Chapter 26 John 3:16 Obeying Unto Christ Saves? (Part One)
When the English translations of the Greek New Testament were made in the 1526-1611 period, the “difficult Greek in which the New Testament is written...still held mysteries for” English scholars. (Nicolson: 224.) One of those mysteries was the Greek word pisteuo in John 3:16. In over 200 instances of pisteuo in the New Testament, not once did the King James Bible render it as obey. (See Strong’s Concordance.) However, scholars now realize obey was a common meaning of pisteuo in ancient Greek. Obey certainly was the meaning of pisteuo in John 3:36 (See Part 2, JWOS: 448). Yet, this obedience-salvation formula is identically repeated in John 3:16.
Besides John 3:36 helping, one can more easily accept pisteuo means obeys in John 3:16 when one looks at Apostle John’s many quotes of Jesus about obedience. Jesus in John 8:51 says “whoever keeps on obeying (tereo) My Teaching should never ever die.”1 In John 15:1-10, Jesus says a “branch in me” that does not “bear fruit” is “taken away,” “cut off from the vine,” thrown “outside and burned.” 2
John likewise quoted Jesus saying in total accord:
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good [things], unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil [things], unto the resurrection of damnation. (John 5:28-29 KJV).3
See also “John 8:51: Obedience Should Save” on page 367 et seq. See “Metaphor Of The Vine” on page 343 et seq.
We saw again that Apostle John was told that those who obey the commandments (plural) have the right to the tree of life. (Rev. 22:14.) John writes:
Happy [are] the ones doing His commandments, so that their right will be to the tree of life, and they shall enter by the gates into the city. (Rev 22:14)(ALT)(GSB)4
We also saw Apostle John writing Jesus’ words to the Sardisian Christians. They are dead due to having “incomplete works.” They can prevent the Spirit leaving by repenting and obeying. Through John’s pen, Jesus tells them:
And to the angel of the assembly in Sardis write: ‘These [things] says the One having the seven spirits of God and the seven stars [i.e., Jesus is speaking]: I know your works, that you have a name that you live, and you are dead.
(2) ‘Become watching [fig., Wake up], and strengthen the rest which you were about to be throwing out, for I have not found your works having been completed before My God. (3) Therefore, be remembering how you have received, and be keeping [tereo, obey] it, and repent. Therefore, if you will not watch, I will come upon you like a thief, and you shall by no means know what hour I will come upon you.” (Rev 3:1-3 ALT)(Wycliff "works...full")5
John another time relays Jesus as saying that lukewarm works by Christians at Laodicea will cause Jesus to spew them out of His mouth.
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. (16) So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Rev 3:15-16 KJV.)
Finally, we saw among the many verses that tied eternal life (zoe ainon) to obedience and works was the following words of Jesus recorded by Apostle John:
He that loveth his life loseth it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. (26) If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will the Father honor. (John 12:25-26 ASV.)
These passages from the writings of John quoting Jesus are but echoes of what we find in Matthew, Luke and Mark. John is repeatedly emphasizing themes of obedience.
Hence, besides John 3:36, these passages from John make the proposed translation of John 3:16 as about obedience appear far more sensible than translation tradition would suggest. This change, incidentally, will unite what scholars call the Synoptic-Jesus with the Johannine Jesus. It turns out there are no separate portrayals of Jesus in the mind of Matthew-Mark-Luke versus the mind of John. Rather, the translators have improperly given Jesus two doctrines and two personalities by erroneously translating John 3:16 in a manner which suits cheap grace doctrine to leave uncorrected.
However, we shall see that the leading evangelical scholars who dared write on this question begrudgingly admit pisteuo means obey in John 3:16. It is only the translators who, for some inexplicable reason, continue to hesitate to make this now compellingly-obvious correction.
Three Interpretive Issues
John 3:16 is the most commonly cited passage from Jesus to prove one is saved by faith alone. This faith is usually described as believing that Jesus is Lord and Savior. Or sometimes it is said that you must simply believe that Jesus died for your sins. (Stanley, Spurgeon.) Sometimes it is said you must also believe that Jesus resurrected.
Whatever is the belief one must hold to be saved, typically it is also claimed John 3:16 conveys the idea of a onetime belief. In fact, Charles Stanley in Eternal Security (1995) at 95 says the verb believes in the standard translation implies a one-time belief (that Christ died for your sins, id., at 33-34). Hence, such a one-time belief is supposedly all that you need to be saved. Therefore, it is allegedly irrelevant whether one repents from sin or not. Stanley says it is a good idea to change, but it only improves your fellowship with God. The Lord will supposedly save the disobedient believer anyway based on faith alone.
In fact, Stanley says your salvation is such a foregone conclusion once you sincerely believe Christ died for your sins that even if you for all practical purposes were later an unbeliever in thought and deed, your salvation is never in jeopardy: “Even if a believer for all practical purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy.” (Stanley, Eternal Security, supra, at 93.) Salvation is supposedly by faith alone, from start to finish.
However, there are three defects in the popular English translation of the original Greek which in turn feed these interpretations of the verse. (These defects also appear in the German Luther Bible of 1522.) The correction of these defects turn on answering these three questions:
Does the verb pisteuo translated in English as believes in the KJV mean believe or instead obey, comply, trust, etc.?
Is it pisteuo “in” Jesus or “for (unto)” Jesus” in the original Greek?
Is the verb form taken for pisteousin translated in the KJV as believes (the English simple present tense) instead in Greek a continuous tense meaning? In other words, is the meaning keeps on or continues to in front of whatever the verb means for pisteuo, i.e., keeps on obeying, etc., or keeps on believing?
Two of these three issues are readily apparent if you compare common translations of John 3:16, in particular the bolded portions below, on the left with those on the right.
Does It Matter If John 3:16 Is About Obedience Not Belief?
There is a huge difference theologically between obey, comply, trust on one side and belief on the other.
Jesus discussed once this distinction. Jesus said it is incongruous to think you can say you believe in Him as Lord but feel free to disobey Him. Jesus said: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46.) Jesus therefore declares it is unfathomable that one thinks it is enough to believe in Him but not obey Him.
Another proof of a large chasm of difference between mere belief and obedience comes from the gospel accounts about demons.
Demons believe Jesus is Lord and Savior. (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34. See also, James 2:19.) The demons, however, do not obey Jesus as Lord. They do not act in compliance with their acknowledgment of the fact of who Jesus is. They do not trust Him. They do not obey Him.
Pastor Stedman, an evangelical scholar who believes in ‘faith alone,’ unwittingly admits this distinction:
Remember that back in the Gospel accounts there were demons that acknowledged the deity of the Lord Jesus? When he appeared before them they said, ‘We know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ (cf, Mark 1:24, Luke 4:34.) They acknowledged what the Jews were too blind to see, the full deity of Jesus Christ, as well as his humanity. But, though demons acknowledged this, they never confessed it. They never trusted him. They did not commit themselves to him, they did not live by this truth.6
Yet, we are told that John 3:16 proves that if you believe Jesus is Lord, Messiah, died for your sins, etc., then you shall have eternal life. If this were true, then the demons should be saved because they believe and know these things are true. (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34.) James made a similar point in James 2:19. He says the demons believe the facts about God, but they are not saved thereby.
Hence, when we consider Jesus’ dismay that people think they can call Him Lord but that obedience is optional, we are justified questioning John 3:16 in standard translation because it licenses that doctrine for so many.
Reliable Dictionary Meanings Of Pisteuo In John 3:16 As Obey
The most exhaustive dictionary of ancient Greek is Liddell-Scott’s Lexicon. It is by far the most reliable.
There are six meanings offered in Liddell-Scott’s Lexicon of the Greek verb pisteuo at issue in John 3:16.7
One meaning in Liddell-Scott for the verb pisteuo is comply. A synonym is obey. (See Footnote 7, page 423.)
The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words (Zondervan: 2000) has this likewise to say of pisteuo:
Similarly, pisteuo means to trust something or someone; it can refer to and confirm legendary tales and mythical ideas. With reference to people, pisteuo means to obey (Soph. OT 625) [i.e., Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 625]; the pass[ive] Means to enjoy trust...
[2014 INSERT in yellow highlight: See quote from this portion under NIDNTT on Precept Austin.org. The reference "pisteuo means obey" has a google hit to the 2011 edition of Grimm Wilke's Clavis Novi Testamenti, a famous Greek to Latin Lexicon of the 1800s revised by the famous Joseph Thayer & others, but there is no preview page. See our google search of those exact words pulling up this 2011 edition. In Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 625 where this classic Greek usage is referenced, Creon in the online Perseus translation asks "are you willing to yield or believe?" (where 'yield' is pisteuo meaning obey = yield). Oedipus responds: "no, for you persuade me you are unworthy of trust." Storr agrees on the yield (obey) translation as the correct choice over "believe." Other translations render Creon's pisteuo synonymously as "listen to me," again pointing to an obedience-meaning. See Johnston. Also, we find Liddell Scott, one of today's most authoritative Lexicons, that pisteuo means "to believe, trust, comply, obey." See, A Lexicon Abridged from Liddell & Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (24th Ed.) (ed. Rev. James A. Whiton, Ph.D.) (N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, 1891) at 561, Def. 1.2.)
[Similarly, the related adjective term "pistos" -- which some prefer to render as "faithful" to suit one's auditory senses - is clearly used by Jesus in Matthew 25:21 to mean "obedient." It can have a synonymous meaning of "trustworthy." However, 'faithful' is apparently chosen in translations solely to placate faith-alone doctrine because then some suggest "faithful" means "full of faith" when it simply means "trustworthy" -- a synonymn for "obedient." Rarely does it mean someone is "full of faith." This is explained in Murray J. Harris' Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ (Intervarsity Press, 2001) at page 96 including footnote 16 -- "a perfectly obedient slave was a completely faithful slave", and Bultman says "in classical Greek pistos had the nuance of obedient and pisteuin [i.e., the verb translated often as 'believe] had the nuance 'to obey.'" Cf. Daniel J. Harrington, Ed. The Gospel of Matthew at 343 ("The idea of pistos is more 'reliable, trustworthy' than 'believing.'"See also Matthew 23:23, where Jesus says the Pharisees taught tithing but omitted justice, mercy and the noun pistin. Previously, this used to be rendered as "faith," but now, with scholarship, it is rendered as "faithfulness" (meaning sincere obedience).]
This is likewise mentioned in the highly authoritative Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) 6 (1968): 4-7, in an entry by Bultmann (1884-1976) — the eminent Lutheran scholar — in which he says the verb “pisteuo means” (among other things) “‘to trust’” and “also ‘to obey.’” (It is both enlightening and disturbing to watch how ‘cheap grace adherents cope with this dictionary entry despite the TDNT being one of the most authoritative and scholarly dictionary references within Protestantism.)8
What If It Only Looks Like A Dictionary? It Still Is Not One
Yet, do not be surprised when you go to the evangelical bookstore, and you open up a Greek word study on pisteuo, and you find “obey” and “comply” are not even identified as possible meanings. For example, in Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study — New Testament (Chatanooga, TN: AMG, 1993) at 1160-62 — on my local Christian bookstore shelf in 2007 — you will see what appears to be a comprehensive entry on pisteuo. Yet, not once does it mention “obey” or “comply” as a definition. It is obvious what is happening. Zodhiates never calls his word study a dictionary, and thus you cannot accuse him of misleading anyone. He called it a word study, not a dictionary. Unfortunately, the average Christian does not know the fine distinction.
The same problem holds true of the Strong’s Concordance. Its title — a concordance — means it is only a reference to how the King James Bible translated every Greek word listed. It does not purport to be a dictionary. However, most Christians think because it is laid out as a dictionary, that in fact it is a dictionary. However, Strong’s is not a dictionary, and never purports to be one. Yet, if you rely upon its ‘entries’ under pisteuo, you never once see the meaning obey or comply. Don’t be fooled. If it does not say it is a dictionary, it is not purporting to be one.
How Negative Prefixes Aid Translation
One can further confirm pisteuo’s meaning by adding a negative prefix in front of pisteuo — the letter a, and then see what are the word meanings of the Greek word formed thereby — apisteo. Liddell-Scott points out that apisteo means, among other things, “to disobey...refuse to comply.” (Liddell-Scott, Greek Lexicon.)
Apisteo is clearly used in this way in 1 Peter 2:7. See KJV-Geneva “disobey.” See also 2 Tim 2:13 (“if we are apisteo disobeying” is antithesis to God’s pistos or faithfulness). In the Septuagint of 247 B.C., apisteo “several times answers to the Hebrew [word for] rebellious.” (Parkhurst, 1829:71.)
Of course, apisteo can still mean disbelieve, just as pisteuo can still mean believe in a fact or truth. Nevertheless, the point is that to a Greek the idea of a belief alone is not necessarily the correct meaning. A competing and valid meaning of pisteuo is obey or comply. This is demonstrable not only from the dictionary meaning of pisteuo, but also from the definition of its opposite — apisteo.
Continue to Part 2.
FOOTNOTES TO PART 1.
1. See John 8:51, Obedience Saves at 367 et seq.
2. See Metaphor of the Vine at 363 et seq.
3. See Those who have Done Good things are Resurrected at 395 et seq .
4. See Right to the Tree of Life at 373 et seq.
5. See Incomplete & Lukewarm Works at 401 et seq.
6. Ray C. Stedman, When Unbelief is Right (1967), reprinted at http://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/1-john/when-unbelief-is-right (2014)
7. Liddel Scott defines pisteuo as:
"1. trust, put faith in, rely on a person, thing, or statement,
2. Pass[ive], to be trusted or believed
4. c. infinitive., believe that, feel confident that a thing is, will be, has been
5. c. dat. and inf., toisi episteue sigan to whom he trusted that they would keep silence
6. have faith II. (1) p. tini ti entrust something to another (2) Pass., pisteuesthai ti to be entrusted with a thing, have it committed to one." This is available online or in a library in the Liddell & Scott Greek Lexicon (Oxford: 1869) at 1273.
8. Bing is critical of translating pisteuo as obey. Rather than deal properly with the issue, he barely mentions the authoritative sources that directly define pisteuo as sometimes meaning obey. When he discusses Bultmann's entry in the TDNT, Bing claims obey is merely a "suggestion." Bing then says Bultmann's theology is driving this "suggestion" rather than Greek. Bing then makes it sound like Bultmann is relying on weak lexical aids. What Bing never does is explore what Greek dictionaries (not concordances or word studies) include among the definitions of pisteuo. On that score, Bultmann would have been a poor scholar had he omitted obey as one definition. See Charles C. Bing, Lordship Salvation -- A Biblical Evaluation and Response (Ph.D. Dissertation) (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1991), reprinted at http://www.forerunner.org/bing/LS-chap2.htm (accessed 7-21-07).