Many people, especially Christians, believe that God loves unconditionally every person (perhaps, with the exception of those who commit heinous crimes), but does the Bible support this belief? We will consider several scripture passages which seem to indicate that God’s love may not be the same for everyone and may be conditional. The Appendix that follows the basic text of this article discusses other scripture passages that mention God’s (or Jesus Christ’s) love for people, but these passages don’t suggest that God’s love may not be the same for every person or that His love may be conditional.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise. When words in a quoted scripture passage are shown in bold print, the emphasis is our own.]
1. In John 3:16, Jesus Christ declares, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
The Greek word agapao that is translated in this verse of scripture as loved pertains to love in a social or moral sense, according to Strong’s Concordance of the Bible. The verse says that God loved the world, which infers that He loves everyone to the same degree, at least insofar as His offer of everlasting life is concerned. And because of God’s love for the world, He sent Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, to die for the sins of mankind so every person can have everlasting life (i.e., eternal salvation).
Note, however, that this verse does not say that everyone will have everlasting life. To the contrary, the verse indicates that only those who believe in Christ will have everlasting life. Other verses of scripture reveal that “believing in Christ” involves more than just an acknowledgement that He was a very good man who was unjustly crucified. The type of belief in Christ that will result in everlasting life necessitates that a person sincerely trusts in Jesus Christ as his (or her) Savior. Thus, although the verse indicates that God’s gift of everlasting life through trust in Christ is conditional, the verse does not indicate that God’s love is conditional.
John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible indicates that the love of God that is mentioned in John 3:16 is for everyone, but Calvin indicates that this love does not mean that every person will become a Christian as a result of God’s love. He states,
That whosoever believeth on him may not perish. . . .[Jesus Christ] has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.
Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible does not agree that the love of God that is mentioned in John 3:16 is offered to every person in the world – at least, not to the extent that they will be able to have eternal salvation. Gill’s viewpoint suggests that he, like Calvin, believed that God’s choice of certain individuals to have eternal salvation has been determined solely according to His sovereign will. We do not share this belief. [See our article entitled “Does God Choose Who Will Have Eternal Salvation?”] According to Gill,
The Persic version reads “men”: but not every man in the world is here meant, or all the individuals of human nature; for all are not the objects of God’s special love, which is here designed, as appears from the instance and evidence of it, the gift of his Son: nor is Christ God’s gift to every one; for to whomsoever he gives his Son, he gives all things freely with him; which is not the case of every man.
In contrast, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible supports the belief that the love of God that is mentioned in John 3:16 indicates that God demonstrates His love by offering eternal salvation to everyone. Henry says, “Though many of the world of mankind perish, yet God’s giving his only-begotten Son was an instance of his love to the whole world, because through him there is a general offer of life and salvation made to all.”
The Pulpit Commentaries agrees with Matthew Henry, as indicated by the following:
For God so loved the world. The Divine love to the whole of humanity in its condition of supreme need, i.e. apart from himself and his grace, has been of such a commanding, exhaustless, immeasurable kind, that it was equal to any emergency, and able to secure for the worst and most degraded, for the outcast, the serpent-bitten and the dying, a means of unlimited deliverance and uplifting. The Divine love is the sublime source of the whole proceeding, and it has been lavished on “the world.” This world cannot be the limited “world” of the Augustinian, Calvinian interpreters—the world of the elect; it is that “whole world” of which St. John speaks in 1 John 2:2. “God will have all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4).
Among the commentaries that seem to agree with the viewpoints of Matthew Henry and The Pulpit Commentaries are Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible, Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible, and David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible.
2. Jesus Christ says in John 14:21, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”
Strong indicates that in this verse the meaning of both loved and loveby God the Father and Jesus Christ, respectively, is the same as in John 3:16 (i.e., the Greek word pertains to love in a social or moral sense). However, John 14:21states that for God (or Christ) to love a person, it is necessary for that person to demonstrate their love for Christ by keeping Christ’s commandments. This indicates that God does not necessarily love everyone (i.e., His love is conditional), which seems to be contrary to John 3:16. So, how can this discrepancy be resolved?
In John 14:21, Jesus Christ apparently was referring to the behavior of people after they become a Christian, whereas John 3:16 pertains to the behavior of people before they become a Christian. Therefore, John 14:21 is not inconsistent with John 3:16. In any case, as we shall subsequently discuss with regard to this verse, there is reason to believe that God’s love for Christians is somewhat greater than His love for non-Christians. Genuine Christians (i.e., those who have sincerely trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior) generally will aspire to keep Christ’s commandments, thereby demonstrating their love for Him. However, if they fail to do so for a substantial period of time, God may love them to a lesser degree than He loves those who continue to be faithful.
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible explains that the love of God that is mentioned in John 14:21 is different than the love of God that is mentioned in John 3:16. Pett states that God’s love for Christians is special. According to Pett,
This is a very different love from that which God had for the world (John 3:16). That love was a general beneficence that among other things (e.g. the giving of sun and rain – Matthew 5:45) provided a way of salvation towards those who would respond, and great it was for it cost Him His Son. But this is a personal, individual love, as a Father to His children. His people are His children in a way that the world is not. That is why Jesus taught them to pray ‘Our Father’ (Matthew 6:9).
But they will not only enjoy the special love of the Father, for He adds “and I will love him and will make myself known to him”. They will thus also enjoy the personal love of the Son. Again we have to ask, who could say this but One Who was God? To link His own love for them as parallel with the Father’s love for them, and indeed to add it on as adding something extra, can only indicate a claim to be of equal stature with the Father. So the one who believes fully in Him and fully observes His commands will receive the Spirit of truth, will enjoy the special, personal love of the Father, and will be equally loved by Jesus, Who will make Himself known to him in the fullness of His glory.
Gill’s comments on John 14:21 assert that Jesus Christ loves each person even before they begin to love and obey Him, which is consistent with John 3:16. However, based on Gill’s previous comments regarding John 3:16, we assume he is referring to only the people whom God has “chosen” to become Christians. Regardless, Gill states that after a person begins to demonstrate obedience to Christ, the manifestation of God’s (or Christ’s) love for them will be greater than previously. Gill says,
Like most other Bible commentaries, Henry’s does not provide much perspective as to whether or not the degree of God’s (or Christ’s) love is affected if a Christian were to cease keeping Christ’s commandments. The most pertinent comments by Henry are as follows:
The surest evidence of our love to Christ is obedience to the laws of Christ. . . . What returns he will make to them [His followers] for their love; rich returns; there is no love lost upon Christ. (1.) They shall have the Father’s love: He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father. We could not love God if he did not first, out of his good-will to us, give us his grace to love him; but there is a love of complacency promised to those that do love God. . . . He loves them, and lets them know that he loves them, smiles upon them, and embraces them. God so loves the Son as to love all those that love him. (2.) They shall have Christ’s love:And I will love him, as God-man, as Mediator. God will love him as a Father, and I will love him as a brother, an elder brother. . . . Now both these loves are the crown and comfort, the grace and glory, which shall be to all those that love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.
We now want to add some additional thoughts of our own regarding the continuity of God’s love. The Bible teaches that every genuine Christian is an adopted child of God (see Romans 8:14-15; Galatians 4:4-7; Ephesians 1:3-5; Hebrews 12:7; and 1 John 3:1-2). And, because God is loving, patient, forgiving, gracious, etc., it is reasonable to believe that He is perfect as the heavenly Father of those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation. Therefore, we believe God does not stop loving any of His adopted children, even if they are not consistently demonstrating a desire to love Christ and obey His commandments. However, as we previously stated, God may love them to a lesser degree than He loves those who continue to be faithful.
If God were to entirely stop loving any of His adopted children, He would be holding Himself to a lower standard than He has set for them, since the Bible teaches that followers of Christ should love even their enemies (see Matthew 5:44-46 and Luke 6:27-32, 35). Nevertheless, it is uncertain if God’s love for His adopted children diminishes somewhat whenever they are not earnestly trying to be faithful to Him.
In any case, we believe God loves His adopted children more than He loves other people, just as an earthly father normally loves his own children more than he loves the children of other people.
3. In John 15:9-10, Jesus Christ tells His 12 Disciples, “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”
Again, the Greek word that is translated as loved pertains to love “in a social or moral sense,” according to Strong. In contrast, the Greek word that is translated as love refers to agape love, which is generally regarded as the highest (or most excellent) form of love. Thus, Christ’s love for His 12 Disciples was the highest form of love. Whether or not Christ meant that He has that same degree of His love for all of His followers (i.e., every Christian) is uncertain. Nevertheless, this scripture passage, like John 14:21, seems to imply that if a Christian does not keep Jesus Christ’s commandments, Jesus will not continue to love that person to the same degree as before, presumably until that person sincerely repents.
However, with regard to John 15:9-10, John Gill argues that after a person becomes a Christian, Jesus Christ’s love for them will not change, and apparently he believes this is true regardless of whether or not they keep His commandments, which seems to be contrary to what the scripture passage states. The following comments by Gill indicate that he thinks Jesus will disregard the failures of His spiritual children (i.e., Christians) and, like a loving parent, He will continue to love them as if they had been completely obedient:
Christ loves his [devotees] as his spouse and bride, as his dear children, as members of his body, as branches in him the vine, as believers in him, and followers of him; which he has shown by espousing both their persons and cause, by assuming their nature, by suffering and dying in their room and stead, and making all suitable provision for them, both for time and eternity. And there is a likeness between the Father’s love to him, and his love to his disciples and followers: as his Father loved him from everlasting, so did he love them; as his Father loved him with a love of complacency and delight, so did he, and so does he love them; and as his Father loved him with a special and peculiar affection, with an unchangeable, invariable, constant love, which will last for ever, in like manner does Christ love his people; and with this he enforces the following exhortation.
Continue ye in my love: meaning either in his love to them, which, as he always continues in it without any variableness or shadow of turning, so he would have them continue in believing their interest in it, prizing and valuing it, in imitating and remembering it; or else in their love to him, to his person, to his people, to his Gospel, to his ordinances, ways, and worship, which he knew was liable to wax cold, though it could not be lost.
Not that their continuance in the heart’s love and affection of Christ depended upon their observation of his commands; for as the keeping of them is not the cause or reason of the saints having an interest in the love of Christ, so it is not the cause or reason of their abiding in it; but to such that observe the commandments of Christ he will continue to make further discoveries of his love, and let them see more clearly and largely what a value he has for them, and how much he loves them: or the sense is, that by keeping the commandments of Christ, his disciples and followers show that they love him, and continue in their affection to him. . . .
Likewise, Barnes believes that John 15:9-10 does not suggest that Christ’s love for Christians may be less if they don’t keep His commandments.
In any case, Calvin infers that he believes Jesus Christ does not cease to love a Christian, even if that person fails to remain faithful (i.e., His love is not conditional), but rather that a Christian who does not remain faithful will not have the ability to fully enjoy Christ’s love. His belief in this regard focuses on the phrase “abide in my love” in John 15:9-10, as follows:
Some explain this to mean, that Christ demands from his disciples mutual love; but others explain it better, who understand it to mean the love of Christ towards us. He means that we should continually enjoy that love with which he once loved us, and, therefore, that we ought to take care not to deprive ourselves of it; for many reject the grace which is offered to them, and many throw away what they once had in their hands. So, then, since we have been once received into the grace of Christ, we must see that we do not fall from it through our own fault.
The conclusion which some draw from these words, that there is no efficacy in the grace of God, unless it be aided by our steadfastness, is frivolous. For I do not admit that the Spirit demands from us no more than what is in our own power, but he shows us what we ought to do, that, if our strength be deficient, we may seek it from some other quarter. In like manner, when Christ exhorts us, in this passage, to perseverance, we must; not rely on our own strength and industry, but we ought to pray to him who commands us, that he would confirm us in his love.
The Adam Clarke Commentary says with regard to John 15:9-10, that “[I]t is impossible to retain a sense of God‘s pardoning love, without continuing in the obedience of faith.” This seems to imply that it is not God’s (or Jesus Christ’s) love that may change, but rather a Christian’s sense of that love. This is essentially the same as what Calvin believes.
However, Pett’s comments regarding John 15:9-10 infer that God’s (or Jesus Christ’s) love for a Christian may change if that person continues to be disobedient to Christ’s teachings. We tend to discount these comments because Pett seems to believe that a person may lose their eternal salvation if they continue to be disobedient to the teachings of the Bible – a viewpoint with which we disagree. Nevertheless, we offer the following comments by Pett:
There is no compromise here. Permanent trust and obedience is required, a permanent dwelling in His love is promised. While the New Testament is aware of the weakness of many Christians it never condones it. Rather it encourages such weak Christians to recognise what God is doing in them and become strong, and it warns that the final test is perseverance lest any be deceived by a false profession. On the one hand it strongly confirms that those who are His will be confirmed to the end (1 Corinthians 1:8-9; Philippians 1:6; Judges 1:24 – note that all assume a work of God that is producing fruit), on the other it warns against complacency. All Christians can have assurance that they are in His love if they know that they are truly looking to Him only for salvation, none can have that assurance if they are deliberately continuing in long term disobedience and neglecting His word. You will never find anywhere in Scripture where it is taught that a fruitless so-called believer who is living in a state of neglect to God’s word is given any assurance of salvation.
4. Jesus Christ says to His 12 Disciples in John 16:27, “[F]or the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.”
According to Strong, the Greek word phileo that is translated as loves in this verse refers to being a friend to or being fond of an individual, in contrast with the two other meanings of the word love that we mentioned previously with regard to other verses of scripture. Nevertheless, like both John 14:21 and John 15:9-10, this verse seems to indicate that, to at least some extent, the degree of God’s love for a person is contingent upon whether or not that person loves Christ.
In commenting on John 16:27, Calvin expresses the belief that God loves a person even before that person begins to love Him. According to Calvin,
Because you have loved me. These words remind us that the only bond of our union with God is, to be united to Christ; and we are united to him by a faith which is not reigned, but which springs from sincere affection, which he describes by the name of love; for no man believes purely in Christ who does not cordially embrace him, and, therefore, by this word he has well expressed the power and nature of faith. But if it is only when we have loved Christ that God begins to love us, it follows that the commencement of salvation is from ourselves, because we have anticipated the grace of God. Numerous passages of Scripture, on the other hand, are opposed to this statement. The promise of God is, I will cause them to love me; and John says, Not that we first loved Him, (105) (1 John 4:10.) It would be superfluous to collect many passages; for nothing is more certain than this doctrine. . . .
Likewise, rather than affirming that John 16:27 says that God’s love for Christ’s disciples was because they loved God, John Gill asserts that the reverse was true. He declares,
The Father loved [Christ’s disciples] . . . as much as the Son did, and of himself too, without any merit or motive in them: he loved them from everlasting, and had given proofs of it in time, in the gift of his Son to them, and for them; and in calling them by his grace; and therefore being thus strongly affected to them, they might depend upon a ready and speedy answer from him, as might be best for his glory, and their good. Because ye have loved me: not that their love to Christ was the cause of the Father’s love to them; but, on the contrary, the Father’s love to them was the cause of their love to Christ; and therefore as the cause is known by its effect, they might be assured of the Father’s love to them by their love to Christ; for if the Father had not loved them, they had never loved God, nor Christ; but since they did love Christ, it was a clear case the Father loved them: and this their love is joined with faith. and have believed that I came out from God: being sent by him, and am no impostor, but the true Messiah that was to come: faith in Christ, and love to him, go together; where the one is, there is the other; faith works by love; they are both the gifts of God’s grace, and the fruits and effects of his everlasting love; and those who are possessed of them may be firmly persuaded of their interest therein.
In contrast to Calvin and Gill, Matthew Henry apparently believes that John 16:27 does mean that God’s love for Christ’s disciples was because they loved Christ. However, Henry does not address whether or not God’s continuing love for Christ’s disciples depended on the perseverance of their love for Christ. Henry states,
Why the Father loved the disciples of Christ: Because you have loved me, and have believed that I am come from God, that is, because you are my disciples indeed: not as if the love began on their side, but when by his grace he has wrought in us a love to him he is well pleased with the work of his own hands. See here, First, What is the character of Christ’s disciples; they love him, because they believe he came out from God, is the only-begotten of the Father, and his high-commissioner to the world. Note, Faith in Christ works by love to him. . . . If we believe him to be the Son of God, we cannot but love him as infinitely lovely in himself; and if we believe him to be our Saviour, we cannot but love him as the most kind to us. Observe with what respect Christ is pleased to speak of his disciples’ love to him, and how kindly he took it; he speaks of it as that which recommended them to his Father’s favour: “You have loved me and believed in me when the world has hated and rejected me; and you shall be distinguished yourselves.’’ Secondly, See what advantage Christ’s faithful disciples have, the Father loves them, and that because they love Christ; so well pleased is he in him that he is well pleased with all his friends.
5. Romans 9:13, which is an abbreviated paraphrase of Malachi 1:2-3, states,“As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
As was the case in several of the previous passages, the Greek word translated as loved pertains to love “in a social or moral sense,” according to Strong. With regard to the Greek word that is translated as hated, Strong states that it “basically means having a relative preference for one thing over another, by way of expressing either aversion from, or disregard for, the claims of one person or thing relatively to those of another.” Several Bible commentaries state that the meaning of hatred in Romans 9:13 is akin to “loving less.” Thus, the verse indicates that God does not love everyone to the same degree, even twin brothers (e.g., Jacob and Esau). [For a more comprehensive discussion of God’s esteem for Jacob versus Esau, click on “If God’s Nature Is to Love, How Can He Hate?”]
The following comments by The Pulpit Commentaries explain that Romans 9:13 pertains to the two nations formed by the descendants of Jacob and Esau, not to the twin brothers as individuals, and that the term hated indicates having a lesser regard for Esau’s descendants than for Jacob’s:
As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated (Malachi 1:2, Malachi 1:3). It is here to be carefully observed that, though Jacob and Esau were individuals, yet it is not as such, but as the progenitors and representatives of races, that they are here spoken of. So it was, too, in both the passages quoted from the Old Testament. In Genesis 25:23 the words are, “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one peopleshall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” InMalachi 1:2 the prophet’s entire drift is to set forth the Divine favour shown, from the first and still, to the race of Israel as compared with the race of Edom. Hence, as well as from the purport of the chapter as announced at its beginning, it is evident that the subject of individual predestination does not really come in, as it did in ch. 8., but only that of nations or races of men to a position of privilege as inheritors of promises. . . . The strong expression, “Esau I hated” (applicable, as shown above, not to the individual Esau, but to the race of Edom) is capable of being explained as meaning, “I excluded him from the love I showed to Israel.” . . . As to the necessary force of the word in the Hebrew . . ., we may compare Genesis 29:30, Genesis 29:31, where in Genesis 29:31, as meaning the same thing, that Leah was hated; and Deuteronomy 21:15, “If a man have two wives, one beloved and another hated.” In both these passages the same verb is used as in Malachi, and need not, in either case, mean more than disregarding one in comparison with another who is loved. For the use, in the New Testament, of the Greek word . . . in a sense for the expression of which our English “to hate,” in its usual acceptation, is evidently too strong. . . .
Also with regard to Romans 9:13, Barnes agrees with the interpretation by The Pulpit Commentaries and provides the following additional perspective regarding the phrase “have I hated:”
This does not mean any positive hatred; but that he [i.e., God] had preferred Jacob, and had withheld from Esau those privileges and blessings which he had conferred on the posterity of Jacob. . . . It was common among the Hebrews to use the terms “love” and “hatred” in this comparative sense, where the former implied strong positive attachment, and the latter, not positive hatred, but merely a less love, or the withholding of the expressions of affection; compare Genesis 29:30-31; Proverbs 13:24, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes;” Matthew 6:24, “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other,” etc.; Luke 14:26, “if any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, etc.”
Matthew Henry agrees that the references in Romans 9:13 to Jacob and Esau actually pertain to Israel and Edom, respectively, the nations that were formed by their descendants, but it is not clear if Henry shares the same interpretation of the term hated. He says,
The difference was made between [Jacob and Esau] by the divine counsel before they were born, or had done any good or evil. Both lay struggling alike in their mother’s womb, when it was said, The elder shall serve the younger, without respect to good or bad works done or foreseen, that the purpose of God according to election might stand —that this great truth may be established, that God chooses some and refuses others as a free agent, by his own absolute and sovereign will, dispensing his favours or withholding them as he pleases. This difference that was put between Jacob and Esau he further illustrates by a quotation from Mal. 1:2, Mal. 1:3 , where it is said, not of Jacob and Esau the person, but the Edomites and Israelites their posterity, Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated. The people of Israel were taken into the covenant of peculiarity, had the land of Canaan given them, were blessed with the more signal appearances of God for them in special protections, supplies, and deliverances, while the Edomites were rejected, had no temple, altar, priests, nor prophets-no such particular care taken of them nor kindness shown to them. Such a difference did God put between those two nations, that both descended from the loins of Abraham and Isaac, as at first there was a difference put between Jacob and Esau, the distinguishing heads of those two nations. So that all this choosing and refusing was typical, and intended to shadow forth some other election and rejection. . . . Some understand it of the election and rejection of conditions or qualifications. As God chose Isaac and Jacob, and rejected Ishmael and Esau, so he might and did choose faith to be the condition of salvation and reject the works of the law. . . . The apostle [i.e., Paul] speaks of Jacob and Esau, not in their own persons, but as ancestors—Jacob the people, and Esau the people. . . .
In contrast with the previous commentaries, Gill’s comments on Romans 9:13 express his Calvinist views, with which we disagree. Gill declares,
[T]hese words regard their persons, and express the true spring and source of the choice of the one, and the rejection of the other; and which holds true of all the instances of either kind: everlasting and unchangeable love is the true cause and spring of the choice of particular persons to eternal salvation; and hatred is the cause of rejection, by which is meant not positive hatred, which can only have for its object sin and sinners, or persons so considered; but negative hatred, which is God’s will, not to give eternal life to some persons; and shows itself by a neglect of them, taking no notice of them, passing them by, when he chose others; so the word “hate” is used for neglect, taking no notice, where positive hatred cannot be thought to take place, in ( Luke 14:26 ).
6. What about the scripture passages, particularly in the Old Testament, that indicate God would reward (or did reward) certain individuals (e.g., Noah, Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon) on the basis of their faithfulness to Him? Aren’t those incidents indications of conditional love by God? Our response is that those incidents are not indications of conditional love by God.
Consider the following example involving an earthly father and his son. If the father offers to give one of his sons a monetary reward to mow the yard of their home, but he does not make a similar offer to another of his sons, this does not infer that the father loves the first son more than his other son(s). There may be one or more practical reasons why the father did not make a similar offer to his other son(s). The son whom he asked to mow the yard may be older, stronger, more reliable, and/or need the money more than the other son(s). None of these reasons imply that there is a difference in the degree of love that the father has for each of his sons.
Although God apparently has the same types of love for every person, the Bible indicates that He does not have the same degree of love for every individual. An analogy would be that humans have phileo love (i.e., fondness) for their friends, but they may not have the same degree of phileo love for each of their friends.
Several of the scripture passages we previously cited suggest that God’s love is greater for people who love Jesus Christ (or God) and keep Christ’s commandments than for people who don’t. Thus, it can be said that, although God loves every person, the degree of His love is conditional, to some extent.
We believe it is crucial for those who are not Christians to understand that just because God loves them, this does not mean He will not punish them for their sins. However, the Bible teaches that anyone can receive God’s forgiveness of their sins if they respond appropriately to His love. Responding appropriately necessitates that a person sincerely trust in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, for eternal salvation. [With regard to the importance of sincerely trusting in Jesus Christ, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]
Other Scriptures that Mention God’s (or Jesus Christ’s) Love for People
Whereas the scripture passages we previously addressed indicate that God’s love is not necessarily the same for everyone and may even be conditional, the following verses of scripture do not address the issue of whether or not God’s love is the same for every person or if it is conditional.
1. Romans 5:8 states, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The Greek word that is translated in this verse as love is agape, which we defined in our discussion of John 15:9-10. Thus, this verse indicates that by sending His Son Jesus Christ to die a sacrificial death for the sins of mankind, God has shown the highest form of love for everyone. In addition, the verse infers that God loves people even before they trust in His Son for eternal salvation.
Although Romans 5:8 does not say whether or not God continues to love every person to the same degree if their love for Him (or Christ) wanes or if they cease to live according to Christ’s commandments, we believe it is reasonable to conclude from this verse that if God loves each person with agape love before they trust in Christ as their Savior, He will continue to love them on the same basis – although perhaps not to the same degree – if they are not faithful in loving Christ or living according to Christ’s commandments.
Gill’s comments support our belief that Romans 5:8 infers that in light of the fact that God loves a person before he (or she) becomes a Christian, God will continue to love that person after they become a Christian, even if they cease to be faithful to Him:
But God commendeth his love towards us. That is, he hath manifested it, which was before hid in his heart; he has given clear evidence of it, a full proof and demonstration of it; he has so confirmed it by this instance, that there is no room nor reason to doubt of it; he has illustrated and set it off with the greater lustre by this circumstance of it. In that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. God’s elect were sinners in Adam, in whom they were naturally and federally, as all mankind were; hence polluted and guilty; and so they are in their own persons whilst unregenerate: they are dead in sin, and live in it, commit it, are slaves unto it, and are under the power and dominion of it; and many of them are the chief and vilest of sinners; and such they were considered when Christ died for them: but are not God’s people sinners after conversion? yes; but sin has not the dominion over them; their life is not a course of sinning, as before; and besides, they are openly justified and pardoned, as well as renewed, and sanctified, and live in newness of life; so that their characters now are taken, not from their worse, but better part. And that before conversion is particularly mentioned here, to illustrate the love of God to them, notwithstanding this their character and condition; and to show that the love of God to them was very early; it anteceded their conversion; it was before the death of Christ for them; yea, it was from everlasting: and also to express the freeness of it, and to make it appear, that it did not arise from any loveliness in them; or from any love in them to him; nor from any works of righteousness done by them, but from his own sovereign will and pleasure.
2. Romans 8:35 asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” And Romans 8:38-39 says, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In both of these scripture passages, the Greek word that is translated as love refers to agape love. An important consideration in trying to understand the love of Christ that is mentioned in these verses is that Paul was writing specifically to Christians. Although neither passage address the question of whether a Christian’s own behavior can separate that person from Christ’s love, both indicate that nothing external can do so.
The following comments by John Gill with specific regard to Romans 8:35 not onlyassert that the love of Christians for Christ is so strong that it can never be destroyed, but also help to explain the extensiveness of God’s (or Christ’s) love:
By “the love of Christ” is not meant the saints’ love to Christ, but his love to them; he is indeed the object of their love, and so strong is their love to him, that it can never be destroyed; for though there may be an abatement in the fervour of it, it can never be lost; yet this is never called the love of Christ: besides, the apostle is speaking not of their love to Christ, but of the love of God and Christ to them, throughout the context; and his design is, to strengthen the faith of God’s people, and comfort their souls, under their various afflictions: now nothing more effectually serves such purposes, than the love of Christ; and the things here instanced in are such, as are apt to inject doubts and fears, about interest in the love of Christ, and of the love of God in Christ, as it is interpreted in some following verses: moreover, the separation here interrogated is not of Christ from us, but of us from him; whereas was it our love to Christ, which is here meant, it should rather have been put, who shall separate him from us, and not us from the love of Christ? That Christ does love the elect of God, who are the persons here spoken of, is evident from his undertaking for them, espousing their persons, assuming their nature, dying in their room and stead, paying off their debts, and redeeming their persons, by going to prepare a place for them, by interceding for them, by supplying them with all grace, and using them in the most free and familiar manner; which love of his is wonderful, matchless, and inconceivable, special and peculiar, free and undeserved, exceeding affectionate, unchangeable, durable, and for ever. This is the bond of union to Christ; and the union which is made by it is exceeding near and close; it is real; perfect, and indissoluble, nothing can separate from it. . . .
The Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible apparently takes the opposite viewpoint as to whose love is the focus of Romans 8:35. Coke seems to believe that the verse focuses on the love of Christians for God, rather than vice versa. According to Coke:
To answer the argument hence urged, to shew that man cannot fall from grace, because if once they truly loved God, they cannot cease to do so in principle. Let it be noted: First, That this inquiry is not, who shall separate us from the love with which we love God; but, who shall separate us who truly love God, and testify that love by our obedience to his commands (John 15:10) and by our patient sufferings for his sake (Romans 8:36-37) from his affections towards us.
The Apostle therefore only intimates that such persons continuing in the love of God, shall be preserved by him from, or be enabled to overcome, the temptations here mentioned; and be so supported by his grace and Holy Spirit as to be able to triumph ever them. But he does not say, that the love of no believershall wax cold (Matthew 24:12). Were there no fear of this, why does Christ exhort his disciples to continue in his love (John 15:9)? and his Apostles exhort others to keep themselves in the love of God (Jude 1:21) to continue in the grace of God (Acts 13:43) to look diligently to it, that they fail not of, or that they fall not from (for so it may be rendered) the grace of God (Hebrews 12:15). Note secondly: That the Apostle does not say that nothing shall separate true believers from the love of God or Christ; but only says . . . I am persuadedthat nothing will do it; nor have I any cause to fear, that any of these temporal sufferings, or enjoyments, will shake their steadfastness, in expectation of those eternal and inestimable blessings, which God has promised, and Christ has purchased for his church; these light afflictions being not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed (Romans 8:18) and all co-operating for the good of them that love God (Romans 8:28) that as to the weakness of the flesh which rendered these temptations so dreadful, and gave strength to them, they lived in hopes of a glorious redemption of the body from them (Romans 8:23); and while they groan under them, they have the assistance of the Spirit of God, to strengthen them, and to help them to bear their infirmities; a powerful and loving Father to be with them, a Saviour exalted to the right hand of God to intercede for them (Romans 8:33-34). Upon all which accounts he might well say, I am persuaded that none of these things shall separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
Although most of the other Bible commentaries we checked agree with Gill that Romans 8:35 pertains to God’s love for Christians, a few of them support Coke’s belief that the verse addresses the love of Christians for God. Likewise, most of the Bible commentaries we checked support the viewpoint that Romans 8:38-39 pertains to God’s love for Christians, but several express the belief that this passage concerns the love of Christians for God.
3. 1 John 4:8-10 asserts, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [i.e., sacrifice] for our sins.”
In this scripture passage, the Greek word that is translated as love is agape, while the Greek word that is translated as loved is agapao. Our thoughts about this passage are essentially the same as those we expressed about John 3:16.
John Gill’s comments regarding 1 John 4:8-10 mention all of God’s “creatures,” butpertain primarily to the “elect” of Christ (i.e., people who have trusted in Christ for everlasting life). Gill argues that God’s love for the elect is “special,” and it does not change. Gill’s use of the term “special” with regard to God’s love for the elect infers that God’s love for Christians is greater than His love for non-Christians. Gill asserts,
God loves all his creatures as such, nor does he hate any of them, as so considered; and he bears an everlasting, unchangeable, and invariable love to his elect in Christ Jesus. . . .
The love of God here spoken of, and instanced in, is not his general love to all his creatures, which is shown in the make of them, and in the support of them in their beings, and in his providential care of them, and kindness to them; but his special love towards his elect, and which was before it was manifested; it was secretly in his heart from everlasting, and did not begin to be at the mission of Christ into the world, but was then in a most glaring manner manifested: there were several acts of it before, as the choice of them in Christ, the appointment of him to be their Saviour. . . .
[T]he love of God is antecedent to the love of his people; it was when theirs was not; when they were without love to him, yea, enemies in their minds, by wicked works, and even enmity itself, and therefore was not procured by theirs; but on the contrary, their love to him is caused by his love to them; hence his love, and a continuance in it, do not depend on theirs; nor does it vary according to theirs; wherefore there is good reason to believe it will continue, and never be removed. . . .
Thomas Coke likewise makes a distinction between God’s love for people who are not Christians and those who are. With regard to 1 John 4:8-10, he states,
St. John’s meaning is that God loved us for it. (See 1 John 4:19.) Men are generally very ready to love those by whom they are first loved: now, such was the astonishing love of God to men, that, when they were sinners and enemies, he so loved the world, as to send his most beloved Son to live and die for them! The love wherewith God so loved the world, as to send his dear Son to redeem and save them, does, in some respects, differ from the love wherewith he loves all true believers, in addition to that grand primary instance of his love. The first has been called a love of pity, or benevolence, or the antecedent love of God, and with such a love God has loved the whole race of mankind. The other is called a love of complacency, or delight, or the consequent love of God; and with such a love God loves all sincere believers.
Matthew Henry’s comments on 1 John 4:8-10 do not specifically mention God’s love for His elect, although they may infer the existence of such love. Instead, Henry addresses God’s love for mankind in general. He makes no mention of distinctions in God’s love. The following excerpts express Henry’s perspective:
What attribute of the divine Majesty so clearly shines in all the world as his communicative goodness, which is love. The wisdom, the greatness, the harmony, and usefulness of the vast creation, which so fully demonstrate his being, do at the same time show and prove his love; and natural reason, inferring and collecting the nature and excellence of the most absolute perfect being, must collect and find that he is most highly good.
[God] hath loved us, such as we are. In this was manifest the love of God towards us, towards us mortals, us ungrateful rebels. God commandeth [sic]his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, Rom. 5:8 .
[God] has loved us at such a rate, at such an incomparable value as he has given for us; he has given his own, only-beloved, blessed Son for us: Because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
God loved us first, and in the circumstances in which we lay. Herein is love(unusual unprecedented love), not that we loved God, but that he loved us, v. 10. He loved us, when we had no love for him, when we lay in our guilt, misery, and blood, when we were undeserving, ill-deserving, polluted, and unclean, and wanted to be washed from our sins in sacred blood.