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One of the primary difficulties when discussing theological issues is the problem of technical language. Although technical language, in any field of study, is designed to be precise and accurate as it is related to that particular field, it is as prone to being misunderstood as is the vernacular—the regular everyday language of a culture. Problems are especially prevalent when a theological concept is expressed using a common term. For instance, the word propitiation is a much more technically precise and accurate description of what the death of Jesus Christ on the cross accomplished than is the word sacrifice or even atonement. While most pew-dwellers are nominally familiar with propitiation as a word, they are less familiar with what it actually means. Because of this, most pastors and teachers will use the word interchangeably with sacrifice and atonement, never stopping to clearly define the difference. Over time, the technical word becomes synonymous with the common word and the preciseness of the original word gets lost.
The above scenario is one that gets played out countless times in countless ways with countless words. Language changes over time for this very reason. The King James Version uses the word suffer much differently than we do today. If a modern reader was not aware of this he would get hopelessly bewildered when reading this verse in the KJV: "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence" (1 Timothy 2:12). If we applied our modern understanding of suffer to this verse, we would believe that Paul found it excruciatingly painful to be taught by a woman. But of course, this is not what Paul is communicating, as a modern translation immediately makes clear: "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet" (NASB). In order to understand the real meaning of the KJV, we must take into consideration what the words meant when they were written, not what they mean today.
The short article that I wrote last week on the fallacy of unconditional love is another example of this misunderstanding of meaning. My goal was to communicate one thing, but—based on the emails and responses I received—some did not grasp the main point. The problem is that I didn't bother defining what I meant by the term love. I thought that the rest of the words of the article were clear enough to communicate that I didn't mean the "Hallmark" version of love, that emotional feeling of euphoric bliss that accompanies really, really liking someone. In other words, when I said love in my article, I had in mind the biblical definition, but some readers had the emotional "heartfelt" definition in mind. This is my fault. A writer should never presume that his readers have a particular understanding of something that can easily be taken a different way. With the remainder of this article, I hope to make it a little clearer what I was actually trying to say.
The Bible never refers to love as an emotion. In fact, the Bible commands us to love God and each other; only actions can be commanded, not emotions. If God had an emotional "warm-feeling" type of love in mind when He commanded husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25), this is not the way the apostle Paul describes it. We are well aware that more is being said here than having an emotional attachment to your spouse. Christ loved the church to the point of death, forsaking all of the human emotions that caused Him to doubt if He could follow through with what the Father required of Him (Mark 14:36). The love of Christ for the church was not an emotional good feeling, but a total and complete commitment to finishing the work that He was sent to accomplish on her behalf. Christ loved the church despite what His emotions were screaming at Him in His hour of testing. His love went far beyond His emotions, just as a husband's love should transcend how he "feels" about his wife at any particular moment. As DC Talk so eloquently put it: "Love is a verb" (although they spelled it "luv" because it's cool to intentionally misspell werds).
It may (or may not) be helpful to readers to think commitment when reading love in last week's article. That is, don't think of God's unconditional feelings toward men, but His unconditional commitment toward men. It is unfortunate that our modern understanding of the word has become almost exclusively emotional and feelings oriented, because biblical love knows nothing of this. We should thank God that His love is not conditional in this sense, otherwise God's "love" for us could disappear as easily as the "love" between two high-school sweethearts. There is no doubt that love as a commitment produces emotional feelings of joy and happiness (as well as resentment and anger), but biblical love is not defined by the emotional responses that are produced at any given moment. This is the only reason why a marriage ceremony can include the phrase "till death do us part." If a wedding ceremony is based on simply the romantic version of emotional love (and sadly, they all too often are), then it makes perfect sense why so many weddings are followed by divorce ceremonies a short time later. You can fall "out" of love as easily as you can fall "in."
Praise be to God that His love is not conditioned on emotions, but on the faithfulness of Christ. If we are "in Christ," we are unconditionally loved by the Father, but being "in Christ" is the condition of God's love. Salvation is an unconditional gift as a result of God's love being directed toward us. Salvation is not conditional, as some commenters put it; salvation from God's wrath is a direct consequence of being loved by Him. Making the claim that God's love is unconditional but that it is actually salvation which is conditional only changes the words being used. This wordplay is similar to when certain evolutionists explain away the impossibility of abiogenesis—life coming from non-life—on earth, by claiming that life was seeded here by aliens. The problem of the scientific impossibility of abiogenesis still remains, but they push it out into space and hope that no one will notice. We are only forced into these types of word games when we begin with a faulty premise.
We must be careful to not make the Bible say what we want it to say. Although I am genuinely thankful to those of you who recommended that I read the Bible to straighten my faulty views out, I can only offer my assurance that I have read it. I would hasten to add that “read the Bible” is pretty dangerous advice. I only recommend reading the Bible to those that are willing to abandon a lifetime of preconceived and misguided notions about the character of God. Scripture changes us; we cannot change the Scripture to suit our own preferences. Although it is sometimes difficult to get our minds around biblical truths, we shouldn't seek to redefine them. Sacred cows are hard to kill, but they sure make for tasty steaks once they're dead.