Friday, October 24, 2008

Third Class Conditions

I spent a few minutes this morning looking at a text that often presents challenges for me. When speaking about Christ's "unconditional" forgiveness, especially in light of what He said on Calvary to the soldiers who gambled over His robe (see Luke 23:34), many people like to site 1 John 1:9 as a classic example of conditional forgiveness. And, indeed, this text has been - and continues to be - perplexing to me.

As many of us are well aware, the text reads, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (NKJV). Literally, in Greek, the passage could be translated: "If we would confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, so that He may forgive us our sins, and He may cleanse us from all unrighteousness." This text is often sited as an example of what is called a "Third Class Conditional Clause" in Greek. In other words, it is a classic "if/then" statement and it denotes the condition as "uncertain of fulfillment, but still likely" (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 696). As one person has suggested in relation to this passage, "But the moment he confesses, God will forgive and cleanse. If the believer fulfills the protasis ["if"], then God will fulfill the apodosis ["then"]! If I do my part, God will do His part!"

But I am not sure that this text is that cut-and-dry - and that last explanation seems to place God in the respondent's chair, and us in the iniator's chair, which is nothing more than a pagan, merit-based system of salvation. To begin with, what is the apodosis (the "then" part) of the statement? Is it God's faithfulness/righteousness, or His forgiveness and cleansing? Structurally, it would seem as though God's faithfulness and righteousness are the "then" part of the statement, with the Greek word eimi ("is") as the immediately subsequent verb to the conditional "if" statement.

But this interpretation presents clear theological challenges. Is God's faithfulness and righteousness dependent upon my confession of sin? Is God not faithful and righteous independent of anything I do? Does He not send His rain on the just and the unjust; His sun on the righteous and the unrighteous (see Matt 5:45)? Indeed, the Greek word eimi is not in the future tense; John does not write that if we confess our sins, God "will be faithful." He writes that God "is" presently and actively faithful.

Of course, many could then suppose that God's forgiveness and cleansing is the "then" part of the statement. But it seems to me that the Greek word hina - which literally means "so that" or "in order that" - indicates that God's faithfulness and righteousness makes His forgiveness and cleansing possible, not our confession. This passage shows that God's forgiveness is dependent upon His faithfulness, not anything we do.

What further muddies the waters is the first verse of the next chapter. After John writes that He wishes none of His readers would sin, he then apparently shares another Third Class Conditional Clause when he writes, "And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." You can clearly see the limitations of this passage as well! Certainly, God doesn't act as an advocate (the Greek word is parakletos, which is often translated as "comforter" when describing the Holy Spirit. It literally means "one who is called alongside") alongside God, only when we sin! His role as mediator, comforter, and advocate stands independent of our actions. Does it not?

Thus, I'm not sure that the classification of Third Class Conditional Clauses is really as easily interpreted as some would like us to believe. And I am convinced that God's faithfulness, rightesouness, forgiveness, cleansing, comfort, advocacy, is not so much dependent upon what I do, but upon who He is.

*The picture is from a painting by my good friend, Norman McGuire. He is a wonderful artist who primarily paints scenes from the life of Christ.


Anonymous said...

No one would argue against the thought that when we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive us. But does such a statement eliminate corporate justification? Is it an exclusive statement as to how God acts?

Shawn Brace said...

I was not at all saying that such a statement eliminates corporate justification! Not at all. Quite the opposite. I don't think that you followed the flow of my argument (this seems to be happening a lot lately!).

I was saying that most people cite this text as an example of God's "conditions" for forgiveness - ie., God forgives only after I confess. But I was showing that God's forgiveness is not based upon my confession, but upon His faithfulness.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you did not see "my" reasoning--it was in support of what you were saying!

Shawn Brace said...

The tone of your response seemed to imply that you thought I was interpreting it in such a way to contradict the idea of corporate justification. At the same time, the tone of your response seemed as though you were "conceding" the idea that this text shows the subjective actions on our part. However, I think this text actually uplifts the objective faithfulness/forgiveness of God - contrary to how many people interpret it.

Don and Sue said...

Now, now, boys! Tee hee.

So, I hope your next blog is about corporate justification. I've heard Bill explain it, but I need refreshing.

Dingo said...

While we're looking at Greek,some papers by K.M. Duncan and E.D. Peters brought out an interesting thing.

Colossians 2:13 is a wonderful description of "legal justification" "And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses." Complete forgiveness "all" is in the past, an accomplished fact of the atonement.

The Greek word representing "forgive" in this text is "charizomai", related to such things as charity. It is a function of grace - God's unconditional love.

In this text, it happened before we confessed - when we were "dead in [our] sins" and uncircumcised.

In 1st John 1:9, the Greek word representing "forgive" is "aphiemi". This word carries connotations of separation, putting away, etc. It is in these senses that it is used in Matt. 4:19-20. 5:24; and 6:12,14-15.

The two words just don't communicate the same things. Charizomai is an act of undeserved grace, done before we repented. Aphiemi is God's response to our conviction that we have sinned, and our confession of sin. It doesn't seem to take place in order to save us, but after we are Christians, according to the context (1:7-10; 2:1).

What I get from this is that God forgave in the sense of an all-embracing pardon at the cross, because Jesus had paid the complete penalty for all human beings. As we accept that and allow the Spirit to apply it to our personal lives (Jesus as our personal Savior), He begins a process of "aphiemi" of separating us from our sins, "cleansing us from all unrighteousness" so that our lives grow in reflecting the forgiveness done at the cross.

Anyway, I have become convinced that 1 John 1:9 is talking about a whole different concept - the charizomai's forgiveness applied to cleanse our lives to match our justification.

Kyle Baldwin said...


Once again I'm showing up late to the ballgame. I actually read your blog on the day that you posted it. However the additional comments have stirred a reaction. I think while Jesus' sacrifice was "once for all" and we are saved by His grace there are two components to salvation. The New Testament writers often move back and forth between the two concepts of justification and sanctification without telling the reader. I think this is done purposefully to blurr the distinction of our exact involvement with emphasis on God's involvement. However with that being said I would like to share a quote with you. Ellen White states that after contemplating the theme of redemption we will understand our mission.

"From a sense of thorough conviction, you can then testify to men of the immutable character of the law manifested by the death of Christ on the cross, the malignant nature of sin, and the righteousness of God in justifying the believer in Jesus on condition of his future obedience to the statues of God's government in heaven and earth." Temperance p138.

If God justifies us on the "Condition" of future obedience than perhaps forgiving on the condition that we confess our sins is not so strange. Legal justification is given on the basis of a condition and the sanctification that works to cleanse us is also given on the basis of a condition.

Shawn Brace said...

Dingo and Kyle: thanks for your thoughts. Very intriguing what Duncan and Peters have discovered. I wish that I could spend more time exploring the implications of all these texts.

I will just say one thing in relation to that, though: in Luke 23:34, Jesus says, "Father forgive them" - an expression that Ellen White says "embraced the whole world" (not to mention the fact that the soldiers had never asked for forgiveness). The word for "forgive" there is aphiemi. So . . . I'm not sure how that correlates with their assessment of the two Greek words . . .

Thanks for your thought as well Kyle! I think this is a very deep subject, and though it should be very simple, and on many levels it is, I am glad that there is also a depth to it that we can continue to explore, and will continue to explore throughout eternity.

Shawn Brace said...

By the way, Sue: if you want a definition of "legal justification," (at least as I understand it), you can read my previous post called "Discuss."

I hope this helps.