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The Cross of Christ and God's Present Tense Love

Tense matters. In grammar, we speak of tenses when we want to convey a sense of time with a particular action. Students of New Testament Greek (Koine Greek) know just how significant tense is in understanding a verb. Many Greek grammar textbooks will go as far as to say that tense is the most important element in understanding the Greek New Testament. But the same is true in our everyday talk. If someone were to ask about the status of their paycheck, the difference between the answers "it has been issued" or "it will be issued" may have an impact on if they have a good or bad day.

I say all of this to set up something very subtle yet significant that is going on in a famous verse in Romans. In paying attention to the verb tenses of Romans 5:8 we will gain something rich that Paul has to offer us that we would otherwise miss. There he writes, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." I've italicized the verb in question to draw your attention. Christ's having died for us is how God shows us his love.

But that's grammatically odd, isn't it? The verb in the phrase "Christ died for us" in English reads as a past tense verb (more on that in a moment). Yet, the verb in the phrase "God shows his love for us" reads as present tense. These two together, we might subconsciously absorb the information as "God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us". We read a past tense in the end clause and then impose one on the first. But that would not be an accurate way to read the verse.

You see, the verb in the phrase "God shows his love for us" is a present tense verb. Present tense verbs can do one of two things: they can show that an action is current taking place or that the action itself is undefined in terms of time. There really is a subtle difference between the two in the case of Rom 5:8 but for the sake of clarity this is what we would call an undefined present tense verb. The action of God's showing his love is not limited to the past. It's not as if he showed his love then but doesn't do so anymore.

Interestingly enough, though, the means by which God shows his love in the present is by something that happened in the past. You see, in the phrase "Christ died for us" we find what is called an aorist verb. This is different from a pure past tense (also called the perfect tense) but still can be understood as pertaining to something that happened in the past even if the impact of it is chronologically undefined. All of that to say, God presently shows his love for us by the means of a past event — Christ's dying on the cross.

If you are a Christian God presently shows his love for you in that Christ died for you. This does not mean that Christ is perpetually dying in order for God to be perpetually showing his love. Rather, that the epicenter of the love of God for his people is Jesus Christ and his cross. All good things that he gives to us as his children were bought by the blood of Jesus Christ. Every good and perfect gift for the Christian comes as a fruit of the greatest gift of God's own son. Thus Paul says in Rom 8, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" The "all things" that God gives us come "with Christ" and not apart from Christ.

As we contemplate the question of whether or not God loves us we are prone to look to so many wrong directions first. We look to our bank accounts, our spouses, our children, our work situation, our friend circles, and so on. These are areas in which God blesses us. And yet, we will not find a satisfactory answer for the question if we do not first consider the cross of Jesus Christ. "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."


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