Is Salvation the Ultimate Participation Award? Let’s discuss.

God loves you unconditionally. But what does this mean? What are the boundaries?


Jill Biden, the First Lady, recently attended the NCAA 2023 women’s basketball championship, in which Louisiana State University won 102-85 against Iowa. Surprisingly, the first lady commented that both teams should be welcomed to the White House to be recognized by the President.

The attitude of “no one loses,” more commonly known as Participation Awards or Inclusion, has infiltrated our culture.

  • In 2017, a school in Texas made headlines after it announced that it would be holding a “Game of Phones” event instead of a traditional homecoming football game. The event featured various games and activities to promote inclusivity and reduce the emphasis on competition.
  • In 2019, a New Jersey high school canceled its annual awards ceremony for the freshman class, citing concerns that it could damage students who did not receive an award. Instead, the school held a “virtual celebration” where all students were recognized for their achievements.
  • In 2021, a school district in Virginia announced that it would eliminate the “valedictorian” and “salutatorian” honors for graduating seniors, citing concerns about competition and mental health. Instead, the district plans to use a Latin honors system based on GPA ranges.
  • Megachurch’s Steven Furtick, T.D. Jakes, Andy Stanley, and others often preach that God loves you unconditionally, you just be you and God will always continue to love you.

How John 3:16 is misunderstood?

Does John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” convey some kind of unconditional love, such that God is overjoyed to welcome me exactly as I am even if I wish to stay that way?

According to Mounce and Mounce, Reverse-Interlinear New Testament, the first two thoughts of John 3:16 should be read as follows:

  • “For in this way,” 
  • “God loved the world.”
  • The Greek word οὕτως or “houtōs” means “in this way” or “thus,” and it draws attention to how God showed His love for the world; which was by sending His Son as Savior.
  • The Greek verb ἠγάπησεν or “ēgapēsen,” means “loved” and emphasizes the fact that God’s love for the world was a decisive and completed act in the past.
  • The Greek word κόσμον or “kosmon” means “world” and refers to the world as all of humanity, or all people, regardless of race, nationality, or social status.

From this analysis of the original words, God’s love is conveyed by sending a savior to offer redemption to all the people in the world that He created. 

But at a significant cost. All of God’s wrath, for all of our sins, was poured out on His Son, Christ Jesus, as recorded in 1 Peter 2:24 “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

That is the depth of God’s love for us; He has provided an opportunity for our salvation which He paid for dearly.

God’s Unconditional Love

As possibly the most well-known verse in the English language, it is easy to see how a misunderstanding of John 3:16 has permeated the church.

Yes, there are fundamentals truths that define God’s unconditional love as it pertains to salvation: 

  1. God’s love is not based on who we are: Ephesians 2:8 states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves…”
  2. God’s love is not based on what we do:  Ephesians 2:8-9 continues, “…it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But, there is a distinction between unconditional love, in which God offers redemption via sovereign grace regardless of who we are or our works, and unconditional love, in which God enables us to stay as we are.

God’s love does not compromise His justice or holiness. God’s love is not a license to sin or to ignore His commands, which is expressed in 1 John 2:3-4 – “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), an American preacher, theologian, and philosopher, delivered one of the most famous sermons of the Great Awakening on July 8, 1741, at the Congregational church in Enfield, Connecticut, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

In this sermon, Edwards uses two verses:

  • Deuteronomy 32:35 (NIV): “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.”
  • Revelation 20:11-15 (ESV): “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. …And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. …And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. … and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades [all unbelievers] were thrown into the lake of fire….”

Allow me to paraphrase and abridge just a part of Edward’s epic sermon (which is available here.)

“In Deuteronomy 32:35, the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites [is threatened]. The expression I have chosen for my text, “their foot shall slide in due time,” seems to imply the following:

  • That they were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction.
  • That the reason why they are not fallen already and do not fall now is only that God’s appointed time is not come.
  • When that due time, or appointed time comes, their foot shall slide.

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell but the mere pleasure of God.” By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment.

  • They deserve to be cast into hell.
  • They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell.
  • They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell.

But the foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow….whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men’s earnest seeking and knocking, it is plain and manifest, that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.”  


Could not one of the promises alluded to in Edwards’ sermon be a reliance on a misreading of God’s unconditional love? Is it, not inclusion? Will not God accept us just as we are and allow us to continue that way?  Sin or not.

The Bible summarizes our condition, judgment, and offer of redemption simply:

  • Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
  • Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  • John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”

Those who believe they can stay just as they are and God will cherish them unconditionally are delusional.

The truth is that salvation is frankly deliverance from the wrath of a righteously enraged God. 

Unless one truly repents and believes, they are deceiving themselves and putting their confidence in what Edwards refers to as “nothing but a shadow.”

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