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Much of the debate concerning "once saved always saved" (hereafter - OSAS) concerns the nature of "Eternal Life." Those who teach OSAS always seem to fall back on this term used in John's Gospel. Several passages say virtually the same thing. Therefore, examination of one is sufficient for understanding all of them. The highlighted words below are the verbs we will be discussing in detail.
The verbs in this statement are very critical to properly understanding what Jesus meant. We therefore need to examine the precise meanings implied by the various inflections.
Present tense: In Greek, the present tense emphasizes the kind of action, which is continuous. Daniel B. Wallace translates the present participle in John 3:16 as "everyone who continually believes." 1 Had Jesus meant to indicate a once - for - all kind of "believing," we would expect Him to use either the aorist or perfect participle. In this case, continuous belief is the emphasis. Hence, as Wallace indicates, "everyone who continually believes," best reflects the meaning.
Active Voice: The active voice indicates that the person described is performing the action of the verb. He is actively believing, not passive. Hence, we could include this in our English translation, "Everyone who himself continually believes."
Aorist Tense: The aorist tense indicates the kind of action, not the time of action. The kind of action implied by the aorist tense is called "puncticular," referring primarily to a whole point or period in time when the action takes place. It should be seen in contrast to the continuous kind of action of the present tense. Therefore, to "perish" in this verse refers to a specific event, in this case it is potentially future.
Middle Voice: The middle voice indicates that the subject is both the performer and recipient of the action of the verb. "Cause himself to perish" is the general idea in this verse.
Subjunctive Mood: The subjunctive mood indicates probability or intention. This is in contrast to the indicative mood which indicates a definite result. The result is not necessarily certain. This is why the English reads, "should" rather than "shall." The words, "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" are meant to explain God's intention or reason why He "He gave His only begotten Son." Hence, God's intention is that every person who continues to believe "should not cause himself to perish."
Another good example of the Johannine use of the subjunctive mood in relation to God's will and intention can be found in the first few verses of John's Gospel. "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe" (John 1:6-7). The underlined words are translated from the Greek verb, "pisteuswsin" — aorist active subjunctive. The context here clearly indicates that God's intent and purpose for sending John to announce the coming of Christ was so that "all through him might believe." Yet, not all did believe. In fact, only a minority believed. John used the subjunctive mood with regard to God's purpose because it is clear that the desired result is not necessarily guaranteed.
Present Tense: The present tense in Greek indicates a continuous action or state. Here it implies a continuous possession of everlasting life. A. T. Robertson translates the identical phrase in the previous verse, "that he may keep on having everlasting life." 2
Subjunctive Mood: As with "should not perish," the subjunctive mood implies purpose or probability, but not necessarily a guaranteed result. In English, it is best translated "may have" rather than "will have," (as the indicative mood would require). It allows some level of uncertainty because only purpose or intention is in view, not the actual result.
The clause, "should not perish but have everlasting life," describes God's purpose for the subjects mentioned, all those one who continually believe." He did not state that His intention was that all who had a "born again" experience should reap this result. That is, a once - for - all kind of believing.
The most precise rendering in English would be as follows: "in order that each [one] who is himself continuing to believe in Him should not cause himself to perish, but may keep on having everlasting life." All of the following ideas are implied in this verse.
1. Continuing to have everlasting
life is contingent on continuing to believe.
If possession of everlasting life was a permanent condition resulting from having believed in the past (OSAS), we would expect the passage to use the perfect tense form of "believe." That is, "every one who has believed." The perfect tense indicates a completed action with continuing results. The use of the present participle speaks only of a persevering and continuous faith, not a once for all kind of faith. That is, we are in possession of eternal life while we are "believing." We can logically infer from this statement that God did not give His only begotten Son in order that those who believed once - for - all might not to perish.
Since "eternal life" is a "gift," many Christians think of it as something given once, and then retained in one's possession. But, the Bible teaches that "eternal life" is a continuous flowing stream of life which is impossible to exhaust.
It is important to understand that the term "living water" was understood in the Jewish culture to refer to flowing water as opposed to standing water. [See Song of Sol. 4:15]. Notice that the "gift of God" that Jesus spoke of was "everlasting life," spoken of metaphorically as "living water." This gift of life was said to be flowing, a continuous stream. This is exactly what Paul spoke of in the following verse.
Paul was simply referring back to Jesus' explanation of the "gift of God" being a fountain of life flowing perpetually into the believer.
Jesus indicated that His giving "everlasting life" was a continual action in the present, not a past action at the moment of salvation.
We have a similar situation in this passage as in John 3:15. The verbs are in the present tense, indicating a continuous action. That is, "My sheep are hearing My voice, and I know them, and they are following Me. And I am giving to them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand." Jesus continually gives His "everlasting life" to His sheep who are hearing His voice and following Him. This passage does NOT imply that Jesus gave everlasting life to His sheep who heard His voice and followed Him. As in John 3:15, there is a continuous reciprocal action going on here. We have the same kind of activity described by John in His first Epistle, again using present tense verbs. "But if we are walking in the light as He is in the light, we continue having fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son is cleansing us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)
Jesus spoke of this flowing stream of "life" in the following passage.
Now, I want you to compare this passage with the one in John 4. Notice that in John 4, Jesus said the "living water" would be a spring flowing to everlasting life. But, in this passage, Jesus was equating "living water" to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Are you starting to get the picture yet? There is another passage we need to tie in here. This passage gives Jesus' definition of the words "eternal life."
Notice, Jesus did not say that you get eternal life by knowing Him. He said eternal life IS knowing Him. Eternal life is NOT something apart from God Himself. Having "eternal life" is having Christ in us, and us in Him. He is eternal, and He is life! The life that flows from Him cannot be exhausted.
Jesus is Life! He lives in us through His Spirit, and we live "in Him." Eternal life is not something apart from God Himself. He has infused Himself into us. His own life flows in and through us because we are "in Christ." Paul did not originate the idea of being "in Christ," Jesus did. Paul simply borrowed it.
The words, "in me" or "in Christ" are not some mystical mumbo jumbo. They have specific reference to this parable. Whenever such terms are used in the New Testament it should conjure up in our thinking Jesus parable of the vine and branches, where He introduced the concept to His disciples. 3
The meaning of "remain" (or abide - KJV) is clearly to "continue" IN CHRIST. The term "in Christ," used throughout the New Testament, comes from Jesus' parable. This is what it means to be "in Christ." In the same way a branch is "in the vine," that is, it is a part of the vine, it is attached to the vine, and the life of the vine flows through the branch, perpetually sustaining it. This is what keeps the branch alive, and causes it to bear fruit. Jesus' point is clear. To be "in Christ" is to be attached to the vine, having the life of Christ flowing through us. Did the branch receive a one time gift of life, and can now live on its own perpetually? Was this branch Jesus described "once saved always saved?" NO! Jesus made it clear that this life is ONLY perpetual BECAUSE the branch chooses to REMAIN in the vine. Jesus' plea for His followers here is to REMAIN in Him. Because, if they do not, they will wither and die. And, the end result will be being thrown into the fire. We are both "in Christ" as the branch is in the vine, and He is in us, as the life of the vine flows to the branches (see Jn. 6:56)! We need this relationship, and we must maintain it to persevere to the end.
Decades after Jesus spoke the True Vine parable to His disciples, warning them to remain in Him, John delivered the same warning to Christians at the end of the first century.
I John 2:24-25
It is apparent why John's Gospel constantly used the present tense for "believing" when speaking of possessing eternal life. "Believers" have eternal life because they are remaining in Christ through the Gospel and their continuous faith in Christ. His exhortation to Christians above includes both a command and a conditional statement. The command is that they must continue to hold to the doctrine of Christ. Obviously, such a command anticipates that it is possible to abandon the Gospel. The conditional statement indicates that remaining in the Son and the Father is conditional upon obeying the previous command.
Those who abandon their faith no longer "believe." Consequently, they no longer have eternal life. These are the branches who do not remain in the vine.
As we saw in John 7:38,39, this life is flowing through us who are "in Christ" by the presence and flow of the Spirit of Christ that dwells in us as believers. God is Life. God is Eternal. The word "eternal" does not describe the duration of our possession of "life." It describes the quality of God Himself, and the life that flows from Him. God lives perpetually in us by the Spirit of Christ who perpetually gives us life. It is this same Spirit that will make alive our mortal bodies at the resurrection.