“If”: Conditional sentences as a tool for interpreting the New Testament

conditional sentences in the new testament

 

Defining “if”

Understanding conditional sentences is fundamental to a proper interpretation of the New Testament. Webster defines a condition as “something essential to the appearance or occurrence of something else.” In written or spoken English, the word “if” usually signals a condition, as in “If you own a Bible, please take it with you to Bible class.”

In the ESV New Testament, “if” occurs 568 times, translating one or the other of two Greek words. Koiné Greek, however, can also express a condition using a participle or even a relative pronoun with a verb. Translators sometimes use “if” for such conditions, but sometimes express the condition with other phrases.

Various kinds of conditions

Koiné Greek has four classes of conditional sentences that fall into two groups: determined and undetermined. Although there are exceptions, these can usually be distinguished from each other by the Greek words employed. Greek grammarian A. T. Robertson warns, “One must not try to explain the Greek condition by the English or German translation. The English is often hopelessly ambiguous, while the Greek is [clear] if one will only give it a chance to speak for itself” (Grammar, 1007).

The determined group includes the first class, in which the premise is assumed to be true. Greek regularly uses ei (though sometimes ean) for “if” plus any tense of the verb in the indicative mood. An example of this class is the devil’s temptation of Jesus: “If you are the Son of God,” and Satan is assuming that He is (Matthew 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3, 9). Satan is not saying to Jesus, “I doubt you are God’s Son; prove it!” He is in essence says, “Look! We both know you are the Son of God. Here’s what I think you should do.” The first class condition also occurs in Philippians 2:1: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy….” Paul is saying, “If there are any of these things, and there certainly are….” One way of expressing the assumption in English is to replace “if” with “since”: “Since you are the Son of God…” and “Since there is any encouragement in Christ….” and “Since anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23).

The second class is the opposite of the first, in which the premise is assumed to be false. For this class, Greek uses ei plus any past tense of verb in the indicative mood. In English, it is expressed using a verb in the past tense. For example, Simon the Pharisee, witnesses the sinful woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair, says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Of course, Simon was as wrong about Jesus’ not being aware that she was a sinful woman as he was that someone who is fully God’s Man would want to stay aloof from such a one. Yet he is stating the condition as if it is false.

The undetermined group also has two classes. The third class, which is by far the most common of conditional sentences in the New Testament, supposes something that is plausible. It uses ean for “if,” combined with a verb in the subjunctive mood. In English, look for helping verbs like “might,” “would,” “could,” or “should,” each of which introduces the idea of something that is plausible but only hypothetical. The most famous New Testament example of a third class condition is John 3:16b, which the ESV translates: “…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (The NIV wrongly jettisons the supposition with the phrase, “shall not perish.”) Notice that the condition is there, even though an “if” is absent.

The undetermined group’s fourth class of conditional sentences, rarely occurring in the New Testament, supposes something that is very implausible. It uses ean for “if,” combined with a verb in the optative mood. The best known example of a fourth-class condition is Romans 9:3: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Paul is imagining a condition that is impossible, for “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). (Note in the English translation the helping verb “could” along with the past tense verb.) We can see the difference between a third-class condition and one of the fourth class in 1 Peter 3:13-14: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good (3rd class)? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake (4th class), you will be blessed.”

Structure of conditional sentences

Most conditional sentences have two parts, the condition (called by grammarians the ‘protasis’), and the result (the ‘apodosis’). When discussing a particular conditional sentence, you will note commentators regularly discuss the two parts using their technical names. I should add that sometimes two or more conditions occur, joined by either ‘and’ or ‘or.’

A protasis with multiple conditions joined by ‘and’ requires that all of the conditions must be true for the result to follow. For example, in Mark 16:16, according to the longer ending of Mark, Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved….” Jesus joins two participles by ‘and,’ making both, not just one or the other, conditions for salvation. A person who believes but refuses to be baptized will be lost; likewise a person who is baptized without trusting Christ is just getting wet. Jesus tells the apostles, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). Jesus spells out the relationship in terms of mutual abiding. It will not work if the relationship is one-sided.

A protasis joining conditions by ‘or’ yields the same result if any of the conditions are true. For example, Paul tells the Corinthian Christians not even to eat with anyone who calls himself a brother “if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler” (1 Corinthians 5:11). The fallen brother or sister need not be guilty of all six sins listed; only one of them is the condition of non-fellowship. And may I suggest that this is only a sample list, not an exhaustive one? (For an Old Testament example, see Deuteronomy 24:2-4, which has two conditions joined by ‘or.’)

Not meeting the condition or conditions nullifies its stated result. Sometimes this is made explicit, as in John 20:23: “If you [apostles] forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” At other times, we are left to infer the necessary implication: If we do not trust in Christ, we will perish and will not have eternal life. It gets a little tricky if the apodosis is complex. For instance, If we do not remain in Jesus and he does not remain in us, we will not bear much fruit. Does this mean we will bear some fruit, but not much? In such cases, the context must decide. Jesus clarifies with the very next phrase: “…for apart from me you can do nothing.”

The apodosis or result may be a “statement, prediction, command, prohibition, suggestion, question” (Robertson, Grammar, 1008). The simplest of these to interpret is either the statement or the prediction. When it is a command or prohibition, the condition tells us when the command or prohibition applies (and when it does not: in cases where the condition is not true).

Occasionally, the apodosis comes first in the sentence, usually for the sake of emphasis. For example, Jesus tells the apostles, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Here he emphasizes the result if the condition is met. The writer of Hebrews states, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end” (Hebrews 3:14).

Implications of “if”

If we pay attention to both the conditional sentences as they stand, as well as their necessary implication, we must affirm at least two important truths.

1) God expects us to respond to respond to His grace actively, not passively.

Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Assuming the condition is not met, the necessary implication is that we are not friends of Jesus if we do not do what He commands. Can any of us be saved if we are not Jesus’ friends? He flatly states, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Paul tells us:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:5-7

Jesus is the Savior, and nothing we do can add an ounce to the abundant merit of His sinless life and sacrificial death. Nevertheless, he tells us, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Implication: The person who does not abide in Christ’s word (that is, does not focus on, meditate on, drink deeply of, and retain His teachings) is not really His disciple. Such a person will not know the truth and will not be set free by it.

John tells us: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God” (1 John 4:15). Implication: God does not abide in the person who does not confess Jesus is God’s Son, and that person does not abide in God.

Paul says: “If we have been united with him in a death like his [in the context, Paul is speaking of baptism into Christ], we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). Implication: Our future resurrection, in which we receive immortal, imperishable bodies like our resurrected Lord’s, depends on our sharing with Christ in His death: becoming united with the Savior so that He can put to death the misdeeds of our flesh and give us newness of life (see Romans 6:3-4 and Romans 8:13, which speaks of this “putting to death the deeds of the body” as an ongoing process which begins when we first die with Christ).

2) Salvation is conditional, not unconditional.

Consider these conditional sentences:

  • James 5:19 – My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. Implication: What if no one brings back the wanderer? Then his soul will not be saved from death and the multitude of sins will remain uncovered.
  • Revelation 3:20 – Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. Implication of this condition sentence with two conditions in the protasis and three results in the apodosis: If you don’t hear his voice (calling you to repentance) and you don’t open the door (the heart-door of you as a fallen-away Christian), he will not come in and eat with you, and you will not eat with him. This fellowship is the mark of a shalōm relationship with Christ.

Watch for the conditions God gives us

If you are attuned to the nature of conditional sentences in the Bible you will begin to find them popping up everywhere in Scripture. Psychologists call this  the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It just means that your heightened awareness of conditional sentences pays off with a mental “ta-dah!” whenever you encounter them. Don’t try to explain it. Just be thankful to God that you understand a little more of His Word.

Want to go deeper?

Consider the meaning of these conditional sentences, as well as the necessary implications of their opposites:

1 John 1:7 – But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.

2 Peter 1:8 – For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:10 – Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.

Find more conditional sentences on your own and analyze both their meaning and their implications.

For online reading:

  • Ernest De Witt Burton. Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek (2d ed, 1892). “Moods in Conditional Sentences,” pp. 100-112. Burton classifies the conditional sentences differently, claiming five of the six classes found in classical Greek occur in the New Testament. His discussion of what he calls “Present General Supposition” (107-109), a category that occurs in the New Testament’s divorce passages (Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18) is very helpful.
  • William E. Elliott. Conditional Sentences in the New Testament (dissertation for ThD degree from Grace Theological Seminary, 1981). See his Appendixes I, II, and III for lists of the first three classes, including conditional sentences in which ei or ean do not occur. At his Elliott cautions (97): “Anyone who hopes to give an accurate presentation of the content of the New Testament must take care to handle these conditional sentences properly. He must not read too much into them, no fail to recognize the fullness of their content.”
  • Archibald T. Robertson. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. (3d ed., 1919). “Conditional Sentences” (1004-1027). I am indebted to this discussion for the preparation of this posting.

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

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