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John 3:36 (NASB):

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

Why the use of “obey” here rather than “believe” in the second half of the sentence? The initial assumption is the opposite of belief is unbelief, but John uses the word “obey,” instead. If it is possible to believe in Jesus yet disobey Him, how should we interpret the part of this verse that says God’s wrath will abide on us if we disobey Jesus?

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  • Have you the Greek text of the NASB to quote. I am looking at the TR which has 'believe' and 'not believe' in this place. – Nigel J Apr 17 at 21:43
  • @NigelJ—Exactly which manuscript or Greek text are you loooking at, as there are a couple so-called TR to which people refer. – Der Übermensch Apr 17 at 22:50
  • @DerÜbermensch Beza, Stephanus, Elzevir and Scrivener are all identical on this verse. As they are (usually) on almost all verses except a few. See Textus Receptus Bibles. – Nigel J Apr 18 at 2:00
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    @NigelJ—Okay, well, you must be seeing πιστεύων and ἀπειθῶν, but that's not "believe" and "not believe." The latter is "not obey" (i.e., disobey). The alpha privative (i.e., opposite) of "believe" would be a conjugation of ἀπιστέω which does not occur in John 3:36, hence the OP's question. – Der Übermensch Apr 18 at 5:39
  • @DerÜbermensch So belief is a form of obedience as in 'obedience of faith among all nations' Romans 1:5 ? – Nigel J Apr 18 at 6:21
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"Does not obey" translates the verb ἀπειθῶν, which is the alpha privative (meaning un-, not) in front of the verb πείθω meaning persuaded, convinced. See the chart showing how :πείθω is translated.

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Thus, the idea of the person not obeying is they are not persuaded or convinced. The idea of believe here is to be convinced or persuaded to the point of obedience.

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The two verbs used in John 3:36 display some important information:

  • πιστεύω = trust, have faith in, entrust with, believe in, etc
  • ἀπειθέω = disobey, rebel, disloyal, etc.

The whole point of this verse is, among other things, to trust the Son is to obey the Son, AND, not to trust the Son is to disobey the Son.

Compare this idea to that in Rom 1:5 -

Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name's sake.

Ellicott succinctly observes:

he that obeyeth not the Son. The word, which occurs only here in the Gospels, is not the same as that at the beginning of the verse, and shows that the faith there intended is the subjection of the will to the Son, to whom the Father hath given all things (John 3:35)

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This will be the unpopular answer.

Suppose we consider the person who, by all accounts, professes faith in God. They are convinced that they are in a right relation to Him, that they have done all that is necessary to achieve everlasting life. They have been convinced that all they must to do is 1) believe in God with all their heart: “grace through faith/belief alone,” and 2) recite a “sinner’s prayer,” something along the following lines:

A “Sinner’s Prayer”

"Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I’ve done some things that were wrong; I am a sinner, and I am sorry. Please forgive me. You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I plan to change my life for the better now and follow You as my Lord and Savior. Amen.”

The unsuspecting believer has been assured that they have accomplished all that God has asked, despite the fact that the Bible nowhere states that a person is saved either by faith alone or by a “sinner’s prayer.” In reality, those who teach such things are rejecting the truth of the Gospel, instead substituting their version of salvation, irrespective of the sincerity with which they deliver the message. That seems to be what is happening here with John 3:36. The KJV is a terrible rendering of what constitutes true belief: faithful obedience. Take a look at the NASB:

John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (emphasis added).

The conscientious believer has bought into false teaching: “Believe, and you are saved! And, just in case, make sure to recite a ‘sinner’s prayer’.” The problem is that 1) no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are “born again” through water baptism (Jn. 3:5), and 2) there is no “sinner’s prayer” to be found in the Bible. Here is what is meant by "belief": adherence to what has been communicated. The Letter of James seals the matter with the following two pronouncements:

James 2:19: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (emphasis added.)

James 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (emphasis added).

What can we learn here? James has just told us that 1) even demons believe in God. He then further elaborates that the faithful of God are 2) justified by works, and not by faith alone. That is the only instance of “faith"- or "belief-alone” in the Bible.

Perhaps we should ask these questions: Could Noah have survived the Flood if he had not obeyed God and built the ark? Or, could the Israelites have been saved from Pharaoh by belief alone? Or, rather, did they not have to leave Egypt as God instructed through Moses? Proper belief encompasses action. What is missing while trying to divide the word "faith" in John 3:36 while dismissing the word "obey", is the significance of belief in its scriptural definition.

Some will adamantly object to this: Obedience is unnecessary because it is a work: We are saved by faith alone!” That claim is absolutely false. Why? Because faith in God is itself a work (Jn. 6:28-29). If “works” are unnecessary, then faith is unnecessary. Surely, no one really believes we are saved without faith in God? In the Gospel of John, we read:

John 6:28-29: “Therefore [the Jews] said to Him, ‘What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’” (emphasis added).

Christ has just told us that belief is a work. Indeed, faith, repentance, confession, and baptism are all works. Many are confusing the works of the Law of Moses, with the works of the Law of Christ (or the Law of Liberty), which makes certain demands on Christians. We do not live under the Law of Moses; the Old Covenant was "nailed to the Cross"(Col. 2:14). But this does not excuse us from our obligations to the Son of God. And those include belief, repentance, confession, baptism, and a sustained life of godliness.

Is this difficult? You better believe it is! We allow our pride and hubris to delude us into believing that much of Scripture simply does not apply. We have convinced ourselves that we know better, and we have concluded that: “We’re just fine. Besides, we’re good people!” (Really? cf. Mk. 7:21-22) Besides, obedience is inconvenient! Consider what God has to say about such sentiments:

Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

The “death” mentioned here is eternal separation. The believer is convinced that their friends would never deceive them about something so serious. After all, one’s eternal destiny is at stake! But one's own pride won't allow them to admit they might be led astray: “I would know right away if someone lied to me! I’m not fooled so easily.” Well, just who, do you suppose, are the false teachers in Matthew 7:

Matthew 7:15: “[Those who] come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves."?

Often, false teachers are themselves blinded. They have allowed this because they refuse to accept some very clear scriptural mandates. In doing so, they are propagating biblical disinformation that will mislead many.

Here is a foundational "belief only" question: Can the new believer ever point to a single moment where they obeyed the Gospel? Just how did they become a child of God in the first place? It begins to look very much as though this person may fall into and out of Christ at the drop of a hat. They asked God for forgiveness, but were they ever willing to obey God’s Word as a necessary condition of salvation? Of course, the one person they may have obeyed was their friend rather than God. Parsing John 3:36 and many other passages to read "believe" is a perilous errand.

The fledgling believer is convinced they are a child of God. But they have done nothing to become a child of God through water baptism and obedience to Christ. They don’t demonstrate their faith because they regularly “forsake the assembly” (Heb. 10:25). They have chosen to refuse worship to God, something that is absolutely crucial, according to both the Old and New Testaments. In what sense, then, is the person saved?

God tells us that we must be “washed in the blood of the Lamb” (1 Pet. 3:21, Acts 2:38, 19:3, Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12, Rev. 7:14, 22:14). When was this person ever “washed” at all? What does God have to say about the “sinner’s prayer?” There is no such thing. Since that may have been what they were told – rather convincingly – as we see here with John 3:36, they feel it must be true. Are they really willing to bet their eternal fate on what someone “told them,” rather than the unalterable words of Holy Scripture? Have they so little faith in God’s Word that they are willing to sacrifice everything by ignoring what they are commanded to do?

While many seem to believe that it is perfectly reasonable to dismiss what God has communicated, there are plenty of examples throughout history where that has proven disastrous (cf. Numbers 3:4, II Samuel 6:7, Hebrews 2:2, etc.). Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, told His disciples:

John 14:15: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn.14:15).

Keeping Christ’s commandments can only be accomplished by doing what He and the apostles have said. Later, in John’s first epistle, we read:

I John 2:3-4: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

The apostle uses very strong language. So is “keeping [Christ’s] commandments” not the same as obeying His Message throughout the New Testament? In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told:

Hebrews 5:9: “And having been made perfect, [Christ] became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation...”

Is faithful obedience to Christ unnecessary? The fact is that God has little sympathy for those who disobey or ignore His Word. This has not changed since the Law of the Old Testament. Christ/God hasn't merely "gone soft" since then. In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (10:1-2), Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, offered “unauthorized fire” to the Lord, something that God had not commanded. As soon as they did this, they were both incinerated (Lev. 10:1-2). Does God mean what He says, when He tells us something?

In another Old Testament Book, II Samuel, a man named Uzzah, one who was not a Levite, reached out to touch the ark of God (II Samuel 6:7). God had commanded that only a Levite was allowed to touch the ark (I Chron. 15:2), but Uzzah wanted to prevent it from falling to the ground as the oxen pulling its cart stumbled. He was killed instantly by God, despite his sincerity and intentions. His momentary disobedience cost him his life.

James again reminds us of obedience using Abraham as an example. Once Abraham believed God, he then had to obey Him. Had Abraham not done this, he would never have been “the father of many nations” (Rom. 4:18). (Of course, God knew what Abraham would do: this scenario was likely for Abraham’s benefit). The Lord’s brother relates to us that faith without works (repentance, confession, baptism...) is useless. He demonstrates this fact by pointing out that Abraham believed God and, in an act of profound obedience, he began to offer Isaac, just as God had commanded him:

James 2:20-22: “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected..."

Similarly, our faith, our belief is perfected by our works of obedience. That is the central point of these passages, just as it is in John 3:36. In a debate over baptism, Dr. Jerry Jones stated the following:

Because of one’s faith and belief in Jesus Christ, he turns away from his sins (the Bible calls this “repentance”), he acknowledges that Christ is the Son of God [the confession], and upon baptism – according to Romans chapter 6, he’s brought into union with the death of Christ. You see, it’s the death of Jesus Christ that saves us, and it’s baptism that brings us into union with Him. Therefore, the death of Christ may be appropriated to our lives.
Every time you find the words “baptism” and “salvation” (or their equivalent terms) in the New Testament, baptism always comes first: there are no exceptions. Only six passages meet this qualification:

Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 refer to the baptism of John the Baptist “for the remission of sins”;
Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, for the remission of sins”;
Acts 22:16: “Arise and be baptized… and wash away your sins”;
Mark 16:16: “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved..”, and
1 Peter 3:21: “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you…”

The last verse, 1 Peter 3:21, is clearly differentiating baptism from the removal of dirt from the body. -- Dr. Jerry Jones

This is what is meant by "believe" in John 3:36:

Plan of Salvation
Hear the Word Romans 10:17, John 6:44-45
Believe in Jesus as the Son of God Hebrews 11:6, John 8:24, 20:30-31
Repent of sin Acts 2:38, Acts 17:30
Confess that Jesus is the Son of God Acts 8:36–37, Romans 10:9,10
Be baptized for the remission of sins Acts 2:38, 8:12, 8:16, 8:36, 10:48, 16:15, 16:30, 19:3-5, 22:16, Mark 16:16, Romans 6:3, Titus 3:5
Live a life of obedient faith 1 Peter 2:9, Colossians 1:22-23

Note: Even demons satisfy the first two conditions (Jas. 2:19). Belief alone is insufficient, and this cannot be avoided by misinterpretations of John 3:36.

This all seems straightforward enough. We first hear the Word of God. As we do this, we reflect on what Christ did to purchase our salvation. We must then repent of our old habits. We must separate ourselves from the world by abstaining from alcohol, drugs, sex outside of marriage, adultery, murder, lying, gambling, cheating, stealing, and so on (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9, Gal. 5:19-21, 1 Tim. 1:8-11, etc.). We are commanded to be “lights to the world” (Acts 13:47), to set an example for others to follow. Having repented of those old habits, we then confess that Jesus is the Son of God.

We do this when baptized, immersed in water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are being “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” dying to our old, sinful selves as we then arise from the water in newness of life. At that point, we have become priests and saints of God (1 Peter 2:9).

If we do not do these things, we are neither priests nor saints, which means God does not hear our prayers. If we persist in our disobedience, we have forsaken our salvation in Christ. That is what Christ meant when He said,

John 3:5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Immersion in the Bible is internalizing the Mind of God: the Spirit, which becomes part of our psyche. The crucial point is that, without living a life of obedience, one is not born again, and no amount of prayers will alter the fact. We must, therefore, abide by Christ (and the apostles') commandments through faith. That is what "belief" -- "obey", means in John 3:36.

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  • These are his commandments : that we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and love one another. And his commandments are not grievous. – Nigel J Apr 18 at 6:14
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    @Nigel Certainly. However, James reminds us of faith without "works": Jas. 2:20-27: "But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected... You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone... faith without works is dead." Hebrews 11 is an exercise depicting the faithful works of many dating back to Abel, all demonstrating action -- to "obey." – Xeno Apr 18 at 14:17
  • Upvoted +1 because I respect the courage it takes to write a good argument that you know will be unpopular – Hold To The Rod Apr 19 at 0:04
  • I read the first six answers and kept wondering why no one gets it; the answer is so obvious. John was making the same point that James and others make, that having faith is both necessary and sufficient, but lack of obedience demonstrates that one's faith isn't real. Abraham is famous for his faith, and we know that he had faith because he obeyed, no matter what was asked of him. Your answer is perhaps a bit long, but definitely worth my +1. – Ray Butterworth Apr 19 at 2:31
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Difference between believing and obeying Jesus in John 3:36

John 3:36 (NASB):

He who believes in the Son has eternal life, but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

A SMALL child receives a gift. His parents tell him, “Say thank you.” The child obeys, though somewhat mechanically. As he grows older, his appreciation for his parents’ thinking and for the kindness of others increases. Now he expresses thanks more readily, from the heart. Why? Because gratitude has become part of his own thinking.

Similarly, when we first came to a knowledge of the Bible truths, we learned the importance of obedience to God’s basic requirements. But as we continue to grow spiritually, we learn more about God’s thinking​—his likes, his dislikes, and his way of viewing various matters. By learning to reason similarly and by allowing such thinking to influence our actions and personal choices, we show that we believe in God and are making God’s thoughts our own.

The Bible also says: "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. "(John 3:36 NASB ) You can show that you are exercising faith in the Son by making changes in your life and bringing it into harmony with God’s will. You must reject any wrong course that you may have been following and take action to do what is pleasing to God. You need to do what the apostle Peter commanded: “Repent, therefore, and turn around so as to get your sins blotted out Acts 3:19.

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John 3:36 (NASB):

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

Analyzing this logically, John 3:36a says:
If one believes in the Son, then he has eternal life. (1)

John 3:36b says:
If one does not obey the Son, then he will not see life or has eternal life.
By contrapositive, this is ⇔ If one has eternal life, then he obeys the Son. (2)

Now apply transitivity of implication to (1) & (2), we have:
If one believes in the Son, then he obeys the Son.

In other words, if one believes in the Son in his head, it follows that he obeys His commands by his acts. It is just the next logical step.

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  • Great use of formal logic, upvoted +1 – Hold To The Rod Apr 18 at 23:54
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Within the book of John, the word "believe" is used similarly to the way it is used in the book of Exodus.

"When Israel saw the great power which the LORD had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in His servant Moses" (NASB Ex 14:31).

Shortly after the deliverance, we see the Israelites hardening their hearts toward the LORD despite all that he does for them, similar to the Jews reactions to Jesus' work.

Here are some more points to support this argument:

  1. John intentionally sets up the idea of "false" belief very early in the gospel. "Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men" (Jn 2:23–24). The main question that is raised here is, "Why do they not believe?" I would argue that John leaves this ambiguous early in the gospel, developing the theme of what makes true/false belief as we progress through gospel. That is why at the end he says that "these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ" (Jn 20:31). By the end, if we have been reading closely, we should know what the true nature of belief looks like.

  2. Countless times, the Jews are portrayed like the Israelites during the wilderness (being given "witnesses" or signs yet rejecting the message, being given bread from heaven yet complaining). There are also countless other references to Moses and the stories in the Pentateuch. Clearly, these stories were in the writers' mind as he wrote the gospel, and it would not be unusual to have adapted a similar usage of the word.

The two observations above serve a dual purpose in the usage of the word "believe" in the gospel of John. First, the inclusion of the idea of "false belief" makes us ponder the nature of true belief, which is John's goal. Second, he is condemning the Jews for their unbelief, making the argument that this has always been the problem since the Exodus.

I also subscribe to the idea presented by Andreas Köstenberger that one of the main occasions for writing the gospel of John was due to the destruction of the Temple. As the Jews probably were in distraught as to this could have happened again, John provides an explanation. He portrays that Jesus is the New Temple that has replaced the old, broken institution. All this combines together to explain why John is so "anti-Jewish" in his gospel, including his usage of the word believe to condemn the Jews. The hope of this is all, of course, that you would believe in reading this.

Now.. specifically, in terms of the word obey, the gospel outlines what that primarily looks obedience looks like, so we should be careful to just think obey means to follow every single point of the law. See and study the Upper Room discourse and High Priestly Prayer (John 13–17) for more insights. Also, 1 John helps us to clearly understand what fellowship with God means, so I would read through that as well to find what you are looking for.

I have read commentaries and such (Carson/Köstenberger), but some of these are my thoughts based on reading and re-reading these books, so please feel free to ask questions or poke holes if you see any issues.

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  • This is not a compelling argument, I have to say. It is more like draft notes prior to the construction of an argument. Please see the Tour and the Help as to the purpose and the functioning of the site. Welcome to BH. – Nigel J Apr 17 at 21:42
  • Hi John, welcome to Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. Please be sure to take the site tour and read up on how this site is a little different than other sites around the web. Thanks! – Hold To The Rod Apr 18 at 23:57
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There are two parts of this verse:

1/ He who believes in the Son has eternal life

2/ but he who does not obey the Son will not see life

The two parts serve to both distinguish and bind together the concepts of believing and obeying. They are distinguished from one another in the sense that believing does not automatically imply obedience. On the other hand, they are bound together in the sense that belief can be made null by disobedience.

The connection between them is seeing/having eternal life. If we can infer from the first part of the verse that the one who has eternal life is he who believes, then it follows that the one who will not see life (he who does not obey) cannot be the one who believes.

  • “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; leave Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ – Matthew 7:21-23
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To me to ‘believe’ is when you decide to follow Jesus, His person and His teachings. To ‘obey’ is what happens afterwards, for some it’s life long travel with the belief that person has made.

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