NKJ John 3:16 For [γάρ, gár] God so [οὕτως, hoútōs, thus, so, in this manner] loved the world [κόσμος, kósmos] that He gave His only begotten [μονογενής, monogenḗs, one and only] Son, that whoever believes [πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, pãs ho pisteúōn] in Him should not perish [Aor. Dep. Subj. > ἀπόλλυμι, apóllumi] but have [Pres. Act. Subj. > ἔχω, échō] everlasting life.
Last week we began our examination of the first part of this verse under the heading, “The Greatness of God’s Love,” and this week we will continue our study of the latter part of this verse under two headings, first “The Grace of God’s Love,” and then “The Goal of God’s Love.”
The Grace of God’s Love
This idea was implicit in our study of this verse last week, when we saw that God’s love for us sinners was so great that it led Him to give His one and only Son for the elect from all over the world. Today I want to make this idea explicit, because John himself definitely means to communicate that our salvation is by God’s grace when he highlights two facts.
First, John highlights the fact that it was God Himself who took the initiative to do what was necessary to save us. It was God in His love who offered His one and only Son so that we might not perish but have everlasting life. His presentation here thus highlights what he later stresses in his first epistle:
NKJ 1 John 4:16-19 And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love Him because He first loved us.
What a comforting truth it is to know that God has loved us even though we don’t deserve it! Such love does indeed cast out fear!
Second, John highlights that salvation is by God’s grace when he specifically says that God “gave” His one and only Son. So, when the Lord Jesus died on the cross, He did so as God’s gift to us by which we are saved and receive everlasting life. This leads us to our next major heading.
The Goal of God’s Love
John tells us what was God’s goal or purpose in giving His Son. It was so that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But it is important here to understand clearly what John is saying, especially since so many well-intentioned Christians tend to misunderstand this verse precisely at this point.
For example, when many Christians read this verse and see that God loved the world, they assume that He loved everyone without exception and that He loved them all in the same way. But we saw last week that this is not necessarily the right way to understand John’s use of the Greek word for world here.
Yet this is not where the problem ends, because these same Christians then go on to assume that John means to imply that everyone is equally capable of believing when he says that “whoever believes” in Him should not perish. Yet John says nothing in this verse about who is able to believe in Christ. Nor does he say anything about how anyone comes to believe in Christ. He simply says that every one who does believe will not perish but have everlasting life.
The Greek phrase here is pãs ho pisteúōn. Pãs is an adjective which means all or every, and ho pisteúōn is a participle preceded by an article, and it means he who believes or the believing one. John is thus quite clearly saying that God’s intention in giving His Son Jesus was so that every believing one should not perish but have everlasting life. He is specifying a particular group of human beings – those who believe – and nothing in the grammar indicates that all human beings are in mind. Yet, whenever certain Christians see the word whoever or whosoever in an English translation, they automatically assume that John is speaking of some indefinite group and that he is trying to say that all human beings have the same capacity to believe. They also often assume that simply citing this verse is enough to defeat the doctrine of election as taught elsewhere in the Bible and as understood by Reformed believers.
But, as I have pointed out, this text says nothing at all about who will believe in Christ or how they will come to believe in Him. For an explanation of these ideas we would have to look elsewhere in Scripture. For example, if we want to know how it is that people come to faith in Christ, then we might want to pay close attention to Jesus’ teaching as recorded by John later on in this same Gospel. Perhaps a brief look at John 6 will suffice.
First, it is important as we read John 6 to see how Jesus used the terminology of coming to Him as equivalent to believing in Him. This can be seen in verses 35-40:
NKJ John 6:35-40 And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. 40 And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” [Notice that everlasting life is spiritual life that may be experienced now, but which also includes our future resurrection.]
We have taken the time to read these verses so that you can be assured that, when Jesus speaks of someone coming to Him, He means that this person believes in Him. He uses the terminology interchangeably. Now, with that understanding, let’s take a look at a couple of other points Jesus makes later in the same context.
NKJ John 6:44-45 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.
How can we tell who has been taught and drawn by the Father? All we have to do is look to see who is coming to Jesus in faith. Clearly, only those who have been so taught by the Father and drawn by the Father to Jesus can and will believe in Him. And, since no one can come to the Jesus unless they are thus drawn by the Father, then no one can believe in Jesus unless they are drawn by Him. Later on in this passage, Jesus stresses the same point:
NKJ John 6:65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted [Perf. Pass. Part. > δίδωμι, has been given] to him by My Father.”
Now, if coming to Jesus is the same thing as believing in Jesus, and if coming to Jesus is a gift from God the Father, then believing in Jesus is a gift from God the Father. So this is just one of a number of passages that show that saving faith is a gift of God, not something that anyone has in and of himself, aside from God’s having granted it to Him. The Apostle Paul would later put it this way:
NKJ Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God….”
But if this is true, if faith is the gift of God, then we have even more evidence that the common understanding that many Christians have of John 3:16 is simply wrong. For they see it as indicating that all men are somehow equally capable of believing, when the Bible clearly teaches that no one is capable of believing in Christ at all unless saving faith has been given to him by God.
But what is the nature of the faith that God gives? What is saving faith like? I think Wayne Grudem gives us a helpful start in answering this question when he explains the sense of the Greek phrase employed by John in this verse, a phrase which is also commonly used elsewhere in the New Testament:
John 3:16 tells us that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Here John uses a surprising phrase when he does not simply say, “whoever believes him” (that is, believes that what he says is true and able to be trusted), but rather, “whoever believes in him.” The Greek phrase pisteuo eis auton could also be translated “believe into him” with the sense of trust or confidence that goes into and rests in Jesus as a person. Leon Morris can say, “Faith, for John, is an activity which takes men right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ.” He understands the Greek phrase pisteuo eis to be a significant indication that New Testament faith is not just intellectual assent but includes a “moral element of personal trust.” Such an expression was rare or perhaps nonexistent in the secular Greek found outside the New Testament, but it was well suited to express the personal trust in Christ that is involved in saving faith. (Systematic Theology, p. 711)
In other words, saving faith is more that intellectual assent to facts about Jesus. Saving faith is rather personal trust in Jesus to save you from your sins. It is faith such as this which embraces Christ so that one might not perish but instead have everlasting life. And, as we have already seen when we looked ahead to John 6, this everlasting life refers to spiritual life now that looks forward to and includes the resurrection.
But those who do not trust in Jesus will perish, which means that they will experience the eternal death which involves separation from the love of God that has been so wonderfully declared in this verse. Later John would write more about the fate of unbelievers in the Book of Revelation, where he described the final judgment and said, “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (20:14-15).
Conclusion: I will conclude with an illustration from a sermon by S. Lewis Johnson:
What does it mean to believe? There is a story of a skeptical physician who was administering to a Christian patient. He said to his patient, “I could never understand saving faith. I believe in God and I suppose I believe in Jesus Christ. I’m not conscious of any doubts. I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and I believe in the Bible, yet I’m not saved. What’s the matter with me?” The Christian patient said, “Well, a day or two ago I believed in you. I believed that you were a very skillful physician; I believed that you could possibly prescribe for me and heal me. But then a few days just recently I discovered I was really sick and so I came to you and I put myself in your hands to be healed. In other words, I trusted you.” He said, “For a time now I’ve been taking some mysterious stuff out of a bottle. I don’t know what it is, I don’t understand it, but I’m trusting you.”
Well that’s a good explanation of what saving faith is. It’s to turn to the Lord Jesus and say, if you’re puzzled, “Lord Jesus, Christianity seems to me to be full of mysteries. I don’t understand all those mysteries but I believe that you are trustworthy and I trust you. I entrust myself and my eternal destiny into your hands because you have offered an atoning sacrifice for sinners, and that’s what I am.” That’s saving faith. (Online sermon entitled The Greatest text of All)
I pray that all who read these posts and who have not yet come to know Christ as Lord Savior will so trust in Him.
See part one here.