Understanding John 3:16

How can you reconcile belief in Divine election with John 3:16?

Actually, if we carefully take a look at the text and not just assume its meaning, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

When hearing the biblical teaching on the subject of Divine election, some seek immediate refuge in a traditional and may I say, unbiblical understanding of this verse. They say this: “God can’t elect certain ones to salvation because John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that gave His Son so that WHOEVER believes in Christ would have eternal life. Therefore, God has done His part in offering the gift of salvation in His Son and just leaves it up to us to receive the gift through faith. Amen. Case closed!” (emphasis theirs)

Or so it might seem… Though this is a very common tradition, and one I held to myself for many a year, it needs to be pointed out that in spite of the emphasis made by many people here on the word “whoever”, the text does not actually discuss who does or who does not have the ability to believe. Someone might just as well be quoting John 3:16 to suggest that all churches need to have red carpets in their sanctuaries! Why? Because that also is not a topic addressed in the text. The verse is often quoted, but actually it has no relevance to the subject.

For the understanding of a text in the New Testament, we need to check the original language in which it was written, namely koine Greek. It may come as a big surprise to learn that in the original Greek of John 3:16, there is no word corresponding to our English word “whoever.” The word “whoever” is expressing a phrase in Greek which is difficult to express smoothly in English.

Literally, the text reads “in order that every the one believing in Him, not to perish, but have everlasting life.”

It says “every” or “all the one believing…” That’s hard to express in English, but in essence, it is saying “all the believing ones.” That’s what is being communicated. It is saying that there is no such thing as a believing one who does not receive eternal life, but who perishes. Though our English translation says “whoever believes” the literal rendering is accurately translated as “every believing one” and the emphasis is NOT AT ALL on the “whosoever” but on the belief. The ones BELIEVING will not have one consequence but will have another. They will not perish but will have everlasting life.

Why? Because of the main verb – because God GAVE His Son. God gave His Son for the purpose (Greek: hina) that every believing one should not perish, but that every believing one should have everlasting life.

The text (John 3:16) actually speaks of a limitation; of a particular rather than a universal redemption, for clearly, not everyone will be saved, but only those who believe in Christ. The Father gave His Son for the purpose of those who believe. The Son is given so that the believing ones will not perish, but opposite to that, have eternal life. That is the purpose of the giving.

So, what John 3:16 teaches is:

ALL who do A (believe in Him)

will not B (perish)

but will have C (everlasting life)

What does this text tell us about who WILL believe or who CAN believe?

The answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! The text does not address the issue of who WILL believe or who CAN believe.

However, if you do want to know John’s view on who CAN exercise faith, he does deal with that question – just not in this text. If you go back a few verses in the chapter to John 3:3, John quotes Jesus as saying “unless a man is born again he CANNOT enter the kingdom of God.” That’s clear isn’t it?

Jesus said that a pre-requisite, a necessary condition, that must be met before someone can enter the kingdom of God is that they are born again. We enter the kingdom of God through faith, but in order to enter the kingdom, we must first be born again, or made spiritually alive. If we are not FIRST born again, we CANNOT enter the kingdom of God.

This same issue is certainly addressed by Jesus 3 chapters further on in John 6:44, when He said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” (we should note that the one drawn by the Father to the Son is also raised up on the last day to eternal life). (John 6:39, 40). In John 6:65, Jesus said, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

Of course, ALL who exercise true faith will certainly be saved. John 3:16 clearly teaches that anyone believing in Christ will not perish but have everlasting life. But what we need to ask is “who WILL have faith?”

The reformed, and I believe biblical view, is that only the elect will be brought to faith. No one can come to Christ unless God does something to enable that person to come.

So why do people miss what John 3:16 teaches or read into it (eisegesis) what is not actually in the text?

That’s easy. It is because of how they have heard John 3:16 used over and over and over again. They have an ingrained, preconceived notion of what the verse says, and fail to question that assumption and read the text for what it actually says. It’s a TRADITION and if you dare question it, you might be accused of questioning the very word of God, rather than their traditional interpretation of the word of God, and that can create a whole lot of emotion.

This text, of course, is just one example of many that could be quoted, but it does show us how powerful our traditions can be. We need to continuously expose our traditions to the light of God’s Word. If they can be confirmed by detailed study of the text of Scripture, we can be sure that the traditions are valid. If not, then we need to dispense with them. Let God be true and every man a liar… even if the “man” here refers to our own firmly held beliefs, but not the testimony of Scripture itself.

For more on this theme, there are two short videos posted here.

8 thoughts on “Understanding John 3:16

  1. Thank you for your work on this scripture but I do have some questions about it. I researched about 20 English translations (older and newer) and found only one that even came close to agreeing with your assessment (Young’s Literal Translation). Do other mainstream translators agree with your work?

    Are the major translations wrong?

    In your translation of this word/phrase how do you factor in the use of context of the surrounding ideas? i.e. “World”, “the serpent in the wilderness”.



  2. Hi Phil,

    No, the major translations are not wrong at all. They are simply seeking to translate a difficult phrase in Greek. What I am pointing out is that the Greek takes us to a more precise meaning than what we normally read in just English but because “every believing ones” is an awkward expression, it is normally smoothed out, so to speak, in our English translations. “Whoever believes” is therefore not incorrect, but not as precise as the original Greek.

    The meaning of the text is that God’s love for the world is seen by the giving of His Son so that all the ones who believe will not in any way perish, but instead have everlasting life.

    For further detail, I will post a video by Dr. James White on this very subject, which you can find as an entry on December 22, 2010.

  3. Pingback: Understanding John 3:16 by John Samson

  4. Pingback: John 3:16 – "Whosoever" and "the World" « airĊ

  5. Although I agree that the sentiment of the passage is as you say; I cannot find where the Greek literally means what you say. Can you help to clarify that?
    Nice work, keep it coming.

  6. Dear John,
    Thank you for this very clear explanation of this ‘problematic’ verse and word ‘whosoever’. I would have liked to forward this on, but just felt that your ending should have been (or can be) more of what this should provoke from us, who are saved, and have the witness of the Spirit rather than just the argument of ‘tradition’. Of course, we are eternally grateful people for His choosing us, and also humbled before Him. This would mean a lot more to my converts than the note on our traditions! Continue to be blessed in Him,

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