I remember as a child my mother asking me, “How’d you like fifty 50 cents?” I quickly responded, “I would like it very much.” What a silly question to ask an eight year old. Of course I would like fifty cents. Fifty cents was a lot of money when I was a little boy. My mother continued, “Here is a Bible verse. I want you to memorize it and, when you can recite it perfectly, I will give you the money.”
This is how I first began to learn the most well-known passages of the Bible. I memorized all of Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd . . . “[All quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.] I learned Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” which was a constant reminder of the Bible’s place of preeminence in my life, the sole rule of faith and practice for us Evangelicals.
Of course the most important verse, and one of the first to be memorized by any Evangelical Protestant child, is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” For me, this verse encapsulates the Gospel of Christ in one elegant and pregnant sentence, a sentence that reaches to the heart of God, explaining the essence of history and salvation in twenty-five short words. The key action words stand out with stark clarity: loved, gave, believe, perish, and have. The loving act of God in history, opened an otherwise locked and bolted door, providing man with an escape from damnation, offering eternal life.
Recently I was approached by a Fundamentalist friend who quoted Gen 15:6, “And he [Abraham] believed in the Lord; and it was counted to him for righteousness.” He explained that because the word “believed” is in the past tense, it means that Abraham was saved the instant he believed God. Abraham supposedly was saved, having eternal security from then on, based upon his one-point-in-time mental assent. My friend then moved to John 3:16 and tied Abraham’s belief to our belief in Christ.
John 3:16 is an important verse with an interesting twist that doesn’t immediately appear in the English translation. I asked my friend if he had ever looked carefully at the tenses of the action words in John 3:16. He hadn’t, and because his tradition tells him that one-time-belief is the basis of salvation, he automatically understood John to mean that, by a momentary mental assent to Christ, one could be assured of eternal security and be guaranteed a place in heaven.
I unpacked the verse to give him the information he lacked, the same insight I had lacked all my life before I began looking into the claims of the Catholic Church.
Before we start, I should say a little about action words. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, there are many tenses for verbs. We will discuss two: aorist and present. To put it simply, the Aorist tense describes one point in time, [Aorist Tense: The aorist tense is characterized by its emphasis on punctiliar action; that is, the concept of the verb is considered without regard for past, present, or future time. There is no direct or clear English equivalent for this tense, though it is generally rendered as a simple past tense in most translations. The events described by the aorist tense are classified into a number of categories by grammarians. The three most common of these are (1) a view of the action as having begun from a certain point (“inceptive aorist”), or (2) having ended at a certain point (“cumulative aorist”), or (3) merely existing at a certain point (“punctiliar aorist”). The categorization of other cases can be found in Greek reference grammars. The English reader need not concern himself with most of these finer points concerning the aorist tense, since in most cases they cannot be rendered accurately in English translation, being fine points of Greek exegesis only. The common practice of rendering an aorist by a simple English past tense suffices in most cases.] while the present tense is used for current, ongoing action.[Present Tense: According to Dana and Manatee in their Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, “The fundamental significance of the present tense is the idea of progress. It is the linear tense . . . the progressive force of the present tense should always be considered as primary, especially with reference to the potential moods, which in the nature of the case do not need any ‘present punctiliar’ tense.” Narrowing it down further, they say, “There are three varieties of the present tense in which its fundamental idea of progress is especially patent. Under ‘the progressive present: “This use is manifestly nearest the root idea of the tense. It signifies action in progress , or state of persistence.” In short the present tense expresses ongoing action in the present time.] Another way of contrasting the two is to think of Aorist as being geometrically represented by a point, and present by a continuous line. With this basic understanding, lets look at John 3:16:
“For God so loved [aorist, a past point in time] the world, that he gave [aorist, a past point in time] his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth [present, current, progressive action] in him should not perish [aorist, a past point in time], but have [present, current, progressive action] everlasting life.”
The present tense, “that whosoever believeth in him,” or in other words, “that whosoever is believing in Him” sheds a different light on the entire verse. One would expect, according to Protestant tradition, the word “believe” to be aorist, showing that it is a “one-point-in-time” event. I used to say, “I believed in Christ on such and such a date, so I know I am saved.” It could be asked why Jesus switched to the present tense in a verse full of aorists. The answer is that Jesus makes it utterly clear what he is really trying to say; that this belief is an acting, continual belief, and not just a past act of faith.
Notice that “have everlasting life” is also in the present tense. It does not say you will have eternal life in the past or future, but that you will currently be having eternal life. One Greek grammar [James Hewitt, New Testament Greek Hedrickson Publishers,1986).13.] explains the present tense in this way, “The present tense is basically linear or durative, ongoing in its kind of action. The durative notion may be expressed graphically by an unbroken line, since the action is simply continuous. This is known as the progressive present. Refinements of this general rule will be encountered; however, the fundamental distinction will not be negated.” Applying this definition here, he who is currently, habitually and continuously believing will be currently and presently having eternal life.
Next, I asked him to consider whether the word translated “believe” means a mere mental assent. The word in biblical times carried with it the concept of obedience and reliance. Kittel [Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NewTestament Eerdmans, 1968] states, “pisteuo means ‘to trust’ (also ‘to obey’).” Vines [W. E. Vines, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984)] says, “[R]eliance upon, not mere credence.” This is confirmed further by John the Baptist’s statement in John 3:36, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not (apeitheo) the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” The word “apeitheo” is understood by all good translators and commentators to mean obedience. The opposite (antonym) of believe is disobey. The verse in the RSV says, “He who believes in the Son . . . he who disobeys the Son . . .” The NASB translates the verse as, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Kittel, a Protestant reference work, clearly defines apeitheo to mean “to be disobedient.” The word belief has the element of obedience wrapped in its arms and the opposite of biblical belief is disobedience.
Where I used to say, “I believed in Christ on such and such a date, so I know I am saved” I now say, “I did believe in Christ, I am believing in Christ, and I am being saved.” My Fundamentalist friend has never responded to my explanation of these verses. I hope someday he will see past the high walls of his Fundamentalist traditions and see the great beauty and wisdom of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.