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John 3:16…and 17 and 18

Thursday, 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.

Why I Don’t Recommend Study Bibles

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

kjvThe other day someone handed me a photocopy of a page out of her King James Study Bible published by Thomas Nelson.  She had copied the pages containing comments on Acts 22:16, the passage where Saul is commanded to be baptized.  One glance at these comments reminded me of why I don’t recommend Study Bibles.

The contributor’s notes printed below this passage begin by saying “some believe that this statement teaches baptismal regeneration, that baptism is required for salvation.”  Already he has presented an inaccuracy, or at least he has failed to set forth an objective representation of all sides of the issue.  Baptismal regeneration is a doctrine that began in Catholic tradition which implies that the sacrament of baptism itself is the power by which rebirth takes place.  Accordingly, baptismal regeneration holds that baptism is “required for salvation.”  However, another point of view is not presented: the scriptures can still require baptism without teaching baptismal regeneration.

The New Testament presents baptism as a matter of when the believer is saved, not how. Take Romans 6:3-4, for example:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

The death of Jesus saves us (1 Pet. 1:18-19; 3:18; Acts 4:12).  There is nothing else–including baptism–that will serve as a substitute.  But when does God bring a soul into contact with that death?  Some argue that this happens at the point of belief.  But many have believed without being saved (Jn. 12:42-43; Jas. 2:19).  According to Paul, we are baptized into Christ’s death; that is, when a person believes God’s word and is baptized, God saves him by the blood of his Son.

What I’m saying is that it is possible to make a distinction between the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, as it is commonly understood, and the biblical requirement of baptism for salvation.  This study Bible does not allow such a distinction.

After making this opening observation, the contributor lists five factors for the reader’s consideration, which he hopes will negate the force of Ananias’ plain command: “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

Historical Revision

First, he argues that “the historical narrative of Paul’s conversion in chapter 9 shows that he was saved and filled with the Holy Spirit before his baptism.”  This is a fabrication.  It is appalling to imagine a reader sincerely looking into this important matter, only to come to this comment and end his examination, trusting that the information he has been given is true.

Nothing in the historical account of Saul’s conversion, whether we’re looking at Acts 9, 22, or 26, suggests that he had been saved prior to his baptism.  The facts are simple to understand: 1)  Saul was on his way to Damascus when he encountered the risen Lord who appeared in a flash of light which caused him to fall to the ground.  2)  Saul heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  3)  When Saul asked for identification, the Lord replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  4)  Jesus instructed him to go to Damascus and await further instructions.  5)  When Saul rose from the ground to obey the command, he discovered that he had been stricken with blindness.  6) In Damascus, he prayed and fasted for three days before Ananias appeared.  7)  When Ananias appeared, he laid his hands on Saul to restore his sight and allow him to be filled with the Holy Spirit (more on this later when we get to Cornelius).  8)  Then Ananias commanded him to be baptized, pointing out that he still had sins to wash away.  His language reveals that this is involved in “calling on his name.”

If anything, Acts 22:16 tells us Saul still had sin before his baptism and that his submission, prayer, and fasting were not enough to receive forgiveness.  Ananias’ instructions place baptism as the last thing necessary before salvation would be granted from the Lord.


The next factor given in the study Bible is the account of Cornelius’ conversion in Acts 10.  This time the contributor gives us a reference, saying, “He was clearly saved and baptized with the Spirit before he was baptized in water (10:47).”  Again, the reader is being misled.  The comments make a “clear” case out of something that never happened.

Cornelius was baptized with the Spirit prior to his water baptism, but nothing is said about his being saved.  In fact, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is never associated with salvation in the New Testament.

Aside from the vague reference to Saul’s baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts 9:17, which, as we’ve seen, preceded salvation, there is only one other record of this phenomenon in the New Testament.  On the Day of Pentecost, the apostles were “filled” with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4).  They, of course, were already in a saved state.

What about Cornelius?  While Peter was preaching the gospel to him and his family, the Holy Spirit “fell on all who heard the word” (10:44).  This amazed the Jewish observers because “the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45).  Like the apostles, Cornelius and his family were speaking in tongues.

Later, in Jerusalem, Peter reported this significant event to the apostles, saying “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (11:15).  Because Peter had to take the apostles’ minds back to the “beginning” in order to find a comparison, we are able to infer that Holy Spirit baptism was a rare occurrence.  As far as they were concerned, it had occured only twice–once among the apostles in Jerusalem to foster in the Christian era and a second time among Cornelius’ household to signify the gospel’s value to the Gentiles.

What comes next in the Cornelius account is intriguing.  After the whole family was filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  He then commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (10:47-48).

Why would Peter insist on a water baptism after seeing they had already been baptized with the Holy Spirit?  What was the purpose?  Notice he spoke of water baptism as being administered “in the name of Jesus Christ.”  Earlier, in Acts 2:38, Peter had expounded on the significance of this baptism: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Upon their obedience to that command, three thousand souls were added to the Lord’s body that day (2:41).  Peter was asking Cornelius to do the same thing the multitude at Pentecost did.

In Ephesians 4:5, Paul states there is “one baptism,” meaning there is one baptism that counts.  He could not have been talking about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, since that phenomenon was rare and was not connected to the matter of salvation.  Baptism in water for the forgiveness of sins is the “one baptism” of Christianity.  As in the case of Saul of Tarsus, Cornelius’ account does not mitigate against baptism.  To the contrary, it emphasizes its importance.

More Strangeness

The contributors next three points will be handled more briefly.  He argues next that “Regeneration, not water baptism, washes away our sins (Tit. 3:5).  In fact, Paul helps us to see more properly the relation of baptism to regeneration by minimizing baptism (1 Cor. 1:14-17).”  It is strange to me that the writer does not see water baptism in the phrase “washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5.  Regardless, as I stated earlier, the Bible does not teach that the power of regeneration is in the water or that it is the water that washes away our sins.  This is a worn-out strawman argument that needs to be dispensed with.  God grants regeneration, though, at the point of full obedience to the gospel, which includes baptism in the name of Jesus.

Concerning 1 Corinthians 1, the issue was not baptism but the spirit of division that had crept into the church at Corinth.  Paul did not downplay baptism itself but rather the people who administer the baptism, a point that is clear if the reader looks at the text without prejudice.

The contributor’s fourth argument is bizarre.  He appeals now to “the other apostles,” citing 1 Peter 3:21, which states, “Baptism…now saves you.”  You can pick any apostle you like–you can study Jesus’ words for that matter–but you will not find one statement arguing that salvation takes place before baptism (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:3-5; Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21).

The comments end by rewriting the verse: “Be baptized, and wash away thy sins by calling on the name of the Lord.”  A clever ploy.  By adding one word consisting of two letters we have changed the means of salvation into an amorphous “calling.”

There is no justification for adding a preposition into Ananias’ instructions.  The participle “calling on his name” is modified by the instruction to “be baptized.”  Peter stated as much in his address on Pentecost (Acts 2:21, 38), and again in his first epistle, where he describes baptism as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21).

Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg of confusion that is dissemenated by the popular study Bibles on the market.  If you are struggling with a passage, get a good dictionary of Bible words, a concordance, some comparative translations, and approach commentary with great caution.  After you have consulted these and have arrived at a conclusion with an open mind, you can be certain of God’s word.  It’s as simple as that.