By Weylan Deaver
It’s one of the most familiar Bible verses, and often appealed to as the basis of salvation. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV). While so much is packed into so few words, much also remains unstated. Many fail to realize that verse is summation, not explication. It summarizes what God has (love), what God did (gave), what a person does (believes), and what a believer should have (eternal life). What was involved when God “gave his only Son”? The verse has no particulars about the incarnation, the cross, the blood atonement, Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection. You have to go to other passages to flesh out the details of God’s gift. Likewise, “eternal life” is offered “whoever believes,” but details of heaven and of faith’s response are not given. You must go elsewhere for elaboration.
The problem is, many read “whoever believes” (v. 16) and assume it simply means mentally accepting facts about Jesus, and then getting “eternal life.” But, the very context of John 3 proves that “whoever believes” cannot mean salvation by belief only.
Jesus said, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). If you cannot participate in God’s kingdom, you are not saved. And, no one sees the kingdom who has not been “born again.” This new birth is vital to participation in the kingdom, and the kingdom is vital to salvation. Therefore, whoever believes, if he would have eternal life, must become a believer who has been “born again.”
Jesus added detail to the concept of new birth when he said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Again, none “enter the kingdom” without a new birth consisting of both “water and the Spirit.” Therefore, whoever believes, if he would have eternal life, has to become a believer who has been “born of water and the Spirit.”
Jesus also said, “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” (John 3:21). Truth demands action, not just mental acceptance. And, while many religious folk act as though “works” is a dirty word unrelated to salvation, Jesus taught otherwise. My works cannot save me, but God’s works do. When I do what God commands, I am doing God’s works, and that is essential to salvation. In fact, Jesus also said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). So, John 3:16 mentions a believer, but does not mention works. But, John 6:29 tells us a true believer is already doing “the work of God” since belief, itself, is called a “work”! Therefore, whoever believes, if he would have eternal life, must be a believer who “does what is true.”
Further we are told, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized” (John 3:22-23). Why the emphasis on baptism? Because, as Jesus said in v. 5, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Peter stated it, “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]). “Born of water” happens when one is “baptized” in water. Baptism means immersion, and immersion requires “plentiful” water, which is why John was where he was—there was plenty of water. If Jesus connected “water and the Spirit” in being “born again” (v. 5), nobody has the right to disconnect or discount either element. Both are required. Moreover, nobody has the right to redefine baptism (which means immersion) so that it means sprinkling or pouring water, neither of which requires much water. Bible baptism is immersion (physically in water and spiritually in the Holy Spirit). Such is the new birth. Therefore, whoever believes, if he would have eternal life, must be someone who has been immersed in order to be born again.
Finally, note the chapter’s last verse: “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” (John 3:36). Verses 16 and 36 both mention “whoever believes.” But, while obedience is implied in v. 16, obedience is explicitly mentioned in v. 36. Who gets to “see life”? The one who obeys God’s Son. The saved believer is the obedient believer. Believing is obeying, but obedience includes more than just believing.
God can put a summary in a single verse (such as John 3:16), but he never lists everything involved in obedience in any one verse. The only way to know the total requirements is to take all the pertinent passages together. In other words, take the entire New Testament. In our case, we’ve taken several connected truths from John 3, both before and after the words of v. 16. It is a monumental mistake to interpret John 3:16 as teaching salvation by belief alone. But, if belief by itself cannot save, then everything involved in salvation is not listed in John 3:16. And that means you have to go outside John 3:16 to learn what obedience entails.
Belief is a first step since “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Yes, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), but benefitting from that love requires continual commitment to Jesus’ commands. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10).