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 KJV)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life (ESV)
For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (HCSB)
The first citation of John 3:16 is from the King James Version, which contains—and established—the traditional wording of this verse, no less in the case of the highlighted phrase in question, “whosoever believeth.” The second updates, but carries this traditional translation forward, while the third, from the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), seems to have come a little closer to the literal meaning of the verse.
This can be seen by examining the original Greek, from which all three versions are translated: pas o pisteuo. Pas means “all,” “any,” “each,” “everyone,” “all things,” etc., in individual contexts like this one, but it is usually found in collective contexts, where it means “some of all sorts.” This is the word that is translated “whosoever” in the King James Version, “whoever” in many modern translations like the ESV, and “everyone” in the HCSB. The NET Bible has some helpful notes in this regard, which may be accessed here.
In the great debate between Calvinists and Arminians about the extent of Christ’s atonement, the latter camp has, in an effort to emphasize the fact that Jesus died for everyone without distinction, turned the KJV’s “whosoever” into three words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that Who … So … Ever (!). With often little regard for the context of this verse, Arminians will focus on this one little three letter Greek word, and seemingly make it the point of the passage, which it is not.
Pas is not the only word in this phrase. “Everyone” in this context does not stand alone. It is modified by the action taken by each member in the group of people so identified. The action they take is pisteuo: “believing.” So, the first thing we must clarify is that this verse is not intended to state or imply the number of people for whom Christ died; it merely expresses the purpose behind the Father’s giving of the Son to the world: to grant eternal life to pas (everyone) o (who, or that) pisteuo (believes).
On the Nov. 17 episode of The Dividing Line, Dr. James White explained why “whosoever,” “whoever,” and “everyone” are used to translate pas. He said that when pas is used with a singular participle (in this case, “believes”), what is being communicated is a group that is defined by the action in that participle. Since the emphasis of the verse is on the mutual activity of the group, rather than the indistinct universality of the group itself, perhaps it may help direct our attention to “believes” if translators rendered pas o pisteuo as “all those who believe,” or just “those who believe.” But I’m no scholar.
Therefore, pas o piteuo makes neither of the following Arminian emphases:
- It does not mean that God sent Jesus to propitiate the Father in his death for everyone indiscriminately;
- It does not mean that everyone indiscriminately has the inherent moral ability to believe.
What this phrase does mean, though, is that God loved the world by sending his only Son in order to grant eternal life to those, and only those, who actually come to faith. If God sent his only Son to die for everyone indiscriminately, then everyone indiscriminately would come to faith, for he would have, with the atonement, granted faith to everyone indiscriminately. If everyone indiscriminately had the inherent moral ability to obey the command to believe, then God’s Word would be untrue (Romans 8:7; Ephesians 2:8,9).
Let us not read things into the Word of God which are not there. John 3:16 is not a proof text for general redemption (the doctrine that Christ died for everyone indiscriminately), nor a view of human sinfulness that leaves room for some amount of inherent righteousness that enables the self-determining sinner (which creature does not exist) the ability “of his own free will” to “decide to follow Jesus” without the prior work of the Holy Spirit’s effectual calling (Romans 8:30).
Are you one of those who’ve come to believe in the one and only Son of God? Then you have received the Father’s saving love in the gift of his Son who became incarnate for you, obeyed God’s Law perfectly for you, died suffering the consequences of your sin, and rose on the third day that you also might be raised up to eternal life spiritually now (regeneration), and physically upon his return (resurrection). I urge you to do what you can to reciprocate his love by Spirit-empowered love for him and your neighbor. We love because he first loved us.