Christianity 201

January 12, 2011

Continuous Imperatives and Salvation

This is Christianity 201, not 301 or 401; so I don’t want to lose readers with stuff that’s too heavy; but I think we can grasp today’s piece.  Or some of it.

The timing is interesting, too; this past week our pastor spoke about the idea of sanctification as being both a “crisis” experience (happens all at once; imparted as a gift from God) versus it being a “progressive” experience (happens over time.)  He used the example of running a race or two versus being in regular training for running races that earn podium positions at the end.

The example I’ve always used is a little simpler (’cause I’m a simple person!)  Consider these two sentences:

  • “Shut the door.”
  • “Answer the phone.”

The first one is easy.  Once you shut the door, it’s shut.  Work done.  But the second one has an implication that’s deeper; it really means:

  • “Answer the phone if it rings and take a message; and then, if it rings again, answer it and take a message; and then if it rings again, answer it…”

That’s what’s called a continuous imperative. Which is what the outworking of God’s grace in our life — and some would add, what salvation itself — is like.

Wow!  That would have made a great thought in itself, but all that was just by way of introduction to Bill Mounce’s blog post today at Koinonia blog, which he calls “Are Being Saved.”


I Cor 15:2(NIV) By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.


Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved (σωζεσθε), if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain” (ESV).

This is one of the main verses used when speaking of the three “times” of salvation — past (on the cross), now (as we walk the path), and the future (Day of the Lord). I was asked the other day whether σωζεσθε should be translated“are saved” (NASB, NIV, HCSB, KJV) or “are being saved” (ESV, NET). In other words, is it an aoristic present or a continuous or even a futuristic present?

There are varied and unrelated translations that go with either, so part of the answer is, yes, you can translate it either way. But why the difference, and which is to be preferred?

Fee and Garland see the progression of the verse as going from the past (“received”), present (“stand”), and the present process with the future reality (“are being saved”), understanding that salvation is in one sense a process that will not reach completion until the Day of the Lord.

That there is a future aspect to salvation is undeniable. Rom 5:9 makes it explicit. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved (σωθησομεθα) by him from the wrath of God” (see also 1 Thess 5:9-10). More importantly, because of its contextual proximity, is 1 Cor 1:18 where the continuous (or imperfective if you wish) participle σωζομενοις requires a present sense. “For the word of the cross is  folly to  those who are perishing, but to us  who are being saved it is  the power of God” (ESV). Surprisingly, most translations go with “who  are being saved” here even if they say “are saved” in 15:2, but this is required by the obviously continuous “are perishing.”

So which is to be preferred?

Thiselton says the commentaries are agreed that the  continuous aspect “is to be explicated” as it “denotes what is done for them in the future,” and think this is best in this context. What would it mean if Paul said they “are” saved “if” they persevere? Not sure that makes sense. The necessity of perseverance and the meaning of the passage does not make sense if in fact the person’s salvation is in every way wholly accomplished in the past.

I know this is constantly a hot topic, but I guess part of your decision comes down to your theology. (What doesn’t?) But as I see it, it makes less sense to say they “are saved if” and more sense to say “are being saved if,” and I would point primarily to 1 Cor 1:18.

Ever since I started pastoring, I think this has been the main question that haunts me. What is a Christian? What is a simple, straight forward, easy-to-understand answer that makes use of all biblical data?

For me, it is Jesus’ gate and path analogy. Being a Christian is a being a follower of Jesus. You start following at the gate, continue following as you walk along the path, and at the end of the path of perseverance is life. So for me, it is easy to say that while I celebrate the finished work of Christ on the cross and the undeserved, grace-filled, regenerative work of the Holy Spirit at my conversion, there is a very real sense in which my salvation is an ongoing process culminating in glorification, provided of course that I hold fast to the gospel.

Isn’t that what Paul is saying?

~William D (Bill) Mounce

William D. [Bill] Mounce is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.

1 Comment »

  1. […] previously looked at what that […]

    Pingback by Keep on Asking | Christianity 201 — May 23, 2015 @ 5:38 pm | Reply


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