Daniel Steele on the Aorist Tense in Sanctification Texts

The aorist imperative is a broom that sweeps the heart clean at one stroke of omnipotent power.1

Daniel Steele (1824-1914) is regularly and justly regarded as the one of the first scholar of the American Holiness Movement. We still bear his impress. Born in the Catskills of NY, he attended Wesleyan University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts (1848), a Master of Arts (1851), and a Doctor of Divinity degree (1868).2 While working on his D.D., he served as Professor of Ancient Languages in Genesee College, New York from 1862-69. In 1869 he became president of Genesee College, continuing in office until 1871.

When Genesee College folded due to lack of enrollment, he served as the first acting chancellor for Syracuse University in 1872. Leaving Syracuse, he pastored various churches until 1884 when he became a faculty member of the School of Theology of Boston University. He taught there until 1894, filling the following positions: Instructor in New Testament Greek and Exegesis (1884-85); Professor of Systematic Theology (1886-89); Professor of New Testament Greek and Exegesis (1892-93); Professor of Practical Theology (1890-94).3

Entirely sanctified in 1870,4 Steele wrote the following works related to entire sanctification in the years following: Love Enthroned (1875, rev. 1908), Mile-Stone Papers (1878), Half-Hours with St. Paul (1895), A Defense of Christian Perfection (1896), The Gospel of the Comforter (1897), Jesus Exultant (1899), Half-Hours with St. John (1901), and Steele’s Answers (1912).5

Steele’s Understanding of the Aorist

Steele provides his most extended exegetical treatment of entire sanctification in relation to the aorist tense in “Tense Readings in the Greek Testament,” chapter 5 in his Mile-Stone Papers. In this chapter, he works through the texts that he believes demonstrate sufficiently the nature of the aorist tense’s significance. He then applies that understanding to texts that relate to the “work of purification in the believer’s soul by the power of the Holy Spirit, both in the new birth and in entire sanctification.”6 As he writes, he makes clear that he is working with the most current grammars and the accepted understanding of the aorist tense’s significance in his exegesis of Scripture.7

Steel’s understanding of the aorist’s significance was that it described a single act/event that took place in a moment / instantaneously and that never needed to be repeated. The terminology he uses to describe the nature of the action denoted by the aorist includes all of the following.

  • “an act which is momentary and done once for all”8
  • “a single act, never needing to be repeated”9
  • “singleness of action as distinguished from continuance or repetition”10
  • “instantaneous and decisive action”11
  • “a single, decisive event”12
  • an act done at a “stroke”13

Steele applies his understanding throughout the NT and makes special reference to texts that use the vocabulary of ἁγιάζω and καθαρίζω.

Samples of Steele’s Exegesis of the Aorist in Sanctification Texts

Regarding John 17:17-19,14 Steele writes:

Sanctify (aor., imperative) them once for all through thy truth, that is, through faith in the distinctive office and work of the Comforter. … the disciples needed sanctification in reality, or “truly.” This is the suggested meaning of the words, “through the truth.” … Says Winer: “In the New Testament the obvious distinction between the imperative aorist—as sanctify, above — and the imperative present is uniformly maintained. The imperative aorist denotes an action that is either rapidly completed and transient, or viewed as occurring but once. The imperative present denotes an action already commenced and to be continued, or an action going on, or to be frequently repeated.”15

Regarding Romans 6:13,16 he writes:

Here occurs a beautiful instance of this distinction, affording an undoubted proof-text for instantaneous sanctification, which is not seen in the English version: “Nor render repeatedly (present imperative) your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin; but render (aor., by a final act of unreserved surrender, once for all) yourselves (not your members by a repeated and piecemeal consecration) to God … as alive, from the dead.” Says Alford: “The present imperative above denotes habit; the exhortation guards against the recurrence of a devotion of the members to sin; this aorist imperative, on the other hand, as in chap, 12:1, denotes an act of self-devotion to God once for all, not a mere recurrence of the habit.17

Regarding Romans 12:1,18 he writes:

That ye present (aor.) your bodies, (as a single act, never needing to be repeated.) … If in Paul’s conception believers were to be sinning and repenting all their days, as the best that grace could do for them, he would have used the present imperative, “Be presenting your bodies again and again.”19

Regarding Acts 15:9,20 he writes:

Instantaneously purifying (aor.) their hearts by faith. This verse is a key to the instantaneous sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit wrought in the hearts of believers on the day of Pentecost, since the words even as he did unto us refer to that occasion.21

Regarding 2 Cor. 7:1, he writes:

Let us cleanse (aor.) ourselves at a stroke from every filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting (pres.) holiness in the fear of the Lord. If Paul had been exhorting to a gradual inward cleansing he would certainly have used the present tense. … Having realized the fulfillment of [God’s] promise by adoption, let us who are sons cleanse ourselves, etc. Cleansing is here viewed as a human work, inasmuch as our application of the purifying power is by faith, as we are to make unto ourselves new hearts by availing ourselves of the regenerating Spirit. … While the Wesleyan doctrine of instantaneous sanctification is taught by the aorist tense in this verse, the seemingly paradoxical Wesleyan doctrine of progressive sanctification is also taught by the present participle, “perfecting” holiness, etc. … The perfect inward cleansing instantaneously wrought by the Holy Spirit through faith is to be constantly and progressively carried outward into all the acts of daily life, as
the moral discrimination becomes more and more acute with the increase of knowledge.22

Regarding 1 Thess. 5:23, he writes:

The entire sanctification here supplicated is not only in this life, but the peculiar phraseology of the prayer implies that it is an instantaneous work. To the objection that the verb agiasai, sanctify, can here only be understood of the gradual spread of the principle of holiness implanted in regeneration; even Olshausen insists that the emphasis laid on the “very God,” or “the God of peace himself,” “shows that something new is to follow,” some vigorous interposition of the omnipotent arm of the Sanctifier. Besides this, the verb is in the aorist tense, denoting a single momentary act.23


Daniel Steele was a scholar worthy of his time. Steele did not blindly accept a nonstandard or sub-standard view of the aorist.24 Rather, he worked with the best grammatical understanding available because it fit many of the cases he saw in the text.25 Having satisfied himself of the functional validity of the aorist as denoting a single, decisive act, he rigorously applied it to all the texts relevant to sanctification.

The fact that Steele’s method led to inadequate conclusions raises questions for our own time. “How is a theory about language tested?” “How can we be sure that a hundred years from now will not again see a forum exposing the fallacies of the current view of the aorist?” “What new data overturned the previous perspective?” In regard to the first two questions, the answer is comprehensive survey of the data and careful attention to context. When our interpretation is rooted upon firm contextual considerations, we need have little fear of it being overturned. In regard to the third question, the answer will be presented in the final session on this topic.

Though the growth in knowledge of Greek grammar requires us to retire Steele’s method of arguing his case, it does not require us to lay aside the text’s call to real, vital holiness that begins in salvation and grows progressively both before and after the moment of entire sanctification.

Republished from apbrown2.net.

[1] Daniel Steele, Mile-Stone Papers: Doctrinal, Ethical and Experimental on Christian Progress (Cincinnati: Nelson & Phillips, 1878), 81.
[2] http://archives.syr.edu/collections/faculty/sua_steele_d.htm [Accessed Oct. 18, 2012]. This Syracuse University archival website differs in some particulars with Steele’s Boston University obituary below.
[3] “In Memoriam,” Bostonia 15, no. 1 (1914): 130. Available online from books.google.com. This was the official Boston University obituary for Dr. Steele.
[4] Stephen Olin Garrison, Forty Witnesses: Covering the Whole Range of Christian Experience (Eaton & Mains, 1888). Pages 39-46 give Steele’s testimony. Available online from archive.org.
[5] Most of the works following his Mile-Stone Papers draw substantially upon that work. I could find no mention of Ernest De Witt Burton’s 1893 grammar in Steele’s subsequent work, so it appears that he did not continue to stay abreast of developments in Greek grammar.
[6] Mile-Stone Papers, 66.
[7] Steele cites the grammars of Winer, Buttman, Krueger, Hadley, and Goodwin, calling Winer “the highest authority in the grammar of the Greek Testament.” Mile-Stone Papers, 54. He quotes repeatedly from Dean Alford, Bishop Ellicott, and B. F. Westcott, and appears to be taking advantage of the best textual critical data available in his day in Tischendorf’s edition of the NT.
[8] “This tense, according to the best New Testament grammarians, never indicates a continuous, habitual, or repeated act, but one which is momentary, and done once for all.” Mile-Stone Papers, 66. Steele emphasizes the “once for all” significance of the aorist in his comments on John 17:17 (p. 67); Rom. 6:13 (p. 68); Rom. 12:1 (p. 69); Rom. 6:6 (p. 71); Col. 3:5 (p. 81); 1 Thess. 5:23 (p. 83); 1 Peter 3:15 (p. 84). Steele uses this same terminology “once for all and permanent” to describe the significance of the perfect tense in Heb. 10:2.
[9] Mile-Stone Papers, 69.
[10] “Rather, it will be in that day that the result of the Spirit’s perfect purifying work in this life will be exhibited to the universe. The same remark applies to that strong proof-text (I Thess. v. 23, R.V.), “And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The aorist tense of the verb “sanctify,” denoting singleness of action, as distinguished from continuance or repetition, strengthens our position that there is no post mortem cleansing taught in these passages. Daniel Steele, Half Hours with St. Paul, 85.
[11] “But when an individual leper is cleansed in Matt. viii. 3, ‘‘Be thou cleansed,” the aorist is used to denote instantaneous and decisive action. This use of the present tense therefore denotes the continued efficacy for purifying from all sin, actual and original, by a momentary action, every successive believer who claims his full heritage in Christ ; and it does not signify the constant purification of the same individual till he dies, any more than the present tense in Rom. iii. 24 proves that justification is not one decisive act, but an action prolonged through life.” Half Hours with St. Paul, 265. The language of “instantaneous work,” “instantaneously wrought,” or similar phraseology pervades Steele’s chapter on “Tense Readings of the Greek Testament.” For examples, see Mile-Stone Papers, 73ff.
[12] “[In 1 John 5:18] there is a statement which apparently collides with this nice theory of harmony,—’We know that whosoever is born [perfect tense] of God sinneth not, but he that is begotten [aorist tense, denoting a single, decisive event] keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.’” Half Hours with St. Paul, 269.
[13] Mile-Stone Papers: the leper was cleansed at a stroke (66), 71, “let us cleanse (aor.) ourselves at a stroke from every filthiness of the flesh” (72), “the reason for the use of the aorists is that entire sanctification and the fullness of the Spirit are viewed as a work to be finished at a stroke” (82).
[14] John 17:17 ἁγίασον αὐτοὺς ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ· … 19 καὶ ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν ἐγὼ ἁγιάζω ἐμαυτόν, ἵνα ὦσιν καὶ αὐτοὶ ἡγιασμένοι ἐν ἀληθείᾳ.
[15] Mile-Stone Papers, 67.
[16] Romans 6:13 μηδὲ παριστάνετε τὰ μέλη ὑμῶν ὅπλα ἀδικίας τῇ ἁμαρτίᾳ, ἀλλὰ παραστήσατε ἑαυτοὺς τῷ θεῷ ὡσεὶ ἐκ νεκρῶν ζῶντας καὶ τὰ μέλη ὑμῶν ὅπλα δικαιοσύνης τῷ θεῷ.
[17] Mile-Stone Papers, 68. For as careful a scholar as Steele appears to be, it seems strange that he failed to observe that precisely the same verb that occurs in Rom. 6:13 as an aorist imperative also occurs in Rom. 6:16 as a present indicative indicating the on-going presentation required of believers.
[18] Romans 12:1 Παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, διὰ τῶν οἰκτιρμῶν τοῦ θεοῦ παραστῆσαι τὰ σώματα ὑμῶν θυσίαν ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῷ, τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν·
[19] Mile-Stone Papers, 69. It is a shame that Steele didn’t compare the use of the aorist tense in similar offering contexts in Leviticus, for there he would find the aorist and future tenses used consistently to describe acts that by their very nature were not “never needing to be repeated.”
[20] Acts 15:9 καὶ οὐθὲν διέκρινεν μεταξὺ ἡμῶν τε καὶ αὐτῶν τῇ πίστει καθαρίσας τὰς καρδίας αὐτῶν.
[21] Mile-Stone Papers, 70.
[22] Mile-Stone Papers, 73-74.
[23] Daniel Steele, Love Enthroned: Essays on Evangelical Perfection (Phillips & Hunt, 1880), 60.
[24] Contra Randy Maddox, “The Use of the Aorist Tense in Holiness Exegesis,” WTJ 16.2 (Fall 1981), 107.
[25] See Mile-Stone Papers, 66-67, for examples of his analysis of non-sanctification uses of the aorist tense.