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Fulton County Gospel News

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The Moods of John 3:16

By Tom Franklin

John: 3:16 states, in part, that those believing in Christ “should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Berry’s Interlinear New Testament translates the Greek here as “may not perish, but may have life eternal.” Both of these translations, as well as the original Greek text, reflect the use of the subjunctive mood. Thus, while the statements of fact in the first part of John 3:16, relative to God’s love and sacrifice for mankind, is properly put in the indicative mood; the hoped for results of man’s belief in Christ, in the latter part of the verse, could only be expressed by the subjunctive mood. This switch in moods was not accidental.

The subjunctive, per Webster’s collegiate Dictionary is, “that mood of a verb representing the denoted action or state not as a fact but as contingent, possible, doubtful, desirable etc.” The two quotations following indicate a similar use of the subjunctive mood in the Greek New Testament. “The subjunctive differs from the future indicative in stating what is thought likely to occur, not positively what will occur.”1“The subjunctive is the mood of mild contingency; the mood of probability. While the indicative assumes reality, the subjunctive assumes unreality. It is the first step away from that which is actual in the direction of that which is only conceivable, and, therefore, properly leads the list of the potential moods.”

Thus John is not saying that those who believe in Christ absolutely will not perish and already possess eternal life; but rather that such believers should, by virtue of their faith, be equipped to avoid perdition and to attain to eternal life. This is in keeping with what John 1:12 states. He wrote there that those who believe on His name are thereby given the ‘‘power to become the sons of God.” Power to become is both future and contingent. It points to something that might be attained if necessary requirements are met. Hence believers are not, at the initial point of belief, saved as sons of God; but this belief enables them to become (future conditional) sons of God and to become such as may have (future conditional) everlasting life.

Now let us read John 3:16 again. “For God so loved (a fact----indicative mood) the world that He gave (another fact----indicative mood) His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish (a hoped for possibility----subjunctive mood) but have (literally, may have----another hoped for possibility----subjunctive mood) everlasting life.”  Notice that the Holy Spirit changed the mood of the verbs right in the middle of that verse.  An accident?  I think not!  This change precludes the idea of salvation at the point of faith only, as well as the idea of “once saved, always saved”.

As pointed out above, John had written that those who believed on the name of Christ would be given the “power to become the sons of God” (Jn. 1:12).  In other words, their faith did not instantly make them sons of God, but, it did give them the ability to become His children.  Now John did not change his mind about this sometime between chapter one and chapter three.  So, in John 3:16, he is still rejecting the idea of salvation at the point of faith.  That is why he said that believers “should not perish” but “may have” (Douay Version) everlasting life.  That faith should lead them to obey the Lord and obtain eternal salvation.  Note that Hebrews 5:9 states that Jesus is “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.”

If in John 3:16 we change the “should not perish” to “shall not perish” as the NIV does, we have changed the meaning to what the Baptists and Calvinists have always maintained that it meant, i.e. saved immediately at the point of faith, and once saved always saved.  Hence, the Holy Spirit guided John to switch to the subjunctive mood in the middle of this one verse in order to avoid teaching two false doctrines.  Isn’t it amazing to note how effectively the very language of John 3:16, properly translated, refutes the false doctrines that a person, at the moment of belief in Christ, is saved both instantly and irrevocably?

I’ve seen articles written by some (who should know better) who were interpreting John 3:16 from an NIV perspective, i.e. that John is affirming that all who believe shall be saved.  Recognizing that this would teach salvation by faith only, they then felt obligated to come up with a definition of faith that would include all of the things necessary to obeying the gospel.  One way they do this is to say that faith or “believeth”, as it is here, is a synecdoche—a figure of speech which puts a part for the whole.  But if we correctly translate and understand the subjunctive mood of this verse, no synecdoche argument is necessary to make this verse agree with all the other passages on the subject of salvation.  It will stand on its own as meaning that faith should lead to obedience and salvation.  But this is conditional, as the mood requires.  Some believers, for example, refused to confess Christ. John 12:42 reads, “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue.”  The Holy Spirit calls these disobedient Pharisees “believers,” hence they were.  However, that belief did not extinguish their free-will.  They, just like the believers of John 3:16, could still choose whether or not to act upon that faith.

Faith is not repentance, it is not confession, and it is not baptism.  It doesn’t include any of these; it leads us to them.  Paul expressed this principle in Romans 5:2 when he wrote, “We have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand”.

John 3:16 is the most widely known verse in all of the Bible.  If the Lord’s church is to be the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), we must earnestly contend for a faithful translation of that truth, including the retention of the proper moods, tenses, and number. We can enhance our credibility by learning to read our Bibles with precision and accuracy.


1 A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934),  p.925

2 E. Dana and Julius L Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), p.170

Tom Franklin worshiped with the Leonard Street church of Christ with the editor of FCGN and currently resides in Ft. Worth, TX

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