Greek Urban Myths: Aorist = Once for All, Never to be Repeated

It’s not uncommon for Bible teachers to arrive at a passage like Romans 5:6 and announce, “When this verse says that Christ died, it uses the aorist tense.  The use of the aorist shows that Christ died once for all, and his death never has to be repeated!”

A similar argument sometimes shows up in discussions about sanctification.  For example, one Web site uses this grammatical principle as the foundation for a full-blown doctrinal treatise, arguing for a one-time “second work of grace” that moves a believer to a whole new level of spiritual life.

Unfortunately, these statements leap beyond the realities of Greek grammar.

It is true that the aorist tense would be a natural choice for a New Testament writer who did want to describe an action that would settle some issue once and for all.  After all, many Greek grammar books use the word punctiliar to describe the aorist tense.  Such a description easily leads you to visualize an action that happens at a point in time, a one-shot incident.

But that’s not the whole story.

1.  The aorist tense is not always used that way.

          Matthew 15:32 — At the feeding of the 5000, they all “ate and were filled” (aorist).
                 If this is never to be repeated, the crowd is enjoying their last meal!
          Romans 3:23 — “All have sinned” (aorist).
                 Is this verse really talking about sin that is never to be repeated?

2.  The aorist tense is better described as simple action. 

It tells you that an action has (or has not) happened, without any extra details about how long it took or whether it is still in process.

3.  The aorist tense does describe action that happens once for all, never to be repeated when there are clues in the context to support that idea.

 In Romans 6:10, for instance, we read that “He died to sin, once for all.”  The verb died is in the aorist tense, but that alone does not prove the point.  In this verse, however, Paul adds the word ephapax, which means “once for all.”  There are other good clues in the context of Romans 5 and other passages to show that Christ’s death really was a one-time-only act that paid for our sins so completely that He will never need to die again. 
        But we cannot prove it solely on the basis of the aorist tense.
        We can demonstrate it because of the aorist tense plus the clues in the context.

You can find fuller discussions of this point in:
       D. A. Carson.  Exegetical Fallacies.  2nd ed.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1996, pp. 68-73.
       Daniel Wallace.  Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing
              House, 1996, pp. 554-557.


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