I’ve been seeing a lot of Facebook memes and postings recently from Christians who are tired of “the soft picture of Jesus.” In one way or another these memes suggest that we have neutered Jesus, making Him somehow weak and ineffectual. I’m not sure precisely what they mean by this, but it seems to be about judgement. Perhaps they are afraid we’ve painted a Jesus afraid to judge and if that’s what they mean then I agree that such a picture is a serious misrepresentation of Jesus.
But the memes rarely talk directly about that, instead centering on ideas of love and a certain passive nature that they perceive is being promoted. I’m not sure how these people react to the sermon on the mount or Jesus’ exhortations towards meekness and turning the other cheek, but I don’t personally see any conflict between this Jesus and the one who turned over the money changer’s tables in the temple. But for me the connecting tissue of that Jesus is a Jesus who loves whatever the cost. His love prompted him to disrupt the temple just as His love led him meekly to the cross.
On the other hand as the meme’s mount up, I’ve begun to get the impression that what they are reacting to is a picture of a Jesus who always loves and offers an extreme grace and this is a picture I heartily endorse. Recently a friend of mine (who loves to post provocative memes for the purpose of provoking thought, which is the best reason) posted a quote from Dr. R.C. Sproul which perhaps articulated what the concern for many of them is.
Here it is as it was posted:
When I hear preachers stand up and say that God loves everybody unconditionally, I want to scream and say, “Wait a minute, then why does He call us to repent? Why does He call us to come to the cross? Why does He call us to come to Christ?” If God loves everybody unconditionally, then you can do whatever you want and believe whatever you think, but that’s just not true. He’s placed an absolute condition by which He requires. He doesn’t just invite people to come to His Son; He commands all men everywhere to repent of their sins and to come to Christ. Dr. R.C. Sproul
My first response (and I posted as much in the comments) was that, if Dr. Sproul screamed these questions at me (and I was bold enough to answer) my answer would be precisely “because he loves us.”
“Why does he call us to repent?”
Because he loves us and knows that in repentance is life.
“Why does he call us to come to the Cross?”
Because He loves us and knows that in the Cross is life.
“Why does He call us to come to Christ?”
Because He loves us and wants us to be with HIm.
I said as much in a comment on my friends post but then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was struggling with how Dr. Sproul, whom I admire, thought there was some conflict between calling us to repentance and loving us.
It further bothered me because it placed him and me on opposite ends of a thirty year struggle I have with those who seem to think that it is possible to preach too much of the Grace of God; as if there is a scale by which we weigh God and there must be some equal ratio of judgment and grace or He is unbalanced, instead of the idea that judgement and Grace are both fully realized in God and not competing balances. There is a general fear that preaching too much about God’s love will somehow lead people astray to, as he suggests, ”do whatever you want and believe whatever you think.”
So I’ve been contemplating it and I wanted to share my thoughts for any who might wonder why I support of message of God’s unconditional love as consistent, even essential, to a more complete understanding of the Gospel.
First, I tracked down what I suspect is the message from which this quote came. Here’s a link if anyone is interested.
If you check it out you’ll probably notice the same two things I did. 1) the spirit of the message is in broad terms the same as the quote. 2) the message itself is actually more nuanced than the (I suspect) edited quote would suggest. For example at one point he says, “It may be true that in some sense God loves even those who fail to meet the conditions of salvation”. But what is more interesting is that a careful reading indicates that Sproul’s main concern is not whether God’s love is unconditional, but what unbelievers hear when they hear the phrase “unconditional love”. Sproul is concerned (perhaps even convinced) that the average person assumes such unconditional love is antithetical to any kind of judgement.
The quote I cited above as nuance is a partial one and the complete quote below shows what I mean.
“It may be true that in some sense God loves even those who fail to meet the conditions of salvation but that subtlety is often missed by the hearer when the preacher declares the unconditional love of God.”
Sproul seems concerned that your typical hearer assumes that unconditional love and absolute justice are opposites; In other words that God would never judge someone He loves or love someone he judges. I’m unclear what he personally thinks about this idea, but it seems to me an unscriptural one. I am also not convinced that he’s correct in this opinion of what unbelievers hear in general (although he’s no doubt right of at least some), but really it doesn’t matter, because what I do think is true is that regardless of what people think, it is our job to hep them understand the truth of God as far as we can. And the truth is that judgement and love are not competing parts of God’s nature. Rather than deny God’s unconditional love we can help them understand that this is not antithetical the the idea of God’s judgement.
I would argue further that personal history, global history and scripture do not affirm the idea of a God capable of two opposite conflicting approaches to humanity, but of one united integrated God who is both completely just and unwaveringly loving.
In fact, what I realized as I pondered this was that the Prophets of the Old Testament are constantly weaving this message of immeasurable (and I believe unconditional) love with the message of complete and terrifying judgement. Isaiah and Jeremiah in particular seem very clear that the purpose of their most dire warnings of judgement (and they are dire indeed, and often fulfilled) is to bring people to repentance, because God loves them already. At no point do the prophets say that God is calling them to repentance so that he can love them, but rather he loves them and so he calls them to repentance.
You could question why God continues even to send prophets to warn of judgement if God hated them so (a word I consider unfortunately chosen by Sproul in his message above). He would simply let the judgement come and take delight in it.
In fact, the distinction between a judgement without love and one with love can be seen clearly in the book of Jonah. Here, Jonah does hate the Ninevites and so doesn’t want them to be warned of their impending doom. He literally wishes God to damn them to Hell. He explains to God, after the fact, that he was afraid that if he preached to them, they would repent and that God, because of his love for them, would then spare them. And He was right. This is what happened. It’s what God wanted to happen, and Jonah didn’t want to happen which shows the difference between them.
It’s clear in this story that when God spares them from judgement it is because of their repentance, but it’s equally clear that he loves them prior to their repentance and this is why He sends Jonah in the first place. In truth, from this story if we want to argue conditionality, it appears that we should be arguing unconditional love and conditional judgement. His love exists from beginning to end of this story but his judgement is conditional upon their response.
In Isaiah 30:18 we have another really good example of this. Throughout Isaiah 30, the prophet is preaching of the judgement to come, of how deserved it is and how unrepentant they are. The emphasis, in fact, is on the unrepentant nature of their hearts. Then in verse 18 he concludes with this
“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!”
Notice 1) that God longs to be gracious in spite of their unrepentant hearts and 2) that God’s justice is shown, not at odds with his compassion but as somehow justification for it! Somehow people who are waiting upon God will find His Grace, Compassion and Justice all intertwined.
This picture of judgement combined with unconditional love is also seen as Jesus stands upon the hilltop above Jerusalem in Matthew 23. The beginning of this chapter is a long and terrifying description of well deserved judgment which will come upon the religious leaders of the day for not recognizing the Messiah. What’s interesting and most relevant to our point is that at the end of this long judgment (36-37)sequence he says this “Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. “
The point is that even though they are unwilling. Even though they are under judgement because of their unwillingness, even though all of this will come upon this generation, his does not dampen God’s love. It, if anything, increases his longing to gather them as loved children.
Perhaps Sproul was dealing with different people than I am. Perhaps his experience with unbelievers led him to buy into what he perceived as their definition of unconditional love as being in opposition to judgement and it made sense in his world to set that straight by denying the unconditionality of God’s love. But this is not my experience. This is not what I see in the unbelievers with whom I engage regularly (or even in many struggling believers). In them I see an inbred awareness of their own messed up nature; they put up a good front and pretend to be confident in their own worth, but deep down they are scared that they will be found wanting by anyone who knows them truly. They believe that they have already failed any conditions worthy of love and that the best they can do is to hide from those whose love they desire, to bury the things that make them worthy only of judgement. We are often sensitive to other people’s judgements, not because we are blameless but because we know we are not.
Hearing of an unconditionally loving God, who nonetheless sees with clarity our brokenness, can in fact bring us great hope and the possibility of coming out from our hiding, of finding that we can be both truly seen and truly loved by the same Person.
People do not give up on holiness because they believe God will love them anyway. People give up on holiness because they believe they’ve already lost whatever love they could earn through their broken nature.
I want to stand and clearly say the Gospel teaches of a God who is in His nature so loving that nothing you do can change that. Sproul is concerned people will say, “I can do whatever I want and God will still love me,” and I want to trumpet it, not so that people will live licentiously but so that they will stop hiding from the God who already knows what they’ve done, and what they are capable of in their darkest moments. God does love you regardless of what you’ve done, of what you are still doing and of what you will do in the future. And in this great love he offers a way that He can actually make you better. And that is your only hope. Stop trying to earn the love of a God who is, by very nature, more loving than you dare to hope or are capable of imagining. You are wasting your time if you think being good is about getting God’s attention or making him like you. There are reasons to be good, but this is not one of them. He’s both not impressed by your efforts and already deeply affectionate toward you.
The justice of God may lead people to recognize the need for repentance, but it is the kindness of God which leads them to it (Romans 2:4).