Word Study #153 — The “Unconditional” Fantasy

One of the least substantiated statements of modern “teaching” or “preaching”, whether the perpetrators represent themselves as “evangelical”/ “fundamental”/ “conservative”, or as “welcoming”/ “accepting”/ “liberal”, is their frequent reference to God’s “unconditional love” or “unconditional grace”.  Neither of these phrases, nor the word “unconditional” itself, appears anywhere in the New Testament text.  A careful search of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, for even just the genesis of the idea, reveals that there is no such thing.

Now, it is certainly true that nowhere are we told that it is necessary for a person to attain some exalted level of ‘holiness”, moral or ethical perfection, or anything else, in order to be eligible to answer Jesus’ call.  But that realization must never obscure the condition that the call must be answered – the invitation “Follow me” does come with  required “RSVP” attached – in order for that gracious offer to take effect!  And this has always been the case.

The idea of “conditional statements” is not theological nor philosophical.  A conditional statement is neither more nor less than a grammatical construction, most easily recognized as two clauses, one of which is introduced by “if” (ei, ean), and the other – at least implicitly: it is sometimes omitted in English translations – by “then” (an).  The mood and tense of the verbs in the statements give an indication of the expected likelihood (or not) of the “condition” being fulfilled. (For a more complete discussion, please see a Greek grammar. Robertson and Marshall are both good.)

For example, contrast Jesus’ two statements in John 8.  To the Pharisees (Jn.8:42), he retorts, “IF God were your father, (then) you would love me”.  Both clauses are in the imperfect tense, implying that neither is the case.  To his followers (Jn.8:31), he asserts, “IF you continue (present tense) in my word, (then) you will be (future) my disciples.”  Here, both are considered plausible.
If the consequence is negative, the particle me is used rather than the more common ou, in which case, in translation, the conditional clause would be introduced by “unless” (Mt.13:20) “Unless the Lord had shortened the time ….”

The principle that must be understood is that a conditional statement has nothing whatever to do with the reliability of the individual making it, or with arbitrary orders issued to underlings (“Shape up or else!”).  A conditional sentence or clause is neither an immutable promise nor a dire threat.  It is simply a statement of the way things are: cause and effect, evidence or action and results.  It described the circumstances under which something will be true, or realized.

As noted before, I cannot speak to Hebrew grammar, but the idea seems similar under the old covenant as well.  Deuteronomy 29 and 30, along with many other pentateuch passages, outline very carefully that a choice must be made.  See especially Dt.30:15-20.  The frequently repeated admonition to “choose life!” is strong evidence that choices have consequences, for good or ill.

Jesus also required a choice – a choice evidenced by both attitude and behavior.  Although this idea is present in the synoptics, it is most vividly evident in the gospel of John.  A few examples follow:
Mt.6:14,15 – “IF you take away [forgive] their transgressions for people, your heavenly father will also take them away from you all.” (followed by, IF you don’t, he won’t.)
Jn.7:17 – “IF anyone wants to do his will, he will know —”
Jn.8:51 – “IF anyone keeps my word, he will not see death forever.”
Jn.11:40 – “IF you are faithful, you will see the glory of God.”
Jn.14:23 – “IF anyone loves me, he will keep my word.”
Jn.15:14 – “You are my friends IF you continue doing as I am instructing you.”
Please note that although all these statements are conditional in form and intent, there is no hint of compulsion!  The tone is, “IF this is what you want, here is the way to realize it.”

Stephen’s sermon in Ac.7 delineated the history of people’s refusal to observe the condition that obedience was an integral and necessary element of their being “chosen”.
Later, a false condition was imposed by the group who were insisting upon a prior conversion to Judaism (Ac.15:1), which condition was promptly repudiated by the Jerusalem Council in their letter (v.29), “IF you keep yourselves from these things (the accouterments of idolatry), you will do well.”
That this sort of statement is not  confined to “religious”  settings is evident in the words of the town clerk to the mob in Ephesus, (Ac.19:39), “IF you all have some other dispute, let it be settled in a legal assembly!”

The epistles are also peppered with conditional statements:
Rom.6:8 – “IF then we died with Christ, we are trusting that we will also live together with him.”
Rom.6:16 – “IF you present yourselves to someone as slaves, for obedience, you are slaves to whomever you obey!”
I Cor.15: 12-19 – the whole paragraph about the resurrection.
Gal.5:18 – “IF you are being led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Col.3:1 – “IF you all were resurrected with Christ, keep seeking what is above …”

All of the messages to the churches quoted in  Rv. 2 and 3, likewise, make use of “unless”, or something similar, indicating the conditional nature of the admonitions, the observance of which will definitely influence the outcome of each situation.

There are also many clauses introduced by “so that”, “in order that”, “because”, and other particles that imply purpose.  Purpose is completely different from a conditional situation.  Purpose indicates God’s (or anyone else’s) intention, while a conditional statement asserts that if the condition is not met, the main premise will not take effect.

As I have consistently done elsewhere in these studies, I seriously invite any of you to correct any errors here.  But please remember to do so by referencing specific, coherent New Testament passages, and not by simply waving “doctrinal” flags.

May we all exert our efforts, accurately to represent the gracious welcome offered by the Lord Jesus, to all who choose to respond in faithfulness!

May we, in the process, avoid cheapening his offer by pretending that there are no conditions involved.

Let us rather acknowledge and observe his conditions, gratefully and faithfully loving, serving, and following his instructions!

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