For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son , that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Perhaps one wonders, how can one eisegete this verse? Actually, in more ways than one, but we will focus to day on one specific issue.
Eisegesis is the practice of reading meaning into a text, with such meaning not being there, as opposed to exegesis, which is extracting the meaning out of a text. We have covered this before in a post concerning John 10:10, which is typically cited to show that Satan came to kill, steal and destroy, when the passage actually says nothing at all about Satan or his activities.
It is not uncommon to hear this verse being used to refute the Reformed doctrine of ‘Total Depravity’ – the doctrine that states (among other things) man has totally lost his ability to obey God as a result of the sin of Adam. In attempts to refute this doctrine, objections arose such as, “If that’s true, how can God command people to obey if they can’t?” or, “It wouldn’t be fair for God to hold people accountable if they can’t respond positively!” We could call upon Paul’s statements in Romans 9 addressing these types of objections, but we won’t (or did we just do so?)
Two approaches are taken to state that this verse says that mankind – every single person – has the ability to say yes, or as the verse states, “believe(s) in him.” Does it? Let’s break it down.
There are three phrases in the passage. The first phrase says, “For God so loved the world.” This phrase says nothing about man. This phrase describes the object of God’s love – “the world.” All this verse states is something concerning God’s love. To cite the verse, practically screaming “SO!!!” when doing so, as I think the late Adrian Rogers did in his effort to prove the passage enabled every man to believe, does violence to the text, well-meaning though such attempts are. All the phrase says is that God loved the world. Nothing more.
The second phrase describes another action of God – the giving of his only Son. This phrase says what about man? Absolutely nothing. It only gives us an account of what God did – he gave his only Son.
The final phrase now does address man – but in what manner? It is stated in an “If, then” format. Please note the similarity to the prior verse. Verse 15 says “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” If one believes, then one has eternal life. Both verses merely state the consequence of having believed – the one who believes has eternal life.
What does the last phrase say about the ability of people to believe? Nothing. Does the phrase affirm the doctrine of Total Depravity? No, it doesn’t. The phrase neither refutes the doctrine. This phrase says nothing – one way or the other – concerning man’s ability to believe. Many other verses/passages do address the issue, but this is not one of them.
One may say that the statement would not have been made unless the ability to believe is inherent in every man. Jesus, in Matthew 11 for example, would disagree. In Matthew 11:25 Jesus prays to the Father, thanking him for hiding spiritual truth from a certain group of people(the “wise and understanding”). Then he continues his address to what group? The “crowds” of verse 7. How does he address them?
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy , and my burden is light.”
Jesus tells them to “Come to me” – synonymous with “believes in me” as we see elsewhere. Even here, though, Jesus’ statement “Come to me……and I will give you rest” says nothing about the ability of anyone to come to him. It just says whoever does come will receive rest. The following sentence is synonymous with the prior – this is Jesus using parallelism to make the same point in two different phrasings.
You say, “You left out ‘all who labor and are heavy laden’!” Yes, I did. That phrase proves nothing with regard to the discussion. It does not say who has the ability recognize that they labor and are heavy laden. It only says those who are – and come to Jesus – will receive rest.
Does John 3:16 refute the doctrine of Total Depravity? No, it doesn’t. Nor does it affirm it. It says nothing concerning the matter – one will have to look elsewhere to find the answer.