Gospel Guidebook: Getting and Keeping It Right  

Translation of the Greek Present Indicative in 1 Corinthians 15:2

In a previous article, Greek Verb Tense: Time, Kind of Action, and Bad Scholarship, I explained how many modern Greek New Testament scholars are overemphasizing "kind of action" in Greek verb tenses, while downplaying the importance of time and lexical and contextual considerations. In this article, I will examine the translation of "save" in 1 Corinthians 15:2 as a specific example of this.

Let's first look at some Bible translations of 1 Corinthians 15:2 that overemphasize the "kind of action" of the verb "save":

"and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain." (ESV)

"and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain." (CSB)

"and by which you are also being saved if you hold firmly to the message I proclaimed to you—unless, of course, your faith was worthless." (ISV)

"and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you--unless you believed in vain." (NET)

These popular translations all translate the present passive indicative of the Greek word sozo as "are being saved."

In contrast, here are some Bible translations that translate the word as "are saved":

"By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain." (KJV)

"By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain." (NIV)

"by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain." (NASB)

"by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain." (ASV)

As a general rule, the present indicative of the Greek verb expresses durative and incomplete action. For this reason, it seems that the ESV, CSB, ISV, and NET all translate the verb sozo as "are being saved." However, this translation seems problematic because it ignores the lexical considerations of the verb "save." There are certain verbs, such as "believe" and "save," that do not express actions, but rather states, where movement into the state is punctiliar (i.e. it happens in a moment) and complete. In this instance, "save" refers to a state of deliverance from harm. This verb, by its very nature, must adhere to the law of noncontradiction. A person is either in a state of "being saved" or in a state of "being unsaved." The expression "are being saved" refers to a state of "being unsaved" because it implies that the people in question (here, the Corinthians) are still in harm's way and only in the process of being saved. If this was the intention of the these translators, then a more explicit translation would be "are [in the process of] being saved." Perhaps, this is exactly what they meant.

In contrast, the translation "are saved" in the KJV, NIV, NASB, and ASV refers to a state of "being saved" (i.e., completely out of harm's way). Now, I grant that 1 Corinthians 15:2 may not be speaking of positional justification, but rather experiential sanctification. However, even in the case of experiential sanctification, "being saved" must refer to punctiliar and completed state, not a durative and incomplete process.

As an example of experiential salvation, imagine being saved from a house fire. Once the fireman brings you out into safety, you are saved and there is no longer any danger of being unsaved. But until the fireman comes and finishes his job, you are unsaved because you still face the danger of dying in the fire.

Likewise, in the case of experiential sanctification, by believing the Gospel, the Corinthians were experiencing salvation on a daily basis. Every time they were delivered from a temptation or some dangerous situation in life because of their belief in the Gospel, they enjoyed the state of "being saved." Therefore, when Paul said, "you are saved," he was referring to salvation from these dire situations in life. However, it seems that some of the Corinthians were straying away from the Gospel because of their denial of the resurrection (15:12-34). Therefore, Paul was warning them that they must "hold fast the word which I preached unto you" or else they might not be saved the next time a temptation or dangerous situation comes around. For example, by departing from the core teaching of the Gospel, they became susceptible to falling into heresies and temptations. Paul refers to this later in verses 32 to 34 when he says the following: "If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame." By denying the resurrection, some of the Corinthians fell into complacency, sin, and ignorance of God. They need salvation from these dangers, and that salvation only comes from believing the Gospel. Therefore, it is by believing the Gospel that they "are saved."

In light of the above, it might be possible to interpret "are being saved" in the ESV, CSB, ISV, and NET as "are [repeatedly] being saved." However, it is also important to note that the verb sozo doesn't necessarily need to be translated as "save." It also means to deliver, make whole, and keep safe. In this respect, "are saved" could really mean something like "are kept safe." Likewise, "are [repeatedly] being saved" could really mean something like "are being kept safe." And this latter translation would be reasonable because the verb "keep" involves a durative and incomplete action of being watchful and on guard. In fact, this is how the Modern King James Version translated 1 Corinthians 15:2: "by which you also are being kept safe, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain."

It is also possible that when Paul says "are saved," he is referring to all aspects of salvation in general, i.e., justification, sanctification, and glorification. This is why he uses the present tense in 1 Corinthians 15:2 instead of the present perfect as in Ephesians 2:8 or the aorist (past tense) in Romans 8:24. In other words, it is the Gospel that saves (present tense) people, regardless of whether it is in justification, sanctification, or glorification. In the immediate context, Paul clearly has in mind sanctification, but by using the present tense, Paul is reminding the Corinthians that the Gospel encompasses their whole life, past, present, and future. It is interesting that verses 1 and 2, he actually uses the aorist (past tense), present perfect, and present in combination with each other. He says that they "received" (aorist past tense) the Gospel, "have stood" in the Gospel, and "are saved" through the Gospel. He clearly wants to express the importance of the Gospel in their lives.

In this article, it was my intention to show that the Greek verb cannot simply be translated according to grammatical considerations (especially those that overemphasize "kind of action") in disregard of important lexical and contextual considerations. The translation "are being saved" is ambiguous at best. It could mean "are [in the process of] being saved" or "are [repeatedly] being saved." Perhaps it was the intention of the translators to create this ambiguity. However, given the lexical considerations of the verb "save" and the contextual considerations of 1 Corinthians 15, it seems to me that "are saved" is more appropriate. As an alternative to "are saved," I like the MKJV's translation "are being kept safe."

(As a side note, I suppose some readers might be wondering about the expression "except ye believed in vain" at the end of 1 Corinthians 15:2. By saying this, I don't think Paul is suggesting that some of the Corinthians had false faith. I also don't think he is saying that true faith inherently "holds fast to the word." Rather, in light of the context, he is saying that "if there is no resurrection from the dead, belief in the Gospel would be in vain." In fact, he basically repeats these sames words in verse 14: "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." Therefore, in verse 2, he could have equally have said "except our preaching be in vain." If the content of the Gospel is just a fairytale, both their preaching and believing would be meaningless. In such a case, we might as well just "eat and drink for tomorrow we die.")