“”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”John 3:16 ESV
This is a beautiful and amazing text, but it is not the gospel. This verse might be the single most abused text in all of scripture. The second is probably Matthew 7:1.
Arminians want to use this verse both as a gospel proclamation and a text to justify the claims that 1) God loves all men past, present and future, and 2) that men have freewill to “accept” Christ by “believing” and thus be saved from the wrath of God. I will be primarily addressing the second claim in this article.
Arminians think that the word “whoever” or as it is popularly rendered “whosoever” implies that all men have a latent faith that can employed upon an exercise of the will. This false teaching comes from several underlying issues-a failure to understand the basic grammar of the text; the universal atonement that is preached in most pulpits; tradition.
However, this text is neither a gospel proclamation, nor does it support the claim that all men have freewill to believe the testimony of God.
The gospel is about the full satisfaction of the requirements of God’s law (death) that Christ rendered by His own death on behalf of His elect. This verse says nothing about this satisfaction. In fact, it says nothing about the death of Christ at all. I suppose one could make an argument that His death is implied in the text, but when only considered by itself (which is the way Arminians use the text) it does not discuss the satisfaction of God’s law on behalf of the elect and thus cannot stand alone as a proclamation of the gospel.
Rather, this text is a descriptive text. It simply SAYS, inter alia, that those who believe in the Son of God have eternal life. This text is not an imperative text, or an exclamatory text, or an interrogative text. It is merely describing or declaring a truth-that those who believe possess eternal life (as in, they possess eternal life already). The believing is a fruit of possessing eternal life. The text is not an invitation to believe. It is not an offer to believe. It does not teach that salvation is available to all men and that one must simply believe in order to attain salvation. It simply says those who believe have eternal life.
John 3:16 is part of a much larger discussion that Christ was having with a high ranking Pharisee named Nicodemus regarding heavenly truths. Without getting into a breakdown of everything Christ said leading up to this verse, a central point that Christ makes prior to the statements of John 3:16 is that one must be born again before one can “see the kingdom of God.” That new birth is a supernatural act caused by the Holy Spirit. That is a foundational issue-the new birth as a necessary antecedent to belief in the Son of God. No one can force or cause the Holy Spirit to give them this new birth. It is as Jesus Himself describes it-“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.””John 3:8 ESV
That truth regarding the necessity of the new birth is still in play when Christ makes His statements in John 3:16. Those who believe (the “whoever”) are those who have been born again. It is impossible to believe without being born again. One does not believe to be born again (which is what Arminians teach), rather one believes because they have been born again.
The Apostle John makes this exact same point at the very beginning of his gospel-“But to all who did receive him, who BELIEVED in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 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
What does it mean to believe in the name of the Son of God? It means that you agree (affirm as true) with the testimony of God concerning His Son. It’s that simple. However, this agreement with the testimony of God is impossible without the new birth. Believing is a not a condition unto salvation, it is a result of God causing one to be born again.
If you believe the truth concerning Christ, it is BECAUSE God caused you to be born again. If God caused you to be born again, it was because you were chosen before all of creation to have Christ act as your mediator. That “being chosen” had nothing to do with anything in you good or bad. Rather, it had everything to do with God and His choice. Do not boast that there is something about you that God liked more than someone else. Rather, give all glory to God and boast in Christ, who showed immeasurable mercy to you in Christ, who bore your sins by imputation and paid that debt that you owed, all according to His will, to the praise of His glorious grace. That’s why you believe, because of what Christ did on your behalf.