In this article, I will demonstrate three truths:
1. That “believe” in salvific contexts refers to inceptive action that can be characterized as gnomic (i.e., a timeless fact — just stating that someone has believed, rather than stating that someone is believing)
2. That the Greek articular present participle ho pisteuon (i.e., “he who believes) in salvific contexts refers to inceptive action that can be characterized as gnomic
3. That “believe” in salvific contexts simply means receiving or accepting testimony as being true (See this website’s Beliefs page for an explanation about what this means)
In my article What is the Good News of the Bible? I have a short section on John 3:18:
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Notice how an unbeliever is basically defined as a person who has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. What is important is that the present perfect tense is being used. Jesus is basically saying that that an unbeliever is a person who has not ever believed; in other words, a person who has not believed even once in his or her life. Therefore, the person who is condemned is the person who has never believed even once in his or her life. Flipping this around based on the first clause of the verse, “He that believeth on him is not condemned,” we could say that a person who believes even once in his or life is not condemned.
I shared this observation with a friend who does not hold the Free Grace position. I didn't expect him to agree with me, and he didn't. He basically just responded by saying that I was reading too much into the verse. Up until that point, I had given a fair amount of consideration to this verse. But was I reading too much into it?
I first learned about the significance of the present perfect in John 3:18 while reading Zane Hodges’ book, Faith in His Name: Listening to the Gospel of John (also available in Kindle format on Amazon). In that book, he says the following on pages 59-60:
We should particularly notice that the phrase “he who does not believe” is defined by Jesus as referring to anyone who “has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” That is, he is an unbeliever—i.e., he has not ever believed. The Greek perfect tense that underlies the words has not believed reinforces this thought. Loosely paraphrased, the perfect tense signifies someone who is “in a state of not having believed.” It is not the teaching of this Gospel that a person possesses eternal life only if he is currently believing. As the image of birth itself suggests, the moment of faith in God’s Son produces an irreversible result. The same truth is taught in the next chapter as well, where one drink of living water produces an irreversible effect within the individual who believes. It cannot be said too often: we are not saved by an enduring faith. We are simply saved by faith. Faith itself is not indestructible, but new birth is!
Certainly, Hodges has a gift for words. But was he reading too much into the verse? After my friend suggested that I was, I decided to reevaluate the significance of the present perfect in John 3:18. Upon doing so, I became even more convinced that what I wrote above and what Hodges wrote in his book are correct. In this article, I will share the details of my investigation.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines present perfect as follows:
: of, relating to, or constituting a verb tense that is traditionally formed in English with have and a past participle and that expresses an action or state begun in the past and completed at the time of speaking (as in "I have finished") or continuing in the present (as in "We have lived here for several years")
In Max Zerwick's Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples, he comments on present perfect in Section 285:
In essence, though not exactly in use, the Greek perfect tense corresponds to the English one, in that it is not a past tense but a present one, indicating not the past action as such but the present «state of affairs» resulting from the past action.
In regard to what he means by “though not exactly in use,” he goes on in Section 285 to show that in some contexts, such as Mark 6:14-16, the Greek uses the aorist where English translation would most often use the present perfect. However, this observation is of no consequence in our present discussion. Rather, we see that Zerwick’s explanation fits nicely with what Hodges said.
I would now like to make a couple comments in light of these definitions.
Based the definitions of Merriam-Webster and Zerwick, it is possible to say that the present perfect refers to an action or a state that started in the past and continues into the present, and/or an action or state that started and completed at least once in the past as of present time. Now, let’s take the present perfect “he has believed” as an example and see what observations we can make. (1) If “he has believed” refers to a state of believing that started in the past and continues into the present, then such a person would still be believing, and the present tense could be used as an alternative to convey the existence of currently-held belief. (2) If, however, “he has believed” refers to a state of believing that started and completed at least once (i.e., wavering between states of belief and unbelief) in the past as of present time, then such a person has a history of belief, but since he is currently not believing, the present tense could not be used as an alternative. (3) Finally, it is possible to have a combination of both views, a situation in which a person has a history of wavering between states of belief and unbelief, but as of present time, he just so happens to be in a state of belief. This would mean the present tense could be used as an alternative to convey the existence of currently-held belief.
In the case of John 3:18, if we were presented with the present perfect “he has believed,” we wouldn’t be able to definitively say which of the three options described in the previous paragraph were in view. However, in such a case, we could still surmise that option (2) was meant, or at least was a possible interpretation, simply because the present tense was not used. Certainly, this would be useful, but it wouldn’t be ideal, for we would have no way to prove it. However, what we find in John 3:18 is not the positive form of the present perfect, but the negative form of it. The negative form of the present perfect conveys so much more information than the positive form of it because it means that of all the possibilities of the positive form of the present perfect, not even the bare minimum requirement was fulfilled. In terms of the three options described in the previous paragraph, it means that none of them were fulfilled, not even option (2). However, since option (2) was not fulfilled, this means that a person has no history of believing, i.e., not even a single instance of wavering between states of belief and unbelief. More precisely, this means that such a person never believed, not even once, and that he is coming under judgment specifically for this reason. Based on this analysis, we see that Hodges observation is vindicated, and that neither he nor I was reading too much into John 3:18.
While contemplating the significance of John 3:18, it dawned on me that this verse conveys something even more profound than Hodges observation that “he who does not believe” means “he has not ever believed.” I noticed that this verse actually provides the answer to the long debated question of whether or not the Greek articular present participle ho pisteuon (i.e., “he who believes”) in salvific contexts should be interpreted as gnomic (i.e., timeless — just stating that someone has believed) or durative action (i.e., ongoing — stating that someone is believing).
Before getting into the details, I would like to make a few initial comments on the English present continuous. There are an increasing number of teachers and scholars (and a few Bible translators) who interpret ho pistueon using as the English present continuous based on the current consensus that the New Testament Greek present tense is characterized by a “kind of action” that is durative rather than punctiliar (i.e., point of time). This means that they interpret ho pisteuon as “he who is believing.” I have found this interpretation problematic for a couple reasons. For starters, it stipulates that “believing” must continue for some unknown period of time (a second, an hour, a year, a lifetime?) before a person can have eternal life in verses like John 3:16, due to the inability of the English present continuous to properly convey inception of action. Also, it makes it unclear if continuance of belief is a necessary requirement for maintaining one’s possession of eternal life. While I think this latter point is commonly recognized by both proponents and opponents of the Free Grace position, I don’t think much attention has been given to the former point regarding the inability of the English present continuous to properly convey inception of action.
The English present continuous is commonly used to describe ongoing action in present time of something that already started in the past. “He who is believing” means someone who is continuing to believe now. Needless to say, an action cannot start and continue at the same time. It must start before it can continue. As the name suggests, the English present continuous emphasizes continuing action, but as a result, it fails to properly convey inception of action. This is highly significant because it means that “he who is believing” does not explicitly include the moment a person initially believes in Jesus Christ in a verse like John 3:16. This would mean that a person does not obtain eternal life the moment he believes in Jesus for it. Furthermore, it would be unclear how long he must wait before he does obtain it (a second, an hour, a year, a lifetime?). Thankfully, there are only a few Bibles that actually translate ho pisteuon this way, but regrettably, there are many scholars and teachers who interpret and teach ho pisteuon in this way. Hypothetically speaking, even if the New Testament Greek articular present participle ho pisteuon did have a “kind of action” that is characterized by duration, the English present continuous is not capable of properly conveying its meaning. In contrast, the English present simple is more appropriate because it can be used to convey general truths (e.g., gnomic or timeless facts) and includes inception of action. We often find ho pisteuon in general truth propositions, such as John 3:16, where it is combined with subjunctive verbs of purpose. Furthermore, the English present simple is the natural tense used for stative verbs, such as “believe,” regardless of whether the state of belief is punctiliar or durative. Based on the foregoing discussion, I recommend against using the English present continuous to describe ho pisteuon. The English present simple is quite capable of conveying both punctiliar and durative states for stative verbs.
So, getting back to John 3:18, I observed that Jesus is indirectly explaining to us what ho pisteuon means. In particular, by basically defining the negative form of the present participle ho me pisteuon (i.e., “he who does not believe”) as the negative form of the present perfect me pepisteuken (i.e., “he has not believed”), Jesus is explaining that the “kind of action” He has in mind for the present participle ho pisteuon in the first clause of John 3:18 is inceptive and gnomic. It is the initial and singular act of belief that guarantees that a person is not judged. This is the logical deduction that can be made from the negated present participle and negated present perfect in John 3:18. Based on this, ho pisteuon should always be translated as “he who believes,” and should always be interpreted in salvific contexts as inceptive and gnomic. Of course, in reality and by the grace of God, belief is often durative, meaning that a believer usually continues to believe after his initial moment of belief, but continuance of belief is not a requirement of having eternal life and avoiding judgment. From this analysis we can see that “kind of action” is much more complicated than the generalized category of “durative for present tenses” that many Greek grammars describe. The combination of the negative forms of the present participle and present perfect in John 3:18 gives us the information we need to properly understand how to interpret ho pisteuon in salvific contexts such as John 3:18.
In addition to the above grammatical considerations, we also have contextual considerations that show that an inceptive act of belief is what saves. In particular, we have Jesus’ testimony in John 3:14-15 where He likens (through inference) looking at the serpent on the pole (an inceptive and punctiliar action) to believing in Him. Just as it took only one look at the serpent on the pole to be saved, it takes only one moment of belief in Jesus Christ to have eternal life.
What we learn in John 3:18 also coincides with what we read in Ephesians 1:13 and Acts 15:7 where inceptive and punctiliar acts of pisteuo are described using the aorist tense. So, we have Jesus, Paul, and Peter all saying the same thing. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established (2 Corinthians 13:1). What more proof do we need?
However, I can imagine that some people might still be shaking their heads, saying to themselves, “Even if a punctiliar act of pisteuo is in view, pisteuo involves much more than mental assent.” Indeed, I have heard this objection time and time again. But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14-15). It just so happens that we also have an explanation of pisteuo right in the context of John 3:18.
In the very context of John 3:18, we have Jesus saying to Nicodemus in John 3:11-12 the following:
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
In these verses, Jesus is plainly telling us that receiving His testimony (and apparently John the Baptist’s testimony — see for example, John 1:7 and John 5:33-35) is the same as believing. In other words, pisteuo refers to receiving testimony as being true. And just in case there are still any doubts, John the Baptist confirms Jesus’ words in John 3:32-33 when he says, “And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.” In addition, we have the testimony of the Apostle John in 1 John 5:9-10 to confirm this: “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son.” Notice that the Apostle John is saying that receiving the testimony of God is exactly the same as receiving the testimony of a man, except for the fact that God's testimony is much more authoritative. So, we have Jesus, John the Baptist, and John the Apostle all saying the same thing. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established (2 Corinthians 13:1). What more proof do we need?
I would like to conclude by asking a question. If Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” (John 6:47), why would anyone want to complicate this? “Believe” is a very plain word. What could be gained by complicating things? John 3:16 and John 6:47 are the plain testimonies of God. Complicating these plain statements is the same as calling Him a liar (1 John 5:10). How could it be otherwise? God has provided such an easy and gracious way to be saved. Complicating the message and making it harder than God intended is bearing false witness of God.