During last night’s first Republican primary debate, there was a question at the end concerning God and gay marriage. Admittedly, politicians are not religious figures and they have the unenviable job of being honest while trying to get elected. (I’m so glad that as a pastor, I only have to concern myself with truth! Being liked is a side benefit of the call.) Still, the question was asked to Governor John Kasich of Ohio and I’d like to briefly comment on his response. For his response was applauded by the audience and rings with truth for many, but makes some assumptions about God that seem unwarranted, if not sloppy.

Here’s the full question from Megyn Kelly: “Governor Kasich, if you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?”

Here’s his answer, sans interruptions: “Well, look, I’m an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. I think the simple fact of the matter is, and this is where I would agree with Jeb, and I’ve been saying it all along, we need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect, and let them share in this great American dream that we have, Megyn. So, look, I’m going to love my daughters, I’m going to love them no matter what they do. Because, you know what, God gives me unconditional love. I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.”

This is an interesting answer and, frankly, the answer that a politician has to give. There is a lot to like here. He does affirm his belief in “traditional” marriage. (Marriage, by the way, needs no further identifiers. A union either is a marriage or it is not.) For people like me, I appreciate that he affirms traditional marriage. For political libertarians or conservatives, there is a lot to like in protecting the freedoms of all, to “treat everybody with respect” and “let them share in this great American dream.” So far so good. This is basically standard political speech.

And as the father of two, I understand loving your children in spite of the fact that they do not always do what you might think best. Children will err, and we love them enough to forgive them again and again. I suppose that is what we mean when we say “unconditional love”, that the love is always there. I suppose the parents of children who become, say, addicted to drugs or alcohol, always love their children, and are heartbroken as their lives fall apart. It is impossible for me to imagine me not loving my children, and the evidence of that love being the heartbreak that would come if they would completely reject me and what is best for them.

But does such a love equal unconditional acceptance? Does unconditional love mean that we must always be accepted as we are? And is this what we mean when we say that God loves us unconditionally? This strikes me as lazy speech. For just as “God is love”, he possesses other qualities that are not dissolved by his love. These qualities are not popular today, but they are in the scriptures that Mr. Kasich would presumably support. God judges, for example. God is jealous. God is a god of wrath. God clearly hates evil in every form, and in many cases (the flood, the tower of Babel, the plagues in Egypt, even giving men over to their own sin) God judges us again and again. So if we are going to claim that God loves us unconditionally, what are we to do with the passages that indicate God judges those who thwart him time and time again? Something has to give.

It seems that we need to be careful in not confusing the God of the Bible with the God we want. We want a God that loves us no matter what. But such a view of God would have a low view of God’s holiness. Such a God would be little more than our private butler whose job it is to approve of us and serve us when needed. Perhaps hat Mr. Kasich meant is not that God loves us no matter what, but that God can forgive any sin. That is true! God can forgive any sin, no matter how dastardly it is. But that is how we need to define such love; not as constant approval for us even in a sinful condition.

But is God to be compelled to forgive unrepentant sin? Does God’s “unconditional love” mean that if we are an unrepentant adulterer/murderer/thief at the time of our death, God must forgive that sin, too? That hardly seems consistent with the calls by Jesus himself to repent and believe: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15 ESV) Some might say that such repentance is unnecessary in the wake of the resurrection, but what then would we do with these passages, not to mention many more:

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38 ESV)

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

To just lay the predicate that God loves unconditionally, with the clear implication being that God loves us as we are and demands no repentance, hardly seems to be a fair characterization of God. If Mr. Kasich really meant that God loves us in such a way that forgiveness is always an option for the repentant (think the Prodigal Son), then that seems to be right. But the love of God is demonstrated not in his accepting us no matter what, but in the death of Jesus on the cross, which saves some – surely Mr. Kasich would not say all and become a universalist – from eternal damnation. That is how God’s love is manifest.

As Christians, it is important to understand that these kinds of phrases are good for politicians, but not good for understanding God in his fullness and holiness. Yes, God loves us so much he gave his son that all who believe will inherit eternal life, but I don’t know why that must also mean that God loves in such a way that he loses his right to judge.

It is no surprise that the line was wildly applauded, for such applause expresses the desire to believe what Mr. Kasich said. One wonders if he had simply included the word “repentance” anywhere in his answer, if he would have received any applause at all. One thing is certain. It probably would have ended his presidential campaign.