Doesn’t the Present Tense of Believe in John 3:16 Mean We Must Continue to Believe to Have Everlasting Life?

Belief Greek Grammar
Doesn’t the Present Tense of Believe in John 3:16 Mean We  Must Continue to Believe to Have Everlasting Life? 10
Share

1. Introduction

[click here for Chinese translation]

Lying in bed at the age of twelve, unable to fall asleep, I vividly remember thinking to myself, “If I die in my sleep, will I make it into heaven?” In the stillness of my pitch-dark bedroom, every altar call that I had ever heard came streaming back into my mind, “Are you really a Christian? Are you good enough?” Because I knew that I could never measure up to my church’s standards, I thought all hope was lost. Although we spent almost every waking hour immersed in church activities, I had no assurance of my eternal destiny. It was in these moments that I would hear the voice of one of my pastors, “Did you truly believe?” According to him, faith was not merely believing in something or someone, it was an ongoing emotional and legalistic battle between me and my flesh. The child-like faith of John 3:16 was undercut by what he described as true faith: “Take up your cross and follow me!” My pastor was inspired by theologians who wrote things like:

Doesn’t the Present Tense of Believe in John 3:16 Mean We Must Continue to Believe to Have Everlasting Life? 5

Don’t believe anyone who says it’s easy to become a Christian. Salvation for sinners cost God His own Son; it cost God’s Son His life, and it’ll cost you the same thing. Salvation isn’t the result of an intellectual exercise. It comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ as revealed in the Scripture; it’s the fruit of actions, not intentions. There’s no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile … The life we live, not the words we speak, determines our eternal destiny.[2]

Yet, I knew that if my eternal life depended on me, I might as well give up.

After moving to New Orleans, God put several people in my path to share their faith with me. One was a youth pastor who asked me, “Mike, could it be that you’ve been going to church your whole life but don’t understand the gospel?” He shared with me that, “we are saved simply by faith alone in Christ alone.” It took me almost twenty years to believe Christ’s promise and gain assurance of my eternal destiny, but once I did, it irrevocably changed my life.

2. What Is the Problem?

Just like my pastors did growing up, many well-meaning pastors and theologians qualify the words “faith” and “believe.” In Jas 2:14, many attach negative words such as “false” or “this kind of” to faith.[3] Others believe that the Biblical authors make a distinction in the original language of the NT between those that believed for a time (aorist tense[4]) and those that continue to believe (present tense). A leading grammarian believes that the writers of the NT commonly used the present tense to describe true belief because, “by and large [they] saw continual belief as a necessary condition of salvation.” He continues by explaining that “the promise of salvation is almost always given to” those who believe in the present and almost never to those that believe in the aorist.[5] In other words, this grammarian is saying that if a Biblical writer used the Greek aorist to describe the action of believing, we can assume that their faith stopped short of true belief. Conversely, he is saying that if the Biblical author used the present tense, we can assume that they truly believed because their faith would continue without end.

For those who believe one must continue to believe to truly have eternal life, this view makes sense. For example, they might point to John 2:24-25 as evidence of false faith. Many believed (aorist) in Jesus because of signs that Jesus did. Even though the purpose of the signs in John was to lead people to faith in Christ, some believe that those who believed in Jesus on the basis of the miraculous did not truly put their faith in Christ (see discussion below).[6] They could then point to John 3:16 as evidence of true faith. In this passage, John uses a present tense participle to describe faith. The present tense in John 3:16 describes a belief “which leads to salvation” as opposed to the aorist, “which stops short of true salvation.”[7] In other words, true faith continues (present tense) and false faith is only temporary (aorist).

In order to understand how the present tense is being used in John 3:16, we must understand how the verb functions in general in Greek and how the writers of the NT use the verb in various contexts. Once we understand the verb and its use in the NT, we will turn to John 3:16. John 3:16 will help us see if the view that we have to continue believing to be saved is correct or if the way John uses the present and aorist in John 3:16 is more consistent with how the verb “to believe” functions in the NT and the way the NT authors use it.

3. How Does “to Believe” Function in the New Testament?

Discussions that surround the verb “to believe” generally have to do with the difference between the aorist and the present tense in Greek. However, what most ignore is what kind of verb it is. It is a stative verb—a verb without dynamics or change. A stative verb describes a state of being (i.e., love, believe, know, have), not an action (i.e., walk, do, say, dance).[8]

When a person loves someone, they enter into a state of love. If we say, “he loved his wife,” it is possible that the situation has changed, yet, we would not assume that his love ceased unless someone tells us otherwise. If we say, “He loves his wife,” we would suspect that he will keep on loving her until we’re told differently. The same thing holds true for the verb “to believe.” When someone believes something, he enters into the state of belief—the end is unspecified.[9] If one says, “Joe believes,” the verb implies that he is in the state of believing and will continue in that state continuously until something happens to change his mind. If one says, “Joe believed that the earth was round,” the verb does not define how long his belief will continue into the future. It is likely that Joe will die believing that the earth is round, though it is possible that something could change his mind in the future. The Greek present tense works the same way with stative verbs.

The problem with those that say John 3:16 teaches that you have to continue to believe in order to be saved is that they are reading their theology into the verb and into the verse. Some translate John 3:16 as, “everyone who [continually] believes in him should not perish.”[10] There is no indication in John 3:16 that we have to continue to believe in order to have eternal life. Although the present tense can have a continuous aspect, there should be an indication from the context. For example, Acts 16:18 says, “And this she kept doing [present tense] for many days.” The word “kept” was added by the translators to the present tense verb “to do” because the phrase “for many days” lets us know that the action had continued for a time. But by contrast, in Matthew 17, a man knelt before Jesus and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic [lit. “experiences seizures,” present] and he suffers [present] terribly. For often he falls [present] into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him” (vv 15-16). Clearly the boy didn’t experience seizures, suffer, and fall continuously. These are dynamic verbs and the action is assumed to last for a certain amount of time. If he never stopped falling into the fire and water, he would have either died from his burns or from drowning. This would be an almost comical misuse of grammar.

That idea of continuation is not communicated by the present tense alone. When NT authors want to express a continuation, they use contextual clues or words to indicate what they mean. After all, if John wanted to include the idea of continually believing, he could have used the Greek verb epimenō, which means “to continue.”[11] With such a distressing point of doctrine, John would have spoken clearly rather than cloud it in ambiguity. (After all, assurance of salvation is greatly undercut, or even impossible, if we must continue to believe until the end of life because we can not see into the future.)

Commentators often place a continuing aspect onto the verb “to believe” when there are no contextual clues or modifiers to show that continuing to believe is intended. This is a misunderstanding of how the verb functions. In this chapter, I will argue that he verb, “to believe” functions as a stative verb in the NT, therefore the NT writers use the aorist to refer to entrance into the state of believing and the present as describing someone being in the state of believing. Let’s see if the New Testament bears this out.

 4. How Is “to Believe” Used in the New Testament

a. The Tax Collectors (Matthew 21:32)

The twenty-first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel contains a story about Jesus’ authority being challenged. After refusing to explain His authority, Jesus tells the elders and the chief priests the Parable of the Two Sons.

In order to make a contrast, Jesus states, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (v 31b). To eliminate any confusion, Jesus explains, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe [aorist] him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him [aorist]. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him [aorist]” (v 32). If Jesus meant for the contrast to be between the true faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes and the lack of faith on the part of the chief priests and elders, why did Matthew use the aorist for both groups? This seems to conflict with the distinction some try to make between the present and aorist forms of the verb.

Doesn’t the Present Tense of Believe in John 3:16 Mean We Must Continue to Believe to Have Everlasting Life? 5b. The Wedding Miracle (John 2:11)

After Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, John writes that the “disciples believed [aorist] in Him” (John 2:11).[12] This began Jesus’ series of signs that would prove that He truly was the Christ. John 20:30-31 gives the purpose for Jesus performing signs: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Thus, if the purpose of the signs was so that people would believe that Jesus is the Christ, it would seem that the disciples truly came to faith in Christ and received eternal life in John 2:11. What reason exists to claim that the disciples’ faith was false? All three verbs in 2:11 are in the aorist (made, manifested, and believed). It is clear from the context that John was retelling the completed story from a later standpoint. Thus, John was in no way trying to convey that the disciples did not truly come to faith in Christ. He was merely retelling a completed story from his present point of view, and he used the aorist to show that the disciples entered into the state of believing in Christ.[13]

c. The Faith of His Disciples (John 2:23)

John 2:23 states, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed [aorist] in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” Concerning this verse, Morris writes, “The verb ‘believed’ is in the aorist tense; many came to the point of decision. Yet we should probably not regard them as having profound faith.”[14] After calling into question their faith, he explains that they believed only because they were attracted by Jesus’ miracles but did not experience “genuine conversion.”[15] The very point of the signs was to bring people to faith in Christ (John 20:30-31). To deny this fact is to disregard the purpose of the gospel of John and of the signs themselves.

Many would regard the faith in v 23 as false because of vv 24-25: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” Yet, there is good reason Jesus did not trust His mission to new believers. Only six chapters later, many Jews came to believe in Jesus (John 8:30-31, aorist and perfect) and then after learning more about who He was, picked up stones to throw at Him (John 8:59).[16] He had good reason not to trust new converts. They had entered into the state of believing, but their line of belief was not long enough to be trusted with great tasks. Similarly, no newly hired Secret Service agent guards the President on the first day.[17] John’s account of the disciples’ belief and the belief of the crowd does not seek to distinguish between true and spurious faith. On the contrary, John was merely trying to show the entrance into a state of belief.

d. The Woman at the Well (John 4:39-41)

One of the greatest illustrations of the fact that the aorist form of “to believe” does convey true faith is found in the account of the Samaritan woman. John writes, “Many Samaritans from that town believed [aorist] in him because of the woman’s testimony” (v 39). Some might prematurely assert that they did not truly believe on the account of the woman. However, context clarifies that some did believe the woman: “many more believed [aorist] because of his [Jesus’] word” (v 41). In fact, John goes on to quote them as saying, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe [present], for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (v 42). Like any good storyteller, when John tells a story—which occurred in the past—he uses the past tense. When he wants to quote what someone said in the past, he uses the present tense. The grammar here says nothing about the validity of their faith.

e. The Philippian Jailor (Acts 16:31)

The narrative concerning the Philippian jailor in Acts 16 is one of the most powerful gospel texts in Acts. The jailor asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v 30b). And they answered, “Believe [aorist command] in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v 31). Clearly, Paul and Silas were not telling the jailor, “Come to the point of decision but do not believe and you will be saved.” Rather, Luke was using the aorist to communicate Paul and Silas’s wish that the jailor would enter into the state of believing.

f. The Faith of Abraham (James 2:19)

One of the greatest illustrations that the aorist and present forms of the verb “to believe” can both be referring to one who has truly believed can be found in the second chapter of the epistle of James. In this controversial passage, James writes, “You believe [present] that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe [present]—and shudder” (v 19) and then later writes, “‘Abraham believed [aorist] God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God” (v 23). It is interesting to note that most who hold to the view that the aorist describes those that don’t truly believe think that the first reference to faith (v 19) is to false faith even though it’s in the present tense, while the second reference in the aorist refers to true faith (v 23).[18] Thus, given the popular view of James—that James is writing to distinguish between true and false faith—it would seem that demons possess eternal life and Abraham is bound for the lake of fire. Surely everyone would believe that this would be an inexcusable misuse of Greek grammar.

James, however, was not trying to differentiate true and spurious faith in these verses. He merely described something that was true at the time of writing (present, the demons’ faith) and something else that happened before the time of writing (aorist, Abraham’s faith).[19]

g. Conclusion

While some theologians try to make a distinction between the aorist and present forms of “to believe,” their view of temporary faith (aorist) versus true, never-ending faith (present) does not fit the verb’s use in the NT. The verb is a stative verb. Hence, the NT authors merely wanted to describe someone entering into the state of belief (aorist) or being in the state of belief (present) in relation to the text.

5. How is “to Believe” Used in John 3:16?

After looking at how the verb functions and how it is used by the NT authors, we can see that stative verbs like “to believe” communicate entrance into the state in the aorist and being in the state in the present. Making a distinction between the aorist as temporary and the present as without end doesn’t make sense in the passages above nor does it make sense in John 3:16. John writes,

For God so loved [aorist] the world, that he gave [aorist] his only Son, that whoever believes [present] in him should not perish [aorist subjunctive] but have [present subjunctive] eternal life.

If we follow the view that the aorist was used by John to communicate temporary faith and the present to communicate unending faith, we must apply the same logic to God’s love as well. In this view, since John described God’s love in the aorist, God only temporarily loved the world and was a love that stopped short of true love. However, this is not what the Biblical author meant when he penned this verse. Clearly he meant that God demonstrated His love for us by sending His Son. This was a past event relative to the author writing this verse, so he used the aorist to describe it. Yet, clearly His love continued into the future. By using the aorist, the author meant to communicate the entrance into a state demonstrating His love for the world. Likewise, when he uses the present tense “those who believe,” he merely meant that those who are in the state of believing, presently have eternal life in relation to the text. The reader can assume that this belief will continue into the future until we are told otherwise. Thus, in John 3:16, John merely wanted to describe God’s entrance into a state of demonstrating His love (aorist) and a present state of belief (present tense). To say that the aorist indicates something short of reality is false. Likewise, to say that the present tense describes belief that continues forever is saying more than the author wished to communicate.

6. Conclusion

Some have tried to make a distinction between the aorist and present forms of the verb “to believe” in the NT. Many have done this out of seemingly good intentions—to motivate Christians to be more faithful in their walk. Nevertheless, they have read their theology into these verses and added a layer to the text, which was never intended by the authors. Simply put, with a stative verb like “to believe,” the aorist and the present tenses do not indicate at all whether the state continues until the end of life or not. If John were trying to communicate that idea, he could have easily used epimenō “to continue” or proskairos, “temporarily” to say so.

The verb “to believe” is a stative verb. The aorist form of the verb merely communicates the entrance into the state of believing, while the present form carries the sense of being in the state of believing. By using the aorist, the Biblical authors were not trying to communicate something less than faith. Likewise, in using the present tense, they were not trying to say that someone has to believe until the day they die in order to have eternal life. John 3:16 simply says that those who are in the state of believing in Christ at this moment, possess eternal life. It is our life that is eternal, not necessarily our faith. Making persevering in faith a test of true belief would be adding a layer to the gospel that John never intended.

[click here for Chinese translation]


Note: This article originally appeared as a chapter in the book 21 Tough Questions about Grace printed by Bold Grace Ministries.


[1] This article is based on an article written at a more academic level: Michael Makidon, “Did They Believe?” It is available at: http://scriptureunlocked.org/en/resources/article-downloads/doc_download/29-did-they-believe.

[2] John MacArthur, Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 93

[3] For a different view, see Zane Hodges, The Epistle of James: Proven Character Through Testing (Irving, TX: GES, 1994).

[4] The aorist tense can be seen as a simple past tense (though the action or state does not always occur in the past). It does not indicate whether the action or state was temporary or ongoing.

[5] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 621, n. 22. Full quote: “The present was the tense of choice most likely because the NT writers by and large saw continual belief as a necessary condition of salvation. Along these lines, it seems significant that the promise of salvation is almost always given to ὁ πιστεύων [the one who believes, present tense] … almost never to ὁ πιστεύσας [the one who believes/believed, aorist tense] (apart from Mark 16:16, John 7:39, and Heb 4:3 come the closest…)”

[6] See Morris, John, 182.

[7] Daniel B. Wallace, “Greek Exegesis in Sermonic Structure,” in 1997 DTS Class Notes, 3.4.B. Full quote: “John’s tendency is to use a progressive or completed tense (i.e., either imperfect, present, or perfect) for belief, which leads to salvation (e.g., in 3:16 he uses a present participle— ὁ πιστεύων), but an undefined or punctiliar tense (i.e., aorist) for a belief, which stops short of true salvation.”

[8] Cf. Zeno Vendler, “Verbs and Times,” in Linguistics in Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), 99-108.

[9] Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), 136. Fanning classifies believing (pisteuō) as a state in which “there is no exertion to maintain knowledge/attitude or to act in keeping with it.”

[10] Wallace, Grammar, 522.

[11] See Acts 12:16; Rom 11:22, 23. Paul wrote, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue [epimenō] in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue [present subjunctive, epimenō] in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.” It’s interesting that Paul felt the need to qualify the present tense by adding the verb “continue.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 137. Fanning correctly notes, “The aorist aspect with STATES denotes most frequently the entrance of the subject into the condition denoted by the verb.”

[14] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 181. In Matthew 21:32 (discussed above), there are three aorists. One is negated and two are affirmed. Morris writes, “They did believe him, which means that they responded to his call for repentance and amended their whole way of living and of approach to God” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], p 538). Although it is unfortunate that Morris muddies the gospel here, it is almost equally regrettable that his commentary on John makes contradictory statements. He is not able to sustain his view of the aorist in Scripture.

[15] Morris, John, 181.

[16] Editor’s Note: Another grace-centered view of this passage is that those who antagonized Jesus and took up stones to throw at Him were different people from those who “believed in Him” in John 8:30-32. See John Niemelä’s article, “Who Spoke? John 8:30-33” in Grace In Focus Magazine, July-August 2013. Available online here: http://www.faithalone.org/magazine/y2013/Who%20Spoke.pdf. Last accessed, June 25th, 2014.

[17] There is an intentional verbal correlation in John 2:23-24. Just as many trusted (episteusan, aorist) in His name, He did not trust (episteuen, imperfect) Himself to them. Some might say that the latter appears in the imperfect because Jesus truly did not entrust Himself to the crowd while the crowd did not really trust in His name. Yet, this does not seem to be the case. It is more probably a feature of highlighting. Fanning, 243, writes, “The contrast at times is one of descriptive vs. factual narration: the imperfect highlights the manner of the occurrence while the aorist merely relates the fact of it.” The usage of the imperfect might also involve what is referred to as “simultaneous occurrence” (Ibid., 244).

[18] Cf. Wallace, Grammar, 219; 465, n. 48; 604.

[19] See Paul Miles’s chapter “Doesn’t James Say, ‘Faith Without Works Is Dead?’” in the book 21 Questions About Grace.

Author: Michael Makidon

Michael Makidon grew up in Flint, MI, moved to New Orleans when he was 14, and finally landed in Dallas in 2000 to finish up seminary. He finished his Th.M. at DTS in 2003 and Ph.D. from SATS in 2015. His dissertation demonstrates the influence of the nature of Christ in the Gospel of John on the Valentinian Sources in the Nag Hammadi Library. After almost two years in Guatemala, he moved back to the Dallas area where he serves as an adjunct professor for SETECA (Seminario Teológico Centroamericano) and Dallas Theological Seminary. He currently lives in Dallas, where he met his beautiful wife. They have two children, a German Shepherd, and rather portly orange tabby.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *