Is Love Unconditional?

TrainOne of the legacies of sin is the ever-present risk of mis-communication. Even people who speak the same language struggle to make themselves clear, and we all too often use words and phrases with the assumption that what we have said is what others have heard. Further, as western societies become ever more godless, words like love and tolerance, which even wilful rebels against the Lord want to own for themselves, change meaning, often coming to denote the exact opposite of their original accepted definitions. (For instance, nowadays tolerance is not understood to be the allowing of something of which one disapproves, which is what the word actually means, but rather the mere disapproving of something. If one disapproves of sexual immorality, be it straight or gay, yet freely accepts people’s legal right to indulge in such activity in private, and without being treated badly by others in any way because of so doing, then that is tolerance as the word has been historically understood. Today, however, one is increasingly labeled an intolerant bigot merely for disapproving of such, even though one is not trying to make it illegal or treating badly in any way those who indulge.) Indeed, with Western churches propagating every conceivable possible moral viewpoint, from biblical fundamentalism one the one hand through to even the deliberate appointing of both heterosexually immoral and gay leaders on the other, even the word Christian has become but a meaningless sound emanating from the mouths of countless people, all holding to entirely differing definitions of it.

Words, words, words

It is therefore time for us to start concentrating on carefully defining what we mean by just about everything we say. I am not averse to using such words as I have highlighted, of course not, but we must be very deliberately qualifying what we actually mean when we use them. And I think a good place to start is all this completely misleading nonsense that Christians keep spouting about God loving and accepting everyone just as they are. (Hmmm! How on earth am I going to get away with saying that then?)

The most serious and damaging way of misrepresenting the truth of something, or of mis-defining the meaning of a particular word, is to present but a part of its content or meaning, but not all. And nowhere is this done more than with the word love, and therefore also God’s love. Hence the way in which, with the help of countless leaders of the so-called Christian church, people who advocate and practise such things as abortion, sex outside of marriage, various perversions etc make reference to Jesus in such a way so as to make out that He would be standing with them in full approval of their ideas and what they do, whilst railing against the supposed bigotry of anyone who says that such things are wrong. And they do this because 1) Jesus is associated with love in the minds of unbelievers quite as much as in the minds of His people, and 2) it is their contention and belief that not only does love mean never having to say you’re sorry, it means never having to even accept that one is ever wrong. Regarding such things the only wrongdoing is saying that such things are wrong in the first place.

So let’s be very careful when we talk about God loving people just the way they are. It appears that what society is actually hearing is that Christianity teaches that God is soft on sin (probably doesn’t even believe in it) and doesn’t mind too much how people live. The truth, however, is rather that if those who don’t believe in Jesus do stay just the way they are, God is Himself going to throw them kicking and screaming into the Lake of Fire for eternity. Some kind of qualification is clearly needed then in order for the full-orbed impact of God’s love for people to be properly understood, even by Christians, and not misrepresented the way in which it currently is.

Of course God loves people just the way they are! Let’s get that straight right from the get-go. Indeed, if you don’t love someone just the way they are, but would love them if they were somehow different, then that is just another way of saying you don’t love them. So if the Lord didn’t love people just as they are, then it couldn’t be said that He loves them at all. Indeed, this is what His death on the cross is all about. The fact that He died for us precisely whilst we were yet sinners and still at enmity with Him is at the very heart of the gospel, but that death on the Cross alone has never saved anyone and never will. Salvation is not received  because Jesus died for us, in which case everyone would be saved, but when someone lays hold of Him by faith, thereby actually accepting the free gift that was won for them through His death.

But what happens next? Once someone is saved, then what? Well, the Bible teaches that then, having loved us and having died for us just the way were were, He then sets out to clean us up from our sin and filthiness and cause us to walk in obedience and holiness in His power and strength before Him. Here is the other side of the coin. As any good parent knows, you love your children just the way they are, even in their worst moments; but it is precisely because you love them just the way they are that you also want better for them, that they might be improved and become better children all the time. You love them just the way they are, of course, yet that very same love is  also the very same reason you don’t want them to stay just the way they are, but want them to improve and mature.

And so with the Lord and us. Precisely because He loves us just the way we are He wants to also change us and set us free from the power of sin in our lives that prevents us from being what we otherwise could far better be. He wants to deliver us from the evil in our hearts which sent Him to the cross in the first place, and bring us to greater holiness by which we come to see Him ever more clearly.

Careful What You Say

Don’t ever tell someone that God loves them just the way they are without telling them as well that the fact that He does so is why He also wants to free them from their sin, and to precisely not let them carry on being just the way they are. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth!” That’s the truth of the matter! It leaves no room whatsoever, whether in evangelising unbelievers, or in our fellowship together as believers, for the entirely wrong idea that we can just stick with our sins and that the Lord is somehow okay with us so doing.

I am very happy with the contention that the Lord loves us unconditionally. But if those words convey to you that unconditional love somehow means that continuing in sin is an alright proposition, then I cannot tell you how unhappy I am with it. But if in your mind it is simply one part of the equation that, unless love is unconditional it can’t actually be love at all, but that then, by very definition, it seeks the moral improvement of the one it has been unconditionally set upon, then I am a most happy bunny.

My very relationship with the Lord depends on the simple fact that He doesn’t love me any the more when I am being faithful, nor any the less when I am being disobedient. But I know too that, precisely because He does want the best for me, and because nothing hurts or damages me (and others) more than my sin, He will go all out to lead me in godliness and deal with me as His child, however drastically, in order to bring me (and others) to ultimate joy and happiness.

If we are to love each other just the way we are, then it means that we must be willing to crawl over broken glass in order to help each other get free from sin.

(Ah yes, the train! I just thought it was a nice picture! I took it just when we were staying near Chicago! Hope you like it! It certainly gave me a buzz!)

 

On Victory Over Sin!

Belinda, Bethany and I travel a lot and a good bit of it includes long haul flights. And of course those who have experienced such themselves will appreciate the sheer misery entailed. 10 hours trapped in scuzz-class (er, I mean…economy!) at the back of the plane, desperately trying to sleep in a seat with about as much legroom as your average broom cupboard, in a crowded cabin that’s as quiet and peaceful as having a vacuum cleaner strapped to each ear. We have twice been bumped up to Business Class over the years, and man, I gotta tell you, it’s like spending a whole day (or night) in an up-market restaurant! The fine-dining just keeps on coming, and the most strenuous thing you have to do is hold down the button on your seat long enough for it to recline into bed configuration so you can sleep off the last classy meal for a couple of hours in preparation for the next one. (It’s obviously not easy – but hey, someone’s got to do it, so why not me?)

As it happens we just a few days ago arrived in the States having endured yet another such flight (and no, we didn’t get bumped; and no, it’s not fair; and yes, I have repented of discontent!), and I am still aching, still tired and still grateful beyond words not to be in an airplane. The very best thing about flying, or at least in cattle-class (er, I mean economy!) is that at least you eventually get to disembark. And disembarking this particular flight was all the more welcome after a bit of a roller-coaster ride of a landing due to strong side winds and pretty severe turbulence. That the pilot had warned us in advance of all this was, of course, reassuring, so we at least knew weren’t actually crashing (which is what it felt like) but that didn’t stop it from being, to say the least, a bit unpleasant. But we eventually landed safe and sound, such being my personal definition of a great flight. (Can you imagine how frustrating it must be in Business Class if you thought you were going to crash before finishing the canapés and that rather special glass of red? Man, that would be rough! The inconveniences and difficulties all those poor rich people have to face!)

What the Lord has done for us

But of course I mention all this for purposes other than just trying to generate sympathy at having to fly cattle-class (though obviously feel free to sympathise all you like), and am always struck by what a wonderful picture flying gives us of what the Lord has done for us so that our sins can be not merely forgiven, but actually, to a significant (though not complete) degree, overcome. Think of it like this:

Our sinfulness is like the law of gravity being referred to in scripture as the law of sin and death. It is unwavering and ever present, and like the law of gravity there is absolutely nothing any of us can do to affect it, change it or get rid of it. Sin, like gravity, is simply there, and it works both on us and in us as surely as gravity ensures that if you jump out of a tree then, all things being equal, you will most certainly fall to the ground. Yet there is another law that comes into affect whenever momentum combines with upward thrust, whether because of the presence of wings or rocket propulsion, called the law of aerodynamics; and aerodynamics, as long as the necessary thrust is present, will always trump the law of gravity. In other words, when you have wings you can most surely fly.

What the Lord has done then is to give us wings so we can, spiritually speaking, fly. It’s like a caterpillar that has as much chance of overcoming gravity and flying as I have of being the next James Bond. Yet when it turns into a butterfly with wings, as it eventually does, it instead becomes subject to that higher law of aerodynamics and can fly. Likewise, when we turned to Jesus, His life was placed within us, and because of that, because of this new nature, we now have spiritual wings that, when presented with the necessary momentum, cause us to fly. As a bird overcomes the downward drag of the force of gravity, so believers can overcome likewise downward drag in their lives of the law of sin and death. In other words, the law of the life in Christ Jesus, as scripture calls it, supersedes the law of sin and death in our lives and victory over sin can hence become a reality. Wonderful indeed, yet not the whole story!

What happens though when a bird stops flapping its wings, or when an airplane runs out of fuel and therefore out of forward thrust? Yeah! That’s right! The law of gravity is quickly discovered to have not gone anywhere…and down you go! So it’s not that the law of aerodynamics does away with gravity, merely that it supersedes it to the extent that the necessary power (momentum and upward thrust) is present and active. So too with us and our sinfulness. Just because we know the Lord and have the new nature in His likeness doesn’t mean that our sinfulness has actually gone anywhere. One day we will be rid of it because it resides in our bodies, and we will eventually have glorified ones, but in the meantime, in this life, we remain wretched sinners.

The difference between before were saved and now isn’t, therefore, that we have stopped being sinners, but that we have also become saints and have been given our spiritual wings. But the moment we stop flapping those wings, the moment we lose the momentum and upward thrust of looking to Jesus and hanging on to Him for dear life, the moment we trust ourselves and not Him, then guess what! You got it! Gravity takes back over, so to speak, the law of sin and death exerts itself and our sinfulness, which, just like the law of gravity, is always there, becomes the controlling force in our lives rather than the Lord’s life in us.

And that’s the balance we must both understand and maintain. That’s why the New Testament refers to believers as saints far more than it ever refers to us as sinners, yet also makes clear (through, for example, John’s first letter) that any Christian who thinks they have no sin is merely deceiving themselves. It is also why Paul, in a letter he wrote to Timothy towards the end of his life, refers to himself, in the present tense, as being the chief of sinners! There are Christians who are lax when it comes to their sin, and there are Christians who, by way of contrast, think they are largely free of it. Both are, of course, in a truly sorry state. Perhaps not much needs to be said about those who are just knowingly lax regarding their sins, except that they are a complete disgrace and should be ashamed of themselves; but for those who are, admittedly, doubtless more zealous, yet believe themselves to be largely free of sin, I have this to say.

Any brother who thinks he doesn’t sin much needs to have an honest talk with his wife. Likewise for any sisters who feel the same concerning themselves! If they were to just give them the chance, their husbands would, I guarantee, soon put them right. It is simply the case that, when it comes to answering the question as to how we are doing in our walk with the Lord, self-assessment alone is next to useless. Our hearts are just too deceitful for any of us to trust our own judgment of ourselves, and of course it is primarily ourselves that our hearts are primarily deceiving. No, it’s folk other than ourselves who know whether we are truly in right relationship with the Lord or not, hence the need for ongoing significant fellowship with other believers who can hold us to account, as we likewise do for them.

What is salvation?

So hey, truth of the matter is that we really don’t ever need to sin, and we have no excuse when we do. That we clearly do still sin though scripture makes obvious, and confession and repentance should be both our daily duty and ongoing practice. But that doesn’t change the reality of what Jesus has done both for us and in us. In his letter to the Romans Paul confirms the reality in our lives of this terrible thing he calls the law of sin and death, but extols too the equal and opposite reality of what he calls the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus: and that, and that alone, is why we can know a real and true ongoing and progressive deliverance from the power of sin in our lives. Salvation is basically this:

  • We have been set free from the penalty of sin (Justification – our past salvation!)
  • We are being set free from the power of sin (Sanctification – our present salvation!)
  • We will one day be set free from the very presence of sin (Glorification – our future salvation!)

This should indeed make us want to love the Lord with our whole hearts, minds, bodies and strength. It should cause any who are lax concerning their sin to fall on their face in confession and repentance, and it should cause any who think they are doing well on the holiness front to stop assessing themselves by their own pitifully low standard and fall on their face and do likewise. As for me, my Christian life is the seemingly continual process of being wrestled back to the ground by the Lord as I stand up again and again in my own strength in pride and sinfulness.

If any of us have not yet come to that place then we should pray to the Lord that He might humble us and take us there. But if we are among those who consider that they have progressed beyond such a place, then we need to stop deceiving ourselves and get back to where we began our walk with the Lord in the first place, and where we should have never actually strayed from: that is, on our faces in repentance at the foot of the cross!