Anybody raised in even a nominal Christian environment can recite John 3:16 effortlessly.
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)
What a wonderfully concise presentation of the Gospel!
Sometimes, however, Christians use this verse in isolation from its context to substantiate the doctrine of free will. So, while my article today can’t possibly offer a complete argument against free will, perhaps I can demonstrate that this particular verse gives weak support to that position.
My regular readers know that I insist on context as the primary means of Bible interpretation. Certainly it isn’t the only hermeneutic we should use, but in this case it goes a long way in qualifying the phrase, “whoever believes.”
Many Christians hold up that phrase as evidence against a number of concepts in Reformed Theology, such as Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace. And I can understand their point of view. Quoted apart from its preceding context, it indeed gives the impression that God makes salvation available for us to accept or reject according to our will.
But ladies, let’s back up a little and look at why Jesus made this famous declaration.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ~~John 3:1-15 (ESV)
Please look carefully at verses 5-8. In these verses, Jesus emphasizes that regeneration is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit rather than a work of the flesh. Whoever believes only believes as a result of the Spirit’s regeneration.
If we expand our context back a couple chapters, we’ll see that John has already lain a foundation for this principle of God the Holy Spirit initiating regeneration.
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. ~~John 1:12-13 (ESV)
Our new birth doesn’t come through our willingness to believe. Instead, we willingly believe because the Holy Spirit transforms us into children of God. Therefore, the “whoever believes” of John 3:16 has willingly believed by God’s grace, not because of his or her own efforts.
As I said, this singular blog post can’t make a comprehensive case for either Unconditional Election or Irresistible Grace. But I hope it helps you see that John 3:16 is not the most effective text for substantiating free will. Even better, I hope it helps you rejoice in God’s love.