Recently, Bishop Holloway, the Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, was reported as saying: "God's love is unconditional: that is the message of the Gospel."
If this statement means that the love by which God brings about man's justification through the gift of sanctifying is not in response to any action on our part, but is completely gratuitous, the statement is true. For, as St Paul says: "By grace you are saved through faith: and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not of works, that no man may glory" (Eph 2:8-9).
But if it means that the unrepentant sinner remains in the friendship of God and is still loved by him as an adopted son, the statement is false. For Christ stated categorically that if we wish to be thus loved by God, we must keep his commandments: "If you keep my commandments you shall abide in my love: as I also have kept my Father's commandments and do abide in his love" (John 15:10).
Once we have been made the friends of God by the gift of grace, if we are to retain his friendship, we must obey his commandments. His love now is not unconditional.
The statement in this false sense is probably a legacy of that tortured soul of the 16th century, the heretic Martin Luther. He wanted to be absolutely certain that he was loved by God and could be certain of his eternal salvation, even though he was much troubled by sinful tendencies in his fallen nature - what theologians call "concupiscence."
Striving to control these, in Pelagian fashion, by his own efforts and failing, as was inevitable, he hit upon the solution of his problem with the theory that we are saved by faith alone, quite independently of any good works we might perform, and he attributed his enlightenment on the matter to a special action on the part of the Holy Spirit.
No sins, however grievous, would prevent one from entering heaven, if one retained the certainty that one would be saved through faith in the merits of Christ. He summed up his doctrine in the slogan he passed on to Philip Melanchthon in 1521: "Pecca fortiter, sed crede fortius" - "Sin boldly, but believe more boldly still."
This false notion of God's unconditional love may be in the mind of those who offer a consoling thought to a parent whose son has become a member of the self-styled, and mis-named, "gay community." A "gay" may be defined as an unrepentant, proud, aggressive sodomite or catamite. But St Paul classes these with the unrepentant adulterers and swindlers as among those who "shall not possess the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:10).
In our day Luther's erroneous view has been revived by some theologians in the form of the theory of "the fundamental option."
According to this theory, which has been explicitly condemned by the Holy See, we forfeit the friendship of God and cease to be loved by him, only by a sin against one of the theological virtues, thereby repudiating our basic relationship with him.
Such would be: formal disbelief in some truth which we know he has revealed, despair of his mercy or presumption - the assurance that even if we die unrepentant we shall be saved, or resentment that he has curtailed our freedom by forbidding some activities we find to be a source of pleasure. But adultery or serious theft would not deprive us of God's friendship, provided we do not explicitly reject it.
It is clear that this theory, like Luther's, is completely destructive of Christian morality, reducing the Commandments to mere counsels, which we are free to accept or reject, as we please.
In 1528, Luther published his Catechism in which the contents of the Christian faith are set out in question and answer form under three heads: creeds, code and cult.
Had one objected that his account of the Ten Commandments created a logical difficulty, in that it was hard to reconcile with his theory of sola fide, he might have replied that, as he put it elsewhere, "logic is the devil's harlot." However, it did ensure that Lutheran children became familiar with the essentials of Christian morality.
Thus, in Denmark in the mid- 19th century, children were still learning the Ten Commandments by heart in a metrical version of the text.
Father G.H. Duggan SM is a New Zealand theologian, author and former seminary professor.