CLARIFYING THE MISUNDERSTOOD PRESENT TENSE

2019-06-26T12:07:34+00:00February 8th, 2019|

by Tom Stegall

Understanding correctly the significance of Greek verbs is essential for biblical interpreters to fulfill the high calling of “handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, NASB). This article seeks to aid believers and Bible teachers in this task by clarifying two prominent misconceptions about present tense verbs as they are used in the Greek New Testament.

Present Tense vs. Present Time

First, the Greek present tense verb does not necessarily indicate action that occurs in present time as opposed to past or future time. To assume the present tense always, by itself, speaks of action in present time is to impose English meaning and usage upon Greek. A present-tense verb in Greek may be used for past actions, as with the present tense verbs for “saw” and “said” in John 1:29: “The next day John saw [blepei] Jesus coming toward him, and said [legei], ʻBehold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!ʼ” Likewise, present tense verbs are sometimes used for events that will occur in future time: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come [erchomai] again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). In Greek, verb tenses do not primarily indicate the time of an action as in English.

Present Tense vs. Continual Action

Second, Greek verb tenses do not specify a certain kind of action, as if the present tense necessarily means continual action. This is frequently misunderstood and often used to bolster false doctrinal conclusions. For example, a common claim among Lordship Salvation proponents is that the present-tense form of the verb pisteuō (“believe”) in salvation passages means that eternal life requires continual, enduring belief:

The continuing nature of saving faith is underscored by the use of the present tense of the Greek verb pisteuō (“believe”) throughout the gospel of John (cf. 3:15-18, 36; 5:24; 6:35, 40; 7:38; 11:25-26; 12:44, 46; 20:31; also Acts 10:43; 13:39; Romans 1:16; 3:22; 4:5; 9:33; 10:4, 10-11). If believing were a one-time act, the Greek tense in those verses would be aorist.[1]

In fact, the most famous verse in the entire Bible uses a present tense verb that may be translated, “whoever continues believing in him” may have eternal life (see John 3:16).[2]

Similarly, the present tense expression “he who overcomes” (ho nikōn) in Revelation 2–3 is interpreted by many Lordship Salvationists as proof that he who truly believes in Christ for eternal life will always practically “overcome” by persevering to the end of one’s Christian life in faith and good works while having a pattern of practical victory over sin.[3]

The view that the present tense in New Testament Greek inherently indicates a continuous, habitual, linear state or action is a deeply ingrained misconception. Unfortunately, most Greek grammar books taught this view of the present tense as recently as about 30 years ago. Since that time, Greek language scholars have demonstrated convincingly that Greek tense forms inherently convey the writer’s viewpoint on an action (aspect), not the kind of action itself (Aktionsart). Similarly, Greek grammarians have also come to conclude that the present tense does not automatically refer to an ongoing action or state,[4] and likewise that the use of the aorist-tense verb form does not by itself mean a once-for-all action or state.[5] However, many Bible interpreters and teachers today are still stuck in the old paradigm that equates tense with kind of action.

Aktionsart vs. Aspect

The tense of a Greek verb does not inherently indicate a verb’s function or actual, objective kind of action (technically called Aktionsart), whether that action is linear and continuous or momentary and unrepeated. Instead, Greek verb tenses indicate the subjective portrayal of that action or state by the writer, which is called aspect.[6] A biblical writer may choose to portray a momentary, instantaneous action using the present-tense form of a verb to add vividness to a scene for the reader, or he may choose to zoom out and use the aorist-tense form to more broadly and remotely portray an action that is continuous and repeated but presented in a summary statement. This difference in subjective portrayal between the present and aorist tenses is often illustrated by two different vantage points for viewing a parade. The present-tense form effectively places the reader on the street curb to see the parade passing right in front of him, while the aorist-tense form would be used to view the parade from a helicopter with a bird’s-eye view.

This difference in aspect (a biblical writer’s vantage point on the action) explains why Gospel writers oftentimes portray the same objective action in Christ’s earthly ministry using two different verb tenses. For example, Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted [peirasthēnai] by the devil.” Here the infinitive form of peirazō (translated “to be tempted/tested”) is in the aorist tense. But in Luke’s parallel account of the same event, he uses the present tense participle form of peirazō: “Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted [peirazomenos] for forty days by the devil” (Luke 4:1-2). In cases where one passage has one tense and a parallel Gospel passage uses another tense, the Gospel writers are not making different, conflicting claims about the nature or kind of the Lord’s actions or speech. Rather, they are simply choosing to portray His actions or speech from differing aspects or vantage points that are either more proximate (present tense) or remote (aorist tense). However, if an interpreter were to erroneously insist that the present tense inherently indicates continuous action while the aorist tense must refer to a one-time action, then this would mean that the Gospels contradict one another, which would amount to a practical denial of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. God forbid!

Recognizing this difference between verbal aspect (subjective portrayal of an action or state) and Aktionsart (the objective nature or kind of action) helps us understand how Greek present and aorist tenses function. Contrary to popular opinion among many Bible teachers, the present tense can be used for a one-time, instantaneous, punctiliar action; but when it does, it is portraying an action or state with greater proximity to the action. Conversely, the aorist tense can be used for continuous action that is perceived and portrayed from a more remote vantage point. An example of the latter occurs in Revelation 20:4. There, the aorist tense is used to summarize an action that will occur repeatedly for a thousand years after Christ’s Second Coming:

And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

The Greek verbs for “lived” and “reigned” are both in the aorist tense, but the context makes clear that the living and reigning transpire over a period of one thousand years. Here, the aorist tense is used to remotely summarize, from a vantage point outside of the millennium, the continual living and reigning that will occur within that timeframe, like viewing a parade from a helicopter where you can see the entire parade from start to finish. This use of the aorist tense is not uncommon in the New Testament, nor is the use of the present tense for momentary, non-repetitive action, such as in Matthew 3:13: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.” The word “came” (paraginetai) is in the present tense, which certainly does not mean that Jesus “was continually or habitually arriving”[7] at the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist.

The examples of Matthew 3:13 and Revelation 20:4 demonstrate a very important point with respect to verbs in the Greek New Testament—the verb’s Aktionsart or kind of action (whether habitual or momentary) is not determined by the verb’s tense but by the context in which the verb occurs and by the lexical meaning or nature of the verb itself. In the context, there may be adverbs or prepositional phrases that modify the verb and provide clues to its duration or kind of action (e.g., “immediately,” “at once,” “in that hour,” “continually”).[8] Some verbs by their very nature tend to express action that is either more momentary or continual. For instance, the verb for “crucify” (stauroō) inherently depicts a one-time act based on the nature of crucifixion leading to imminent death. The same is true with verbs such as “born” (Matt. 2:4) or “die” (John 11:51), unless an unusual meaning is intended by the writer using other modifying words in the context, like Paul exclaiming, “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31). Though the verb for “crucify” (stauroō) normally occurs in the aorist-tense form, it occasionally occurs in the present-tense form (Matt. 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:21), showing that the present tense can certainly be used to portray a one-time event.

In the Gospel of John—the “Gospel of Belief”—the present tense is used to portray several events that are one-time occurrences by their very nature. The Second Coming of Christ is spoken of using the present-tense form (14:2-3, 18, 28), along with His ascension (20:17), as are the disciples going fishing one night (21:3). Not only can the present-tense form be used to describe one-time, non-repeatable events occurring in the present, such as the Crucifixion, or future events from the disciples’ standpoint, such as the Ascension and Second Coming, but the present tense even portrays past, completed, instantaneous events, such as Christ’s coming to earth at the Incarnation (John 6:33, 50). In each of these examples, the inherent lexical meaning of the verb’s action and other contextual modifying words, not the verb’s tense form, determine whether the action of the verb is either momentary or continual.

Present Tense, Articular, Substantival Participle

The present tense, articular participle construction for “believe” is quite common in John’s Gospel and deserves special attention. This is the construction that occurs in the most popular evangelistic verse in the Bible, John 3:16, which says, “whoever believes [ho pisteuōn] in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” When a definite article such as ho is used with the present-tense participle form of a verb such as pisteuōn, the combination is known as a present-tense, articular, substantival participle construction. In Greek, this type of construction commonly functions as a substantival noun or descriptive title, so that a phrase like “he who believes” (ho pisteuōn) simply means “the believer,” without denoting anything specific about the nature of believing, its duration, or even the time when it occurred. The belief may occur at a point in time or repeatedly over a period of time, but the Greek tense does not inherently indicate this information. Though substantival participles in Greek are normally articular (have an article), they do not need to be articular in order to still function substantivally as nouns. But the addition of the article definitely nominalizes the participle (turns it into a noun in function). Since tense is a function of verbs and the articular participle construction is substantival as a virtual noun phrase, it practically and functionally has a zero-tense value, just like nouns or articles themselves. For this reason, a substantival participle construction such as ho pisteuōn is best understood as simply a generic title or description, meaning “he who believes,” “the believing one,” “whoever believes,” or even just “the believer.”

Even if an action occurs once, that solitary act can identify the entire person and serve as a descriptive title for that person. Thus, Adam’s one act of sin was enough to identify him thereafter as “a sinner” and all of his descendants as “sinners” (Romans 5:17-19). Similarly, James 2:10-11 states that a person who breaks God’s law only once is “guilty of all.” The person who violates God’s law is known as a “transgressor,” regardless of whether he broke God’s law once or a thousand times. According to these passages, all it takes is one sin for a person to be justly counted as a “sinner” or “transgressor” in God’s sight. Virtually all proponents of the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints agree with this point as it pertains to original sin. They also readily agree that in our society a person’s one-time donation is enough to identify him thereafter as a “benefactor.” But if perseverance advocates are willing to acknowledge these examples to be true, why do they deny that one act of belief is enough to constitute a person a “believer” in God’s sight? If all it takes is one act of sin to become a “sinner” or one donation to become a “benefactor,” then all it takes is one act of belief to be constituted a “believer” (ho pisteuōn).

This view of ho pisteuōn is consistent with the conclusions of leading Greek grammarians. Nigel Turner explains this use of the present-tense, articular, substantival participle, saying that in these grammatical constructions the “action (time or variety) is irrelevant and the participle has become a proper name; it may be under Hebraic influence, insofar as the Hebrew participle is also timeless and is equally applicable to past, present and future.”[9] The present-tense construction ho pisteuōn found throughout John’s Gospel is best understood, therefore, as having a gnomic function. This use of the present tense involves generic subjects and most often occurs with “generic statements to describe something that is true any time.”[10] Other generic, gnomic-type statements using the same grammatical construction that are commonly used by John include “he who hears” (ho akouōn), “he who loves” (ho agapōn), and “he who does” (ho poiōn). The Johannine expression “he who believes” (ho pisteuōn) certainly qualifies as a generic subject or statement. Regarding the generic nature of the gnomic present tense, Fanning says the “sense of a generic statement is usually an absolute statement of what each one does once, and not a statement of the individual’s customary or habitual activity.”[11] Thus, for a group of people who fit the description of ho pisteuōn, as in John 3:36, Fanning says this describes “a group doing an act a single time, rather than repeatedly.”[12] This use of the present-tense, substantival participle for a one-time action is common (see Matt. 27:3, 40; Mark 14:20, 24; Luke 16:18; John 1:29; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 11:28).

Aorist Tense vs. Present Tense of “Believe”

Those who teach falsely that the present tense must indicate continual or habitual belief often make a similar unfounded claim regarding the use of the aorist tense of “believe” (pisteuō). They sometimes say that there are no examples of pisteuō in the aorist-tense form in eternal salvation contexts or that such instances occur so infrequently compared to the present tense that we must conclude that the New Testament writers used the present tense predominantly to make a theological point about the ongoing nature of true, “saving” faith.[13] Both of these claims are patently false.

In terms of frequency of usage, of the 98 uses of pisteuō in John’s Gospel, 32 are in the aorist-tense form.[14] Though the occurrences of the present-tense form of “believe” (pisteuō) outnumber the aorist in John, it is only by a ratio of roughly two to one, which is hardly significant enough to justify a major theological distinction based on differing tense-form usage. Furthermore, the aorist-tense form of pisteuō is used several times in key evangelistic, salvation passages in John’s Gospel (1:7; 2:11; 8:24; 12:42; 19:35 [Majority Text]; 20:31 [MT]).

In addition, several other verses in John’s Gospel use the aorist-tense verbs “received” (1:12), “drinks” (4:14), and “eat” (6:53) as synonyms for believing in Christ. John 1:12 is particularly significant since it uses both the aorist- and present-tense forms: “But as many as received [elabon] Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe [tois pisteuousin] in His name.” The phrase “those who believe” (tois pisteuousin) is another instance of the substantival participle function of the present-tense, articular participle form of pisteuō; but it occurs in apposition to those who “received” (elabon), which is an aorist-tense verb. This effectively equates the aorist-tense verb “received” with the present-tense participle “believe.” The claim that the present tense portrays ongoing belief in contrast to the aorist tense is disproven by this verse since the action of receiving (aorist tense) Christ is used interchangeably with believing (present tense) in His name.

In addition to the Gospel of John, the book of Acts contains one of the clearest passages in the New Testament on belief in Christ as the sole condition for salvation, and it uses the aorist tense for “believe.” In Acts 16:30-31, the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas the ultimate question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They reply, “Believe [pisteuson] on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, you and your household.” In verse 31, Paul and Silas state the condition for salvation using the aorist-tense, imperative-mood form of pisteuō. Since the imperative mood exists in Greek only in the present- and aorist-tense verb forms, there were only two tenses for Paul and Silas to choose from to command the jailer to believe. But if we assume that the present-tense form necessarily indicates habitual, continual action, then why did Paul and Silas opt for the aorist tense of “believe” if they meant to say that the condition for eternal life is continual belief? Furthermore, why didn’t Paul and Silas just remove all ambiguity regarding tenses by adding certain modifying words that clearly mean continuous, enduring belief, such as “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ until the end, and you shall be saved” or “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and continue to believe, and you shall be saved”?

Besides these significant passages in John’s Gospel and Acts 16:31 using the aorist-tense form of “believe,” there are at least two other significant aorist-tense uses of “believe” in Paul’s epistles. In Romans 13:11, Paul exclaims, “Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed [episteusamen]” (KJV). Significantly, he does not use the present tense of pisteuō as if to say, “Our salvation is nearer now that we believe.” Again, this distinction raises the fundamental question: if present, ongoing faith in the Christian’s life is necessary to reach final salvation, then why does Paul connect future, final salvation to past, initial belief as expressed here by his choice of the aorist, indicative form for “we believed”? Why not connect it to present, ongoing belief, which is supposedly the real proof of the genuineness of initial, saving faith?

A similar question arises when realizing that Paul writes to the Thessalonians and tells them they will be saved from eternal judgment at Christ’s return “because [hoti] our testimony among you was believed [episteuthē]” (2 Thess. 1:10). The aorist-tense, indicative-mood verb episteuthē (“was believed”) is stated as the reason (hoti) that the Thessalonians would not experience everlasting destruction. But if the present tense necessarily indicates ongoing action and the aorist tense indicates momentary action, as is commonly claimed, and if continual belief is necessary for final salvation, then why didn’t Paul use the present-tense, indicative-mood form of pisteuō to say “because our testimony among you is believed”? Instead, Paul uses the aorist tense of pisteuō in 2 Thessalonians 1:10 to describe the moment of the Thessalonians’ initial belief (Acts 17:1-5) as the reason why they will not face eternal judgment. If perseverance in faith were truly a requirement for final salvation, as perseverance proponents teach, then why didn’t Paul refer to the Thessalonians’ present faith? In that case, Paul should have said, “because our testimony among you has been believed” or “because our testimony among you is being believed” or “is still believed.”

Whether it is passages from John’s Gospel, Acts 16:31, Romans 13:11, or 2 Thessalonians 1:10, the Greek New Testament clearly does not make a major theological distinction between initial versus enduring faith based on the aorist versus present tenses. We must be careful to recognize this as we seek to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). ■

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Tom Stegall is an associate pastor at Duluth Bible Church and the publication director for Grace Gospel Press.

[1].  John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 172.

[2].  Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 803.

[3].  James E. Rosscup, “The Overcomer of the Apocalypse,” Grace Theological Journal 3 (Fall 1982): 261-86; Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 11-12.

[4].  David L. Mathewson, “The Abused Present,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 23.3 (2013): 343-63.

[5].  Frank Stagg, “The Abused Aorist,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 222-31.

[6].  Constantine R. Campbell, Advances in the Study of Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 105-33; idem, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 19-25; Rodney J. Decker, Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 26-27; Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 84-85; Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), 75-109; Richard A. Young, Intermediate Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 105-7.

[7]. Mathewson, “The Abused Present,” 346.

[8].  Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 499-504.

[9].  Nigel Turner, “Syntax,” Vol. III, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, ed. James Hope Moulton (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1963), 150-51.

[10]. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 523.

[11]. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek, 217.

[12]. Ibid., 216-17.

[13]. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 621 n. 22.

[14]. See John 1:7; 2:11, 22, 23; 4:39, 41, 48, 50, 53; 6:30; 7:31, 39, 48; 8:24, 30; 9:18, 36; 10:42; 11:15, 40, 42, 45; 12:38, 42; 13:19; 14:29; 17:8; 19:35; 20:8, 25, 29, 31.