Skip to content

The Most Dangerous Word?


What’s the most dangerous word in Christendom? ‘IF‘ – and it’s especially dangerous when used by evangelicals in the context of a gospel sermon or evangelistic message. Let me explain.

The word IF indicates a cause and effect scenario. IF I do this, then there will be a result or a consequence. IF I exceed the speed limit, – I will be breaking the law. IF always implies CONDITIONALITY. The Oxford on-line dictionary explains:-
If, introducing a conditional clause: on the condition or supposition that; in the event that:
if you have a complaint, write to the director
if you like I’ll put in a word for you
(with past tense) introducing a hypothetical situation:
if you had stayed, this would never have happened
whenever; every time:
if I go out she gets nasty

I suppose one of the most famous cases of the conditionality of IF occurs in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem of that name:

IF you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

His conclusion is that IF you can manage to do all these things and more,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

A mighty big IF indeed!

It’s when the word IF appears in the context of evangelism that its conditionality becomes a problem. There is a temptation on preachers and evangelists, in their anxiety to win souls and see conversions and urge sinner to make a response to their message, to make God’s Grace conditional on something we must do.

So, we hear phrases like:
“If you want to be in heaven you must turn from your sin, and turn to Christ”
“God will forgive you, – IF you ask him too”
“If you trust the Lord, He will save you”

Now, no doubt these seemingly innocuous sayings are well intentioned and at least contain an element of truth. But there are problems with them when they are addressed to sinners, not the least of which is the fact that sinners are dead in their sins, and cannot do anything to relieve themselves of that state of deadness. Even if they could, nothing that they could do of themselves would merit God’s salvation, his favour or his forgiveness. We cannot make salvation conditional on ANYTHING that we DO – even if those things are worthy, well intentioned and as pure as sinful human beings can manage.

Is this a biblical position? It is, and I’d like you to read Titus 3:1-10, to see just how biblical it is.

In the passage, Paul is going to teach Titus and his congregation to be careful to do good works. Good works, after all are the normative lifestyle outcome for people who have been redeemed and adopted into God’s family. But it would be dangerous for him to state that fact baldly, in isolation from the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace. So he begins with a theological statement concerning how a person is brought into a relationship with God through the work of the Lord Jesus.

Firstly, he reminds us that without Christ we were totally depraved, steeped in sin and lost, and fitting only for God’s judgement, just like the ungodly, unregenerate people who presently live around us:

3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.

Into the maelstrom of sinfulness and awfulness which was our souls, God shone his divine light, (through the work of the Word and the Holy Spirit), and in an act of supreme kindness, showed us exactly what we really were like, revealed our true character and our condition in God’s eyes, and so Paul writes:

4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared,

There was an effect within us. God did something. It was not conditional on anything that we did first. It was an act of mercy and undeserving favour on his part alone. Note:

5 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,

Now read that verse very carefully indeed. HE SAVED US. We did not ‘Get saved’ or ‘Go in for God’s salvation’. There is NOTHING OF MAN IN THIS, we are dead in our sins until God regenerates our dead spirit, and breathes new life into our souls. At this point in our conversion, God is active and man is passive. The most genuine, righteous of our works cannot avail. Not our church attendance, our sacraments, our membership of a church, our prayers, our love for others or our charitable giving. Not even our decision for Christ. Nothing. not because of works done by us in righteousness. God regenerates us because of his own mercy, and washes us, cleanses us, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

No IFs. no conditionality. Nothing.

Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to thy Cross I cling
Naked come to thee for dress
Weary come to thee for rest
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me Saviour, or I die.

And he does. And he does it for us with abundant grace:

6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour,

And having redeemed us by his grace alone, and brought us into a right standing before the eternal God, he brings us into his family and grants us eternal life.

7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

It is only then, when Paul has established clearly that a person cannot do anything in and of themselves to make them acceptable to God, or contribute to their salvation, that Paul is able to ask those who have already met the Lord, and are part of His kingdom, to examine their lives, and to ensure that they are living for Jesus, (good works and a quiet Christian life and sanctification). After all these are matters that he INSISTS be seen as essential, so that Christians can go on to be a good witness. He now adds to the above…

8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.

9 But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.

10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him,

11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Following Paul’s example, when preaching to unconverted people we must always be aware that it is Christ who saves. it is his saving work on the Cross that makes sinners righteous before God, not our decision or any other ‘work of righteousness’. There can be no conditional offer of salvation. No hint that you can do something to merit God’s favour, or provoke him into saving action. No IF in the Gospel, for we cannot precipitate or deserve God’s grace. All of the things that we do, – decision, repentance, casting our burden upon the Lord, – are responses to the regenerating work of God in the soul, not pre-conditions of it.

How then does a Calvinist preach evangelistically? That will be a matter for another post, on which I intent to work over the next week or so. Watch this space!

From → Editorial

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: