Can unconditional love have conditions? 

The Bible is clear: salvation is of grace. It's not contingent on anything we do. It's "a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8,9). And this is not a New Testament novelty; it was always this way. In the Old Testament, Israel was not saved because they were anything special or because they did anything special - on both counts they were a failure - but simply because he set his love on them (see Deuteronomy 7:7-9). Unconditional love in old and new Testaments.

Yet we find conditions in both testaments too. Deuteronomy 7 leads into Deuteronomy 8, and the big "Ifs" start to appear. The conditions begin to emerge, and by 8:19 we are reading "IF you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods... you will surely perish." And they did. What's more, Paul won't let us forget it. Having clearly laid out a salvation that is entirely of grace without works in the early part of Romans, the IFS come out in chapter 11. The New Testament is the same as the Old Testament in this regard: "for IF God did not spare the natural branches [Israel who had broken covenant], neither will he spare you" (v.21).

How can conditions jive with  unconditionality? 

Firstly, as we saw last time, by recognizing that God's love was never truly unconditional; rather, the Bible teaches that in God's conditional love the conditions were fully met in Christ. We are loved in the Jesus in whom the conditions are satisfied.

But secondly, we see in Romans that, despite Paul's strong deep Jewish patriotism, he recognizes that not all Israel is real Israel. He is consistent with the Old Testament in this, for the idea of a remnant is clear throughout. In Isaiah 6:13, for example, we read that the holy seed is in the stump. In context, this refers to a 10% remnant following the righteous judgment of the majority of the covenant-breaking nation that is then even further purged through fire. The result is an even smaller number who constitute the true Israel in a largely apostate nation of ethnic Jews who are not truly Abraham’s seed.

So, in Romans 11 the church is described as being grafted into this “True Israel”. But it remains to be seen for us too as to whether we are the real Jew, or whether we also risk being not spared. This does not imply that we have conditional blessing. We too, like the  genuine Israel tree of old, are blessed because we are in Christ – who is himself the true Israel. 

But how do we know if we really are the genuine Israel who are the recipients of blessings for which Christ has satisfied the conditions? Justification is the unconditional blessing of being given legal status as counted righteous in Christ. But, as Paul makes clear, there is no true justification apart from its Siamese twin, sanctification. If we really abide in Christ, we will bear fruit – the fruit of the Spirit, the practical righteousness of the life of Christ beginning to be formed in us. 

Paul is not being a legalist in Romans 2:13 when he tells us that it is the doers of the law who will be justified. Their "doing" is not the precondition of their justification, but the demonstration of the authenticity of their justification. Therefore, as for Jews, so for Christians. The Jews could not presume that since they were simply part of the Jewish community that they were automatically secure; many ‘natural branches’ were actually seen to be non-Israel by their disobedience. So for us: neither should we assume that just because we are part of the Christian community we are automatically secure. Members of the ‘visible church’ are just as likely to prove to be not worth sparing as the 'natural branches' - unless the life of Christ is really in them. Those who are truly in Christ are enjoying justification in Christ, and Christ is at work in them ensuring sanctification.

So conditionality remains, but Christ fulfills it for those who are in him. He satisfies the conditions that are required for justification and he enables those who are his to walk in his ways and bear the kind of fruit that God loves. The evidence that we are in him is seen in the fact that we are at least moving in the direction of the kind of practical righteousness that all those conditions in scripture point to in the perfect life of Christ.