The phrase “unconditional love” has become so common in our vocabulary and even in gospel discussions that many are shocked to discover the concept completely foreign and devoid from scriptural support. Elder Russel M. Nelson confronted this gospel rumor in an Ensign article entitled, “Divine Love.”
In understanding this issue using extreme examples can be helpful. Does the Father love His Beloved Son and Lucifer each the same? When referring to His Son, the Father always uses the word “Beloved”. The Father never refers to any of His other children in this way. While the Father loves all his children, He does not love them all in the same way and to the same degree.
“I will speak a little more upon placing your affections on beings who are not worthy of them. Take a Prophet, an Apostle, a man of God, one who is just as good in his calling and capacity as Jesus Christ was in his, a man who has adorned the doctrine of his profession, until he is sealed up unto eternal lives by the power of the Priesthood, one who is sure of a glorious resurrection, and let him desire to have a wife. Now suppose that he gains the affection of a lovely woman and marries her, how much shall that righteous man love that woman? Shall he say, “I love this woman to such a degree that I will go to hell rather than not have her, I will do even this rather than lose my wife?” No, for you ought to love a woman only so far as she adorns the doctrine you profess; so far as she adorns that doctrine, just so far let your love extend to her. When will she be worthy of the full extent of your affection? When she has lived long enough to secure to herself a glorious resurrection and an eternal exaltation as your companion, and never until then.
Elders, never love your wives one hair’s breadth further than they adorn the Gospel, never love them so but that you can leave them at a moment’s warning without shedding a tear. Should you love a child any more than this? No. Here are Apostles and Prophets who are destined to be exalted with the Gods, to become rulers in the kingdoms of our Father, to become equal with the Father and the Son, and will you let your affections be unduly placed on anything this side that kingdom and glory? If you do, you disgrace your calling and Priesthood. The very moment that persons in this Church suffer their affections to be immoderately placed upon an object this side the celestial kingdom, they disgrace their profession and calling. When you love your wives and children, are fond of your horses, your carriages, your fine houses, your goods and chattels, or anything of an earthly nature, before your affections become too strong, wait until you and your family are sealed up unto eternal lives, and you know they are yours from that time henceforth and forever.
I will now ask the sisters, do you believe that you are worthy of any greater love than you bestow upon your children? Do you believe that you should be beloved by your husbands and parents any further than you acknowledge and practice the principle of eternal lives? Every person who understands this principle would answer in a moment, “Let no being’s affections be placed upon me any further than mine are on eternal principles—principles that are calculated to endure and exalt me, and bring me up to be an heir of God and a joint heir with Jesus Christ.” This is what every person who has a correct understanding would say.
Owing to the weaknesses of human nature you often see a mother mourn upon the death of her child, the tears of bitterness are found upon her cheeks, her pillow is wet with the dews of sorrow, anguish, and mourning for her child, and she exclaims, “O that my infant were restored to me,” and weeps day and night. To me such conduct is unwise, for until that child returned to its Father, was it worthy of your fullest love? No, for it was imperfect, but now it is secure in the bosom of the Father, to dwell there to all eternity; now it is in a condition where it is worthy of your perfect love, and your anxiety and effort should be that you may enter at the same gate to immortality.
When the wife secures to herself a glorious resurrection, she is worthy of the full measure of the love of the faithful husband, but never before. And when a man has passed through the veil, and secured to himself an eternal exaltation, he is then worthy of the love of his wife and children, and not until then, unless he has received the promise of and is sealed up unto eternal lives. Then he may be an object fully worthy of their affections and love on the earth, and not before. (Brigham Young, “The Order of Progression, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, pp. 354-361, June 15, 1856.)
“Every blessing the Lord proffers to his people is on conditions. These conditions are: ‘Obey my law, keep my commandments, walk in my ordinances, observe my statutes, love mercy, … keep yourselves pure in the law, and then you are entitled to these blessings, and not until then.’” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1954), 454.)
In going the rounds in Far West, we called on Elder Thomas B. Marsh, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve. I think at that time he was indulging a spirit of apostasy, which, not long after, culminated in his severance from the Church. In our conversation with him, our spirits and his did not intermingle, and he seemed utterly blind in relation to the condition of things and the spirit of the times. He expressed unbounded charity for our enemies said he did not think they intended us much harm they were not naturally inclined to wickedness, etc. It is a noticeable feature in those who cherish a spirit of apostasy from the light of the Gospel, that they adopt the doctrine of Universalism and think none too wicked for a complete salvation. (Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow by Eliza R. Snow)
Joseph F. Smith
This is how I look at the requirements which God has made upon his people collectively and individually, and I do believe that I have no claim upon God or upon my brethren for blessing, favor, confidence or love, unless, by my works, I prove that I am worthy thereof, and I never expect to receive blessings that I do not merit.” 1
If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.
Behold his eyelids shall try the children of men, and he shall redeem the righteous, and they shall be tried. The Lord loveth the righteous, but the wicked, and him that loveth violence, his soul hateth.
1 Jn. 2:5
But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.
He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth;
Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.
As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made;
As also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made;
And the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand.
And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;
Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—
The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory.
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.
For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world.
And as pertaining to the new and everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.
And verily I say unto you, that the conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.
3 Ne. 12:20;
Therefore come unto me and be ye saved; for verily I say unto you, that except ye shall keep my commandments, which I have commanded you at this time, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance;
Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven;
And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man, saith the Lord of Hosts.
If ye love me, keep my commandments.
Russel M. Nelson
In today’s world trembling with terror and hatred, our knowledge of divine love is of utmost importance. We bear responsibility to understand and testify that Heavenly Father and Jesus the Christ are glorified, living, and loving personages. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16.) Jesus “so loved the world that he gave his own life, that as many as would believe might become the sons of God.” (D&C 34:3.) Indeed, the Father and the Son are one—in purpose and love. (See 2 Ne. 31:21; Alma 12:33; D&C 93:3.)
Divine Love Is Perfect and Infinite
Their love is divine by definition. Scriptures also describe it as perfect. (See 1 Jn. 4:12, 15–18.) It is infinite because the Atonement was an act of love for all who ever lived, who now live, and who will ever live. (See Alma 34:9–12. Divine love is infinite also because all the faithful may be eventually “encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love” (Alma 26:15).) It is also infinite because it transcends time.
Divine Love Is Enduring
Divine love is enduring: (See Isa. 54:10; see also 3 Ne. 22:10.) “The Lord … keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.” (Deut. 7:9; see also 1 Chr. 16:15; Ps. 105:8.)
Divine Love Is Universal
Divine love is universal. (Defined as “of, relating to, extending to, or affecting the entire world or all within the world; worldwide” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed. , “universal,” 1883).) God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45; see also 3 Ne. 12:45.) Jesus is the light of the world, (See John 8:12; John 9:5.) giving life and law to all things. (See D&C 88:6–13.) “He inviteth … all to come unto him … ; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female.” (2 Ne. 26:33.) And all are invited to pray unto our Father in Heaven. (See Matt. 6:6; see also 3 Ne. 13:6; Moro. 7:48.)
Divine Love Is Also Conditional
While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us—and certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional. Before citing examples, it is well to recognize various forms of conditional expression in the scriptures.
Several forms of conditional expression may be found in the scriptures:
- “If … [certain conditions exist], then … [certain consequences follow].” (The indicators if and then may be written or implied.)
- “Inasmuch as … [certain conditions exist], … [certain consequences follow].” (For examples, see 1 Ne. 2:20; 1 Ne. 4:14; 2 Ne. 1:9, 20; 2 Ne. 4:4; Jarom 1:9; Omni 1:6; Alma 9:13; Alma 36:1, 30; Alma 38:1; Alma 50:20; Hel. 4:15.)
- “Except … cannot …” (Examples are: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5; emphasis added), and “Except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory” (D&C 132:21; emphasis added). See also Ether 12:34; D&C 25:15; D&C 132:21.)
- “Prove … , if … ” For example, a verse pertaining to our creation reveals a prime purpose for our sojourn here in mortality: “We will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abr. 3:25; emphasis added; see also Mal. 3:10; 3 Ne. 24:10.) Life here is a period of mortal probation. Our thoughts and actions determine whether our mortal probation can merit heavenly approbation. (See Matt. 25:21, 23.)
The Conditional Nature of Divine Love
With scriptural patterns of conditional statements in mind, we note many verses that declare the conditional nature of divine love for us. Examples include:
- “If ye keep my commandments, [then] ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.” (John 15:10; emphasis added.)
- “If you keep not my commandments, [then] the love of the Father shall not continue with you.” (D&C 95:12; emphasis added.)
- “If a man love me, [then] he will keep my words: and my Father will love him.” (John 14:23; emphasis added.)
- “I love them that love me; and those that seek me … shall find me.” (Prov. 8:17.)
- “God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:34–35.)
- The Lord “loveth those who will have him to be their God.” (1 Ne. 17:40.)
- “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21.)
The Conditional Nature of Divine Blessings
It is equally evident that certain blessings come from a loving Lord only if required conditions are met. Examples include:
- “If thou wilt walk in my ways, to keep my statutes and my commandments, … then I will lengthen thy days.” (1 Kgs. 3:14; emphasis added; see also Deut. 19:9.)
- “If thou wilt walk in my statutes, and execute my judgments, and keep all my commandments … ; then will I perform my word with thee.” (1 Kgs. 6:12; emphasis added.)
- “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” (D&C 82:10.)
- “When we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:21.)
- “Unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions.” (D&C 88:38; see also D&C 132:5.)
The Lord declares: “All who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof. …
“And as pertaining to the new and everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.
“… The conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed … of him who is anointed, … are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead.” (D&C 132:5–7; see also Alma 9:12; Alma 42:13, 17.)
Other laws are designed to bless us here in mortality. One such law is tithing: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse … and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord … , if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” (Mal. 3:10; emphasis added; see also 3 Ne. 24:10. The Lord did not restrict how He would bless tithe payers. Some are blessed spiritually more than they are temporally.) Such a blessing is conditional. Those who fail to tithe have no promise. (See D&C 119:4–5. Tithing is also required for one to be enrolled with the people of God (see D&C 85:3).)
Again, “all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised … that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.” (Mosiah 2:22; emphasis added. That conditional counsel is repeated many times throughout the scriptures. See 1 Ne. 2:20; 1 Ne. 4:14; 2 Ne. 1:9, 20; 2 Ne. 4:4; Jacob 2:17–19; Jarom 1:9; Omni 1:6; Mosiah 1:7; Mosiah 2:31; Alma 9:13; Alma 36:1, 30; Alma 37:13; Alma 38:1; Alma 48:15, 25; Alma 50:20; Hel. 3:20.)
Why is divine love conditional? Because God loves us and wants us to be happy. “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 255–56; emphasis added.)
Our Defense against False Ideologies
Understanding that divine love and blessings are not truly “unconditional” can defend us against common fallacies such as these: “Since God’s love is unconditional, He will love me regardless …”; or “Since ‘God is love,’ (1 Jn. 4:8, 16.) He will love me unconditionally, regardless …”
These arguments are used by anti-Christs to woo people with deception. Nehor, for example, promoted himself by teaching falsehoods: He “testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, … for the Lord had created all men, … and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.” (Alma 1:4; emphasis added; see also Alma 1:3, 5–6; 2 Ne. 28:8–9. Such an unconditional concept (eternal life for all) would negate the need for ordinances, covenants, and temple work.) Sadly, some of the people believed Nehor’s fallacious and unconditional concepts.
In contrast to Nehor’s teachings, divine love warns us that “wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10.) Jesus explains, “Come unto me and be ye saved; … except ye shall keep my commandments, … ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (3 Ne. 12:20; emphasis added.)
Divine Love and the Sinner
Does this mean the Lord does not love the sinner? Of course not. Divine love is infinite and universal. The Savior loves both saints and sinners. The Apostle John affirmed, “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 Jn. 4:19.) And Nephi, upon seeing in vision the Lord’s mortal ministry, declared: “The world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.” (1 Ne. 19:9; emphasis added.) We know the expansiveness of the Redeemer’s love because He died that all who die might live again. (See Rom. 5:8; 2 Cor. 5:14–15; see also 1 Cor. 15:22.)
Immortality and Eternal Life
God declared that His work and glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) Thanks to the Atonement, the gift of immortality is unconditional. (See Acts 24:15; 1 Cor. 15:22; Alma 12:8; D&C 76:17; Joseph Smith Translation, John 5:29.) The greater gift of eternal life, however, is conditional. (See D&C 14:7.) In order to qualify, one must deny oneself of ungodliness (See Moro. 10:32; Joseph Smith Translation, Matt. 16:26.) and honor the ordinances and covenants of the temple. (See D&C 132:19.) The resplendent bouquet of God’s love—including eternal life—includes blessings for which we must qualify, not entitlements to be expected unworthily. Sinners cannot bend His will to theirs and require Him to bless them in sin. (See Alma 11:37.) If they desire to enjoy every bloom in His beautiful bouquet, they must repent. (The Lord said, “Thou art not excusable in thy transgressions; … go thy way and sin no more” (D&C 24:2). See also John 8:11; D&C 6:35; D&C 29:3; D&C 82:7; D&C 97:27.)
Counsel to Repent
President Brigham Young (1801–77) declared: “Every blessing the Lord proffers to his people is on conditions. These conditions are: ‘Obey my law, keep my commandments, walk in my ordinances, observe my statutes, love mercy, … keep yourselves pure in the law, and then you are entitled to these blessings, and not until then.’” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1954), 454.)
President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) expressed a similar thought: “This is how I look at the requirements which God has made upon his people collectively and individually, and I do believe that I have no claim upon God or upon my brethren for blessing, favor, confidence or love, unless, by my works, I prove that I am worthy thereof, and I never expect to receive blessings that I do not merit.” (Deseret News, 12 Nov. 1873, 644.)
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) said that the Lord “‘cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.’ (D&C 1:31.) … We will better appreciate his love … if similar abhorrence for sin impels us to transform our lives through repentance.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness (1969), 59.)
Given the imperfections we all have, individual initiative is imperative: “He that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven;
“And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man, saith the Lord.” (D&C 1:32–33.)
In climbing the pathway of repentance, both the effort and the result count. The Lord taught that spiritual gifts are given to “those who love me and keep all my commandments, and [who] seeketh so to do.” (D&C 46:9; emphasis added.)
Divine Love Provides Us with a Pattern
Jesus asked us to love one another as He has loved us. (See John 13:34; John 15:12.) Is that possible? Can our love for others really approach divine love? Yes it can! (See Ether 12:33–34; Moro. 7:46–47.) The pure love of Christ is granted to all who seek and qualify for it. (See Moro. 7:48.) Such love includes service (See Gal. 5:13; Mosiah 2:18–21; Mosiah 4:15.) and requires obedience. (John taught, “Whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected” (1 Jn. 2:5).
Compliance with divine law requires faith—the pivotal point of mortality’s testing and trials. At the same time, faith proves our love for God. (See Deut. 13:3; John 14:15; John 15:6–7.) The more committed we become to patterning our lives after His, the purer and more divine our love becomes. (See Matt. 6:19–22; D&C 88:67–68; D&C 93:11–20.)
Perhaps no love in mortality approaches the divine more than the love parents have for their children. As parents, we have the same obligation to teach obedience that our heavenly parents felt obliged to teach us. While we can teach the need for tolerance of others’ differences, (See A of F 1:11.) we cannot tolerate their infractions of the laws of God. Our children are to be taught the doctrines of the kingdom, (Doctrines include the plan of salvation, faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost (see Moro. 8:10; D&C 68:25; Moses 6:57–62).) to trust in the Lord, and to know that they receive the blessings of His love by first obeying His commandments. (See Mosiah 4:6–7.)
Divine love is perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal. The full flower of divine love and our greatest blessings from that love are conditional—predicated upon our obedience to eternal law. I pray that we may qualify for those blessings and rejoice forever.
What Does Conditional Mean?
The term conditional comes from Latin roots—con, meaning “with,” and dicere, meaning “to talk.” Thus, conditional means that “bounds or conditions have been communicated verbally.”
The term unconditional means “without condition or limitation; absolute.” 2