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!
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):
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?
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,
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’.
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,
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.
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.
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."
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:
Wallace further elaborates in a footnote:
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:
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,
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).
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.
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 : 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.