenant terms and conditions are fulfilled by Jesus Christ, on our behalf, so that we might have relationship with God through faith in Christ.

I gave one illustration of this in my last post, using the example of the covenant between God and Abraham described in Genesis 15…which happens to be a primary example used by some as an illustration of an unconditional covenant.  Not everyone sees this the same as me, and not everyone would agree with my interpretation.  Some would say that since Abraham did not participate in the covenant ceremony described in Genesis 15 that there are no covenant terms or conditions applied to Abraham.

So, let’s review the conversation between Abraham and God, which led to the cutting of this covenant:

Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” He said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. (Genesis 15:2-11  Emphasis added)

Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  There’s that word believe, again. And we can clearly see that Abraham’s believing preceded the covenant.  So the covenant was not unconditional, but rather was predicated on Abraham’s believing.  And James 2:20-24 makes it clear that Abraham’s faith was also directly linked with his obedience.

Furthermore, the covenant promises were not made to Abraham only, but to Abraham and his descendants.  So, if the covenant were unconditional (unilateral) then it would apply to all of Abraham’s descendants unconditionally and unilaterally.  But that is not the case.

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.  The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.  So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Galatians 3:6-9)

So, we see that it is those who believe who are heirs of the covenants and promises that God made with Abraham.  Being a physical descendant of Abraham does not guarantee becoming a recipient of the covenant promises, nor does lack of physical descendency from Abraham necessarily exclude one from becoming a recipient of the covenant promises.  Inheritance of the covenant promises relies not on physical bloodline, but rather on our believing…on our trusting and obeying.

Both our relationship with God and our becoming heirs of God’s covenant promises is conditional upon our believing.

I find no biblical basis for the concept of unconditional relationship nor unconditional covenant.  All relationships, whether between God and man or between humans, are conditional upon both parties abiding by the relational expectations and boundaries.  We cannot have healthy relationships without mutual respect and healthy boundaries.  Such a thing is impossible with God…and it is impossible with humans.

Or so it seems to me, based on my studies and my experiences…

What do you think?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Unforced Rythms, Wellspring ]

 

 

Covenant Seed

the lord provides the sacrifice

The Lord will Provide

“Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” He said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. (Genesis 15:6-11)

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:17-18)

“By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Genesis 22:16-18)

Between Genesis 15 and Genesis 22 multiple occasions are recorded of God making covenants with Abraham and swearing oaths to Abraham. I see all these as God repeating one covenant in various ways to illustrate different aspects of the covenant.  Regardless of whether it is viewed as multiple oaths to a single covenant or as multiple covenants, it is clear that the covenant vows focus on Abraham’s seed and on all nations being blessed through Abraham’s seed.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed… (Galatians 3:16)

So, in Genesis 15, we have this blood covenant ceremony called the walk through death.  In the walk through death, animals were slaughtered, cut in half, and laid out on the ground with an aisle between the animal halves.  Together, the covenant partners walked a figure-eight between the animal halves while reciting the covenant vows, ending in “Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:17).

The walk through death ceremony was intended to convey the solemnity of the occasion as the covenant partners called on God as witness and judge.  It also represented both partners dying to their former life and beginning a new life in identity with their covenant partner.

But let’s look again at the walk through death in God’s covenant with Abraham:

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. (Genesis 15:17)

Only God walked the path through death. Abraham did not.

How can a covenant be ratified by one party but not by the other party?

Moreover, we see only two persons of our triune God represented in the covenant ceremony. We have the flaming torch and the smoking oven, representing God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  What about God the Son?

The answers to these questions are found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. (Galatians 3:16)

The covenant was not made with only Abraham, but with Abraham and his seed…Jesus Christ. By including the seed, Jesus, in the covenant oath, God was also making provision for the covenant to be ratified.

Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. Abraham called the name of that place The Lord Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:13-14)

“This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Luke 22:20-22)

Jesus went to the cross as the Son of Man…heir of Adam…seed of Abraham. The covenant initiated by Father and the Holy Spirit walking between the pieces of the slaughtered animals was completed as Jesus walked through His own death…pouring out His own life blood.

Abraham could not ratify the covenant, because he was unable to keep the covenant vows. But “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Galatians 3:6).  What did Abraham believe?  That God would provide…provide an heir…provide a seed…provide a sacrifice.

Jesus ratified the covenant that Abraham could not ratify. Jesus, as Abraham’s seed, ratified the covenant on Abraham’s behalf.  Not only did Jesus ratify and keep the covenant, but he also paid the penalty for our failing to keep the covenant.

And this covenant between God and Abraham…between God and Jesus…you and I are invited to become heirs of this covenant!

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Galatians 3:6-9)

This is the basis for our security as believers in Christ. Our covenant with God was ratified on our behalf by the Son.  To put it in modern contract terms, Father and the Holy Spirit signed on the God signature line while Jesus signed on the man signature line.

In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:17-20)

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Unforced Rythms, Wellspring ]

 

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