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Is eternal life in John 3:16 conditional on continous belief in Jesus Christ? The word "believe" in this verse is a present participle verb. Thanks very much!

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Good question. Looking at a variety of English Bible versions, I see, among others: "everyone trusting in him"; "whoever has faith in him"; "whoever believes in him"; "everyone believing into him," and "who is believing in him". Each of the alternate English renderings of the Greek phrase ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (which I translate as "that all the believers in and with him") read to me as though they're conditional upon both present and continuing belief in the teachings and abilities of "Jesus, who is called Christ" (Matt. 1:16). Otherwise, what's the point? –  Pat Ferguson Jul 19 '13 at 23:37
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@PatFerguson again, be careful not to use English translations as your primary means of understanding the underlying Greek text. –  Daи Aug 30 '13 at 12:26
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3 Answers

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I do not believe that the grammar alone is capable of determining that. The present participial phrase πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ("all who believe") seems to imply a continuous action, since one might suppose that the author would have used the aorist participial phrase πᾶς ὁ πιστεύσας ("all who believed") to more aptly represent a singular historical act of belief. On the other hand, compare the actual usage of the aorist participial phrase ὁ πιστεύσας in Mark 16:16 (KJV):

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

ὁ πιστεύσας καὶ βαπτισθεὶς σωθήσεται ὁ δὲ ἀπιστήσας κατακριθήσεται

Is the individual in Mark 16:16 one who exhibits a singular act of belief, or is the belief in Mark 16:16 no different than the belief mentioned in John 3:16?

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Good answer and +1 from me. I appreciate you drawing out the distinction between present participle and the aorist. I do question the relevance of Mark as he is a different author, but the point is taken Nonetheless. I was wondering if you'd be willing to highlight the use of the subjunctive and, perhaps, the function of the ἵνα clause (content, purpose, result, etc) for a bounty. –  swasheck Aug 7 '13 at 1:48
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Context

Jesus is having a conversation with Nicodemus, who we are told in John 3:1 is a man of the Pharisees (ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων) and a ruler of the Jews (ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων). Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again (from above, γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) or else he will be unable to see the kingdom of God (τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ), and that he must be born of water and the Spirit (γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος) or else he will not be able to enter the kingdom of God. However, though Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, he frequently uses second-person-plural pronouns (vv. 7, 11, 12). For this reason, many commentators have speculated that much of this context is applicable beyond Nicodemus. But to whom it is applicable is a topic to which we shall return.

The post-positive conjunction γὰρ in John 3:16 clues us in that there is some preceding context which this passage logically follows. Thus we must also look at vv. 14-15 before returning to v. 16.

Καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον (John 3:14-15, NA28).1

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, in the same manner the Son of Man must be lifted up, in order that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

V. 14 is an allusion to Numbers 21 where serpents bit the Israelites after they grumbled and complained, but they would look at the bronze serpent on the pole and live. The use of the adverb οὕτως indicates that Jesus is describing himself as an antitype of the bronze serpent who was lifted up (which Christian commentators believe to be a prediction of his crucifixion).

The subsequent use of ἵνα indicates purpose: the Son of Man must be lifted up for the purpose that "everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."

John 3:16

οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον (John 3:16, NA28).

For in this manner2 God loved the world: He gave his one-of-a-kind Son, in order that everyone who believes in him would not perish3 but have eternal life.

Now we return to v. 16, which has a similar semantic structure as vv. 14-15, specifically by the use of the adverb οὕτως followed by a clause denoting purpose with ἵνα, as well as the use of the clause πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων. However, v. 16 uses an additional conjunction along with the adverb (οὕτως... ὥστε) which generally connects a cause to an effect, emphasizing the result. Thus the result involved is usually the combination of both elements in the correlation, further placing emphasis upon the inevitable effect of the paired elements. The NET translators point out that the "clause involving ὥστε plus the indicative (which stresses actual, but [usually] unexpected result) emphasizes the greatness of the gift God has given."2

The use of the ἵνα clause answers the question, "What is the purpose of God giving his Son?" The answer: "in order that everyone who believes in him would not perish but have eternal life."

The Present Active Participle of Interest (ὁ πιστεύων)

Now that the context and grammar of the passage overall is mostly understood, we shall turn to the grammatical point of contention: ὁ πιστεύων. First, let's answer a couple of initial questions for clarification.

Since the participle is articular, it must be either adjectival or substantival (this is somewhat of a false dichotomy as the substantival use of the participle is actually a subset of the adjectival use, and the meaning and translation is not affected in this context). Does the participle agree with a substantive in person, case, and number? Yes - if we count the adjective. But it is grammatically preferable to say that ὁ πιστεύων is a nominative masculine singular present active participle which is modified by the adjective πᾶς (which agrees with it). Thus the use of ὁ πιστεύων would be considered substantival.

Either way, this construction (πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων) should be translated "everyone who believes," "every believing one/person," or "everyone believing." Note that this same phrase occurs in v. 15 and thus the syntactical implications of v. 16 are true also in its preceding context.

Daniel Wallace points out:

The idea seems to be both gnomic and continual: "everyone who continually believes." This is not due to the present tense only, but to the use of the present participle of πιστεύω, especially in soteriological contexts in the NT (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pp. 620-621).

Wallace further elaborates in a footnote:

The aspectual force of the present ὁ πιστεύων seems to be in contrast with ὁ πιστεύσας . The aorist is used only eight times (plus two in the longer ending of Mark). The aorist is sometimes used to describe believers as such and thus has a generic force (cf. for the clearest example the v.l. at Mark 16:16; cf. also 2 Thess 1:10; Heb 4:3; perhaps John 7:39; also, negatively, of those who did not [ μή ] believe: 2 Thess 2:12; Jude 5). The present occurs six times as often (43 times), most often in soteriological contexts (cf. John 1:12; 3:15, 16, 18; 3:36; 6:35, 47, 64; 7:38; 11:25; 12:46; Acts 2:44; 10:43; 13:39; Rom 1:16; 3:22; 4:11, 24; 9:33; 10:4, 11; 1 Cor 1:21; 14:22 [bis]; Gal 3:22; Eph 1:19; 1 Thess 1:7; 2:10, 13; 1 Pet 2:6, 7; 1 John 5:1, 5, 10, 13). Thus, it seems that since the aorist participle was a live option to describe a "believer," it is unlikely that when the present was used, it was aspectually flat. The present was the tense of choice most likely because the NT writers by and large saw continual belief as a necessary condition of salvation. Along these lines, it seems significant that the promise of salvation is almost always given to ὁ πιστεύων (cf. several of the above-cited texts), almost never to ὁ πιστεύσας (apart from Mark 16:16, John 7:39 and Heb 4:3 come the closest [the present tense of πιστεύω never occurs in Hebrews]).

Thus according to Wallace, the present active participle used here as a substantive can carry the connotation of continuous belief as a condition in order to have eternal life (and thus also not perish).

However, there are others who would argue (myself included) that this cannot be entirely supported by the grammar.4 The use of the participle alone does not demand that salvation is only available as long as we continuously believe without interruption. This reads way too much into the text.5 It certainly makes it clear that everyone presently believing in the Son will have eternal life, but I believe it reads too much into the text to argue that continued belief is a condition of eternal life (salvation) solely on the basis of the grammar in this text.

Chay and Correia argue against Wallace's interpretation.6 They argue that Wallace commits the "illegitimate totality transfer," an interpretive error that brings the full meaning of a word with all its nuances to the present usage. Their primary contention is that Wallace claims that the participle is "both gnomic and continual" (emphasis mine), rather than arguing for one or the other. They go on to present a syllogism to characterize what they believe to be Wallace's reasoning concerning the use of πιστεύω as a present participle:

Major Premise: Both aorist and present participles depict believers.

Minor Premise: Present participles are more common (statistically) for πιστεύω.

Conclusion: Therefore, believing is necessarily continuous action.

Chay and Correia argue that this is a flawed syllogism and thus Wallace's assertion is not supported.7

Who Is Speaking?

It should be noted that some translators extend the quotation of Jesus' words through v. 21, and others end them at v. 15. Thus it is possible that either Jesus himself is speaking or the author (John) is commenting on Jesus' words. If Jesus is speaking, he is merely continuing his line of thought from vv. 14-15, thus predicting his death and saving work on the cross. If John is speaking/writing, then he is further expounding on the fulfillment of Jesus' words after the fact.

Chay and Correia often rely on arguments made by J. Eugene Botha.8 Botha recently argued that the context of John 3:16 limits the meaning of "world" (τὸν κόσμον) to only refer to the Jewish people, not to modern Christians (which is a very interesting argument that also affects the meaning of who is believing in v. 16).9 If Jesus is speaking, he may indeed have intended his audience to be Jews - not all of humankind.

If John was speaking, "world" (τὸν κόσμον) may have actually been intended to speak specifically to the Johannine Christian community undergoing persecution. In other words, continued belief may be implied in John 3:16, but not in the sense read back into the text by most later soteriological controversies. The Johannine Christian community was undergoing significant persecution and John may have been encouraging them to continue believing so that they would not be lost by giving up the faith due to persecution. This reading seems to take the original context seriously without anachronistically reading later theology into the text.

There are several arguments for a limited understanding of "world," most centering on how τὸν κόσμον is used elsewhere in first century literature (including the NT itself, with a focus on Johannine literature). Some limit the meaning for theological reasons (such as proponents of Calvinism who believe in limited atonement); others use contextual clues. It would be exhaustive and out of the scope of this question to examine every such usage, but one should be noted within the same gospel: John 17:9. Jesus is speaking and says,

Ἐγὼ περὶ αὐτῶν ἐρωτῶ, οὐ περὶ τοῦ κόσμου ἐρωτῶ ἀλλὰ περὶ ὧν δέδωκάς μοι, ὅτι σοί εἰσιν....

I am praying for/concerning them. I am not praying for the world but for/concerning those whom you have given me, because they are yours....

Some (including Botha9) have argued that "world" cannot refer to all of humankind on the basis of this passage and others. On the flip side, there is an equally strong argument using this same passage that "world" does indeed refer to all humankind.

Of course it is also possible that Jesus (or John) intended τὸν κόσμον in v. 16 to refer to all of humankind (this is certainly the majority view).

Conclusion

Just as the Israelites who were bitten by serpents looked up to the bronze serpent on a pole and lived, so also Jesus was lifted up so that those believing in him would have eternal life. With this in mind, God loved the world by sending his Son for the purpose that those believing in him would not perish but have eternal life.

Is eternal life in John 3:16 conditional on continous belief in Jesus Christ? On the basis of this passage alone, I don't think that argument can be supported, at least not in the soteriological sense often read into the text. However, Daniel Wallace does - and he's an excellent Greek language scholar. At the same time, there are several scholars who would also disagree with Wallace's reading of the present participle in John 3:16. This is an issue where there are good scholars on both sides of the fence, so my answer is "perhaps." I think it is likely plausible that even if it does carry a continual sense, John is encouraging the early Christian community to continue believing in the midst of persecution (and not in an abstract theological way as is often supposed by later soteriological controversies). I hope that I have made you aware of some of the textual issues so that you can develop a more informed reading of the passage.

Footnotes

1 It should be noted that there are some textual discrepancies in these passages that do not have much bearing on this question (thus they are ignored and the NA28 critical text is followed).

2 The NET translator's note on this translation choice is helpful: "Or 'this is how much'; or 'in this way.' The Greek adverb οὕτως (Joutws) can refer (1) to the degree to which God loved the world, that is, to such an extent or so much that he gave his own Son (see R. E. Brown, John [AB], 1:133-34; D. A. Carson, John, 204) or (2) simply to the manner in which God loved the world, i.e., by sending his own son (see R. H. Gundry and R. W. Howell, “The Sense and Syntax of John 3:14-17 with Special Reference to the Use of Οὕτως…ὥστε in John 3:16,” NovT 41 [1999]: 24-39). Though the term more frequently refers to the manner in which something is done (see BDAG 741-42 s.v. οὕτω/οὕτως), the following clause involving ὥστε (Jwste) plus the indicative (which stresses actual, but [usually] unexpected result) emphasizes the greatness of the gift God has given. With this in mind, then, it is likely (3) that John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God's love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent."

3 Or "be lost."

4 This line of thought could even have results that conflict with theological positions favorable towards this interpretation elsewhere in scripture (such as in Romans 3:24 with δικαιούμενοι).

5 It is somewhat anachronistic as it reads a later soteriological controversy into the text that John likely never intended to address. However, if Jesus himself said this, assuming he is truly the Son of God, one could argue that he foresaw this argument. From a secular, academic perspective this is a moot point, but for a Christian, it could be a valid argument.

6 Chay, F. and Correia, J.P. The Faith That Saves: The Nature of Faith in the New Testament. Haysville, N.C.: Schoettle Publishing Company, 2008.

7 It should be noted that no one's argument is without critique, including Chay and Correia's: cf. this book review (on pp. 83ff., especially p. 87f.) by Ardel B. Caneday, Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Theology at Northwestern College. Caneday believes that this syllogism is an inaccurate caricature of Wallace's argument. I have not had the opportunity to fully read Chay and Correia's entire argument, however, so I will leave that to the reader to decide. However, from what I've read of Wallace, it seems to be an accurate summary of his argument.

8 Botha, J.E., 1987a. The meanings of pisteúō in the Greek New Testament: A semantic-lexicographical study. Neotestamentica 21(2), 225-240.

9 For God did not so love the whole world - only Israel! John 3:16 revised. HTS Volume 61, Number 4 (2005), pp. 1149-1168. Full-text available online at http://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle/2263/12970/Botha_God%282005%29.pdf?sequence=3.

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The belief mentioned in John 3:16 is an ongoing belief, not an event from the past. John’s intent is clear from other passages in his writings. In 2 John 1:8-9 he wrote,

"Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.”

In order to have the Father and the Son, one must abide in Christ’s teaching. In other words, one must obey Christ’s commandments, not as a one-time occurrence but as a way of life. (John 3:36, John 8:51, John 15:10) In 1 John 3 he described this experience as ‘practicing righteousness’.

“Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God.” (1 John 3:7-10, NASB)

When a person sets his heart to know and do God’s will, depending on God for the strength to carry it out, then God puts his Spirit in that believer, enabling him to do what that person could not do on his own. This is what it means to believe, or to practice righteousness. Jesus described this idea more completely in John 15:4-6, saying,

“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” (John 15:4-6, NASB)

Based on these texts (and there are many others like them) it is apparent that this belief, or ‘practicing righteousness’, or ‘abiding in Christ’, is an ongoing experience.

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