John 3:16 Amen! An Evaluation of Two Interpretations

Although John 3:16 is perhaps one of the most memorized and beautiful texts in the New Testament, yet some people may find these insights into this verse new to them. God’s Word deserves that we listen to Him carefully. So, before we delve into this wonderful statement regarding the salvation God has made available through faith in Jesus, consider a principle of interpretation which the following story illustrates.

A Familiar Principle of Interpretation Illustrated by Science Fiction

One of the popular themes in science fiction is time travel. Imagine what would happen if a man from the future could return to our time with a data bank containing the truth about future fluctuations in the stock market. Using that knowledge could make a person very wealthy.

Imagine what would happen if that person took out a full page advertisement in his local newspaper guaranteeing the general public that he could unlock tremendous wealth for anyone because he knew the truth about what would happen in the stock market. Let's also imagine that he ended this advertisement with the following statement:

"Whoever believes in me will make lots of money. Whoever believes in me won't lose a dime, but will instead become wealthy. Whoever believes in me won't lose anything, but whoever does not believe in me will have lost the greatest financial opportunity ever."

What does this statement mean? Would you suppose that anyone would claim: "just look at what the newspaper says. It says as long as you believe in him, you will be rich! The advertisement just says whoever believes will become wealthy, it does not say anything about actually purchasing stock. I qualify as a 'whoever.' I really believe in my heart that he can make me rich, therefore I can expect to share in his riches."

Would anyone make this argument? Of course not. But why not? Because we know the context of investing in the stock market and what he said. When this man from the future says, "believe in me," he is instructing his readers to invest all of the money they can possibly muster on those stocks he indicates. But how do we know this since the newspaper never specifically mentioned making an investment? We know this because we understand what it would mean to believe in him regarding the stock market!

Now let's change this scenario a little. Imagine if that same person were to say to a group of people, “I am going to make an enormous amount of money in the stock market. I will share this fortune equally with all of you who believe that I am telling you the truth.”

What if he then said:

“Whoever believes in me will make lots of money. Whoever believes in me won’t lose a dime, but will instead become wealthy. Whoever believes in me won’t lose anything, but whoever does not believe in me will have lost the greatest financial opportunity ever.”

Would any person dare claim that any action was required to receive a share in his wealth? One would be justified in saying, “the only thing you have to do is to believe this incredible story and then receive your share of the treasure.”

Since the quotations from the two scenarios are identical, how do we naturally distinguish between them? What causes us to realize that “to believe” in the first scenario placed an obligation upon the reader to respond with an action while in the second story one merely needs to accept the man's word by believing in him? After all, both statements simply say believe and become rich.

Although the wording about belief is the same, we understand that the two scenarios are fundamentally different regarding how people are to respond because we understand that two different contexts lie behind each scenario. The key to understanding each statement about belief is its context. The first scenario is built upon the investment practices of the stock market while the second revolves around simply accepting someone’s promise as being true. How one believes in a promise requires a different response from how one exhibits faith in a stock market tip.

Without A Context “Believe In Jesus” is Ambiguous

You have probably already noticed that both scenarios intentionally closed with a statement that reflects the essence of John 3:15-16, 18. This brings us to the question, “what does John mean by believe in Jesus?” Is John emphasizing that one “merely needs to accept Jesus by believing in him as one's personal Savior” in order to receive eternal life (such as when one believes in a promise)? Or does his message call one to the necessity of depending upon Jesus for salvation with whatever beliefs and actions that might entail (such as in the scenario of making an investment)?

As should be obvious from the previous two examples, merely parroting the text does not answer the question. One can not say, “it just says believe” and therefore no action is required. Nor can one assume that to believe in Jesus necessarily requires some sort of action from us.

The answer to what John meant by believing in Jesus must be found through a discovery of what the biblical context teaches regarding salvation. Does God just expect sincere belief/acceptance that Jesus is my Lord and Savior or does He require something more from those who would trust in Jesus?

Before looking at the biblical answer to this question, the following indented paragraphs lay the groundwork by 1) challenging a person to consider what is at stake in refusing to accept the biblical message and 2) providing a frame of reference to think carefully and to avoid making common errors in logic.

Importance of Recovering the Original Message

To ask what God expects from us assumes that understanding the message John intended to communicate is important (exegesis). Although other options are available (e.g. eisegesis occurs whenever the reader’s perspective creates a new message which the author did not intend to communicate), in such a case one can no longer accurately claim “the Gospel of John teaches ___” or “God’s Word says ___.” Eisegesis involves reading into the text a message which the author did not intended to communicate. Such a new message has its origin, not in the Gospel or the mind of God but in the creative mind of some human being. This holds tremendous implications for preachers. For an evangelist to claim, "the Word of God says ____," that minister is claiming to convey the originally intended message of the text.

Taken at face value, the Gospel of John claims to present an objective message about real events. The purpose of the Gospel is to communicate this message about Jesus, not to merely serve as a catalyst for creative human minds to discover a kaleidoscope of new meanings from an innumerable number of perspectives. Exegesis is the task of understanding that original Gospel message.

It is natural for people to value and to hold onto whatever they have previously believed as being true. Even if what they have believed is fallacious and they are presented with the truth, the truth is often resisted because it is new to them. For example, it was hard for many people to accept the astrological fact that the sun does not revolve around the earth.

But if one has falsely believed that the sun orbits the earth or that the moon is made of cheese, rather than continue to live under that illusion it is better to acknowledge the truth. This is even more important when the truth at stake involves one's eternal life. We need to place a premium value upon what is true, not upon what is convenient, or popular, or my heritage, or which protects my social security. 1 Thessalonians 2:10

The Self-Delusion of Begging the Question

Unfortunately, sincere and honest people can be tricked into holding onto something false which they assume to be true through “begging the question.” To illustrate how this could happen, consider the absurd example of a person who believes that the moon is made of yellow cheese. Such a person could look up into the sky and say, “see the moon is yellow. Therefore it is made of cheese.” Although there is some “evidence” in this case something yellow in the sky, that evidence is not conclusive. It is ambiguous. It does not establish the conclusion that the moon is made of cheese. If that person then assumes that he is justified in holding onto his conclusion as being true, he has begged the question because his conclusion is really only a reflection of his prior belief. It is not substantiated by any evidence, although he may believe that he has evidence. Begging the question occurs when a person starts with an assumption and then uses non-conclusive evidence "to prove" that his prior assumption is correct. In other words, the evidence does not actually support the conclusion, although the person assumes that it does.

Here is another common example as it relates to John 3:16. There are many people who are convinced that one merely needs to accept Jesus into one's heart to be saved; this may or may not be true. But for the moment let's assume that it is not true. If this statement is not true, then if a person points to John 3:16 as proof for his conviction by saying, "you see this does not say anything about any other requirements for salvation," then that person would be guilty of making the same mistake as our friend who believes that the moon is made of cheese. Why? Because we have already demonstrated that "yellow" does not necessarily mean cheese nor does "believe" necessarily mean "just accept into your heart." The phrase "belief in Jesus" is ambiguous and is not conclusive. It is possible that John 3:16 means "just believe in Jesus and you will have eternal life." Or John may be teaching us that it is those who respond to Jesus by trusting in him who will be saved.

How Can I Know If I Am Begging the Question?

How can one know whether or not one is begging the question? It’s simple. By testing the truthfulness of one's claim against the evidence. Here's a short course in logic. To illustrate these principles let's use the outrageous example of the moon being made of cheese.

If the moon were really made of cheese, one would expect certain things to be true about the moon and others to be false. One could then test these expectations to determine if the evidence supports or refutes the theory that the moon is made of cheese. If all of the evidence gathered from the moon conforms to one's expectations, then one could conclude, "with all of the available evidence, I can honestly believe that the moon is made of cheese." On the other hand, if the results of the tests turn out to be different than what one would have expected to be true if the moon were indeed made of cheese, the hypothesis that the moon is a cousin to our earthly dairy product would have to be rejected.

Evidence exists in two forms: conclusive and non-conclusive.

Non-conclusive evidence is positive evidence that seems to support the proposition, but it does not make an exclusivistic or absolute statement. For example, "I see a yellow moon" is evidence that seems to support the idea that the moon is made of cheese. But it is not conclusive evidence because yellow is not exclusively a characteristic of cheese; many things can be yellow.

Conclusive evidence can come through two means: deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning.

  • With deductive reasoning, to arrive at a valid and truthful conclusion requires knowing the truthfulness of absolute statements. This means that one must be able to know the truth about sentences which use such absolute words as: "only," "always" and "never." For example, if it were true that only cheese had a certain hue of yellow and the moon had that exact same hue of yellow, then one could conclusively know that the moon was made of cheese.

    Unfortunately, to be able to know that "only" or "never" is true, requires that one has access to all of the evidence. For this reason, human based knowledge (science) can not make use of deductive reasoning to arrive at truth, because we do not have access to all of the evidence in all places at all times.

  • With inductive reasoning, unless all of the evidence is available for the subject in question, conclusive evidence can only come in the form of negative conclusions. In other words, the inductive method can yield certain knowledge about what is not true. For example, if we assume that the moon is made of cheese but a chunk of the moon is brought back and it is a dusty rock, what can I conclude? Does this prove that the entire moon is made up of the same types of dusty rocks? No. Does this prove that other parts of the moon are not made of cheese? No. What this does prove is that this piece of the moon is this type of rock and that it is not cheese. It also is one piece of evidence suggesting that the idea that the moon is made of cheese may be false.

    Using this method, humans are able to reject ideas which are not true, but we are unable to use one piece of evidence (e.g. this rock or the color of the moon) or even many pieces of evidence to prove the absolute truthfulness of a general statement if there still remains unexamined evidence.

    This is why science (human based knowledge which comes from the inductive method) is continually updating its theories as new evidence comes to light proving that the old ideas were false. Speaking of the moon, recently scientists have begun to claim that vast amounts of water exist on the moon. Just a few years ago many scientists would have laughed at such an idea. Using the inductive method one can not claim to know absolute truth because we do not have access to all the evidence.

Testing: To Believe in Jesus Means "to Accept Jesus into Your Heart by Believing in Him as Your Personal Savior."

Let's assume for the moment that the biblical message of salvation is "just accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Savior and you will be saved." Let's assume that this is what is meant by "believe in Jesus." What evidence should one expect to find in scripture regarding salvation by faith?

Positive evidence which would be helpful, but which is not conclusive.

1) One would expect to find Biblical texts affirming that salvation in Jesus requires belief and faith in Jesus. (As already seen "belief" is ambiguous)

2) One would expect to find Biblical texts affirming that salvation comes by "accepting Jesus into your heart by believing in him." (This is also ambiguous because there are at least theoretically many possible ways in which God might require us to accept Jesus)

3) One would expect to find Biblical stories illustrating salvation coming to those who believe in Jesus.

Technically, such stories could be either conclusive or non-conclusive evidence depending upon the nature of the story. If the conversion story is a general summary or if it does not reveal all of the details, then it would be non-conclusive evidence. However, if we can know that the story contains all of the events and the only event which transpired was believing on Jesus by accepting him into one's heart, then the story would constitute conclusive evidence.

If we find any evidence of this type within the Bible, then we can conclude that there is some evidence which appears to support this understanding of salvation. Unfortunately, these three types of non-conclusive evidence are useless for affirming the certainty of a truth. It is quite possible that this type of non-conclusive evidence could lead someone to beg the question and assume that he or she knows what the Bible teaches on salvation.

Conclusive evidence for "believe" = just accept Jesus into your heart

Assuming that in the Biblical text the Gospel message of salvation is consistent and hence it does not reveal multiple ways of responding to Jesus in order to receive salvation:

1) There should not be any Biblical passages teaching that salvation comes as a result of something in addition to accepting Jesus in your heart on the basis of faith/ belief. This should also be true for those blessings which are associated with having just entered into salvation (forgiveness of sins, entering Christ's body, etc.).

2) There should not be any historical examples of conversion where someone was required to do something more than simply accept Jesus into one's heart for salvation. Similarly, there should not be any evidence of the blessings of salvation (sins forgiven, entering Christ's body, etc.) being bestowed by as a result of anything else. Such blessings should only appear as a result of accepting Jesus into one's heart.

If evidence exists contradicting either of these last two expectations, then we have conclusive evidence that salvation by faith means something other than just accepting Jesus into your heart by believing in him. So let's roll up our sleeves and take an honest look at all of the evidence. Let's test the first interpretation of John 3:16.

Non-Conclusive, But Helpful Type of Evidence

1) Is there any evidence that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation? Yes! A multitude of examples could be cited. Also, there are no texts which deny the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. So far so good!

2) Is there any evidence that "to believe in Jesus" involves "accepting Jesus in your heart." John 1:12 does describe those who "receive Jesus" as being those who believe in him. John 1:12-13 Similarly, Romans 10:9-10 does affirm that those who believe in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead and who confess that "Jesus is Lord" with their mouths will be saved. Acts 10:43 and 19:2 can also be interpreted in such a way so as to offer support for this perspective.

Note - It may come as a surprise to some, but if one runs a concordance check on "accept" one does not find any verses which affirm "accept Jesus by believing in Him." Instead, one does find Acts 2:41 "those who accepted his message were baptized."

Conclusive Type of Evidence

1) Are there any Christian teachings about salvation which require something other than belief in order for one to receive the blessings associated with salvation? Yes! Various forms of obedience are linked to salvation. Here are just a few examples: Acts 2:38; 22:16; Hebrews 5:9; Romans 6:17-18; 10:10; Philippians 2:12; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:22; 3:21; Luke 13:3-5

2) Are there any historical examples of people being saved by Jesus or receiving the benefits of the salvation which comes through Jesus as a result of something other than merely possessing a belief in Jesus as one's Lord and Savior? Yes! For example: Acts 2:37-41; 8:12-13; 8:35-39; Acts 16:14-15; 16:32-33; 22:16

If the New Testament authors are in agreement concerning the doctrine of salvation, it only takes one piece of conclusive contradictory evidence to determine that salvation by faith in Jesus does not mean "the only thing you need to do is to accept Jesus as your personal Savior and you will be saved." But we do not have just one piece of evidence, we have a whole mountain full!

If the evidence demonstrates that to believe in Jesus does not mean that I "only need to believe in Jesus,” then what does scripture mean by "justified by faith" or more specifically, "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life?" John 3:16

Suggestion: The Biblical Context of Believing in Jesus for Salvation

Because we understand the context of the stock market, when a man who knows the truth about the future says, “believe in me and I can make you rich,” we understand this means to invest where he directs. I suggest to you that in a similar way, when one understands the biblical context of salvation in Jesus, one will understand that to believe in Jesus means that one relies upon Jesus/ trusts in Jesus for salvation.

I also suggest to you that the manner in which God has prescribed for us to trust in Jesus for salvation involves believing in Jesus, repenting of one's sins, confessing that Jesus is Lord and submitting to water immersion (baptism). If this is correct, then the biblical phraseology of being saved by believing in Jesus would refer to one who responds to Jesus by trusting in him in this way.

Testing: Belief in Jesus Means "the Obedience of Faith" (Romans 1:5; 16:25-26)

Non-Conclusive But Helpful Type of Evidence

1) The Gospel of John as well as the rest of the New Testament will emphasize that Jesus is the means of salvation. This is true. E.g. John 14:6; 1:12-13; 29-30; 5:21, 24-25, 40; 6:33-35, 40; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7; 11:25; 15:1

2) The Gospel of John as well as the rest of the New Testament will emphasize the necessity that we must faithfully respond to Jesus in order that we might have everlasting life. This is true. E.g. John 3:5, 16; Acts 4:4; 5:14; 8:12-13; 22:16; Romans 1:5; 2:22; 5:1; 6:16-17

3) One will find belief, repentance, confession and baptism being tied to the salvation which comes through Jesus. This is true. E.g. Luke 13:3,5, Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 3:22-26; 5:1; 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 Peter 3:21

4) Historical examples of conversion may mention one or more of these elements of responding in faith to Jesus depending upon the amount of detail provided in each account of conversion. This is true. E.g. Acts 2:38; 8:12-13; 16:14-15; 22:16, etc.

Accordingly, sometimes an account of a conversion may be summarized by stating that someone or a group of people came to believe in Jesus and thus were saved. In this case, "he believed in Jesus" would be synonymous with "he was converted." This is also true, E.g. Acts 4:4; 5:14

Conclusive Type of Evidence

1) There will not be any mention of some other means to salvation. This is true.

2) There will not be any denial that faith, repentance, confession or baptism (immersion) is necessary for salvation. This is true.

Some might claim that the thief on the cross provides contradictory evidence because he was not baptized and yet he was saved. Although this is a good question to raise, the thief on the cross is irrelevant to a discussion of the salvation which comes by responding to the Gospel message because the thief lived and died before Christian baptism was even instituted or the message of a risen Christ was proclaimed! Neither Abraham, David, John the baptizer nor the thief on the cross could have received Christian baptism or responded to the message of the Gospel concerning Jesus as the risen Lord and Savior.

Obviously, Jesus had the authority to forgive sins and bestow life (Mark 2:10 -11; John 5:21), even to a thief on a cross. Luke 12:43 The thief does not constitute contradictory evidence supporting the proposal that baptism is not a necessary part of responding to the Gospel message.

Christian baptism is one's faithful response to hearing the Gospel message of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. The baptism that accompanies responding to that Gospel message involves a baptism into Christ's death (Romans 6:3), and faith in God who raised Christ from the dead (Colossians 2:12). Accordingly, Christian baptism was first practiced on the day of Pentecost following Christ's resurrection (Acts 2:38).

The baptism which John the baptizer administered during Jesus’ earthly ministry was a different baptism. Acts 19:3-5

All of the evidence supports the assertion that believing in Jesus means to depend upon him for salvation through belief, repentance, confession and baptism. Faith in Jesus describes this principle of trusting in Jesus for salvation.

The Message of the Gospel of John

Within the opening paragraphs of the Gospel according to John, it becomes clear that those who are born of God are those who have “received” Jesus and who have “believed in the name of Jesus.” John 1:12-13 Therefore, when one discovers how someone is born of God, one will have discovered what it means to receive Jesus and to believe in his name.

In John 3:3-8, Jesus answers our question for us. This second birth which is necessary for entering into the kingdom of heaven requires a birth in water and a birth of spirit. John’s readers understood this as referring to being immersed in water and a rebirth of one's spirit. In fact, this text was the favorite baptismal text of that early Christian church. The Gospel of John then continued this theme of trusting in Jesus for salvation when it asserted that whoever believes in Jesus would not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16 "The how" of believing had just been addressed.

Jesus would later tell his disciples just before ascending back to the Father, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19

The Gospels portray believing in Jesus as accepting the message about Jesus as being true and then receiving Jesus by responding to his command to be baptized and thus being born from above, that is, born of God. Baptism is a confession of one’s faith, a trusting in Jesus which the Lord commanded that one might become a disciple.

Additional Points to Ponder

Some Might Ask: "Why Baptism?"

Why would God demand a physical response as part of a spiritual birth? Let me suggest that a biblical understanding of baptism is that baptism is a confession of one's faith, a calling upon the name of the Lord, and the way in which God chose for us to begin the Christian life by confessing His Son. Colossians 2:12; Acts 22:16 I would also suggest to you that a study of the New Testament will reveal that with baptism, one is not depending upon water but upon Jesus’ sacrificial death and his blood to bring one into the new covenant community made possible by Jesus’ death. This new covenant community is where forgiveness, salvation and the blessings of the Holy Spirit are enjoyed. Accordingly, those who are baptized are promised the blessing associated with this covenant relationship with God and are described as being "in Christ." Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:3f; 2:11-13; Galatians 3:26-27; Hebrews 10:19-22; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Titus 3:4-8

The result of depending upon Jesus is that an individual is born from above, not by any human means or effort, but by the salvation which God has made possible through Jesus. John 1:12-13 Those who rely upon Jesus in this manner are said to "believe in Jesus" or "to have faith in Jesus" and they will receive the eternal life John 3:16 promises.

We do not believe nor hold to a doctrine known as "baptismal regeneration." To lightly dismiss the above ideas as being "baptismal regeneration" would be to misunderstand and misrepresent us. Baptismal regeneration treats baptism as being a magic ritual. It claims that as long as the ritual of baptism is administered to any person (even if that person is a baby and thus incapable of believing or repenting), the person will be saved. The Bible does not treat baptism as a magic ritual but as a faith response to Jesus.

What was John's Purpose for Writing John 3:16?

As one examines the Gospel of John, it becomes evident that one of John's goals was to call the world to come to Jesus for salvation. (John 1:12-13, 29; 3:14-17; 4:42; 5:21, 24; 6:32-35, 39; 47-51; 8:12, 23-24, 51; 9:5; 10:7-10; 11:25-26; 14:1-2,6; 15:1-8; 20:31) John 3:16 is one more example of this major theme. It is those who believe in Jesus who will be saved.

Let me suggest to you that in apostolic church there was no doubt or confusion regarding how one believed in Jesus. In fact the writings of the early church commonly referred to as the Church Fathers reflect this same understanding of salvation which we have outlined above. How to respond to Jesus for salvation was not a subject that needed to be explained or defended because that early community only knew of one way to trust in Jesus. The critical question at that time was “is this person going to believe in Jesus or not.” Appropriately, John states his goal for writing this Gospel as, "these signs have been written in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name." John 20:31

Conclusion

The Gospel of John presents the wonderful news that Jesus has come to bring eternal life to all the peoples of the world. As a result, those who believe in Jesus will be born from above and become children of God receiving eternal life. John 1:12-13 That is wonderful news! Tell a friend!

For further reflection on faith, works and baptism may I suggest the following articles on our web page:

False Diagnosis: The NT Authors Were Schizophrenic (This would be true if believing in Jesus means to simply accept him as your personal Lord and Savior by believing in him)

Stories Illustrating Faith

Biblically, Faith Means More than Just Believe

To Have Faith In Jesus Requires Baptism

When God Says, "You Belong to Me"

Converging Lines (Part 2 of "Who Are God's People?)

Barry Newton, Copyright © 1998

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