If the gospel is unconditional promise, then that means … well … no conditions! The language of unconditionality has become so commonplace when speaking of the love of God that it is very easy to miss the radicality of the gospel itself. In itself, to say that God loves unconditionally is simply to describe God, either in his trinitarian relations or in his relationship to creatures. It’s good to know this about God, yet it is not yet gospel. The descriptive statement “God is love” is not a promissory utterance that directly and personally interprets, challenges, and reconfigures my hopes, fears, and sins. One might just as easily have said “The Rocky Mountains are huge.” Both are true statements, but both leave me untouched in my present situation. I can well imagine hearers responding, “Oh really. That’s nice to know. Would someone please pass the salt.” In order to move the statement into gospel-speech, one needs to translate it into something like “Because God is unconditional love, therefore _____.” The preacher needs to fill in the blank with something that he knows will address the hearer in his need and sin. Possible candidates to fill in the blank might include:
Because God is unconditional love, therefore all of your sins are completely and forever forgiven. You may therefore let go all of your guilt and self-condemnation.
Because God is unconditional love, therefore you can stop trying to earn your way into God’s good graces. You are already accepted by him.
Because God is unconditional love, therefore you are assured a place in the kingdom. His love will triumph over your disbelief and sin.
So forth and so on. Personally I believe that it would be better to express the unconditionality of the divine love more explicitly through the story of Jesus Christ. By itself “God is love” is too general and abstract to really do the job as gospel utterance. But the critical homiletical point is the move from description to unconditional promise.
To clarify the power of an unconditional promise, let’s reflect a bit on conditional promises. Conditional promises are typically formulated as “If … then …” statements:
If you get straight A’s on your report card, I’ll take you to the amusement park.
If you avoid a speeding ticket for five years, your insurance rates will go down.
If you meet your sales quota, you will get that job promotion you have coveted for so long.
For each the outcome is dependent upon the performance of the one to whom the promise is made. If the promise is spoken to me, I am the one who bears the responsibility, and burden, of fulfilling the prescribed work. The conditional promise puts before me a task to be performed. If the task is within my abilities and powers, I will eagerly work to obtain the reward and afterward will celebrate and take pride in my accomplishment. But if the task is beyond my abilities and power, then I’ll probably just give up on it.
But think what happens if the promised result is a penalty of some kind.
If you go faster than the speed limit, you will be fined $85.
Okay, that’s not too bad. I just have to stay disciplined and watch what I am doing.
If you do not meet your job quota, you will be fired.
Uh oh. Things are not looking so good now. The economy is depressed. I’m already working 70 hours a week. How am I going to meet this demand. And if I lose my job, my wife and children will suffer terribly. I guess I’ll just have to start working 90 hours a week and hope I get lucky, before I collapse from exhaustion.
If you do not pull the trigger and kill that man, your son will die.
Precisely this situation occurred in the latest episode of “The Bridge.” The Mexican police officer was placed in an impossible situation. What was he to do? All outcomes were bad.
Now consider the following conditional promises that are regularly spoken by preachers of the gospel:
If you believe on Jesus Christ and repent of your sins, you will be saved and will enjoy eternal life.
The promised outcome is wonderful—what could be more wonderful than eternal blessedness?—but how difficult will it be for me to believe on Jesus and repent of my sins? It might be fairly easy (or seem easy) if I am already largely persuaded by the arguments presented to me that Jesus truly is the Son of God, and if I’m not too addicted to my patterns of sinfulness and I don’t really have to give up too much. But as the level of existential difficulty increases, so will my sense of discouragement. I may even find myself lost in despair. And if “faith” is understood in its full biblical significance, then it becomes an impossible condition to fulfill.
If you sell all that you own, give the money to the poor, and become a missionary in Africa, you will be rewarded with the riches of heaven.
Uh oh. The stakes have been raised. I live in a lovely home right on the coast in Malibu. I’m the successful president of a technology firm. I love all the perks of my job. I’m in relationship with the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow. I fly around the world in this incredible iron suit. I’m not sure if I’m willing or able to give all of that up and live in poverty in Africa. Isn’t there another way?
If you do not obey the moral law perfectly, Almighty God will condemn you to everlasting perdition.
Oh my. This is the worst news I have ever heard. I covet the wife of my neighbor two doors down. I regularly lie on my tax returns. I gossip about my boss behind his back. I hate wasting my time in prayer. I spend too much money on entertainment and don’t give enough to charity (what is enough?). I dislike like my parents and would prefer never to speak to them again. I cannot forgive my wife for divorcing me for another man. I drink and smoke too much. I am a prisoner of my passions. How the hell can I ever avoid hell?! It’s all too much! I am lost!
As the stakes get higher and the attainment of the promised reward, or the avoidance of the promised penalty, becomes increasingly difficult, the conditional promise becomes more and more destructive in my life. It binds me to the past and closes the future. In essence a conditional promise is just a form of law, sheer demand and obligation. Robert Jenson elaborates:
The “law” is the totality of all human communication, insofar as what we say to each other functions in our lives as demand, or, what is the same, poses the future conditionally. Literal laws say, “If you do such-and-such, such-and-such will happen.” They open a desired or feared future and make that future depend on what the person addressed does or is in advance thereof. The way the Reformers used “law” supposes that explicitly lawlike utterances make up a good deal of the human conversation, and that a strong law-factor pervades the whole. (Lutheranism, pp. 43-44)
How does a particular utterance pose a future to its hearer? Clearly a promise poses a future in a very particular way: as gift. All the rest of our communication, various as it is, shares one common character: it poses a future not as gift but as obligation. The whole network of our discourse and community, except insofar as it is promise, functions for each of us individually as demand. We share life in the demands which each of us, in his self-communication, is for all the rest of us. … The theological tradition has used the label “law” for the web of our communication insofar as it has this character; for civil and criminal laws are a clear paradigm of the way in which non-promise words pose a future. “If you do such-and-such,” says the law, “then such-and-such will happen.” Such an utterance poses a possible future, but also binds it to a prior condition, binds it, that is, to a past. Whether the possibility offered by the “then …” part is realized depends on the “if …” part, on what I do or do not do beforehand. And on this that I do or fail to do therefore falls the weight of the utterance; it is a demand on my performance. (Story and Promise, p. 7)
A conditional promise throws the promisee back upon his own efforts and resources to obtain the reward and blessing of the promise. The promisor has done his job—he has tendered his offer, presented the contract. Now it is up to the promisee to fulfill the stated conditions and complete the transaction.
But consider what a difference an unconditional promise makes. Unconditional promises are typically formulated in the form of “Because … therefore.”
Because you have done so well in school this past year, I’m giving you a week-long holiday in Cancun. Surprise!
Because I love you, I am going to take you out to dinner tonight.
Because you are finding it so hard to learn French, I’m going to spend two hours an evening with you this week and help you with your lessons.
We immediately observe that the burden for fulfilling the “contract” has shifted from the promisee to the promisor. In fact, there is no contract. There is only the gift. The promisee does not have to do anything—no ifs, ands, or buts, no hidden clauses. The unconditional promise liberates one from the past and opens up a new future. When I irrevocably pledge myself to you, I personally enter into your life in a creative and life-giving way. You are no longer enslaved to the discourse of law and contract, with all of its threats. You are no longer alone with the demand to perform in order to succeed in the task of life.
A promise goes: “Because I will do such-and-such, you may await such-and-such. The pattern is “because …, therefore …,” the exact reverse of “if …, then …” Here a future is opened independent of any prior condition, independent of what the addressee of the promise may do or be beforehand. Indeed, we may say that whereas other communication makes the future depend on the past, a promise makes the past depend on the future, for it grants a future free from the past, and so allows us to appropriate also the past in a new way. This is the point of all the biblical and churchly talk about “forgiveness”; if we are accepted in spite of what we have been, we are thereby permitted to appropriate what we have been afresh, as the occasion and object of that acceptance. (Story, p. 8)
But there is a hitch. Despite our best intentions, the unconditional promises we make to each other must ultimately fail. Two lovers stand before each other and pledge their undying affection and fidelity, yet at any moment death can step in and steal one from the other—and then the survivor is left alone once again. In unconditional promise I commit my future to you, yet my future is not ultimately mine to commit. Death implicitly renders all our promises conditional.
In the early 16th century Martin Luther and others began to experience the preaching and teaching of the Latin Church precisely as law, as unfulfillable demand and thus as condemnation. We need not rehearse the rights and wrongs of the Reformation. All that needs to be noted is the existential crisis that provoked it:
There are times in history when precisely the best people of the age suddenly find their own lives a question too terrible to be borne. At the end of the Middle Ages, some of the most devoted children of medieval Christianity found themselves thus threatened with spiritual destruction, by their very Christianity. … Those most decisively caught by Christianity sought to rebuild their lives by renewed attention to Christianity’s constituting message, the “gospel.” But under the weight of this unprecedented concern, the fundamental medieval understanding and proclamation of the gospel proved unable to sustain itself as gospel, “good news.” Luther and others encountered in it not good news, but news so bad that it destroyed their grasp on the value of life. …
The Reformers’ fundamental insight was that the radical question about ourselves can accept as answer only an unconditional affirmation of the value of our life. (Lutheranism, pp. 38, 41)
If I am experiencing the kind of existential crisis suffered by Luther and others in the 16th century, and no doubt suffered by many both before and since, then no conditional pledge can deliver me from it; for the problem lies precisely in the conditionality of the discourse that shapes, informs, constrains, and determines my life. I am trapped in the law, oppressed and enslaved by the law, destroyed by the law. The Apostle rightly speaks of “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). Only an unconditional word of life and hope, spoken personally to me by one who lives beyond death, can break through the walls of my nomistic prison and liberate me from my despair and darkness. Yet no mortal human being can genuinely speak such a word to me; our inevitable quietus voids all such commitments.
And yet the gospel declares that there is One who can and does speak true promise. In Jesus Christ, writes Jenson, “a sheerly unconditional promise was said and became sayable in the world” (Story, p. 50). To continue speaking this Word of renewal and life is the mission of the Church.