|Vol. 2, No. 6||Page 13||June 2000|
One of our most essential tasks is to handle God’s Word aright (2 Timothy 2:15, ASV). However, the sad truth is that there are some who “corrupt the word of God” (2 Corinthians 2:17), handle “the word of God deceitfully” (2 Corinthians 4:2) and “wrest” the scriptures “unto their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Experience teaches us that it is possible for people to have a broad range of Bible knowledge, and yet have it so confused as to misrepresent (intentionally or unintentionally) its real meaning. We should remember Paul’s warning to the churches of Galatia, that there are “some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7).
The passage which carries the distinction of being the most memorized verse of the New Testament is also one of the most widely perverted passages spanning both testaments. In John 3:16 we find Jesus saying, “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.” This passage has had many thrilling tributes laid at its feet. It is known to all as, “The Golden Text of the Bible.” The great Foy E. Wallace, Jr., called John 3:16, “The most wonderful sentence ever written. The sum total of the whole plan of salvation. The little Bible -- the ‘Gospel in a Nutshell.’”1 Matthew Henry said, “Here is the gospel indeed, good news, the best that ever came from heaven to earth. Here is much, here is all in a little, the word of reconciliation in miniature.”2 Many people have a high regard for this passage and have sung its praises in tongue and pen, but in the wake of lofty human appraisals come some very serious abuses.
The first abuse of John 3:16 that we shall mention is that some have used it as a proof text for the idea that eternal life is a present possession for the Christian, and that he cannot lose it. Those who thus believe argue that eternal life is from the moment of belief, and can never be forfeited or lost.3 Brother Guy N. Woods wrote, “When debates were common such views were seldom entertained by members of the churches of Christ since in those encounters the truth regarding eternal life was clearly taught and emphasized. When such passages as 1 John 5:11, 13; John 3:16 and other verses were cited in an attempt to show that eternal life is a blessing available to, and actually possessed by children of God today, it was pointed out that truth is always consistent with itself . . .”4 Woods went on to say that there are two classes of scriptures touching the matter of eternal life, one asserting that it is a promise (Titus 1:2; 1 John 2:25), and the other that it is possessed (1 John 5:11, 13). These passages are easily harmonized when it is understood that eternal life is in prospect to be realized at the end of time (Titus 3:7; Matthew 25:46).
Many have tried to find in John 3:16 support for the teaching of salvation by “faith only.” For example, the famous Baptist debater Dr. L.S. Ballard in his 1953 discussion with brother Thomas B. Warren on the plan of salvation, alluded to John 3:16 while affirming that, “The believer in Christ receives spiritual life at faith in Christ.”5 The little expression “at faith” suggests that one is saved at the point of belief, and before his faith leads him to any act of obedience at all.6 In other words, the claim is made that, Jesus offers salvation merely and solely on the basis of mental acceptance (belief, trust).
Some are convinced that there is merit in the argument because the passage fails to mention baptism in connection with salvation. Yet, the reader will observe, that neither does the passage mention repentance (which is “unto salvation,” 2 Corinthians 7:10), nor does it mention confession (which is also “unto salvation,” Romans 10:10). As Guy N. Woods has written, “If because John 3:16 does not mention water baptism it is to be rejected as a condition of pardon, by the same token we must reject repentance as well because there is as much said about baptism in it as there is of repentance. If to this the objection is offered that repentance is elsewhere made essential to salvation, as indeed it is (Acts 17:30), so also is baptism in water (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; I Peter 3:20-21).”7
Another abuse of this precious passage which we are studying is the popular idea that it is about all the Bible that some people need. This falls into the same category of those who believe that all they need to do religiously is keep the Ten Commandments and stay out of jail, or that the Sermon on the Mount contains all the instruction necessary to insure divine approval upon the head of the faithful observer. Such an approach is ridiculous because John 3:16 was never intended to be viewed as a comprehensive package of saving instructions to the exclusion of the rest of God’s Word, even though this seems to be its most common application.
The truth is: we need all the Divine Revelation from start to finish. We need all 66 books, 1,189 chapters and 31,102 verses from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. The Bible itself is our textbook on salvation -- not just John 3:16!
Some people carry their abuse of the Golden Text so far as to seek in it heavenly sanction for any and every religious practice motivated by human sincerity. The truth is, however, that there is not another verse in the entire Bible which refutes more error than John 3:16. It is refutation of atheism, agnosticism and humanism (it reveals God), of Calvinism (it extends God’s provisions to all the world, and not to a selected few), of Modernism (it asserts the virgin birth in Christ as the “only begotten Son”), of Oneness Pentecostalism (it demonstrates God and Christ to be separate and distinct persons) and of Universalism (it reveals that men will perish who do not believe and obey Christ). Therefore, instead of John 3:16 being an umbrella to shelter every way that seems right to a man in the way of religion, it is actually a militant refutation of the many false ideas it is thought to support.
1Foy E. Wallace, Jr., The One Book: Analyzed And Outlined, ( Murfreesboro, Tennessee: DeHoff Publications, 1987), p. 101.
2Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary: Vol. V, Matthew to John, (McLean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 188.
3L.S. Ballard, Warren -- Ballard Debate on the Plan of Salvation, (Jonesboro, Arkansas: National Christian Press, 1979), p.9.
4Guy N. Woods, Questions and Answers, Volume II, (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1986), p. 170.
5Ballard, Op. Cit.
6Warren, Op. Cit., p 23.
7Guy N. Woods, A
Commentary on the Gospel According to John, (Nashville: Gospel
Advocate Company, 1981) p. 67.