John 5:24 and Conditional Eternal Security
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears [present tense participle] my word and believes [present tense participle] him who sent me has [present tense; right now] eternal life. He does not come into judgment [present tense; right now], but has passed [perfect tense; from the past to present] from death to life“ (John 5:24, ESV).
Many are quick to emphasize the promise of “eternal life” in this verse. They may affirm that “eternal life” cannot be lost because it lasts forever. While “eternal life” does last forever, it shouldn’t be confused with possession of the state of “eternal life.” Two illustrations may be helpful.
Suppose a man is gifted a $100 dollar bill; it’s his and worth $100. If the bill is spent, or given away, he no longer has possession of it —the bill is still worth $100.00. It would be illogical to conclude he cannot forfeit it because the bill will always be worth $100.
Many employers offer life insurance to their employees while they remain with the company. It would be unreasonable for former employees to believe that their life insurance will always remain in effect, even after leaving the company because it’s called “life insurance”.
In John 5:24, possession of eternal life is conditional. A person “has” eternal life while they “hears” Christ’s Word and “believes” in Him (“him who sent me“). To overlook these semantic qualifiers based on rules of grammar is to reject God’s inspired Word. A correct grammatical interpretation of Scripture is necessary for a correct doctrinal understanding. The Bible should define one’s theological framework —not one’s theology, the Bible.
The Apostle John, with great precision, grammatically recalled the words of Jesus as arranged in this verse. According to the book, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Wallace, 521-522, 1996) the two conditional participles used (“hears“; “believes“), best fall within the “customary (habitual or general) present” category. Wallace places the participle “believes” of John 3:16 inside this category (522). This category is defined by Wallace as, “the customary present is used to signal either an action that regularly occurs or an ongoing state” (page 521).
Please consider how Young’s Literal Translation emphasizes the necessity to remain in ongoing belief:
“Verily, verily, I say to you—He who is hearing my word, and is believing Him who sent me, hath life age-during, and to judgment he doth not come, but hath passed out of the death to the life” (John 5:24).
In the book, Life in the Son, Shank wrote the following:
“Contrary to the assumption of many, John 5:24 does not present a privileged position, which, once attained, is forever irrevocable. Quite to the contrary, our Savior’s Words depict a privileged position directly governed by the specific condition of habitually hearing and believing. Jesus declares that the happy circumstance of deliverance from present condemnation and of standing passed out of death into life is the privilege only of such as habitually hear His Word and believe the Father. It is only on the basis of a present hearing and believing that one shares the eternal life of God and enjoys deliverance from present condemnation and spiritual death” (page 61; 1989).
A comparable passage to John 5:24 is probably John 10:27-29. This passage is used regularly to emphasize the doctrine known as eternal security. While it’s true that this passage provides security, it’s also true that this security is conditional on perseverance. The “sheep” must “hear” and “follow” the Shepherd for eternal life:
“27 My sheep hear [present tense] my voice, and I know [present tense] them, and they follow [present tense] me. 28 I give them [the group in verse 27 that is persevering in the present] eternal life, and they [the group in verse 27 that is persevering in the present] will never perish, and no one will snatch them [the group in verse 27 that is persevering in the present] out of my hand. My Father, who has given them [the group in verse 27 that is persevering in the present] to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them [the group in verse 27 that is persevering in the present] out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
A grammatical examination of John 5:24 indicate that Jesus requires perseverance (“hears” and “believes“) to be saved. This conclusion is not an abstract theological deduction. All credible English translations grammatically affirm the necessity to persevere in the faith for John 5:24. The requirement to persevere is found in many other passages of Scripture as well.
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