Our Rejection of Conditions (5): Conditional Grammar in the Bible
Reformed Free Publishing Association
By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Our Rejection of Conditions (4): Herman Hoeksema, late 1940s and early 1950s (Part 2)
In an earlier blog post I wrote that at its most basic a condition reflects a relationship of necessity between two or more things. In English we often express such a relationship of necessity with words such as “only if,” “provided that,” “except that,” “without,” “only after,” “always before,” and the like. In this blog post I want to look at conditional grammar in God’s Word. Although the Bible never uses the word “condition” or “prerequisite,” it contains conditional sentences, that is, grammatical constructions with words such as “if,” “unless,” “except,” etc. Every seminarian remembers learning about different kinds of conditional sentences in Greek grammar class: first, second, third, and fourth class conditions.
Some conditional sentences use “if clauses” (the technical term is protasis) to state a fact. “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above” (Col. 3:1) could be rendered “Since you are risen with Christ” because the “if clause” expresses what is true. Other first class conditions affirm something to be true, but only for the sake of argument: “If the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised” (1 Cor. 15:16). If, for the sake of granting the premise of the adversary with whom the apostle is arguing, the dead do not rise (and they do), then, it logically follows, if the argument is correct (and it is not), that Christ also did not rise from the dead (but he did).
Those are, however, not conditions proper, and really are uncontroversial. There are many other examples of “if clauses” in the Bible which are more difficult to interpret. But, remember, conditional grammar does not a condition make! Let us look at a few examples.
“If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love” (John 15:10). If that were an actual condition—and it is not—it would mean, “Your abiding in my love depends upon, or is contingent upon, your keeping of my commandments.” “If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15). If that were an actual condition—and it is not—it would mean, “My Father’s forgiveness of your sins depends upon, or is contingent upon, your pardoning of other men’s sins.” “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13). If that were an actual condition—and it is not—it would mean, “Your living and not dying depends upon, or is contingent upon, your mortifying the deeds of the body.” “To present you holy, unblameable, and unreproveable in his sight: if ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:22b-23). If that were an actual condition—and it is not—it would mean, “Your being presented holy, unblameable, and unreproveable in his sight depends upon, or is contingent upon, your persevering in, and not departing from, the gospel.” Multitudes of other examples could be added, but these suffice to prove the point.
The explanation of such passages is not to deny them, to say that keeping Christ’s commandments, forgiving the neighbor, mortifying the flesh, and persevering in the truth of the gospel are not necessary—they are necessary—but to understand the relationship between these activities and the blessing of God described in the passages cited early, namely, abiding in Christ’s love, enjoying the forgiveness of sins, possessing life, and being presented holy, unblameable, and unreproveable in his sight.
Let the reader remember that a conditional expresses a relationship of necessity between two or more things. Christ means what he says: keeping his commandments is necessary; forgiving the neighbor is necessary; mortifying the flesh is necessary; persevering in the truth is necessary. One who does not keep God’s commandments (but who lives impenitently in his sins all his days), one who refuses to forgive (but who harbors bitter resentment in his heart all his days), one who refuses to mortify the flesh (but who indulges his lusts to the full all his days), and one who does not persevere in the truth of the gospel (but who apostatizes from the truth and never returns) will not be saved—he will perish. That’s some necessity!
First, the language of “if clauses” (or conditional grammar) does not express a conditional relationship, that is, God’s giving you that depends upon, or is contingent upon, your doing this. God is not waiting for us to perform a certain activity before he gives us a certain blessing, so that God cannot act until we first act. To illustrate, Jesus is not waiting for us to keep his commandments before he allows us to experience his love; God is not waiting for us to repent before he forgives our sins; God is not waiting for us to forgive our neighbor before he forgives us; God is not waiting for us to believe before he grants us the blessing of justification; God is not waiting for us to mortify our sins before he gives us life. A god who waits for us to do something, instead of working the willing and the doing in us by the power of the Spirit (Phil. 2:12-13), is not sovereign. However, God works in such a way that we become active, so that in our experience our activity, which God works in us by his grace and Holy Spirit, precedes God’s gift. God is eternal, so that he is not affected by the progression of time or bound by time, but is infinitely exalted over time, which is but a creature. We, however, are time-bound, limited creatures: we experience and enjoy our salvation in a certain, God-ordained, temporal sequence, and God deals with us as with children. To express the God-ordained sequence in a way that is meaningful to us, God speaks to us in conditional grammar. For example, to encourage us, he promises, “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh [his sins] shall find mercy” (Prov. 28:13). We do not overanalyze his words, asking ourselves, “If I confess my sins, does that mean that God has first worked repentance in my heart?” (He has, but that is not the main point of the text). Nor do we say, “I have mercy already, even if I do not repent.” Nor do we say, “If God wants me to repent and have mercy, I will wait for him to act.” Instead, we repent, encouraged by this incentive: “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall have mercy.”
Second, the language of “if clauses” (or conditional grammar) serves to identify the recipients of the blessings of salvation. It is one thing to say, “God promises salvation to the elect,” which is undoubtedly true, but who are the elect: how can they be identified? Scripture identifies the elect as those who believe, repent, obey, walk in the light, are fruitful in good works, and persevere in faith and godliness. If you believe, you can be confident that you are one of the elect; if you repent, you can be sure that you are saved; if you walk in the light, you know sweet fellowship with the holy God; if you keep Christ’s commandments, you abide in his love. And if you do not do these things, you will not enjoy the promised blessings. Howl “conditions” all you want, but God does not change his word!
Quite simply, if you believe, repent, obey, walk in the light, are fruitful in good works, and persevere in faith and godliness, you show yourself to be one of God’s children exactly because God has worked such saving graces in you—you believe, you repent, you walk in the light, you keep God’s commandments not by virtue of your freewill, but by virtue of God’s grace given to you in regeneration and in sanctification. If God has given you the gift of faith, that faith will not remain hidden, but it will bear fruit. If, on the other hand, you remain unbelieving, impenitent, disobedient, and fruitless, you have no reason to apply the description of believers to yourself.
Third, the language of “if clauses” (or conditional grammar) serves to motivate or to warn the hearer or the reader. When we read or hear, “By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:2) and “If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:23), we are encouraged to keep the gospel in memory, we are exhorted to continue in the faith, and we are warned against being moved away from the hope of the gospel, which encouragements, exhortation, and warnings are God’s means of preserving us, and without which God is not pleased to preserve us. At the same time, God uses such warnings, which the carnal and profane despise, to harden the reprobate in their sins and to leave them without excuse. “And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments” (Canons V:14). If we omit such exhortations and warnings—even the use of conditional grammar, when the text warrants it, which conditional grammar (although without the doctrine of conditions) should not simply be explained away but pointedly applied—we presume to “tempt God,” who “[confers grace] by means of admonitions” (Canons 3-4:17).
George M. Ophoff, another of the fathers of the Protestant Reformed Churches, gives a helpful explanation of conditional grammar. He writes, “The sole function and purpose of im [the Hebrew word for ‘if’—MMcG] in these connections is to establish conceptionally before the minds of the people of Israel the certain connection between obedience and blessing on the one hand, and disobedience and cursing, destruction on the other” (George M. Ophoff, “The ‘If’ Sentences In Deuteronomy,” Standard Bearer, volume 25, issue 18 [June 25, 1949], 423, Ophoff’s italics). Ophoff makes some interesting remarks. Writes he, mimicking in a somewhat mocking tone the god of conditions: “‘However eager I am to do thee well, my blessing thee is contingent on thy arbitrary and capricious willingness to originate faith and obedience in thee. Thy will is sovereign. Before it I must bow.’ This is again a terrible theology, isn’t it?” (ibid, 423, my italics). Ah, but what if God originates faith and obedience in his people: would the relationship between faith and obedience and the blessing of God still be conditional? Ophoff explains: “[The function of ‘if’] is to establish conceptionally connection between the faith of God’s people, their obedience and contrition of heart on the one hand and their life and salvation on the other as a connection of such a character that the two—faith and salvation—always go hand in hand with God the author of both. Mark you, with God the author of both. For, certainly, the idea is not that these callers upon the name of the Lord, these seekers after God, these wicked who forsake their abominations and turn to the Lord, do so in their capacity of sinners dead in trespasses and sins; and that they live and are saved as a result of their taking these action in the sense that they originate them. To the contrary, the fact of their seeking is the evidence that they have life in them abiding and are saved; and of this life their seeking is the fruit” (ibid, 425, my italics).
God says to the elect sinner, “If you believe,” and works faith in him so that he believes and is justified, while the reprobate who hears the same word (and implied command) does not believe because God does not grant him the gift of faith, so that he is not justified. Christ warns the elect sinner, “Except ye repent,” and he works repentance in him so that he repents and is saved, while the reprobate who hears the same word does not repent because God does not grant him the gift of repentance, so that he perishes. Faith and repentance are not only activities of men (they are), but they are first and foremost gifts of God, so that (to use that language of Ophoff) he originates them. “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). When God gives us to believe, we believe. When God gives us to repent, we repent. It is that simple and that beautiful.
There is an inseparable connection between faith and justification, between repentance and the forgiveness of sins, but that connection is not that one is a condition for the other, that is, that one depends upon, or is contingent upon, the other.
Consider 1 Peter 3:20: “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” The apostle writes that God’s longsuffering “waited.” That means that God could not send the flood until the ark was finished, which does not suggest that the coming of the floodwaters depended upon, or was contingent upon, Noah’s completion of the ark. Rather, it means this: God had eternally decreed that Event A (Noah’s construction of the ark) must precede Event B (the sending of the flood) and that without Event A (Noah’s construction of the ark) Event B (the sending of the flood) would not occur. So in that sense, God’s longsuffering waited. But God did not—and he never does—wait passively. If God decreed that Noah should construct the ark, God also worked in Noah the will to construct the ark and the actual constructing of the ark, so that Noah constructed the ark according to God’s eternal decree. Similarly, God has decreed that faith shall precede justification as the means of justification; that repentance shall precede the forgiveness of sins so that the impenitent sinner does not enjoy the pardon of sins; that prayer is the way in which we receive God’s grace and Holy Spirit; and, therefore, God works faith, repentance, prayer, and all other gifts and graces in the hearts of his people at the time that he himself has appointed.
Nothing is conditional, nothing is contingent, because God is sovereign. What God promises, he gives. What God requires, he bestows. Therefore, nothing ever depends on man. Beautiful, unconditional, wholly gracious theology, believed, taught, preached, and confessed in the Protestant Reformed Churches and her sisters!