We hear the word "unconditional" a lot these days. It's a word that does not appear in the Bible - but perhaps the idea is there. Is God's love unconditional? Does grace mean he will bless us regardless of what we do?
As we sing "Just as I am..." we are banking on the fact that God loves us just as we are, warts and all. And grace certainly implies that God does not treat us as we deserve. But as we revel in the revelation of unconditional love, we should bear in mind that the Bible also contains a number of big "Ifs".
Like Deuteronomy 28. "IF you obey... all these blessings will come upon you" (v.2); "But IF you will not obey, then all these curses shall come upon you" (v.15). This was God's covenant, and there are certainly a lot of conditions that we seem to have missed in the unconditional fine print.
Some would argue that we don't need to worry about passages like that since we are now in the New Testament era of grace. As if God has mellowed over the years and his love has matured to the higher level of unconditional love. What a blasphemous view of our God who never changes! He is perfect in all his ways, which leaves no room for improvement. His love was as perfect when he inspired Deuteronomy as when he sent Jesus.
So - since God does not change, and his Word stands firm forever, his commandments with all the promises of his responses of curse and blessing conditional upon our behaviour really do stand. They still stand in the New Testament as well as in the Old Testament. Obedience is blessed; disobedience is cursed – always was and always will be. The purpose of the law was and is to make explicit what righteousness looks like in real life, and to declare that righteousness is God’s requirement for men and women made in his image. However, the law is powerless to enable us to satisfy the conditions that it righteously places on humans, and as such points us to our need for Christ. Israel disobeyed and thus was cursed. They needed serious help.
How does this fit with the revelation of the Gospel? The New Testament does not proclaim unconditionality in the rather simplistic way that we often speak of it. Blessing is still conditional. But, wonderfully, the gospel proclaims that our experience of blessing is not conditional on our performance. Our experience of all God's blessings still is conditional upon obedience, but is now made possible by his obedience. Since we are in Christ, those blessings become ours. And he has experienced the curses on disobedience that were really true in what Deuteronomy lays out and which continue to be true in our every act of disobedience. It is not true to simply say that blessing is unconditional; only to say that Christ has satisfied the conditions perfectly and I am in him.
The big ‘If’ of Deuteronomy remains intact. If Israel had been obedient they would have been blessed – but they weren’t because they couldn’t be in their fallen state, and the law was powerless to address that. As they were disobedient by their own willful decisions, for which they were fully responsible, it was inevitable that they would be cursed. There were exceptions even back then – those like Abraham and David who, by faith, were in Christ and thus enjoyed God’s blessing as a result of their faith in the one who was to come.
To speak of God's unconditional love is to make his love much smaller than it really is. It is not the doting benevolence of a grandfather who turns a blind eye to the failings of his family. It is the love that pays the ultimate price to fulfill all of the conditions of a a holy God who loves us enough to make us worthy of that love in Christ.