John 3:16 doesn’t say “whoever believes”?

I was referred to this video for a Calvinist perspective that John 3:16 is more accurately interpreted “all who believe” instead of “whoever believes”.

After watching the video, I’m not so sure that John 3:16 is best translated “all who believe”.  I’m certainly not a linguist – and, for better or worse, have no interest in incorporating Greek or Hebrew into my own Bible study.  However, at some point we have to trust that those who put together the various translations we have at our disposal did so with honesty, integrity and a keen awareness of language and culture.  In doing a quick comparison of some versions, not one of them infer “all who believe”.

NIV – whoever believes

NASB – whoever believes

NLT – everyone who believes

KJ – whosoever believeth

NCV – whoever believes

ASV – whosoever believeth

ESV – whoever believes

Why is this?  How is it that so many biblical translators over the course of centuries have determined that the best wording or phrase for John 3:16 is ‘whoever’ and not ‘all who believe’?

Dr. White referred to John 6:44 as justification for an ‘all who believe’ interpretation for John 3:16.  From a non-Calvinist perspective, I admit to finding the wording in John 6:44 a little troubling.  Moreover, I can certainly understand Calvinist thought that due to being dead to sin, no one can bring himself to God unless God first gives His grace to whose whom he’s elected.  However, in John chapter six – a little before and a little after verse 44 (i.e. vs 40, 45, 47 & 51 in particular) it seems apparent that ANYONE who believes shall be saved.  Jesus makes no distinction as to the elect and the non-elect.  Wouldn’t this have been an opportune time for Jesus to explain TULIP?  But so far as I read here, he doesn’t.  John 6:25-59 is a discussion between Jesus and unbelieving Jews who happen to know of Jesus (vs 42) and who were struggling to understand how this “boy” they knew is now the messiah.  To that end, those unbelieving Jews were perhaps troubled with previous statements Jesus had made with regard to not having the love of God in their hearts (John 5:42).  Jesus continued in John 5:43 that [the Jews] did not accept [Christ].  I presume this to mean that many (but certainly not all) Jews had rejected Christ’s offer of forgiveness through faith and instead were holding on tight to the law for their justification.  Again, Jesus did not explain TULIP and tell the elect to rejoice and explain to the non-elect that their eternal destiny is sealed and too bad.  The overriding principle that I see from verses such as John 3:16 & 2 Pet 3:9 is that God indeed reaches out to everyone and desires that everyone be saved and no one to perish.  Yes, we’re dead in our sins and without Christ’s forgiveness – which must be individually received, we’re toast.  To their eternal peril, the majority of people have chosen to reject Christ.  And that’s the point – they have made a choice.  So, in the middle of all this is John 6:44 – no one comes to [Jesus] unless he’s “drawn” by God?  Again, I admit to finding this phrase a little troubling.  But could it be that there are some translational aspects involved in which a Greek to English translation doesn’t accurately convey the thought that the Holy Spirit is moving within people and works to bring about a desire to seek forgiveness of sins?  Hmmm, perhaps that concept is elsewhere in scripture?  Still, for the aforementioned reasons, I’m not convinced that John 3:16 states ‘all who believe’ and I don’t see that John 6:44 is as solid of a foundation for unconditional election as Calvinists would believe.


Author: Bob

I’m an upper Midwestern guy who has recently entered the "Buick stage" of life and decided to migrate to Florida. This blog is an attempt to rectify discordant aspects within my Christian faith ... or what often feels like my lack of Christian faith. Things which make life more enjoyable include strong black coffee, charcoal grilling anytime of the year, putz'ing at a table saw, playing chess, a good orthopedic surgeon and an occasional IPA. Please feel free to poke around and comment as you wish. I welcome discussion and the insights of others.

9 thoughts on “John 3:16 doesn’t say “whoever believes”?”

  1. I think I would take a different approach than Dr. White. From a Calvinist perspective, here is what I think about John 3:16, limited atonement, and unconditional election.

    1. The love offered in John 3:16 is a general offer to everyone (which means every individual in the world).
    2. However, many will not receive (or believe) this offer.
    3. Those who do not believe, do not have eternal life (which means their sins are not atoned for).
    4. Therefore, John 3:16 supports limited-atonement, in that Jesus’ death only atones for the sins of believers.
    5. Unconditional election is not presented in John 3:16, only limited-atonement.
    6. Unconditional election asks the question, “Why do some believe and others reject Jesus?”

    Piper has a pretty good explanation of these issues in the link below. John 3:16 is about God loving everyone, but this love is only in the general sense… meaning everyone is “offered” eternal life, which is loving. The only problem is that nobody wants to receive Jesus’ offer. So… there is a greater love where God not only offers the gift to everyone, but he also removes the rebellious heart of some and replaces it with a heart that loves him above all things. This is my definition of unconditional election. The reason why believers love Jesus is only because God, through the Holy Spirit, has graciously given believers a heart that wants him. If this hadn’t happened, then no one would believe because no one would want Jesus.

    I hope this makes sense. Yes, everyone and anyone who believes will be saved. But why do some not believe? John 3:16 does not answer this question, however, John 10:26 answers it explicitly. The reason some do not believe is “because they are not part of the flock”. Again, this is unconditional election.

    Hope all is going well with the snow up in MN.

  2. the greek word in question is “pas”:

    “pas” is commonly argued in calvinistic debates…but usually the issue is whether it means “every single individual” or “all kinds.” the problem is that the english translation in john3:16 as “whoever/whosoever” can suggest a sense of vagueness or uncertainty that is not there. it is true (whether one is a calvinist or non-calvinist) that “whoever believes in Jesus will be saved” in the sense that “every single believer in Jesus will be saved” (or as would have been important to a pharisee like nicodemus and the hebrew leaders of the early church who came after him – the number one issue in the 1st century church was racial, after all: could gentiles be saved without first becoming jews through circumcision? – that “all kinds of believers will be saved.”) but there is simply nothing in the greek in john 3:16 – or the english, properly understood – that would suggest that God is simply issuing a “to whom it may concern” offer and that He has no idea who will respond.

    i tend to disagree with piper and think the “world” being discussed in john3 is the “world of believers” – similar to how the “world” in john 17:9,14 is the “world of unbelievers” or “world” in rom11:12 is the “world of the gentiles.” God’s love is extended in john 3:16-18 such that a group of people (“the world”) should not perish and be condemned but rather be saved and have eternal life. the group being discussed here is believers. to say that God is also extending His love to unbelievers by (lovingly?) condemning them already as stated in v18 doesn’t make much sense to me. it also raises the question that if Jesus didn’t come to condemn anyone in “the world” then why is God condemning unbelievers “already” in v18? is the Trinity united in purpose or at odds?

    (similarly, Jesus in john17 prays for believers – both current and future (v.9,20) – to be united in purpose and protected from the Evil One, but refuses to pray for unbelievers (v9). rom8:32-34 echoes that the Lord is interceding for those He has chosen…those for whom He died…but the context clearly excludes unbelievers. Heb10:13-14 again shows that God can distinguish between His “enemies” as opposed to those who were “made perfect” in the past by Jesus’ sacrifice while currently “being made holy” in time and space. any claims that God doesn’t know for certain who will believe should be a non-issue.)

    john3:16 is tough to step back from and try to put aside the tradition associated with it in american culture especially. whether you track with calvinistic election or not, God knows for certain who will believe – the translation of “whosoever” should not muddy that. And again, if anyone wants to come then they are invited – calvinists would argue that they are only doing so because the Spirit first gave birth to their spirit as He went wherever He chose (john3:6,8) and that their obedience even in first answering the call to “repent and believe” was “done through God” (john3:21) – but whether they understand the mechanism of their conversion or not, all of those who believe in Jesus will be saved.

    for your edification, some other examples of “pas” in scripture:

    1. I appreciate seeing your thoughts here, Charles. Maybe I simply don’t, as you stated, understand the mechanism of conversion (to faith). Still, it is troubling to me that there can be such a wide variance of opinion with regard to election (or for that matter, any other matter of Christian faith) amongst learned people. Perhaps the concept of “theology” is a misnomer. I can point to various laws of chemistry, physics, electricity, etc. and there is no disagreement among those knowledgeable in those fields. But so far as I can tell, that doesn’t appear to be the case with regard to the “science of God”. Still, I’ll look up the references you provided and perhaps have a comment or two in response. Hope all is well with you and that Christmas for you and yours was a blessed event.

  3. Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughts and comments. So, as understand Dr. White to advocate, unconditional election is not presented in John 3:16 Rather, this verse provides an example of limited atonement. Well, for what it’s worth, I could probably be more easily persuaded to your side. I will watch the John Piper video you referenced. And I regret to inform you that as yet I haven’t delved into the (TULIP) sermons you had previously referenced. Right now I’m spending too much time put’zing with the new Mac. If nothing else, I should think the writing (but maybe not my thoughts) is clearer and the fonts – well – it’s a Mac!

    Referring back to Dr. White, if I understood correctly, he said that the Greek phrase “Pas-Ha” is used 60 times in the New Testament. On a whim, I dug up a Strong’s Concordance and sure enough, there are around 60 references to the word “whosoever” (note: our SC references the KJV). Again, I can only ask that if the syntax and the grammar in John 3:16 is so clear and unambiguous, then why haven’t biblical scholars and translators over hundreds of years and dozens of translations been more (for lack of a better term) “word oriented” toward Calvinist thought with respect to believers?

    Consider the references Dr. White used in his contention that the “Pas-Ha” phrase indicates “all who believe” and how the NIV translates that phrase:
    John 3:15 – everyone who believes
    John 3:16 – whoever believes
    John 12:46 – no one who believes
    Acts 13:39 – everyone who believes
    Rom 10:11 – anyone who trusts
    1 John 5:1 – everyone who believes

    I count four variations. Is this significant? Is there any real differentiation between the NIV phrases and Dr. White’s assertion? Honestly, I don’t know. Of course, when Dr. Vines starts talking about a “subordinate conjunctive clause” and “Pas” being pronominal, substantival and adjectival – well, I feel a headache coming on. Maybe you can follow the details. However, I feel like I’m in a hardware store wanting to buy a gallon of paint and having to listen to the sales rep telling me more than I can possibly understand about the chemistry of paint and how it’s made. I don’t care – I just want paint. And with regard to matters of faith – I want the truth. And when there are PhD theologians i.e. White vs Vines, Piper vs Boyd or Berhow vs Martin – I just made that one up {;-D), is there any wonder why there is so much variance (or “flavors”) within Christianity and at least for me, much doubt with regard to the validity of TULIP representing true Christian thought.

  4. Charles – I looked up the verses you provided:

    John 3:16 Whoever believes shall not perish

    1Tim 6:10 Some people have wandered from the faith

    Acts 2:17 [God] will pour out [his] spirit on all people

    Heb 2:9 [Jesus] suffered death so that he might taste death for everyone

    1 Tim 2:4 [God] wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.

    As your referenced samples of the word ‘pas’ indicate, there may well be some reasonable difference of opinion as to translation.

    To your thought that Jesus in John 17 refuses to pray for the world, I’m not so sure. My NIV Topical Bible breaks up John 17 in three parts where
    Jesus prays for himself in vs 1-5, 2)
    Jesus prays for his disciples in vs 6-19, and 3)
    Jesus prays for all believers in vs 20-26.

    I’ve always read this passage in such a way that Jesus isn’t refusing to pray for the world as he is trying to focus his prayers and God’s protection (vs 11) and sanctification (vs 17) because of the suffering Jesus and the disciples will eventually have to endure. On that thought, if Jesus refuses to pray for the world, then why is one of the last things he says while being crucified, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)?

    Well, as usual, you’ve given me some things to consider. But right now it’s off to the day-job. Take care.

  5. Real quick comments on Dr. White’s use of the Greek. While I have respect for Dr. White on many issues, I think he makes a word study fallacy here. For one, I don’t think there is much of a difference between the English phrases “all who believe” and “whosoever believes”. White seems to stretch this point. Second, translating Greek to English (or translations in any language) is not an exact science. Greek scholars read the sentence in Greek and then think about how they can best communicate that sentence in English. When White does a word study on pas-ha, he is making too much out of word studies. Words in Greek are not different than words in English. Some words have different meaning depending on the context. In John 3:16, there is no qualification for who can believe. If we don’t know Greek, our best bet (like Bob said) is to trust the English translations of the text. The English translations are given to us by competent Greek and Hebrew scholars, whereas Dr. White would not be consider a scholar in this area.

    So again… as a Calvinist, I can confidently say that John 3:16 means that God loves everyone in the world. I can also say that God wants everyone to be saved. These statements do not contradict Calvinism one bit, and there are no exegetical back flips involved with Calvinistic interpretations. We simply ask the question, “so why doesn’t God save everyone?” Yes, he wants everyone to be saved. Yes, he offers salvation to everyone. So why doesn’t he save everyone? Because they don’t believe? Yes, but this still leaves us with one more question. Why do some believe while others don’t? At the end of the day, the Calvinist thanks God for giving him/her the faith to believe, while the Arminian (logically) must give thanks to himself/herself for believing. Who ultimately gets credit for my salvation? The Calvinist says that God offers the gift to everyone, but that he also does more and grants belief to some. The Arminian says that God offers the gift to everyone, and that’s it. The rest is up to us. So the Calvinist believes that God offers more grace than the Arminian.

    Does this make sense? I think I believe just as much as the Arminian, but I also go one step further and thank God for my ability to believe. I certainly believe that God wants everyone to be saved. The Arminian thinks this is a problem for Calvinist, but it’s actually a problem for everyone who believes in hell. If God really wants everyone to be saved, then why in the world did he make salvation conditional? Why did he make belief a criteria? Why doesn’t John 3:16 read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone will have eternal life regardless of what they believe”? What’s the Arminian answer to this? If God wants everyone to be saved, then why doesn’t he just save everyone? Is it really because of free will? He would rather give us free will then save us from hell? To me, this seems to be at least as big of a problem for the Arminian as it is for the Calvinist.

  6. you said: “1Tim 6:10 Some people have wandered from the faith.”

    Minor point – pas in 1tim6:10 is actually modifying “evil” – not referring to people.

    For the love of money is the root of all evil. (KJV) / For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (NIV)

    Something I’ll run up the flagpole – ponder and shoot down as appropriate:

    To repeat: some calvinists (like me) think John3:16-18 is best understood as referring to God’s love for the “world of believers” – as this love is demonstrated by salvation to eternal life through His Son. Only a passing reference is made to remind us in John3 that unbelievers are “condemned already” (suggesting that they are not a part of the “world” that Jesus did not come to condemn.)

    If so, what would it look like to see the opposite – how might God’s offer of His Son to the “world of unbelievers” (i.e. those He knows will not accept His offer) look different? Maybe this?

    Psalm 2:1 Why do the nations conspire
    and the peoples plot in vain?
    2 The kings of the earth take their stand
    and the rulers gather together
    against the LORD and against his Anointed One.
    3 “Let us break their chains,” they say,
    “and throw off their fetters.”
    4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
    5 Then he rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath
    , saying,
    6 “I have installed my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.”
    7 I will proclaim the decree of the LORD :
    He said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have become your Father.
    8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance,
    the ends of the earth your possession.
    9 You will rule them with an iron scepter;
    you will dash them to pieces like pottery.

    10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
    be warned, you rulers of the earth.
    11 Serve the LORD with fear
    and rejoice with trembling.
    12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry
    and you be destroyed in your way,
    for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

    Maybe the least popular Christmas story in the bible at any rate? The offer of forgiveness and reconciliation is still there, but the mocking, angry (still “loving” by Arminian standards, though?) tone suggests that this warning is aimed at those who will not heed it.

    If God loves everyone in the world, then what do we make of these verses (and Rom9’s hatred of Esau)?

    Psa5:5The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong.
    Psa11:5The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates.

    Does God love and hate the wicked at the same time? Does He still love those in Hell? At what point would He stop loving them – when He knows for sure they will reject Him?

    I don’t think the Arminian link is quite the “death nill” it claims to be…

  7. Where to start? While not a Calvinist, I tend to agree with White’s translation of “pas ha pistueon”. But I also think that he is making too much of Vine’s comments. If White wants to criticize Vine maybe he should just say that he needs to be clearer.

    As far as why most translations (English) go with “whosoever” or “whoever”, well it is probably in the top two most well known verses in the Bible and it would invite undue criticism to translate it much different from the KJV.

    While I haven’t heard Piper on Jn 3:16, if he says that it is indicating an offer God’s love to the world I would agree. I don’t think you can take “world” and read in a limit that is not given in the text, such as “the believing world”.

    John 6:44 must be read with v. 45 which gives how God “draws”.

    Also, the idea that there is extra grace needed for man to believe that is not presented in the Gospel is made by deduction and not induction. Now I know that the Calvinist will argue that regeneration comes before faith and thus there is an extra work of effectual grace. But where is the proof for such a claim? 1John 5:1, which is referred to by White does not say it (one must take into account the relationship between the participle “he who believes” and the finite verb “he has been born”. This has been lacking in all the Calvinistic explanations of this verse that I have looked at (not that I have seen all). John 3 cannot be pushed this far either. It simply indicates that the HS regenerates and does not say that He does so before belief. In fact, Jn 1:12-13 seems to indicate that God births (regenerates) man only after Jesus is received/believed.

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