If there is one thing I learned from my Greek teachers, it’s that they taught me to be very careful with using the Greek language. I wouldn’t consider myself very good in Greek at all despite finishing seminary (frankly, most seminary graduates are not, regardless of where they went), but I know enough of it and semantic analysis to know to be cautious and nuanced. I’m sure I still mess up when I try to use the language, but while it may be tempting to pass off awesome-sounding points with simple appeals to Greek grammar or words in sermons, I try to avoid it. Not only does it often not help support a point to the audience, most pastors who do so often oversimplify the use of the language and therefore mislead their congregation who is eager to gobble up all of this neat “scholarly” stuff. One of the greatest errors of early seminary students is their excitement to use simplistic Greek grammar to make sweeping conclusions when it is not quite that easy.
This is why it is concerning that many Calvinists use such simple tense analysis to try to argue that 1 John 5:1 teaches that regeneration precedes faith. One of the main points of contention between Calvinists and most non-Calvinists is on the ordo salutis, the order of salvation (that wasn’t Greek but Latin; see how smart I sounded?). Calvinists believe that regeneration logically precedes faith, while Arminians and other non-Calvinists believe that faith precedes regeneration (some others argue that such ordering is unimportant and unduly speculative). In other words, Calvinists believe that we have faith because God has already regenerated us while others believe that we are regenerated due to our faith. Many Calvinists argue that 1 John 5:1 is a clear verse for their view because the tenses of the Greek verbs demand it. However, as attractive as it sounds to end an old and ongoing debate with “objective” Greek interpretation, a more careful look at the verse shows that it at best says nothing about the order of faith and regeneration and at worst (for the Calvinist) says the opposite of what Reformed people want it to say.
“I used Greek. Therefore, it is so. QED.”
In the NIV, the first part of 1 John 5:1 reads: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” The important Greek words are the present participle that is translated “who believes” (pisteuon) and the perfect verb that is translated “is born of God” (gegennatai). The English Standard Version, a more Reformed translation, translates this phrase, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (emphasis mine). Before anyone tries to simply dismiss the NIV for being the NIV, the NASB translates this, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,” also using the present tense construction in English.
Calvinists argue that the ESV rendering is more correct because it is more faithful to Greek grammar; since perfect verbs communicate a past action with present consequences, it should be “has been,” which also tells us that being born again preceded belief since “everyone who believes” is in the present. The logic is simple: Perfect tense verbs talk about the past and present tense verbs talk about, well, the present, so the passive perfect verb of being born again should be seen as coming before the present participle of believing.
It is not only lay Calvinists who use this argument; commentators such as John Stott and Thomas Schreiner have argued along similar lines (after all, the lay Calvinists got it from somewhere). John Piper even went so far as to say that it is the clearest text that supports the Calvinist position on the relationship between the new birth and faith.¹ Case closed, right? After all, that’s what it says in Greek.
Misunderstanding logic and semantics
Unfortunately for Calvinists, while this may sound cool, it’s not quite that cut and dry. First of all, it could be argued that trying to use the time of verbs is inapplicable to this issue to begin with. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinist often agree that while there is a logical priority of faith or regeneration, they happen in time simultaneously. Thus, even if the ESV translation is the better one, it should strike even many Calvinists as odd to strongly conclude logical priority based on the time of the verbs when their own theology holds that faith and regeneration are contemporaneous. They have to do far more than just point at tenses.
Secondly, again granting the ESV’s rendering, the context of the passage (and much of 1 John) is talking about the evidences of faith. This may have nothing to do with logical priority, and it is perfectly fine to see belief in this passage as an evidence of the new birth while holding that faith logically precedes the new birth as well. Strangely, Matthew Barrett in a journal article makes an outlandish argument that this is a contradiction.² Eh? How on earth is that a contradiction? One condition that someone gets wet from rain could be that he doesn’t have an umbrella; it is also true that someone not having an umbrella in the pouring rain is a good sign that he got wet outside. In fact, given that conditions for something need to be there for it to happen, one should not be surprised that a condition for something is also a sign of it. How one could call this a contradiction is beyond me.
Therefore, considering both logic and context, such a wide theological conclusion is suspect even without looking at the grammar. The grammatical analysis itself, however, leaves much to be desired. Barrett amusingly cites Daniel Wallace’s Greek grammar to support his Calvinist interpretation when that very same grammar says that present participles should often be conceived as happening contemporaneous with the main verb in a sentence, not before. Barrett and other Calvinists make the elementary mistake of treating that participle like a typical indicative verb; in fact, many grammarians would argue that substantival participles (participles that function as a noun, like what we have here) have a diminished time significance or none whatsoever. Essentially, even if we were to once again grant the ESV’s rendering, the most one could say based on grammar alone is that faith and regeneration are contemporaneous, and it may even say nothing at all about it. Even if we were to grant that this present participle’s time is not relative to the main verb’s, that only tells us that the act of believing is happening in John’s present; it doesn’t tell us anything about when that believing started, how it started, and what started it.
As far as complaining about the NIV’s or NASB’s translation, I’ll only say this: Perfect verbs can carry different semantic emphases that translators try to bring out in English in various ways. Sometimes, that means that they translate Greek perfect verbs into present English verbs. For example, there is something called an “intensive perfect” which is still about a past action but emphasizes the present consequences, so it can be translated in the present in English. In addition, a “gnomic perfect” is one that states a general principle, and it can be translated into English as a present as well because it sometimes flows more naturally. My aim here is not to argue for a particular translation but only to show that it is not strange for the NIV or NASB to render the verb in our passage as a present in English, and sometimes such a maneuver is more successful in carrying the actual meaning of the text.
Merely looking at grammar, then, is a rather simplistic and, dare I say, lazy way to try to make such sweeping theological conclusions. Does the grammar leave open the possible logical priority of regeneration over faith? Perhaps. It also leaves open the possibility that it is the other way around. If this question is to be answered, we should look deeper into the context. And I would argue that this should lead us to a more non-Calvinistic interpretation. This is already getting long so I will not make a comprehensive case, but I’ll make a couple of brief points on this.
A conditional force and 1 John 5:10
I would argue that the participle here should be understood with a conditional force. A conditional statement is an “if-then” statement, like “If you eat ice cream, then you will be happy.” Participles constructed like this one can carry such a force. That does not always mean it’s a cause and effect relationship, as such conditionals can mean a variety of things, but that is nonetheless the most typical interpretation of conditionals. Basically, it is highly plausible semantic interpretation to take 1 John 5:1 as stating something like “If someone believes, then he is born again,” which is reflected more in the NASB’s “whoever” translation. This does not settle the issue on its own but gives more weight to a non-Calvinistic interpretation.
Moreover, 1 John 5:10 has the same verb construction, yet logical priority is clearly on the present participle rather than the perfect verb. In the middle of the verse, it reads in the ESV, “Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.” Clearly, even in the ESV, logical priority is given to the present participle of “not believing,” otherwise this verse would make no sense. It would be bizarre to say that someone has made God a liar before he disbelieved God, either logically or temporally. The causal clause after that makes it doubly clear; it is because of unbelief that one has made God a liar. If this is the case, however, then it is especially dubious to make bare appeals to grammar just nine verses earlier to argue for the logical priority of regeneration. If anything, the similar construction of 1 John 5:10 gives justification that it could be the other way around.
Calvinists are going to have to do a lot better than this to try to support their theology. The argument here is so simplistic that Brian Abasciano comments:
It is surprising that some scholars have made such a basic error regarding Greek grammar in this argument for regeneration preceding faith in 1 John 5:1. It gives the impression that, in the rush to find a proof text to support their own theological conviction, they have been less than cautious in handling the text.³
The lesson here? If it sounds too easy, it probably is, even if it comes from the writings or mouth of famous guys like John Piper. This is, of course, not the only text that is debated between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, but I think it is clear that Calvinists need to drop this line of argumentation if they’re going to convince anyone who has more than a cursory familiarity with Greek. The text either says nothing about the issue or hints at the opposite of what they want.
1. Piper, John, Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again, 118.
2. Barrett, Matthew. “Does regeneration precede faith in 1 John?” Mid-America Journal of Theology 23 (January 2012), 9.
3. Abasciano, Brian J. “Does regeneration precede faith? the use of 1 John 5:1 as a proof text.” Evangelical Quarterly 84, no. 5 (October 2012), 321.