John 3:16…and 17 and 18

Written by Drew on May 28th, 2009

Without question, the best-known verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Martin Luther called it the Bible in miniature, and some even go so far as to say that if the Bible were lost except for John 3:16, we would have all the Scripture we need in order to be saved. Here is how the Golden Text reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Guy N. Woods outlined John 3:16, saying,

In it we are told of the greatest giver (God), of the greatest gift (his only begotten Son), of the greatest measure (the world) and the greatest future blessing (eternal life). It is a refutation of Atheism (it begins with God); of agnosticism (it reveals God), of Calvinism (it extends God’s provisions to all the world, and not to an arbitrarily selected few), of Unitarianism (it establishes the deity of Jesus and shows him to be of the same nature as God), of Oneness Pentecostalism (it demonstrates God and Christ to be separate and distinct persons), of Universalism (it reveals that men will perish who refuse the way of escape) and the doctrine of denominational creeds which allege that Jesus died that God might love us whereas this teaches that Jesus came to the earth and made salvation possible because God loved us. (John, 66-67)

Is John 3:16 all we need? Jesus didn’t think so. John 3:16 is just one verse in a lengthy conversation with Nicodemus. And when we look at the whole picture, we are better able to flesh out what Jesus meant to summarize in this verse.

John 3:16 has often been cited to support the idea that a person can be saved by faith alone. In other words, it has been argued that since John 3:16 does not mention baptism or other commands, belief without any corresponding action is all that is necessary for salvation. Those who make this claim have not carefully studied the whole chapter.

The following information gives context to what Jesus proclaimed in John 3:16:

  • Near the beginning of his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). “Water” is clearly a reference to baptism. Later in the narrative we read of Jesus and John baptizing in the Jordan River (Jn. 3:22-23; 4:1-2).
  • In the two verses prior to John 3:16, Jesus alluded to the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness as a symbol of the crucifixion. In consulting the original account of that event, it is evident that the case of the bronze serpent was one of obedient faith: those who were bitten by the fiery serpents were not healed by merely believing in the bronze serpent; they had to look upon it to live (Num. 21:9).
  • In the verses following John 3:16, Jesus explains what he means by “believe” in terms of “coming to the light.” In verse 21 he says, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” What is meant by “does what is true” and “works” in this statement? Do these terms not apply to the conditions for salvation described in verse 5? If not, then the only alternative is to apply them to the meritorious works of the Law of Moses, which is powerless to save, according to the gospel (Rom. 3:27-28; Eph. 2:8-9).
  • Finally, the last verse of John 3 reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The close observer will notice that John the Baptist, who is speaking here, uses the terms “believes” and “obey” interchangeably. The faith of John 3 is like the faith throughout the New Testament—an obedient faith.

John 3:16 will remain the favorite text of Christians. But if we are not careful, we will damage a priceless piece of revelation with reckless interpretation. We must be careful in our excavations not to separate the Golden Text from its context.


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Hunter Skipper says:

    salvation is by faith. For example, Rom. 5:1 states that we are justified (declared righteous) by faith. It does not say faith and baptism. If baptism were part of salvation, then it would say we were justified by faith and baptism. But it does not. If justification is by faith, then it is by faith. Baptism is not faith. It is a ceremony. It is something we do as a ritual. Furthermore, please consider the following verses which declare how we are saved.

    Rom. 3:22, “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.”
    Rom. 3:26, “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
    Rom. 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
    Rom. 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
    Rom. 5:1, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,”
    Gal. 3:8, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham.”
    Gal. 3:24 , “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.”
    Eph. 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
    Additionally, Paul tells us that the gospel is what saves us and that the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Baptism is not included in the description of the gospel. This explains why he said he came to preach the gospel, not to baptize: “I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:14-17). If baptism is necessary for salvation, then why did Paul downplay it and even exclude it from the description of what is required for salvation? It is because baptism isn’t necessary for salvation. Therefore, John 3:5 must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the rest of scripture.

    Another way of making this clear is to use an illustration. Let’s suppose that a person, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), believed in Jesus as his savior (Rom. 10:9-10; Titus 2:13), and has received Christ (John 1:12) as Savior. Is that person saved? Of course he is. Let’s further suppose that this person who confesses his sinfulness, cries out in repentance to the Lord, and receives Jesus as Savior, then walks across the street to get baptized at a local church. In the middle of the road he gets hit by a car and is killed. Does he go to heaven or hell? If he goes to heaven then baptism isn’t necessary for salvation. If He goes to hell, then trusting in Jesus, by faith, isn’t enough for salvation. Doesn’t that go against the Scriptures that say that salvation is a free gift (Rom. 6:23) received by faith (Eph. 2:8-9)? Yes it does. Baptism is not necessary for salvation and John 3:5 cannot teach that it is.

  2. Drew says:

    I can list plenty of passages that exclude belief, just as you listed a handful of passages that exclude baptism. What do we do with 1 Peter 3:21? “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Or Acts 2:38? “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins….” Or Acts 22:16, or Romans 6:3-4, or Ephesians 5:25-26?

    The argument that something is unnecessary because one verse on salvation excludes it eliminates even belief as a condition for salvation. After an analysis like that, only a philosophy of universalism would be able to survive.

    Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1 was not meant to negate baptism but to show his disfavor of the division that had formed around personalities, described in verse 12. Paul had expressed his belief in the essentiality of baptism on numerous occasions (see Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27).

    Hypothetical situations are effective at distracting people from the real issue, but they rarely present valid arguments (cf. Mt. 22:23-28). It would be horrible for a person to be killed on his way to the baptistery, but that doesn’t answer the question, “What does God’s Word say about baptism?”

    Saul of Tarsus had encountered the risen Lord on the way to Damascus; he believed in him enough to call him “Lord” and obey his command to continue on to Damascus and await furher instructions; while there he prayed and fasted three days. But when Ananias appeared he was told that one thing remained: “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Despite his faith, prayer, and fasting, Saul still had sins that needed to be washed away. When he was baptized, that was the point at which God washed them away.

    The requirement of baptism, which is God’s idea, not mine, does not go against grace. God has always required man to receive his gifts before they benefit from the blessing. Ephesians 2:8-9 explains this: “By grace you have been saved through faith….” If man does not seek God’s grace “through faith,” that is, believing in his Word enough to obey it, he will not receive it.

    Think about these things, Hunter. This is not just a debate exercise. I’ve presented plain passages, and my interpretation of them can be harmonized with any Scripture you may cite, whether it has to do with God’s grace or salvation by faith. With all due respect, your interpretation has failed to deal with baptism at all. You have not even explained why it played such an important role in the lives of the early Christians.

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