Someone once said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  In many walks of life this is evident, no less when using Greek to engage in exegesis of the text of Scripture.  Unfortunately, few enough in the church are conversant enough with Greek to know when they are being given accurate information, or whether they are being told a half-truth, or an outright distortion.

In a recent Bible Answer Man program (8/14/00), Dr. James White debated Tim Staples, a Roman Catholic apologist.  This debate ran for three hours and was divided into three one-hour-long programs for broadcast (the first two aired 7/6 and 7/7/00).  During the third program, approximately 47 minutes into the recording, Mr. Staples began arguing the position that the Christian cannot have assurance of his salvation, and that justification is a state from which a person can fall.  This was in response to White’s citation of Romans 5:1. As proof he quoted Galatians 2:16 which says that we have believed in Christ “that we might be justified by faith in Christ.”  He points out that the word translated “we might be justified” is a Greek subjunctive indicating doubt or uncertainty.  He therefore concludes that our faith in Christ may give us justification, but we cannot be sure.  James White strongly contradicted the assertion, as the sound clip indicates, but there was precious little time to explain the actual use of the subjunctive during the radio program itself.

Despite Mr. Staples’ attendance at the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, and his Roman Catholic seminary education, he has given a very simplified meaning of the subjunctive and hence made a statement that is simply not correct.  I would like to think he has done this as a result of misunderstanding, and not out of any malice, so the following correction is offered.

The Subjunctive and hina Clauses

The subjunctive in Greek is a mood that is often used to communicate possibility or probability.  It can be used alone or in conjunction with other particles to add particular nuance of meaning.  One particle that is often used with the subjunctive is the particle hina.  When hina is used with the subjunctive, the mood changes from one of possibility or probability, to one of purpose or result.[i]   It appears from the evidence of the New Testament that hina clauses (as such constructions are called) are not intended to imply uncertainty, even though they use the subjunctive mood, which, when used alone or with other particles, can indeed convey uncertainty.

The best way to understand this is to look at some examples of passages that use hina clauses.  The parts of the following passages in bold type are the parts that are translating hina clauses:

“And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”– so that they might accuse Him.” (Matt 12:10 NASB)

There was no doubt that the Jewish leaders wanted to accuse Jesus, so their question was asked with this intent.  “Might” here is not meant to represent uncertainty with regard to their intentions.  Rather, “might” is an idiomatic way of conveying such intent in English.

“The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8 NASB)

This passage itself declares that the subordinate clause is indicating purpose.  The infinitive (“to destroy”) is used to translate hina and the subjunctive.  Again, this is a perfectly legitimate way to indicate intent in English, and it translates the meaning of the verb adequately.  Jesus’ purpose was not to attempt to destroy the devil’s works if He was able to do so.  There is no question about Jesus’ ability to destroy the devil’s works. Rather, Jesus appeared for the purpose of destroying the devil’s works.

“Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” (Luke 9:12 NASB)

Again, the hina clause indicates the purpose behind the suggestion to send the crowd away: to enable them to find lodging and food.

The New Testament is replete with such examples.  Therefore, when we come to Galatians 2:16, we see the same use:

“nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” (NASB)

Again, “may” here is an idiomatic way of translating purpose in English.  The purpose of belief is justification.  Indeed, one can also see here the hina clause being used to indicate result.[ii]   Paul, by using the subjunctive, is not intending to communicate any kind of uncertainty with regard to justification.  Rather, by using the subjunctive in a hina clause, he is proclaiming that our faith in Christ has its purpose in our justification, and also has its end result in our justification.

Further support for this interpretation is found in numerous passages throughout the New Testament.  John 10:28 assures us that those to whom Christ has given eternal life shall never perish.[iii]  John 6:39 assures us that Christ will raise up on the last day everyone given to Him by the Father.  The testimony of Scripture is clear that those who are drawn by the Father put their faith in Christ, and thus their justification is assured.  The use of the hina clause in Galatians 2:16 does not detract from this great truth, but rather supports it beautifully by underscoring that justification is the purpose and final result of faith.

I hope this brief survey will encourage us to be diligent in our study of God’s Word, and to be wise stewards of the tools he has given us to understand His Word.  May we also rejoice in the finished work of Christ that secures our justification.

Colin Smith


[i] Indeed, in his book Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Dr. Daniel Wallace lists seven distinct uses of the particle hina with the subjunctive, including purpose, result, command, and substantive (see pages 471-477).  Purpose and result are, however, the most frequent uses of the hina clause.  See also Dana and Mantey’s A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, pages 248-249, with regard to the particle hina: “Its most common occurrence is in purpose or final clauses, and it occurs regularly with the subjunctive mood, there being but few exceptions and those with the optative.” (p.248)

[ii] On page 473, Wallace discusses “Purpose-Result” hina clauses.  “… the NT writers employ the language to reflect their theology: what God purposes is what happens and, consequently, hina is used to express both the divine purpose and the result.”

[iii] Interestingly, another construction using the subjunctive is employed here.  This time it is the subjunctive with a double negative, which indicates that the action of the verb (here “be destroyed”) shall by no means ever happen.

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