The recently announced LDS doctrine of conditional divine love comes from President Nelson’s 2003 Ensign article “Divine Love,” in which he stated: “While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional.” No additional commentary was added until the October 2016 General Conference, when two apostles, citing President Nelson’s article, restated the doctrine. It is rather more nuanced than it first appears and I expect some local leaders and members will misconstrue and misapply this new doctrine in unfortunate ways. So pay attention. This is important.
First, from Elder Christofferson’s talk “Abide in My Love“:
There are many ways to describe and speak of divine love. One of the terms we hear often today is that God’s love is “unconditional.” While in one sense that is true, the descriptor unconditional appears nowhere in scripture. Rather, His love is described in scripture as “great and wonderful love,” “perfect love,” “redeeming love,” and “everlasting love.” These are better terms because the word unconditional can convey mistaken impressions about divine love, such as, God tolerates and excuses anything we do because His love is unconditional, or God makes no demands upon us because His love is unconditional, or all are saved in the heavenly kingdom of God because His love is unconditional.
Second, from Elder Renlund’s talk “Repentance: A Joyful Choice,” in which he counsels against ideas that prevent us from repenting:
Yet another way [we avoid repenting] is to think that our sins do not matter because God loves us no matter what we do. It is tempting to believe what the deceitful Nehor taught the people of Zarahemla: “That all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, … and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.” But this seductive idea is false. God does love us. However, what we do matters to Him and to us. He has given clear directives about how we should behave. We call these commandments. His approbation and our eternal life depend on our behavior, including our willingness to humbly seek real repentance.
So here’s the tricky part. While affirming that God’s love for us is conditional, they nevertheless reaffirm that God always loves us. Later in his 2003 Ensign article, President Nelson states: “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.” And later in his recent talk, Elder Christofferson states: “God will always love us, but He cannot save us in our sins.” In other words, divine love is, in fact, unconditional.
So what is conditional? Higher blessings and exaltation, according to President Nelson: “[T]he higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us — and certain divine blessings stemming from that love — are conditional.” He goes on to relate the distinction between unconditional and conditional blessings to the LDS terms salvation and exaltation: “Thanks to the Atonement, the gift of immortality is unconditional. The greater gift of eternal life, however, is conditional.” Elder Christofferson illustrates conditional divine love in similar terms:
Some will argue that God blesses everyone without distinction — citing, for example, Jesus’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Indeed, God does rain down upon all His children all the blessings He can — all the blessings that love and law and justice and mercy will permit. And He commands us to be likewise generous: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” Nevertheless, God’s greater blessings are conditioned on obedience.
So let me summarize in two or three sentences the new LDS doctrine of conditional divine love: God loves all men and women, saints or sinners, unconditionally, and the blessing of salvation or redemption from death will come to all men and women. However, higher blessings, including exaltation, are conditional and come only to those who are obedient and keep the commandments.
A better label would be: unconditional divine love, coupled with conditional higher blessings like exaltation. As for content, it is really nothing new, just the standard LDS doctrine of perfectionism (the more obedient you are, the more blessings you get) dressed up with a new misleading label. I can easily see local leadership or local members running with the misleading label and coming up with incorrect applications (God doesn’t love LDS slackers so neither should you or I) rather than the actual substance attached to the misleading label.
In the increasingly politicized LDS Church, during an election year with the battle cry of “religious freedom” being sounded regularly, it’s a pretty good bet that those who misconstrue the new LDS doctrine of conditional divine love will draw the shrinking circle of divine love so as to exclude those who practice gay marriage, those who are gay, or those who simply support gay marriage or any other progressive or liberal issue or agenda. The whole discussion by LDS leadership, whatever it means when examined in detail, seems almost calculated to produce this result: to encourage rank and file Mormons to regard lapsed Mormons, gay Mormons, dissenting Mormons, liberal Mormons, or pretty much anyone who disagrees with their particular brand of conservative Mormonism as unloved by God and not deserving of love or kindness. Conditioning divine love on obedience is like an open invitation to identify the disobedient and unlove them.
Any other quotations from Conference that support or refute the sudden reemergence of the LDS doctrine of conditional divine love and what it means?
[For additional quotations and discussion on this topic, see Julie’s 2014 T&S post “Unconditional Love.”]