The context, as many of you will know, is Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. Jesus began the conversation by breaking the social norm of asking this woman for a drink of water (4:7). If you know the rest of the story it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that she has developed some thick skin over the course of her sinful life. Thus, not being one to back down she goes on head on at Jesus trying to figure out what this is all about (4:9). Jesus, being the Lord of tact uses this as an opportunity to delve into an evangelistic opportunity.
As he often did our Lord describes a spiritual truth by using an analogy to everyday things. She is drawing water from a well and he uses this juncture to illustrate the spiritual gift he has come to impart to the world. Maybe she is inquiring further or being sarcastic but she doesn’t seem to get it (4:11). So He explained further by saying, "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." (Jn 4:13-14) This statement is really where our debate hinges.
The crux of the matter rests on two verbal phrases:
(1) 4:13—The one who drinks (πᾶς ὁ πίνων). πίνων is a present active participle form the verb πίνω (to drink)
(2) 4:14—but whoever drinks (ὃς δ᾿ ἂν πίη). πίη is the aorist active subjunctive form of the verb πίνω (to drink).
Those who believe one cannot lose their salvation point to the fact that Jesus changed from the present tense to the aorist. For those who don’t know Greek let me explain why they say that is important. Typically (though not always) the present tense denotes continuous action and the aorist denotes a simple past event. This is an extremely simplified definition and actually kind of misleading about the flexibility of the verbs but we will get to that in a minute. The argument goes, “Jesus is saying that one who continually drinks from this physical water will continue to thirst but the one who takes one sip (initial conversion) of the spiritual water I can give him will never have to drink again because he will have a spring of life inside of him.” Thus, what they are arguing, based on their definition of the aorist tense, is that Jesus said you only have to drink of water that comes from him Once and you will Never thirst again. Never means Never…right? Therefore, once someone becomes a Christian (they drank of the water from Jesus) it is impossible from them to fall away (thirst again).
Now this sounds nice to the one who doesn’t understand the Greek language. Lucky for you I do so we can correct this error together. Remember how I said that the definitions I gave you of the present and aorist tenses were kind of misleading? That is because most people do not understand that both verb tenses have a range of meanings. For example, and this is important to our study, the aorist tense can be used in a constative sense. That is, it takes the action as a whole without an interest to the internal workings of the action. It can be used to describe an action that is iterative, durative, or momentary. As an example look at John 4:20, “Our fathers worshiped (aorist) on this mountain.” THIS IS THE SAME CONTEXT!!! Obviously she isn’t saying they only worshipped once. This is an example of the aorist being used to describe a habitual action. One other example is Romans 5:14, “Death reigned…”; Again we see the aorist tense used not to describe a one time event but something which was progressive.
Now back to our context. It is important, as we interpret Scripture, to take any given passage in context to what the whole Bible says. A few other Scriptures on this topic help us clear the air pretty quickly. 1st Corinthians 10:4, “and all drank (aorist) the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking (Imperfect) from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” Whereas the aorist is generally a snapshot the imperfect tense is a motion picture. Notice how Paul juxtaposes the two tenses here. Obviously his use of the aorist (all drank) is parallel to the progressive nature of the imperfect (they were drinking). That is, his simple description (all drank) is about an event that was progressive (they were drinking). Since this is in reference to the spiritual rock of Christ we can relate it back to John 4. We must continually drink of the spiritual rock of Christ just like Paul said the Israelites did, that is, continually. Paul’s whole analogy and teaching fall apart if we only need to drink of Christ once. Paul’s argument is that the Israelites were continually drinking of their spiritual rock so we too much continually drink of our spiritual rock.
Finally let us look at John 7:37-38, “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink (Present Imperative). "He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, 'From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” Same author, same speaker, and same subject as our context. Notice Jesus used the present imperative. Therefore, based on the further enlightenment we get from 1st Cor 10:4 & John 7:37-38, we can look back to John 4:13-14 and see that the aorist, simply being used to speak of an event as a whole, is speaking of an event that is continual.
Some argue that Jesus’ use of the aorist tense in John 4:14 means one only has to drink of the living water once and he is eternally secure. I have attempted to respond to this by showing that:
1) The aorist tense is not grammatically tied to only or even primarily describing a one time event. This was illustrated in texts like John 4:40 & Rom 5:14
2) 1st Corinthians 10:4 shows that unless we continually drink of Christ we will be like the Israelites who fell in the wilderness. Furthermore it grammatically indicates where the aorist tense can be juxtaposed to a verb tense (Imperfect) which denotes continual action
3) John 7:37-38 also teaches us that Jesus commands we continually drink of him
Therefore, once we drink of the water Christ gives us we cannot think we are eternally secure. We must continually drink of the living water in order to have rivers of living water flowing inside of us.