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John 6:39-40 Biased Mistranslations

John 6:39-40: A Favorite ES Passage

One of the favorite passages cited for eternal security is John 6:39-40. This says in the NIV that it is God’s “will” that whosoever believes and looks at the Son—using English non-continuous present tense for look and believe—“shall” have eternal life and shall be raised. (John 6:40).

However, the KJV has verse 40 weaker, instead saying “may have eternal life....” Then John 6:39 in the KJV says that it is God’s will that of all “given” to Jesus, Jesus “should” lose none and “should” raise them (John 6:39). However, the NIV has it much stronger, that Jesus “shall” not lose any and “shall” raise them.

The first question whether eternal security is true in this verse arises from this issue: should we be saved or shall we be saved if given to Jesus? The word should implies some uncertainty while shall conveys certainty.

Which way is it in the Greek? Even the KJV and NIV are in conflict on this issue. The NIV takes the pro-eternal security translation of this passage, always using shall in verses 39 and 40. The KJV uses should instead in three of the four situations. As we shall see, the NIV was wrong. The KJV was more correct. In fact, in all four instances the Greek should have been rendered less emphatically as should.

This makes all the difference in the world. The outcomes are should have eternal life, should not be lost, and should be raised. Also, it was too strong to introduce these clauses by “it is God’s will.” It must be translated it is God’s desire or wish, as explained below.

Hence, there is nothing certain in this passage. The should is regarding salvation for those who keep on believing / obeying (discussed below) and who keep on looking to Jesus. There is no guarantee for salvation based on a one-time faith (or obedience) or one-time looking at Jesus, as it reads in the NIV.

So if you grant all my translation points so far, you have nothing for eternal security in this passage. With only these corrections so far, John 6:39-40 should read as follows:

v. 39. It, to the contrary, continues to remain His desire [of Him who] sent me, [that] everyone who He is giving to me should not be lost, but rather should be raised on the last day.v. 40 That is, thus it continues to remain the desire of the Father [and] of me, [that] everyone who keeps looking [at the] Son, and who keeps on believing  [or more correctly "keeps on obeying" because it is pisteuosin EIS -- see link on same usage in John 3:16.] unto Him, should be having eternal life [or enduring true life], and I should have raised him up him on the last day.” (John 6:39-40 literal, major differences in bold italic).

 

Therefore, it is God’s desire that you should be saved, Jesus says in verse 39. Jesus then explains what this means in verse 40. God’s desire is that all those who are continuing to believe (or, obey, as we shall see is the correct translation) and to look to Jesus should be saved. This passage has nothing to do with eternal security. It is all about the kind of people God wants to save.

However, if you make just a few small changes as we see in the NIV, then you have a permanent guarantee from a one-time being given to Jesus or once having followed Jesus that you are going to heaven and will be raised.

Let me explain the proper translation turns on familiarity with well-known principles of Greek translation. We must review a Greek grammar rule and apply it four times to this passage. The KJV applied this rule three times correctly and one time incorrectly, but the NIV never applied this rule. And both the KJV and NIV never once rendered correctly the Greek present continuous tense into English in this passage. Making these simple and appropriate changes result in the passage reading as I quoted it above. 

First Let’s Resolve Verse 40’s Meaning

Let’s take verse 40 first because it helps translate some ambiguous aspects to verse 39.

In the NIV, verse 40 reads:

v40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40 NIV)

As the NIV rendered it, you have the non-continuous English simple present for looks and believes. Thus, since English simple present can mean a one time event (looked once or believed once), you then have salvation is guaranteed (“shall have eternal life”) from a one-time faith. And although this depends on God’s will (rather than the accurate meaning of 'desire'), who can resist the will of God? Thus, the eternal security advocate understands this verse means God will make one who looked and believed just one-time to surely enjoy later eternal life and will raise him on the last day.

However, the Greek is a far cry from this very erroneous translation in the NIV. The Greek present participle active of believes (or obeys) and looks is used in verse 40. This is the Greek present continuous tense, and must always be translated using the English continuous present tense, e.g., “is believing,” and “is looking,” at minimum. Or better, it should say “continues to believe” (or obey) and “keeps on looking” to convey the Greek more explicitly. There are no exceptions to that rule for the Greek present participle active. See also Appendix A of JWO for a detailed discussion.

Thus, it is only the persistent faith (or obedience) that endures and keeps looking to Christ that has any promise of eternal life and the resurrection in verse 40.

Verse 40 is not a problematical verse. It is easy to see that it does not apply to support eternal security. It is verse 39 in the NIV that requires a more in-depth knowledge of classical languages to correct the NIV back to the way the KJV had it.

Another Repair to Verse 40

Even though verse 40 on its face has nothing to do with eternal security, its correct translation in a second way assists us grapple with the issues in verse 39.

This issue in verse 40 that affects verse 39 relates to this question: How do you translate what the NIV has in verse 40 as shall have eternal life and shall be raised?

While the NIV has shall both times in verse 40, the KJV has one time may. It reads in the KJV “may have eternal life” but then the KJV likewise has “I will raise him up.”

The verb here in the Greek for have eternal life is subjunctive present active. (The Latin Vulgate of 382 A.D. had it likewise.) That means it is translated may or should have eternal life. So the KJV had this correct, but the NIV has it incorrect. The Spanish Reina Valera Bible of 1602 also has it correctly as the subjunctive (“tenga”).

Next, the verb in the Greek for "raise up" is, according to Quick Verse 6.0, in the future active. However, if we look at Key Word Study Bible, it says it is the aorist subjunctive. (See Key Word Study Bible (AMG: 1991) at 1326).

So there is a disagreement on the tense for raise up between Quick Verse and Key Word Study Bible. One says it is future tense, but another says it is in the subjunctive tense.

When we examine the Greek, both the Textus Receptus (Stephanos 1550) and the Critical Text (WH 1896) use the identical verb form for "raise up." Therefore, this difference is not because the Greek word is in dispute.

What explains this disparity? Some Greek verbs have an ambiguous ending, and its ending signals either a subjunctive or future meaning. (We will see this occurs again in verse 39). That is why the same Greek word for "raise up" is said to be subjunctive in the Key Word Study Bible but future if you check Quick Verse 6.0. Thus, in verse 40, the verb is either future or subjunctive for raise up.

How do we decide in verse 40 whether it is "should raise up" or "shall raise up?" How do we choose between translating it as the subjunctive or future tense?

As a general rule, Greek and Latin grammar tells us that if a sentence begins by a statement of wish, will, or desire, that the verbs that follow are in the subjunctive tense if we have an ambiguous ending. (Latin has this same ambiguity in endings.)

And of course verse 40 begins with a statement of wish, will, or desire. “It is God’s wish/will/desire....” Therefore, the verbs that follow should be in the subjunctive. It should read should raise up, not shall raise up.

Not all agree. For while both the KJV and RVA have the first verb should have eternal life, they both go the other way on the second verb, and it is shall be raised up. Its an inexplicable inconsistency.

Rather, if one verb should be in the subjunctive, there is no textual reason that the next is in the future. The KJV and NIV should have translated using the subjunctive form for have eternal life and raise up, and not just one without the other. However, of course, the NIV went way off course translating both in the future tense.

These corrections are not difficult to see, and stem from basic Greek grammar.

The way verse 40 should read is:

“That is, thus it continues to remain the will, wish desire of the Father [and] of me, [that] everyone who keeps looking at the] Son, and who keeps on believing (or obeying) unto Him, should be having eternal life, and should have been raised up on the last day.” (John 6:40 literal).

This has importance later in translating verse 39 correctly. For now we see that verse 40 twice says having eternal life and being raised up are in the subjunctive mood. That means they should or might happen, but are not guaranteed. They should happen for those who keep on believing (or obeying) unto Jesus and who keep on looking to Jesus. Then we can recognize readily that verse 39 is talking in the same manner. 

How This Impacts Verse 39

In verse 39, there are two verbs for perish (become lost) and raise up, and their endings are completely ambiguous, being either subjunctive or future. You then have to employ tools to deduce which is which. However, you can also look to verse 40 where the subjunctive of have was clearly used, and this tells one that the other verb in verse 40, as well as these two verbs in verse 39 should also be in the subjunctive (meaning should). And we can rely not only on that, but also the fact both verse 39 and 40 begin with expressions of will, wish, or desire, which generally indicates a subjunctive is intended in the verbs that follow.

As to verse 39, the KJV agrees with me that both times should is the intended translation. However, the NIV disagrees. Yet, how one deduces to translate verse 39 depends not in a small part on how one translated verse 40. In other words, because an unequivocal subjunctive was used once in verse 40, then verse 39 should still be seen as subjunctive because verses 39 and 40 are an obvious couplet (connected ideas).

And thus the KJV translation of verse 39 was correct on both verbs but the NIV was wrong both times. The KJV has no eternal security meaning while the NIV created a pro-eternal security meaning. Thus, this issue is not insignificant. Let’s discuss in a little more detail why one is right and the other is wrong.

The KJV Was Correct About John 6:39

John 6:39 is susceptible to improper twisting if taken out of the context of verse 40. For standing alone, it says simply this in the NIV:

v. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but [shall] raise them up at the last day. (John 6:39 NIV).

 

From this translation, you quite reasonably get this argument from a proponent of eternal security:

"Christ states categorically in John 6:39 that none whom the Father gives him will be lost.”

 

However, if you had the actual Greek in front of you, you would see verses 39 and 40 are intended as a couplet that are united to convey a single idea. Both start out with a long Greek phrase that is identical, “it continues to remain the will / desire/ wish...” Then there are parallel references to eternal life /not being lost and being raised on the last day. Thus, it seems unreasonable to lift verse 39 out-of-context of verse 40. Thus, verse 40’s limitations of continuing faith (or obedience) and continued looking to Jesus should be read as part of a single thought beginning in verse 39.

But let’s suppose one insists that verse 39 can and should be read in isolation. What then?

Well, you must ask yourself why in verse 39 did the KJV have it “should lose none” but the NIV has it “shall lose none”? And why did the KJV have it “should raise up” but the NIV has it “shall ... raise up”?

The KJV use of should is intended to reflect the Greek subjunctive tense which means the verb action is uncertain and not guaranteed but it should happen. The NIV choice was to use a meaning of future tense that conveys the opposite meaning of a guarantee, shall. That is how the NIV has made John 6:39 a guarantee of salvation while the KJV reader would not have understood it that way.

The KJV reads this way:

“And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all that he has given me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.” (John 6:39 KJV.)

Cf. Latin Vulgate of 382 A.D. (“resuscitem,” subjunctive).

Now contrast this to the NIV:

“v. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but [shall] raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:39 NIV).

 

What is the truth? Is the NIV correct or the KJV?

Well, the key to the answer is to see the sentence begins with “it remains the wish, will, desire” of God. It is one of those three meanings—will, wish, or desire. It is not important to determine which at this point.

Why is how the sentence begins important? Because the sentence states a wish, will, or desire at the start, we know the meaning of the verbs that follow is the subjunctive, that is should or may is intended, and not the future tense.

This is based on a cardinal rule of classical Latin and Greek. If a sentence starts with a statement of wish, will, or desire, then if a later verb in the sentence has an ending that signals either a future or subjunctive tense, you know that subjunctive is the proper translation. The subjunctive tense is sometimes even called the tense of wish or desire, making its use here unavoidable. If a future tense were intended, you do not begin the sentence with a statement of wish, will or desire.

Here, in verse 39 both the verb for perish and for raise up on the last day has an ending that is either future or subjunctive in Greek. And since the sentence begins with a statement of will, wish, or desire, we know subjunctive is the correct choice for translation. It is quite simple and not a difficult translation decision at all.

And since that is true, we know the KJV had this right.

So what possible reason would the NIV want to encourage its readers to think our salvation is guaranteed (“shall not perish”) merely by being given to Jesus? You can answer that on your own.

For now, let me just offer a corrected translation of verse 39:

v. 39. It, to the contrary, continues to remain His will/wish/desire [of him who] sent me, [that] everyone who He is giving to me should not perish, but rather should be raised on the last day. (John 6:39 literal).

Does Everything God Wills Come To Pass?

Let’s look at a proof that in John 6:39-40, the word translated as will really should be desire or wish. It is not crucial to translation because if it means will, you still have the Greek grammar rule that the flexible verbs that follow (either subjunctive or future) must be translated in the subjunctive. At best the verse means it is God’s will that those who are continuing to believe (or obey) should be raised, not shall be raised.

However, rendering this word as will does create a theological problem. Since Greek grammar dictates what follows is a subjunctive (should, not shall), then you have something God wills not being certain. The subjunctive mood means the opposite: something that might, should or could happen.

However, I do believe everything God wills comes to pass. That is the first clue that John 6:39 is wrong to translate this word as will.

And this is compelled by being consistent with 1 Tim. 2:3-4.

First, before discussing 1 Timothy 2:3-4, I want to comment a little more on God’s will versus God’ wishing something. While I believe if God wills something, it will happen, this does not mean if God desires something it will happen. Humans can resist the desires of God, but I don’t think we can resist the will of God if God directed otherwise. This distinction explains such passages as this speech of Stephen in Acts: “You are just like your fathers. You always resist the Holy Spirit....And now you have betrayed and murdered [the Righteous One].” (Acts 7:51-52)

Stephen must be saying we can resist God’s desires. Stephen is not saying we can resist God’s sovereign will that we do something. At least, I would hesitate to think we could resist that.

So now we come to the question whether John 6:39 should be translated as will with the implication this represents God’s sovereign will that is irresistible. If you think this is translated will, as does the NIV and KJV, you are led inevitably to dilemmas in other passages where you are compelled to translate it as wish or desire. Then, to avoid inconsistency, you must change the translation in John 6:39 to either wish or desire.

For in 1 Timothy 2:3-4, we read that “God who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto knowledge and truth.” (KJV). In 1 Timothy 2:3-4 this will is the verb form of the same root word in John 6:39 translated by the King James as God’s will. See Table 1 below.

But not all men are saved. So if will in 1 Tim. 2:3-4 is the sovereign will of God, then we have people successfully resisting that sovereign will. And I don’t believe that is possible. However, if this means in 1 Tim. 2:3-4 simply desire or wish, then the conflict goes away, and men are resisting the desire of God, which the Bible tells us that humans can do. See Acts 7:51-52.

So in 1 Tim. 2:3-4 the NIV chose the correct translation, namely “God our savior wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth.” (NIV).

But the NIV was not free to leave John 6:39 alone, saying God’s will is to save those who are being given to Christ but in 1 Tim. 2:3-4 say God merely wants all men to be saved. That is an inconsistency in translating the same word root with no justification from the contexts, which are identical. Translation ethics prohibits translating inconsistently the same word used in a similar manner, especially so you can hold onto doctrine.

It is that kind of inconsistency, however, that the NIV engaged in. At least the KJV knew if you want John 6:39 to be God’s sovereign will to save, you must be consistent and translate 1 Tim. 2:3-4 likewise as will. There is no contextual change to support the NIV’s action. For both verses are talking about God’s will or desire about some intended object toward salvation. The NIV, however, translates this word root inconsistently, once as will (John 6:39) and then as want (1 Tim. 2:3-4).

Let’s go a little deeper. John 6:39 uses the word theleôma, which means will, wish, or desire. And in 1 Tim. 2:3-4, it is the verb form, theleo, which means wills, wishes, or desires. See Table 1 below for how this compares in Greek text.

 

John 6:39

1 Tim. 2:3-4

theleôma

theleo

 

 

There is no good reason to translate them inconsistently. And so if it is true that God wills /wishes or desires that all men be saved in 1 Tim. 2:3-4, then because we know that not all are saved, it must not be God’s sovereign will is in view. Otherwise, all would be saved. So desires or wishes certainly is the correct translation of theleo for 1 Tim. 2:3-4. And thus because John 6:39 uses the same root word, and is similarly talking about God’s plan to save people, it should have the same meaning as in 1 Tim. 2:3-4. John 6:39 simply has to be translated as wish or desire.


And then if you have established John 6:39 is talking of a wish or desire, that removes the dilemma that John 6:39 would say God’s wills that someone “should” or “shall” be saved. Rather God desires those who are believing (or obeying) should be saved. Thus, our repair to the translation, by adding should, fits well with the sentence, especially when desire or want is put at the start of the clause.

What About The Fact These Are Given to Jesus?

But the eternal security (ES) advocate is undaunted. What of the fact it says in verse 39 that this will, wish or desire is for those “given” to Jesus? Aren’t you saying by using the subjunctive, meaning should, that there is some uncertainty? Aren’t you saying that somehow those given to Jesus can be snatched from Jesus’ hand if they fail in faith (or obedience) or some other way? But the ES advocate simply knows that is impossible, from John 10:27-29, so we should change the subjunctive to the future, as the NIV has it, to reflect that we know we are guaranteed of our salvation.

This is an example of where one mistranslation (John 10:27-29) can lead to a pressure to ignore proper Greek translation elsewhere.

But before we prove that John 10:27-29 is a mistranslation (see article on John 10:27-29 on this website), let’s just see that as a pure point of fact, we can prove that someone given to Jesus can be lost. That ends the issue. There is thus no pressure in John 6:39 to change the verbs into future guarantees simply because those mentioned are being given to Jesus.

And here is the proof. The very same verb as in John 6:39 translated as given is used by John in John 17:9 where Jesus says of all those given to him, only one was lost, Judas. See Table 2 below. Thus, this proves being given to Jesus is not a guarantee of salvation in and of itself. And thus, we have no textual reason from the word given to assume someone is always saved who is given to Jesus. And thus we are not justified changing the subjunctives in John 6:39 to future simply from the use of the word given.

John Wesley had cause to point this out about being given to Jesus over three hundred years ago. This was because some in Wesley’s day were using John 17:11 as a proof text for eternal security. The argument was that if Jesus prayed those given to Him be saved, as Jesus does in John 17:11, it as good as done. No prayer of Jesus can go unanswered, even if it means God to answer it must overpower our wills. John Wesley replied in his article “Perseverance of the Saints,” Fundamental Christian Theology: A Systematic Theology, A. M. Hills (C. J. Kinne), 1931, Vol. II, pp. 266-281, part IV:

 

John 17:9,11-12

John 6:39

given (perfect active)

being given (present indicative)

 

 

 

Once more: “Holy Father, keep through Thine own name, those whom Thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11). Great stress has been laid on this text; and it has been hence inferred, that all those whom the Father had given Him (a phrase frequently occurring in this chapter) must infallibly persevere unto the end. And yet in the very next verse, our Lord Himself declares that one of those whom the Father had given Him did not persevere unto the end, but perished everlastingly. His own words are: “Those that Thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition” (John 17:12). So one of these was finally lost! “Those whom thou hast given me,” signifies here, if not in most other places, the twelve apostles, and them only.

 

I cannot disagree with Wesley’s logic. So it follows if one is given to Christ in John 6:39, it is not a guarantee one will have eternal life. It was no guarantee for Judas later. Thus, it is not theologically sound to claim the word given in John 6:39 tells us that we should translate the verbs in John 6:39 about being raised in a future tense (certain) rather than subjunctive tense (uncertain).

But if what we just said about John 17:9, 11-12 is true, then something is messed up in the translation of John 10:27-29. Is that possible? Indeed, it most certainly is, as we shall see.

In another article we plan to post, we will turn to the number one passage used to support eternal security: John 10:27-29. We shall see rather than a promise of eternal security, it is a teaching by Jesus that our assurance of salvation comes from continuing to follow and to listen (obey). Our salvation is not made sure by a one-time following or listening. Thus, being given to Jesus alone does not make our final salvation any more sure for us than it did for Judas.

Conclusion

 

The correct translation must also reflect that pisteusin eis autos in John 10:40 (see Greek tab on Biblehub) means “obey unto him” in John 3:16. We established that elsewhere. Hence, the entire passage correctly translated reads:

v. 39. It, to the contrary, continues to remain His desire [of Him who] sent me, [that] everyone who He is giving to me should not be lost, but rather should be raised on the last day.v. 40 That is, thus it continues to remain the desire of the Father [and] of me, [that] everyone who keeps looking [at the] Son, and who keeps on obeying unto Him, should be having eternal life, and I should have raised him up him on the last day.” (John 6:39-40 literal, major differences in bold italic).