Once More—The Promise

In my previous article on this subject I made plain that though all conditional sentences are “if clause’’ sentences, all “if-clause” sentences are not conditional sentences.

I illustrated this point. I pointed out that the thought conveyed by such a statement as, “If a child breaks out with a scarlet rash, it has scarlet fever,” is not certainly that a child is taken down with scarlet fever on the condition that it breaks out with scarlet rash. For certainly, so I remarked, the rash is not the cause of the scarlet fever, but the symptom of it. Rut the man who says to his neighbor, “If you are on this or that street corner at nine o’clock tomorrow morning, I will pick you up in my car,” gives utterance to a real conditional sentence. For, so I remarked, the clause in italics is expressive of a real condition—condition always in the sense of prerequisite, “voor-waarde”—that the prospective rider of his own free will agrees to realize and also must realize in order to be picked up by his obliging neighbor.

There are then, so I concluded, and rightfully so, two kinds of “if-clause” sentences: conditional and non-conditional “if-clause” sentences. They can be put into one class and be called by one name. But, as was remarked, to avoid confusion in our present dispute, that name should not be “conditional sentences” but “if-clause” sentences; and the name for each kind of sentences within the class should be: “non-conditional if-clause sentences,” and “conditional if-clause sentences.”

We next faced the question: what is such a declaration as, “If you believe, you will be saved”? Is it a “non-conditional if-clause sentence,” or a “conditional if-clause sentence?” The question was answered thus: “It ought to be as plain as the sun in the heavens that such a declaration as “if you believe, you will be saved,” is a non-conditional if-clause declaration.’’

Let us now face this question: What is such a declaration as, “If you believe you will be saved,” to be called? Is it right to call such a declaration a “conditional promise”? There can be but one answer. It is not right to call such a declaration a “conditional promise.” And this for two reasons. 1) As was stated, there is not an atom of promise in such a statement. 2) Such an expression as “conditional promise”, when used with reference to Christ’s salvation is a contradiction in terms. For the word condition in the sense of “voorwaarde”, spells uncertainty, while the characteristic of the “promise”, is its certainly. The ‘‘promise”, therefore can no more be conditional than things truly certain can be uncertain. We can, of course, make a way for ourselves out of this difficulty by saying that God fulfills the condition, and that therefore the term condition, “voorwaarde” in this connection also spells certainty. But then we play hocus pocus with words, definitely with the word condition, “voorwaarde”. And what I mean by playing hocus pocus with words is to use words in a sense that they do not have in every man’s dictionary. As I explained in a previous article, the Holy Spirit in preparing for us the Scriptures never did that. He did not use Hebrew and Greek words in a sense that was contrary to the sense that these words had in the Hebrew and Greek languages as spoken by men. The Lord God did not deal with words in that way in communicating to man the thoughts of His heart. How could we understand the Scriptures, had God so dealt with words? In the Scriptures the words of our earthy, human language serve as symbols of the things heavenly, but certainly without loss of their primary meanings. Christ said, “I am the bread of life.” But as in every man’s vocabulary, the word bread here still signifies bread and not a stone.

But if it is not right to call such a Scripture statement as, “If you believe you will be saved,” a conditional declaration, what then shall we call it? We should call such a statement simply a “non-conditional if-clause sentence.” To say of such statements that they are conditional as to the form of their words and grammatical structure, but nevertheless non-conditional as to their real meaning can only lead to confusion and a lot of unprofitable debate in our present dispute.

As was stated, both the Old and the New Testament are replete with such non-conditional if-clause statements as, “If you believe, you will be saved,” and, “If you believe not, you will be damned.”

We must now take up the matter of the function of such Scripture statements. What is their real function? The question is definitely answered by Moses in his third farewell address to the people of Israel (Deut. 27:1-30:20). Here are found the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience, all of which Moses communicated to the people as pivoted on if-clauses—the blessings on the if-clause, “if thou obey,” and the curses on the if-clause, “if thou dost not obey.”

Spake Moses to the people, Deut. 28:1, “And it shall come to pass, if (Hebrew, im) thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth; And all these blessings shall come upon thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God.

“Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep,” and so on through verse 14.

The section that follows (Deut. 28:15-28) records the curses for disobedience.

“But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field,” and so on to the end of the section,—a section the closing words of which read, “These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant which he made with them in Horeb.”

In chapter 29 Moses now appears as presenting all Israel before the Lord to enter into His covenant. He exhorts the people to obedience, and sets forth the great wrath of God on all such that flatter themselves in their wickedness. To add weight to his exhortations he sets forth the truth that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the works of the law.”

As we shall see, the discourse of the chapter that follows (Deut. 30:1-10) is a prophecy in which great mercies are promised to the penitent. The next four verses (11-14) set forth the truth that the word of God—the commandments of the Lord—that Moses had communicated to the people, was “very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do them.”

The words that Moses spake next (verses 15-30) closes the entire series of sermons. Of these words of Moses we must take careful notice. For they contain the answer to the question of the true function of such Scripture statements as, “If you believe, you will be saved; if you believe not, you will be damned.”

The passage reads, “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply; and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it.

“But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, wither thou passest over Jordan to go to possess it.

“But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over Jordan to go to possess it.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.

We must concentrate on the sentences in italics. They tell us what the Lord by the voice of Moses was doing in giving utterance to such speech as, “If thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God . . . all these blessings shall come upon thee; but if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe all His commandments . . .; that all these curses shall come upon thee . . .” By this speech the Lord was doing this: He was setting before His people—reprobate and elect alike—life and good, death and evil; and in addition telling them one and all that the way of life and good is the way of obedience to his commands; and being holy God, He was at once commanding them to choose life and good.

Such, then, is the function of the “if” clause sentences in the Bible of the type, “If you believe, hearken unto the voice of the Lord, you will live,” or in the Gospel language of the Scriptures, “If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved.” The view according to which the Lord by such speech promises men life and bequeaths upon them the right to life we must not have. It is not the view of the Scriptures. Not the promise of life and salvation but the presentation of life and salvation comes to men as pivoted on “if” clauses, and likewise the presentation of death and evil. And as was just stated, the sole function of the “if” clause, “if thou obeyest and believest,” is to present to men the way that leads to life and the sphere in which life and salvation is possessed and enjoyed. But for all the reasons presented in the foregoing articles on this subject, the promises of God are not “if-clause sentences”.

However, the discourse of Moses in one of its sections (Deut. 30:1-10) seems to contradict the view of things here presented, that is, the view that nowhere in all the Scriptures are the promises of God set forth as pivoted on “if” clauses of the type, “if thou believest”. The section in question reads:

“And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; that then the Lord will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee.

“If any of thine be driven out unto the utmost parts of heaven, from thence will the Lord thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee; And the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers.

“And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live,

“And the Lord thy God will put all these curses upon thine enemies, and on them that hate thee, which persecute thee. And thou shalt return and obey the voice of the Lord and do all his commandments which I command thee this day.

“And the Lord thy God will make thee plenteous in every work of thine hand, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land, for good; for the Lord will again rejoice over thee for good, as he rejoiced over thy fathers: if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law, and if thou turn unto the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.”

What we have here is plainly prophecy and promise. Moses, being a prophet and of all the prophets the greatest, here foretells the exile of the people of Israel and the ultimate turning of their captivity. The Lord will again bring them into the land which their fathers possessed; He will do them good above their fathers. He will circumcise their heart and will make them plenteous in every work of their hand, if they hearken unto the voice of the Lord,” and “if they turn unto the Lord their God.

Here the promise is indeed pivoted on “if” clauses, but not so however in the Hebrew text, which reads not “if thou shalt hearken,” and “if thou turn. . . , but, “when thou shalt hearken . . . .” and “when thou shalt turn. . . .” The Hebrew participle here is not im but ki and must be translated when.

The message then is this: The Lord will bring his people into the land of their fathers. He will circumcise their heart. As a result “thou shalt return and obey the voice of the Lord (verse 8).” And the Lord will abundantly bless them (verse 9), when they shall hearken unto His voice and when they turn unto him. Not an “if” clause appears in this communication. What we have here is promise.

The promises of God are “if-less” indeed, and therefore of necessity unconditional. And they come only to the elect, that is, historically the believers.

This view of the matter is also that of our Confessions.

So in Art. 5 of the Canons, 2nd head, “. . . the command to repent and believe ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the Gospel.”

We deal here with God’s moral will or the will of His command by which God makes known what men must do. As many of them to whom God sends the Gospel must repent and believe. So God commands and seriously commands also the reprobated whom He is sovereignly determined not to save but to harden by His Word and Gospel in preparation of the destiny to which He in His sovereign good pleasure appointed them. Also these certainly are unfeignedly called, that is, commanded of God to repent and believe. ‘‘For”, in the language of the Canons (Art. 8 of the 3rd and 4th head), “God hath most earnestly and truly declared in his word, what will be acceptable to him; namely, that all who are called,” that is, commanded, “should comply with the invitation,” that is, the command.

So it indeed is. Being holy God, He delights in well-doing and hates all unbelief and disobedience. Accordingly, it is acceptable to Him as holy God that all those who are commanded to believe should obey—all those who are commanded, including to be sure the reprobated, and this despite the fact that He has sovereignly reprobated them. He seriously commands also such to believe. But he does not in His word promise the reprobated eternal life and rest. The promise of life comes only to the elect. This, too, is according to the teaching of the Confession. The concluding sentence of Art. 8 of the 3rd and 4th head of the Canons reads, “He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest, to as many as shall come to him, and believe on him.”

As those who come to him are the elect, the doctrine of this article is to the effect that, though God commands also the reprobate to repent, He promises to save only the elect, historically the believers, as many as come to Him. In a word, according to the teaching of this article, the promise of God comes unconditionally only to the elect.

In conclusion a word about the promises and the promise.

The following Scripture-passages speak of the promise. Gal. 3:14, “That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Throughout his epistle to the Galatians Paul usually speaks of the promise.

Eph. 1:13, “In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.”

1 Tim. 4:8, “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.”

2 Tim. 1:1, “Paul an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus.”

Heb. 6:13-15, “For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could sware by no greater, he sware by himself, Saying, surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.”

2 Pet. 3:4, “And saying, Where is the promise of his coming?”

2 Pet. 3:13, “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”

The following Scripture-passages speaks of promises:

Rom. 9:4, “Who are Israelites … to whom pertaineth the promises.”

Rom. 15:8, “Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth Of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.”

2 Cor. 6:18, 2 Cor. 7:1, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate saith the Lord . . . And I will receive you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord almighty. Having therefore these promises dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves. . .”

It is clear from these passages that in speaking of the promise and in addition of promises, the Scriptures do not have reference to one great outstanding promise of some one thing and of a number of promises smaller in comparison.

For let us take notice. According to Gal. 3:4 and Eph. 1:13 the promise is that of the Spirit. According to 1 Ti. 4:8 and 2 Ti. 1:1, the promise is that of life. According to 2 Pet. 3:4, the promise is that of Christ’s coming. According to 2 Pet. 3:13, the promise is that of new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.

But let us now take notice also of this. At 2 Cor. 6:18, 2 Cor. 7:1, Paul includes in the promises the following:

1) Our being received of God. 2) His calling us His sons and daughters, and further, at Rom. 15:8, all that was promised the Fathers—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now certainly any of these promises are just as great as any of the promises to which the Scriptures refer as the promise. Every one of the total of promises is great. The one is not less great than the other. And the promise is any one of the total.

In fine, Scripture knows not of the one great promise and besides of promises little or small in comparison with the one.

There is a reason that the Scriptures speak of promises, and of promise. The salvation of God is many-sided and includes a wonderful variety of riches—riches of His grace.