Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.
And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him.
John 14:21 (ESV)
God is love! And He shows His love in a number of different ways. This time we will look at both His selective and His conditional love.
In the context of redemption the Bible describes God’s love as selective. From all the nations in the world, God chose only the people of Israel. Why them? It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you (Deuteronomy 7:7-8a). It was not because they had any advantage over the other nations. Actually the opposite was the case. God simply loved them, because He chose to love them. And “He did not love all the other nations in just the same way.”1 Eph.1: 4-5 shows us that God’s selective love for His New Testament people is similar to His love for Israel: In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. God did not choose us because we were more lovable or smarter or better. We were just as corrupt as anybody else! It was His sovereign choice to love us, as it was His sovereign choice to set His love on Israel. In this context God’s love is unconditional. You could not and need not do anything to earn it. And you don’t need to be afraid that God’s unconditional love for His children will ever stop!
However, in the context of a covenant-based relationship, God’s love is conditional. We see this in the Ten Commandments, where God is described as showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:6). God promised to love them when they were obedient. And in our verse from John 14, Jesus shows us that this is also true under the new covenant.
The love of parents to their children might be a helpful illustration here. One could say that parents love their children unconditionally. They love them because they are their children. But when these children are disobedient, they might face the anger of the parents, while their obedience might stir a deeper feeling of love. In this context the love of parents is conditional on their children’s obedience.
Does God love everybody just the same? The answer is, it depends! In the context of His universal love, God does love the good and the bad just the same. “But there are other contexts where God’s love is said to be conditional on our obedience, and still others where it is grounded in God’s sovereign choice. In such contexts, God does not love everybody just the same.”1 So we must be careful to talk about God’s love in the right way.
It would be a mistake to be “blind to the wonderful diversity of ways in which the Bible speaks of God’s love!” D.A. Carson2
1 D.A. Carson, The God who is there, p. 137. 2 p. 138