Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Monday, February 21

Greek Word Order and Nuance (Eph 2:8–9)

There is meaning in Greek word order, but it is normally so nuanced that it can’t come out in translation. Ephesians 2:8–9 is one of the rare exceptions, illustrating how to emphasize a word or phrase by changing its normal position in the sentence. You can also watch this vlog on YouTube.

Since Greek does not use word order to determine meaning as we do in English, it is available for other purposes. “Normal” word order is “conjunction — verb — subject — direct object,” but it occurs so rarely that it is hard to find an example. Matt 9:35 reads, καὶ περιῆγεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὰς πόλεις,” “and he went through Jesus the cities.”

If you want to add a slight emphasis to a word, you put it out of its “normal” order, usually moving it forward, even to the front of the sentence. English rarely is able to convey the emphasis, but in Eph 2:8–9 it can. Word-for-word Paul writes, “by grace you have been saved.” Preceding the verb with a prepositional phrase is understandable in English and accurately reflects the significant emphasis on “grace” in this verse.

As you look further, you can see a more subtle example of emphasis. “It is the gift of God” is word-for-word, “of God the gift” (θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον), the emphasis being on “God” more than on the “gift,” which parallels nicely with the following contrast “not of works” (οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων). This, however, is so subtle that you can’t express it in English.

In 2:9 the nuance is so slight that you just pass over it. In the phrase, “so that no one may boast” (ἵνα μή τις καυχήσηται), the subject precedes the verb.

Language is full of nuances. Caution is urged at being too specific in your translation and teaching.

As far as Greek grammar is concerned in this verse, there are two things worth pointing out. ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι is a periphrastic perfect. Originally, periphrastic constructions were created to emphasize the continuous aspect of the verb, but that distinction has generally fallen into disuse by the Koine, so it is translated as a simple perfect: “have been saved.”

Also, did you see that τοῦτο is neuter? What is its antecedent? Both χάριτι and πίστεως are feminine. When Greek wants to refer back to an idea in general and not so much a single word, it uses the neuter. So Paul is saying that the entire salvation process, along with grace and faith, is a gift from God. As Paul says in Titus 3:5, “he saved us.” We do not save ourselves; we do not earn salvation through works of the law. The entire process is a gift.


I would contend that εστε σεσωσμενοι is not periphrastic at all. The conclusion that it is, is an English-ism, and the temptation is to view εστε as grammatically equivalent to an English auxiliary (a.k.a. "helper") verb, followed by a verb spelled in participle form, to form an (English) verb phrase: "you are saved." But Greek doesn't have auxiliary verbs! That's how the English language conjugates verbs, not how the Greek does! The main verb, εστε, which is not an "auxiliary verb," and the participle, σεσωσμενοι, need to be translated separately, not periphrastically, or else you miss a nuance. Separately, we have "we are being" "having been saved." This nuance is important! It reflects back to the δια της πιστεως "through the faith" (that's our part of the deal -- faith), in what God has provided by "grace" (religious word for "favor," God's part of the deal). By faith "we are being" + "having been saved." That implies that without faith it would be "we are not being" + "having been saved" (the χαριτι, "favor" of God, is not a variable -- faith is the variable, hence the preposition δια, "through"). The perfect tense of the participle reflects back to the result of the work that Jesus already has completed on our behalf, which is done and accomplished, contingent and applicable upon our believing it.

I often find it helpful to back-translate from English back to Greek what people want something to say, to show that the scriptures could say it but don't. "You[plural] have been saved" would be σεσωσθε, perfect passive, second person, plural. "You[plural] are saved" would be εσωθητε, aorist passive, second person, plural. Either way, if it is so simple to just say that so plainly with one word in the Greek, then why are there two words? Why would someone want to periphrase that if there is a single word to express it? The answer is that εστε σεσωσμενοι is not periphrastic. It is a verb and a participle, and each has a separate meaning.