Q – Whenever I’m discussing salvation and “free will” with someone, they always seem to retreat to John 3:16. They say, “Look right there! It says ‘whosoever’ believes will be saved! That means that anyone who wants to can accept Jesus and be saved!”
How do you answer that?
Jim – Good question! You’re right, John 3:16 has become the bedrock “proof text” of everyone who argues against the doctrine of election or divine predetermination. So, let’s see if that verse is actually saying what these folk are convinced it says. Because, if it does, we’re in hot water! But, if it doesn’t, we really ought to be able to offer a sound, indisputable response.
First, let’s look at John 3:16 as it appears in the King James Version:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The first thing that should be obvious is that the English rendering of this verse begins with the word “for.” That means that it is the conclusion of an argument. It’s the summary statement. So, we need to look at this verse in its larger context. Here is the whole passage:
“If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:12-18)
Let’s start by addressing the heart of the argument and then we’ll get into the details. The word “whosever” appears twice in this passage. In both instances, it is used in regard to faith – “whosoever believes.” The implication of this English phrase is that anyone who wishes to may exert his will and freedom of choice in order to believe something about Christ. Anyone who would like to can exercise his or her right and faculty to have (or not have) faith. The consequences of their faith (or lack of it) are then the result of that person’s free and unencumbered choice.
But, there’s a problem. And, it’s a big problem. The New Testament was not written in English, any less the King’s English. It was written in Greek. And, there is no Greek equivalent for the English word “whosoever.”
That’s important. So much so that it bears repeating.
There is no Greek equivalent for the English word “whosoever.”
The Apostle John did not write, “Whosoever believeth.” That word construction was never part of his original letter. What he did write was, “pas ho pisteuoon.” The two little Greek words “pas ho” are literally translated “all the.” “Pisteuoon” is a form of the word “pisteuo,” the verb form of “pistis,” or “faith.”
The King James translators’ choice of the single word “whosoever” to translate the two-word phrase “pas ho” was not an entirely errant decision. In the King’s English, “whosoever” did not have the connotation of randomness or free choice that it has come to represent in contemporary English. Originally, “whosoever” designated a particular group – as in “whosoever possesses these certain qualities.” In this case, the group included only those who believed, as opposed to those who did not.
But, more to the point, “pas ho” simply does not mean “anyone at all who chooses to exercise their choice.” It specifically means “all the” and it serves to designate a particular group of people who share a defining characteristic -“faith” or “believing.”
So, when we read, “whosoever believeth,” we must understand that what John literally wrote was “all the believing.” In other words, the benefits of God’s love are not indiscriminately available to anyone who chooses to possess them. Only the particular group – “all the believing” – are gifted with eternal life.
Now, with that bit of exegesis in mind, let’s dig into John’s use of “pas ho pisteuo” in the larger context.
“Even so must the son of man be lifted up.”
This passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ instruction to Nicodemus concerning being “born again.” Nicodemus, struggling to grasp Jesus’ teaching, asked, “How can these things be?” In response, Jesus rebuked him for being a teacher in Israel while failing to understand the fundamentals of God’s relationship with His people.
“Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:9-12)
Overall, it’s a rather stinging indictment. Jesus insisted that He was speaking the things He knew for certain as a firsthand witness, yet Nicodemus refused to accept His testimony. Jesus concluded that if Nicodemus could not understand the movement and working of the Holy Spirit on Earth, he would never believe the things Jesus could tell him about Heavenly activity.
So, Jesus began to explain His authority. No one has ever gone into Heaven to scope it out and bring back a report. But, the Son of God was intimately acquainted with details of the Heavenly realm. His is the only true account because He is the only true witness.
Then, Jesus reached back into Israel’s history and reminded Nicodemus of a particular event. After their great victory at Hormah, the children of Israel journeyed by the Red Sea, circumventing the land of Edom, and they began to murmur and complain about the lack of water. They had grown to loathe the daily manna and complained about the lack of other food, even longing for their days in Egypt. So God sent poisonous serpents into the camp and many of the people died.
So Israel recognized their sin and adjured Moses to intercede for them. Moses prayed for the people and God instructed him to create a brass replicate of the poisonous snake and raise it on a pole above the people. God promised that everyone who had been bitten and looked on the brass serpent would live.
Jesus drew a parallel between Himself and that brass serpent. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, likewise Jesus would be lifted up. And, just as those who looked to the serpent – knowing the instruction and believing God’s promise – were healed of their deadly wound and lived, so everyone who had faith in the atoning work of Christ would receive the healing of their sinful wound and gain eternal life. The serpent on a pole typified Jesus on the cross.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
Now, the words “should not perish, but …” were added by the translators and are not in the original text. Verse 15 literally reads, “That all the (pas ho) believing in Him have life eternal.” The phrase “should not perish” infers that the benefits of believing would be granted at some future date. But, Jesus stated that the present reality of faith was proof that “all the believing” had already inherited, and were in possession of, the promise of eternal life. The New American Standard Version more definitely reads:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
In other words, Jesus was lifted up on the cross and everyone who has faith in His atoning work already possesses the promise of eternal life. That is a distinct group. Those who did not look at the serpent in the wilderness were not healed. Likewise, those who do not rest in Christ’s finished atonement for their salvation will not inherit eternal life.
Now, that’s quite different from saying that Jesus was lifted up on the cross and anyone who chooses to believe in Him will (future tense) receive the gift of life. Rather, Jesus said that the very fact of faith or believing was the evidence that those people already possessed the gift of eternal life. Their faith was simply an outgrowth of the life (zoe) that indwelt them.
Or, more plainly, Christians do not earn eternal life as the result of their decision to believe. They believe because they were ordained to eternal life.
“And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)
“For God so loved”
Now, that’s all the build-up to the verse in question. (For the members of our congregation, that was all introduction and technically does not count against my time.)
The next two words John wrote were “houtoos gar,” literally meaning “so for.” To make the words flow in English, the word “so” was pushed back into the sentence structure and “for” became the opening word. But, we need to understand each of these words. “Houto” (the root of “houtoos”) means “in this manner” or “after this fashion.” That’s the same way we use the word “so” when we instruct a child to do something “just so.” We mean, do it “like this,” or “after this manner.”
In the modern readings of John 3:16, folk get the impression that John was exclaiming, “God loves the world ssssooooo much!” But, that was not John’s meaning. He said, “For in this manner (the aforementioned lifting up of Christ) God demonstrated His love.”
The next question we must ask is: “Who are the recipients of this love?”
The common reading of John 3:16 insists that God loved “the whole world” – meaning “everyone who has ever lived.” And, He loved them immensely. After all “God ssssoooo loved the world!”
That’s emotionally appealing, but it’s not what John wrote. The word “world” is the Greek “kosmos.” While it is true that “kosmos” sometimes denotes “every part and parcel of the whole earth,” most often it means, “people of all kindred, tribes and nations, as opposed to Israelites exclusively.” This variation of meaning becomes obvious as we look at the Apostle John’s own use of this word. He employed the word “kosmos” 82 times in his gospel. Here’s just a sampling.
“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” (John 1:10)
Jesus was in the world – a reference to both the planet and its inhabitants. And, he made the world – the physical structure was created and is sustained by Him. And, the world knew Him not – the people did not recognize Him.
In that short verse we get three different nuances of the single word “kosmos.”
“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
John was saying one of two things, here. Either he was saying:
1) Behold the sacrificial lamb (typified by Israel’s sin offerings) that will remove every sin of every person who ever lived. Or,
2) Behold the sacrificial lamb that will remove not only the sin of Israelites but of people from every kindred, tribe, tongue and nation.
If statement number 1 is true, then every sin of every person who ever lived was paid for at Calvary and God cannot judge anyone on the basis of their actions, thoughts, deeds, rebellion or even unbelief, inasmuch as those sins are all paid for.
If statement number 2 is true, then the word “kosmos” can be used in a more narrow sense that includes people of all nations, but not every single person of all nations. As we’ll see, number 2 is the more tenable and exegetically consistent reading of that verse.
“For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world.” (John 7:4)
In this verse, Jesus’ brothers were encouraging Him to go up to the feast at Jerusalem, work some miracles and spread His fame. But obviously, the whole world was not at Jerusalem. They were simply saying, “Go make yourself public.” But again, this shows the narrow scope that is possible with the word “kosmos.”
“The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? Behold, the world is gone after him.” (John 12:19)
Likewise, the Pharisees did not mean to claim that people on distant continents were following Jesus at that moment. But, a large crowd in Jerusalem did. So again we see an example of the narrow scope of “kosmos.”
“The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil.” (John 7:7)
Here, Jesus spoke of the “kosmos” hating Him. But, not everyone who ever lived hated Him. Rather, Jesus spoke of the majority of the populace who stood against Him. He may even have been referring to the religions and governmental systems that stood in opposition to His Lordship. But importantly, He did not mean that “everyone who ever lived” opposed Him.
“Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.” (John 13:1)
In this verse, John drew a distinction between the “kosmos” and those that Jesus loved. In other words, those that belonged to Him were in the world and He loved them to the end. But, he contrasted them with “the world.” That’s a critical distinction. So critical, in fact, that Jesus went on to pray only for His own beloved people, but not for the world.
“I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word. Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee. For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.” (John 17:6-9)
So, if “kosmos” means “everybody who ever lived,” and God “ssssoooo loved” them, why would Jesus draw this line of demarcation between the world and “the men which thou gavest me out of the world”? Jesus prayed specifically for those people God gave Him (“for they are thine”) and He specifically did not pray for “the world.”
Again, “kosmos” does not always mean “everyone who ever lived.” It most often means “people of every nationality as opposed to Israelites exclusively.”
The fact of the matter is: If God so loved everybody who ever lived that He gave His only begotten Son to die for everybody who ever lived, then Jesus was in direct opposition to His Father when – just prior to being lifted up on the cross – He failed to pray for everybody who ever lived.
But, the reality is …
Neither Jesus nor John ever taught that God loved and paid the sin penalty for everybody who ever lived.
Allow me to offer two last verses that will prove that Jesus created a distinction between those that were His and the “kosmos.”
“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” (John 14:16-17)
The Holy Ghost is the “proof positive” of salvation. He is the “token” of the New Covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Only those who receive the Holy Ghost (the very subject of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3) will receive eternal life.
Yet, Jesus said that the world “cannot receive” the Spirit of Truth. In fact, the world does not see him or know him. On the other hand, the apostles did know him because he would be with them and in them.
So, if God loved everybody who ever lived so much that He gave His Son for their sins, why is it that those same people – the world – cannot receive the Holy Ghost that is essential for salvation?
“If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” (John 15:19)
Now attempt to read that verse and substitute “everybody who ever lived” for the word “world.” Suddenly, the verse makes no sense at all. Here, I’ll do it for you –
“If you were part of everybody who ever lived, then everybody who ever lived would love his own; but you are not part of everybody who ever lived, but I have chosen you out of everybody who ever lived, therefore everybody who ever lived hates you.”
Quite a jumble, eh? There’s only one conclusion. “Kosmos” simply does not mean “everybody who ever lived.”
A quick recap
So, what have we got so far? We’ve got this:
For (gar) God so (in this manner) loved (agapao) the world (people from every nationality) that …
Or in context, Jesus said,
“Remember how Moses lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness and those who looked on it were healed? Likewise, the son of man will be lifted up and all those who believe in Him will have everlasting life. For, God will demonstrate His sacrificial love for people of all nations in this manner …
And, here’s the manner.
“his only begotten son”
Once again, I prefer the Greek construction of this phrase. It literally reads, “that son, his only begotten, he gave.”
This is the manner in which God demonstrated His gracious, sacrificial love for His people that were in the world. He gave. He gave His Son. He gave His only begotten Son.
Just as God provided a solution to the rampant death caused by the fiery serpents in the camp, God also provided a solution for the rampant death that eats mercilessly and terrifyingly through humanity. As the serpent was raised up, Christ was raised up.
Those who looked on the serpent were healed and those who believe on the Son are healed. Those who were healed by the serpent did not die physically. Those who are healed by the Son have eternal life.
“that all the believing in him”
As mentioned above, the proper rendering of the phrase “that whosoever believes” is “all the believing.” It is not an infinite group made up of all those who exercise themselves to believe. It is an exclusive group made up only of those who actually do believe in the finished atoning work that Christ fully accomplished on His cross.
As we will see when we get to verse 18, this stands in stark contrast to “he that believeth not.”
“should not perish”
On this occasion, the phrase “should not perish” actually does appear in the original text. The good likelihood is that, due to familiarity, an early copyist inserted this phrase in verse 15.
John’s point here is that “all the believing” in Christ will not suffer eternal separation from God. Those who failed to look on the brazen serpent died. Those who fail to trust Christ will perish eternally. Again, verse 18 will make this abundantly clear.
“but have everlasting life”
As opposed to perishing, “all the believing” as a distinct group “have” (the Greek “echo,” a present holding and possession) “zoe aioonion,” life everlasting.
So, let’s put John 3:16 back together in light of this quick exegesis:
“For in this manner God sacrificially loved people from every nationality, in that His son, His only begotten, he gave, so that all the believing in Him should not perish, but possess life everlasting.”
What this is, then, is a promise from God of the eternal security of the believer, rather than an open invitation to “whosoever will.” And, the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for His own people was demonstrated in His willingness and decree to sacrifice His own Son on their behalf. Everyone who believes, trusts and rests on the final, sufficient atonement wrought in Christ has no fear of perishing, but already possess the life eternal.
Jesus’ Summary Statement
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:17-18)
The proper understanding of “kosmos” becomes plainer in verse 17. God did not send His Son into the world – among people of every kindred, tribe, tongue and nation – for the purpose of condemning them. The Old Testament is replete with promises that when the Messiah, David’s greater son, came into the world, He would reestablish the Kingdom of Israel and judge the nations. So, when Jesus began being recognized as the promised Deliverer, expectations of national prominence ran high.
But, Jesus was clear that His mission was not one of judgment and condemnation. Rather, He came into the mix of peoples and races so that, through Him, people of all nationalities could be saved.
But, then Jesus broke all of humanity down into two groups: those who believed and those who did not. Those who were in the state of “believing on Him” constitute the “all the believing” group of John 3:16 – they are one and the same people. Jesus knows those that are His. They are the recipients of the grace of God that leads to salvation.
But, to the contrary, those people who are in the state of unbelief – “he that believes not” – are “condemned already.” The fact that they are living mortal lives is merely a temporary reprieve from the condemnation that awaits them. That’s utterly shocking to our sensibilities. It seems unfair.
But, it’s not unfair. It’s sovereign. It’s the way the King rules His creation.
Now, this contrast between the believing and the unbelieving begs the inevitable question, “How can Jesus state so categorically that people who failed to believe on Him were already in a state of condemnation? I mean, couldn’t they at some later point exercise their wills, choose to believe and transfer their eternal state to one of redemption and everlasting life?”
The answer is implicit in John 3:16. “All the believing” have everlasting life. The inverse is axiomatically true. All the unbelieving do not. And, that’s why John 3:16 should not be removed from its larger context. John 3:18 spells out the whole paradigm in NO uncertain terms.
So, In Conclusion
Despite its popularity, John 3:16 actually proves the absolute inverse of what the “free will” crowd contend. While they insist that this verse throws open the door of salvation to anyone and everyone who will take advantage of it, John declared that those who believe on Christ are eternally secure while those who are in a state of unbelief are already condemned.
Salvation, then, must be God’s enterprise, determining from the beginning the saved from the unsaved, the lost from the found, the elect from the world, and those with eternal life from those who are eternally condemned.
And, John 3:16 proves it.
Credit where credit is due:
This article relied heavily on exegetical work done by Dr. James White, of Alpha and Omega ministries. You can visit them at: www.aomin.org