News and Views

God’s Ifs

Much of the Bible's message is conditional. God often describes our possible behaviour, and the consequences, and frequently begins with “If.” In Genesis 4:7, God follows this pattern as He tells Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (NIV) At the other end of the Bible is Revelation 22:18-19, “I warn everyone who hears the words of prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (NIV) In between, there are numerous conditional promises and warnings. Some of them were specific, and completed, examples to us. Others still apply to us, need to be taken seriously by us. They also point to interesting aspects of our relationship with God.

One of the most interesting examples of God's response to changed behaviour isn't even stated in conditional terms. God told Jonah to inform Nineveh that it would be “overturned,” that is destroyed, in 40 days. No ands, ifs, or buts, it would be destroyed. The people of Nineveh believed the message and repented in sackcloth and ashes, fasting and praying and turning away from “their evil ways and their violence.” God saw their change and had compassion and did not destroy them. The people of Nineveh met the conditions for averting the disaster, even though the conditions were not spelled out for them at that time.

Another significant Old Testament example, although given in a particular place and time, applies whenever and wherever the conditions apply throughout all of time, including here and now. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (NIV).

In considering the New Testament conditional messages from God, I am indulging in a practice known at the time of Jesus as “stringing pearls,” meaning taking key statements and stringing them together as one coherent message. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6) “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:14-15) “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:19-20) If we believe and obey, then we will have eternal life, beginning now.

God's conditional demands highlight two important aspects of who we are.

First, we have genuine free-will, and God responds to us according to our free-will decisions and actions, and according to His supreme will, love, and knowledge of what is truly best for us. If we choose Jesus, seek to know, love, obey and enjoy God, then God the Holy Spirit indwells us to help us grow in the Lord to the extent we let Him. If we choose to live without God, He may abandon us to our own wills and let us reap the full consequences of turning away from the goodness of God. Yes, one way that we image God is in having free-will, and neither doctrines of predestination nor social scientists can take that away from us.

Second, when we come to Christ, He accepts us as we are. Then He gets to work in us to re-create us into the perfect image of God which we were originally created to be. Yes, we will grow to be like Jesus in the sense that Jesus as a human imaged God perfectly according to God's plan. However, we will remain our individual selves, imaging God in the unique way He planned for us.

Many of God's directions to us are shaped in the “if...then” pattern, indicating what He wants from us and how He will respond to our choices. 

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