"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." John 3:16
I can’t say for certain that this is the first Bible verse I ever memorized. I can say that is the one I know the best. Growing up in Elmcrest Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas, it seemed that we recited it every week in Sunday School. We recited it so many times that even though I’ve been using a different translation of the Bible for the last 20 years, John 3:16 is the only verse in the Bible that I continue to recite in the King James Version.
The wide knowledge of this verse is undoubtedly due not only to the succinct picture of the gospel that it presents, but also to the sentimental value it holds for all of us who see ourselves as the object of that great love. With the years, its significance to me has not at all waned, but grown evermore precious.
Ironically, not only does John 3:16 hold the honor of being perhaps the most well-known verse of the Bible, but I would contend that it is likely the most misused verse in the Bible, as well. At one time, I used this verse as a proof-text against the doctrine of predestination. And while I would not claim to fully comprehend the profundity of the verse’s meaning, I can say confidently that it in no way refutes any tenet of reformed theology.
About 10 years ago, while studying the book of Romans, I was persuaded by Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11 that God does indeed exert a determinative influence over the salvation of those He has chosen to redeem. I accepted the clear teaching of those chapters, resigning myself to the fact that the apparent contradiction between Romans 9-11 and John 3:16 was one of the mysteries of God that man may never understand. God chooses those He will save, and yet anyone is free to come to Him, so I thought.
As I continued to study the Scriptures, learning more about man’s slavery to sin (Rom 3:10-18) and his absolutely depraved nature (Eph 2:1-3), I became more and more convinced that were it not for God’s gift of faith and repentance, no man would believe because no man in his natural state can believe, nor does he desire to believe. So what about John 3:16?
I eventually discovered that the contradiction existed only in my mind and was the result of that beloved KJV rendering of three Greek words, “…whosoever believeth…”
Whosoever…seems to imply that everyone can believe – all are able to believe. But that is not at all what the verse proclaims because that is not at all what the underlying Greek text says. Those three Greek words are pas ho pisteuõn – “all the believing.” To assert that John 3:16 teaches or even implies that everyone is able to believe in Christ amounts to eisegesis – that is, reading into the text what is not there.
John 3:16 does not tell us that everyone can believe. It teaches that everyone who does believe will not perish, but have eternal life. The New American Standard and English Standard Version both have “whoever believes” which is better than the KJV, but can still be construed as “everyone can” by those who are inclined to read it that way. The most accurate English translation of this verse that I have found comes from the New English Translation, which has “everyone who believes...”
Does this make John 3:16 any less meaningful? First, we shouldn’t base our interpretation of any verse of Scripture on our own sentimentality. But even that point is irrelevant since this isn’t even a question of interpretation, but rather translation, that of accurately reading the original text. But in the end, Christ’s point is untouched. John 3:16 is a statement of the unfathomable love and grace of a God who would give His only Son to die for sinners. How much more precious that love becomes when we acknowledge that were it not for His grace, none would have believed.