Monday, January 3, 2011

Once Saved, Perfectly Saved


A Bit of Background

Frequently we believers encounter the topic of our eternal security, either in a class, a sermon, published material or a discussion.  And often such doctrinal initiations involve strong treatments of the concept(s) that lie behind or are consequential to the phrase once saved, always saved (commonly given the acronym OSAS, and yes just like many of you the word oasis routinely comes to mind).  And among different groups there exists varying forms of support or objection, even some who, though holding to the view that one cannot lose their salvation, still object to this as a theological expression because it implies a believer may be guilty of the grossest sins for a prolonged period and still be saved and such a position, they believe, is antithetical to the biblical record.

My interest here is not a rebuttal of any of these though by implication it will no doubt serve as one for some readers in light of their own views.  Rather my endeavor is to make a corrective contribution to the topic as a whole resulting in the possible employment of a superior phrase more appropriately representing the work of God and his integrity in the eternal nature of our salvation.

In looking at salvation and communicating to others what the Word of God says about the need for someone to be saved from judgment, the emphasis is on the work of God and the integrity of God.  The Divine effort insures that whatever merit is necessary for salvation has been accomplished and the integrity of God insures that his promise is not guaranteed by us, those who receive his grace-gift through faith, but by Him, the One who cannot lie and will never deceive.  It is God’s work and God’s integrity upon which we, his children, must rest.

Often we are tempted to arrest the Scriptures (and many have) and take passages either out of context or without their appropriate exegesis and claim that this is not so, that we, ourselves, must be the certainty of our salvation, either by way of meriting it through additional works or by demonstrating its reality through works or fruits. The second class of objector will tell you that such a demonstration is not a form of meriting but of manifesting and if its absence is noted then the person in question may not judge themselves saved or they may be judged by others not to have been saved, in spite of the fact that they indeed may have trusted the gospel, no matter the explicated nature of their reception of the gospel.

The Golden Nugget

And because of all this I want to introduce you to a term that may more precisely deal with the matter altogether and that phrase is,  Once Saved, Perfectly Saved.  Its significance lies within the inflected nature of the Greek language in which the New Testament was written. 

Take a look in Ephesians 2: 5, 8.  In both verses you will find the phrase, "it is by grace you have been saved".  It provides a wonderful promise to us and like good students we accept the responsibility not only to search and find where the treasures lie in God's Word but we must seek to remove all elements present which may act as soil, hiding the gems we uncover (and that soil is generally bad thinking on our part in the form of presuppositions).  Additionally we must take the time to magnify what we have found to fully appreciate its purity and value.  So in our process of discovery and refinement we will look within this singular declaration in Ephesians, which is used in rapid succession in the two verses, and zoom in on the verb, saved.  And here we will discover a divine jewel possessing a spiritual fortune so enormous, so impeccable, and so impacting that even for the most rebellious child of God whose tattered soul and undistinguished person has diminished them to being a wretched spiritual vagabond, he or she may collapse with joy and eternal hope.

The verb, saved, in both passages is σεσῳσμένοι, (sesōsmenoi) which comes from the root word, σῴζω (sózó).  And just like in most languages verbs have tenses which denote when the action of the verb occurs and generally these are past, present or future.  However, in the Greek we have what is also called the perfect tense (Latin students are also very familiar with this tense).  And the perfect tense in its general use with some exceptions (such as a present or future perfect which is not contained in our verses so of no consequence here) refers not just to a past action as the normal past tense would but there is a two-fold emphasis. In the Syntax of New Testament Greek, Books and Winbery aptly explain [University Press of America, Lanham, Md., 1988, pp. 104-5]:

"The perfect tense expresses perfective action. Perfective action involves a present state which has resulted from a past action. The present state is a continuing state; the past action is a completed action.”

And so when we are described as having been saved with the perfect tense, a tense of the verb that was deliberated by the superintendence of God through the instrument of man, we are not simply declared by Paul or any other Apostolic Saint to have our salvation occurring in the past but to have had our salvation perfectly completed in the past, the moment we believed, and to have God himself making this guarantee. This is God’s declaration to us that we are Once Saved, Perfectly Saved.

To Whom is Paul Speaking?

Some may assert in an odd attempt to defend their position which may be hostile in some manner to the use of the text and particularly the verb here, that those who “have been saved” seeks not to communicate specifically about those who have believed the gospel and as a result been saved, but only about the work of God in salvation.  In other words their premise would be that the use of the perfect tense which is a completed action in the past with results in the present tense, means only to refer to the completed work of Christ, thereby opening the theological door for the assertion that an ongoing faith and/or works for its maintenance or proof are still acceptable Christian tenets.  

But this is not how the Bible speaks of personal salvation nor the context of the particular passage.  In Scripture personal salvation always includes in its view the integral element of faith so that when it speaks of one having “been saved” it speaks not only of the work of Christ but the exercise of faith that is the means by which the work of God is received and salvation personally instituted by God.  And as I said, the context here in Ephesians is that of a believer which is evidenced by the language of Paul in describing the blessings of our inheritance such as being seated with Christ which is only possible after one believes.

So any proposition attempting to forward the idea that the Scriptures have in view something other than one who has believed and has, as a result, “been saved”, is defeated by the context and theological continuity.  

What About Other Tenses with the Word Saved?

In Scripture the word saved is not used explicitly with the perfect tense.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Often, one reason is because the context is speaking of an element of our salvation and not its completion, as Paul was here.  Therefore, another tense may be warranted without implying a challenge to either a comprehensive treatment of salvation or another element of salvation that may, itself, warrant even another verb tense.  

It is true that sometimes, in exegesis, one can inappropriately isolate a passage to the neglect of other grammatical rules and principles and paint themselves in an unfortunate corner. More than occasionally this is observed within theological circles which induce men to protect their egos to the detriment of truth.  Ultimately, however and most importantly is that this grammatical reality does not interfere, in the least, with the doctrinal point being measured here. 

Final Thoughts

Many people are aware of the influence of Macedonia’s Mégas Aléxandros (Alexander the Great) on Koine Greek’s rise as a common language.  And within this magnificent time in world history there is a sub-narrative that has to do with the perfect tense in the Koine Greek language.    Not only did Alexander understand the need for a broadly employed common language for the benefit of the empire but his genius perspicacity also anticipated the need for his involvement in the codification of Koine Greek.  At the time of its use, the Ancient or Classical Greek perfect tense was seldom appreciated or used by those speaking Koine because of its refined placement as a verb tense and the nature of common language which often neglects such subtle linguistic gifts.  And part of the reason this detail may not have escaped Alexander’s notice was because of his his militaristic mentality and many conquests.

When Alexander, or any other campaigner in the ancient world, conquered a land or a people it certainly was not with the benevolent intent to eventually free their subjects and return their sovereign state as is the practice in the modern western world.  When the Alexandrian Empire conquered a land and its people it was just as the perfect tense indicates, it is a once and for all action in the past with permanent results in the present with no view that the conditions or results of that past action would ever change or there would be any need for further conquering since all the conquering needed, had been done.  Hence, Alexander the Great in his oversight of the spread of Koine Greek, took on the oversight of the appreciation and regular use of the perfect tense within Koine Greek. Alexander wanted everyone to know the land and people he conquered he did once and it would not be repeated and the state of being conquered, both the land and people, was a permanent one.  The action happened, it was completed in the past and now the permanent result was that it was part of the kingdom.

When God says to us that the moment we believe we are saved, he means to tell us in this precious prize of exegetical truth that we have been once saved, perfectly saved.  The emphasis on our integrity to do works to either keep or prove our salvation is not the emphasis of God.  The emphasis of the guarantee is on the work of God and the integrity of God to insure we are Once Saved, Perfectly Saved.

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