Does John 3:16 Say “Whoever”? – Mondays with Mounce 323

Bill Mounce on June 11th, 2018. Tagged under ,.

Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

I have received several questions about the use of “whoever” in the translation of John 3:16, so I thought it would be good to clarify at least one thing.

Correct, the indefinite relative pronoun ὅστις does not occur in John 3:16, but language is not so monolithic that there is only one way to say something. In fact, whenever a commentary argues that if the author had meant to say one thing, he would have said it “this way,” you should be suspicious. That’s a naïve approach to language.

However, we do have an indefinite construction in John 3:16 with the use of πᾶς and an articular imperfective participle (πᾶς ἡ πιστευών) used to indicate a generic, “general utterance” (see Wallace, 615f.). Just do a search for that construction and you can see it is universal in intent.

For example, “But I say to you that whoever looks at (πᾶς ὁ βλέπων) a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). Isn’t Jesus saying this is a generic statement, true of all who look with the intent of lusting? Of course it is.

Interestingly, v 28 is followed by v 32 that uses another explicitly indefinite contraction. “But I say to you that anyone who divorces (ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ) his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery” (Matt 5:32). ὃς ἄν is explicitly indefinite and general.

The first meaning of πᾶς in BDAG is “pert[aining] to totality with focus on its individual components, each, every; any.” The second is “any and every.” Sounds indefinite to me.

Contextually, John is asserting a relatively unusual notion that God not only loves those who follow him (John’s normal usage) but he actually loves the entire world, hence requiring an indefinite construction. To limit the meaning of the statement to a subgroup of people, “those among you who believe,” is to read in a theology not supported by the Greek (and I am Reformed).

In the larger context, it agrees with statements like 1 Tim 2:4 that says God “wishes all people (πάντας ἀνθρώπους) to be saved and to come into a knowledge of the truth.”

True, each/every person who believes is a subset of the whole (the “world”), and the gift of eternal life is only for that subset, but to somehow limit God’s love to a subset of people runs counter to the Greek, the meaning of πᾶς, the grammar, the immediate context, and the larger context. If you believe in election (as I do), then you understand πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων as referring to the elect, but let’s not dismiss the clear meaning of the text and suggest that God does not, in some way, love the world.

Can you translate the verse without “whoever”? Sure, as long as you choose words that are not limiting. “God loved the world so he gave his only Son, that every one who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

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Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

  • Rod Rogers 2 months ago

    Reformed and believes that God loves the world? I would have to ask for your definition of “loves” and “world”. I would be interested in your understanding of propitiation also and how all this fits into your theology of particular redemption. You caught me off guard.

  • Rod Rogers 2 months ago

    John 3:16 οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ̓ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

    Please take this in the spirit in which it was written, hopefully it comes across as kindly.

    First of all, one thing you did not mention in your article is that ἡ πιστευών (πᾶς ἡ πιστευών) is substantive, (Wallace: First, of course, if the participle has the article it must be either adjectival (proper) or substantival. Second, if it is articular and is not related in a dependent fashion to any substantive in the sentence, then it is substantival. Pg 619). I also believe that it is perfective and not imperfective, it follows the main verb. Therefore I fail to see how, “we (do) have an indefinite construction in John 3:16”, when πιστευών follows the main verb.

    There is a lot of theology going on here, not the least of which has been left out in your article, i.e. that the believing takes place, “in Jesus Christ” (εἰς αὐτὸν). Now, whether or not that is ingressive or strictly spatial, I don’t think makes any difference. It seems to me that you may have looked at Wallace’s GGBB and made a hasty/imprecise comment (who hasn’t). My point is that what Dr. Wallace and you both say about 615f. is true, you just left out the “almost always generic” part of it. I believe Dr. Wallace makes it clear what he believes about John 3:16 and the present participle on pages 619 and 620, (The translation is often the one who/the thing which with the participle then translated as a finite verb (e.g., ὁ ποιῶν is translated the one who does; John 3:16 πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων/everyone who believes, The idea seems to be both gnomic and continual: “everyone who continually believes.” This is not due to the present tense only, but to the use of the present participle of πιστεύω, especially in soteriological contexts in the NT.).

    When you say, “Just do a search for that construction and you can see it is universal in intent.”, I feel as though you are missing the point. You just can’t say that “πᾶς ἡ πιστευών is universal in intent”, for you are ignoring half the syntax. It is those πιστευών “in him” (εἰς αὐτὸν) which John is addressing. Therefore, when you say, “To limit the meaning of the statement to a subgroup of people, “those among you who believe,” is to read in a theology not supported by the Greek (and I am Reformed).”, I feel as though you are ignoring the context in which John places these believers. Therefore, while it is technically true that the group is indefinite, in that my name (Rod Rogers) is not mentioned, it is also definite in that those who do not believe cannot be referenced here. Therefore (ad nauseam), John could not be thinking of an indefinite group which contains unbelievers. John does not address the potentiality of believing/not-believing here which “whosoever” would include.

    The larger point here is that part of the argument of John 3:16, a big part of it, must answer the question, “Is that salvation offered to all or it is not?” Historically, that has been an Arminian/Calvinistic debate. The problem, as I see it, is that “whosoever” is not an option here. While I agree with your statement, “whenever a commentary argues that if the author had meant to say one thing, he would have said it “this way,” you should be suspicious”, I also believe that had John wanted a “whosoever” group (An indefinite group without limits.) he might have used ὃς ἂν/ ὃς δ̓ ἂν and he would have never restricted those believers to being “in Christ”. Those “in Christ” are a definite group and they are all in the Lamb’s book of life.

    I think that a straight forward translation of πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων is “all those believing”.