Eisegesis 101: John 3:16

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.

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9 responses

  1. Hey there,

    I think you got a couple of problems in your analysis here.

    Firstly, it may be that the limitations of your analysis precluded you from saying more, but when you say this: “All the phrase says is that God loved the world. Nothing more,” that is not exactly right. The world is an object of divine love and as such it is an object of redemptive activity: that has to follow.

    Secondly, you say: “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.”

    Well actually it must in some sense. A rational man does not talk to sticks and stones and speak to them as having volitional abilities, and requiring of them to perform actions, or of asking them to perform actions. Nor does a rational God ask of beings who have no natural ability to perform an action which they are naturally incapable of performing.

    For example, a kind rational God would not demand that in order to be saved, a man flap his arms so that by that exertion alone he must fly into the atmosphere and then, and only then, would be be saved. This is just an example to make the point self-evident.

    So we must assume that in some sense imperatives, invitations, exhortations, addresses do presuppose that the audience is a volitional agent with innate natural ability.

    The better solution here is to affirm natural ability but “moral unwillingness.” I thing Week’s explanation of this distinction has to be the best: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=7397

    Thanks,
    David
    http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=8466

    1. Thanks for stopping by.

      Pharaoh? Those whom Jesus spoke of having fulfilled Isaiah 6′s prophecy? Romans 9:18? Those whom He said were not His sheep and thus did not believe? Is not the command to “repent and believe the gospel” commanding every person to do what they cannot do (and have no desire to do) apart from regeneration?

      Doesn’t Rom. 8:7-8 say that person cannot obey God – not will not, but cannot?

      Just asking.

    2. David,

      You argument above that imperatives imply an ability to obey seems to be:

      Premise 1. Commanding someone only makes sense if the one commanded can obey.
      Premise 2. Jesus commands that all men repent and believe the gospel.
      Premise 3. Therefore, all men must have the ability to repent and believe the gospel.

      The second premise can easily be supported biblically. However, you fail to give any biblical support for your second premise. Your agument is rationalistic and contrary to what the Bible teaches. This can be proven simply by quoting one place where the Bible commands something impossible. There are at least two of these commands in the Bible: be perfect (Matt. 5:48) and be holy (1 Peter 1:16). Surely, you don’t think that these are possible for a sinner to do. Romans 8:7 teaches that man is incapable of submission to God’s law. “Can” means ability; thus, cannot must mean an inability not simply unwillingness as you argue. Therefore, your second premise fails and the your conclusion no longer follows.

      You also seem to believe that there are only two choices in regard to the will either one has the natural ability to come or he has no will at all. (I say this because you compare men to sticks, stones, and onions, which have no will.) However, Calvinists do not deny that men have a will; rather, we believe that the will cannot (morally inability) because of original sin repent and believe apart from the powerful grace of God. Further, the sinner is responsible for his rejection of Christ because he has freely chosen to reject Christ.

      You further argue, “A kind rational God would not demand that in order to be saved, a man flap his arms so that by that exertion alone he must fly into the atmosphere and then, and only then, would be be saved.” Yet, God does ask everyone to do something impossible to be saved: perfect holiness. However, because God is kind, he sent his Son as a substitute to do what was impossible for us. Consequently, every spiritual blessing (like repentance and faith) comes from him (See Eph. 1:3). Thus, God has provided what he has commanded in Christ.

      Finally, if all men have natural ability, for what purpose did Christ die? Why does the Bible teach the necessity of grace?

      Seeking His Kingdom,
      Pastor Jeremy Lee
      Twining Baptist Church

      1. Hey Jeremy,

        You say:

        Premise 1. Commanding someone only makes sense if the one commanded can obey.
        Premise 2. Jesus commands that all men repent and believe the gospel.
        Premise 3. Therefore, all men must have the ability to repent and believe the gospel.

        The second premise can easily be supported biblically. However, you fail to give any biblical support for your second premise.

        David: Ive tried to make the distinction between natural and moral ability. I not sure why folk are not picking up on this. The natural moral distinction was used by, Thomas Manton, J Edwards, Charnock, Andrew Fuller and others.

        So to your second premise. No not quite. Like this, For John to imagine he can have a normal functioning conversation with Peter, it must be presupposed that Peter is a cognitive rational agent. It would make no sense to deny that. It is self-evident, and almost transcendentally so. Likewise, for John to ask or invite Peter to perform an action, any such request presupposes, at least, some natural ability. It makes no sense for John to invite a hunk of stone to a wedding or to dinner, or anything.

        It is rationalism to deny this, in fact. :-)

        You say: Your agument is rationalistic and contrary to what the Bible teaches. This can be proven simply by quoting one place where the Bible commands something impossible. There are at least two of these commands in the Bible: be perfect (Matt. 5:48) and be holy (1 Peter 1:16). Surely, you don’t think that these are possible for a sinner to do.

        David: I think they have the natural ability, but not the moral willingness or inclination. This moral disinclination is a necessary propensity given the corruption of their own heart.

        You say: Romans 8:7 teaches that man is incapable of submission to God’s law. “Can” means ability; thus, cannot must mean an inability not simply unwillingness as you argue. Therefore, your second premise fails and the your conclusion no longer follows.

        David: Ive responded to this. You cannot take these sort of statements absolutely. I am sure you are familiar with the standard Reformed idea of Total Depravity vs Absolute Depravity. The Reformed have historically affirmed the former, not the latter. So for example, the Reformed say that Man is incapable of performing true spiritual good, but can do natural good, as that is valued from the human to human perspective, etc. We could not take Paul’s words “there are none that do good” and read that to mean that men do evil, that they are always as bad as they can be. The natural-moral distinction is another perspective on the total vs absolute depravity nuance.

        You say: You also seem to believe that there are only two choices in regard to the will either one has the natural ability to come or he has no will at all.

        David: Either one is a volitional agent or he is not. Stones are not both non-volitional agents and volitional agents. Right?

        You say: (I say this because you compare men to sticks, stones, and onions, which have no will.) However, Calvinists do not deny that men have a will; rather, we believe that the will cannot (morally inability) because of original sin repent and believe apart from the powerful grace of God. Further, the sinner is responsible for his rejection of Christ because he has freely chosen to reject Christ.

        David; Exactly. So why are you disagreeing with me? If they have a will, they have a natural volitional ability. It cant be otherwise if they have a will.

        You say: You further argue, “A kind rational God would not demand that in order to be saved, a man flap his arms so that by that exertion alone he must fly into the atmosphere and then, and only then, would be be saved.” Yet, God does ask everyone to do something impossible to be saved: perfect holiness.

        David: You just keep assuming the position, even in the light of the obvious. God would not command a man to breath under water in order to be saved (to be clear, I mean without any mechanical or third-party assistance, etc). Right? You seriously cant object. If you say, “Sure, David, God could not command to breath under water in order to be saved”. I would then ask, “why not?” And then you would have to say something to the effect of: “It would be absurd… or it would be unjust or unkind.” And in so doing you are accepting my point. God would not command what is naturally impossible.

        So what are you trying to identify or connect to, when you cite the command “Be holy….” There two assumptions you are trying to bring together: 1) It is not the case given the human condition, post-fall and without grace, that any man can be (acceptably) holy, and yet 2) Notwithstanding that, God nonetheless commands such a man to be holy. And the question is, how can both be made to be seen as reasonable?

        The normal popular way of dealing with this, one which was kicked off by Luther, was to simply assert the two premises without nuance. The Arminian rightly demands that as they stand, the two premises make God a perverse: commanding a man to perform what he cannot do. The Arminian is correctly tapping into something, else you would have no problem saying that God could command a man to breath under water in order to be saved, all things being equal.

        The natural-moral distinction is a way of fending off the Arminian objection by supplying the necessary nuance.

        However, when we continue to trot out the sort of simplistic assertion “imperatives do not imply ability” we are only furthering the Arminian grounds for rejecting such a naive statement.

        You say: However, because God is kind, he sent his Son as a substitute to do what was impossible for us. Consequently, every spiritual blessing (like repentance and faith) comes from him (See Eph. 1:3). Thus, God has provided what he has commanded in Christ.

        David: Sure, but that does not deal with the problem: it is an unjust and irrational being who commands or exhorts another being to do that which is naturally impossible.

        You say: Finally, if all men have natural ability, for what purpose did Christ die? Why does the Bible teach the necessity of grace?

        David: That you ask me that tells me that you are not following me. Let me again encourage folk to read Weeks on this distinction: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=7397

        Hope that helps,
        David
        http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=8466

  2. Hey Jeff,

    You say: Pharaoh? Those whom Jesus spoke of having fulfilled Isaiah 6′s prophecy?

    David: I am not sure what this is directed to in what I said. With regard to Jesus’ words in Jn 12:48-41, one needs to be clear that Jesus’ words, in and of themselves, do not cause blindness. True light does not blind, it enables sight. The supposition is that of blind men who refuse to see the light. And in their rejection of the light, then are the words of Isaiah fulfilled.

    You say: Romans 9:18?

    David: True, but nonetheless, if “world” in 3:16 refers to mankind, the world at large, all men, then it is this world which is the object of redemptive activity. Christ is “given” to this world.

    You say: Those whom He said were not His sheep and thus did not believe?

    David: Obviously so. But the words of Christ does not cause them to become non-sheep. Right? Like this: in the same way that were not true children of Abraham, they reject Christ. Their rejection flows from an evil disposition which puts the lie to their own words. LIkewise, as they are not people of faith (sheep), but people of rebellion, the reject his words.

    You say: Is not the command to “repent and believe the gospel” commanding every person to do what they cannot do (and have no desire to do) apart from regeneration?

    David: The natural ability vs moral unwillingness distinction seeks to point out that “belief” flows from a natural capacity or faculty to believe. Regeneration does not add “parts.” Regeneration renews the will, making it willing. Belief, as an ability is natural. It is believing “in Christ” that men have a moral unwillingness to perform.

    You say: Doesn’t Rom. 8:7-8 say that person cannot obey God – not will not, but cannot?

    I would not imagine Paul is suggesting that the natural man has no natural ability to believe, for that would reduce a person to the volitional status of an onion. Rather, he speaks of the “flesh” as so debilitating the moral choices of a man that one can say because of that he is not able to chose or enact the moral good.

    The verse is clear in its controlling supposition: “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.”

    The mind set on the flesh is unable to subject itself to the law of God. In the same way, the mind “set” on darkness is unable to appreciate the light.

    As I said, using the natural-moral distinction is a better way to go. It is inaccurate to deny that imperatives, invitations, exhortations, etc, do not presuppose or imply some ability on the part of the creature.

    Thanks,
    David
    http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=8466

  3. Jeff,

    I think those have to be balanced with verses like Matthew 23:37

    ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

    Exodus also mentions 4 times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart as well.

    Man’s condemnation is that he is naturally and morally unwilling to come to God and refuses God.

    Historically, Calvinism was not so one sided and focused on 5 minor issues, it was much more robust and balanced and did not ignore the human side of salvation.

    1. Thanks for stopping by.

      1) The point of the post was to address those who use John 3:16 as an island unto itself to point out every single person’s ability to say “Yes” to the command to “Repent and believe the gospel.” Using other verses to support/refute it was not the issue.

      2) RE: Historically. Luther’s thoughts on the will of man and his inability/unwillingness are quite striking, aren’t they?

      3) Who is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem?” Every single person of the city or the leaders? Context says it’s the leaders – the verse (if only an island unto itself, again, which ignores context) talks about their unwillingness to have the chicks (the rest of the population under their false shepherding – see John 9-10) be gathered to Jesus. Why were they unwilling? Because they were not of His sheep (John 10, again).

      4) Read each account of Pharaoh’s hardening his heart and we see in most cases it is followed by some form of “just as the Lord said,” fulfilling the prophetic words of chapter four where God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. It is not a case of sometimes Pharaoh hardening his own heart and others of God’s doing the hardening – they are cases of both being true, such as God inciting David to take the census, using Satan as His agent and David confessing his own sin in taking the census. We think it has to be an either/or, while it’s a both/and scenario. The last case of hardening is even more striking – Pharaoh has let the people go, they are on their way and 14:8 says the Lord hardened his heart, resulting in Pharaoh’s futile pursuit of the people and the wiping out of he and his army.

      5) He is unwilling but at the same time he is unable. The Bible describes the consequence of the Fall as not a mere loss of desire, but as a loss of ability as well.

      Thanks again and God Bless.

  4. Hey Jeff,

    Again if I may, I would like to stake a stab at responding g your points.

    You say: 1) The point of the post was to address those who use John 3:16 as an island unto itself to point out every single person’s ability to say “Yes” to the command to “Repent and believe the gospel.” Using other verses to support/refute it was not the issue.

    David: I can see what you are aiming at. My thought is that your argument needs some nuancing. For clearly, and as an example, the fact that I, or anyone, engages in a conversation with someone else, presupposes that they other person has to the ability to converse. Right? I mean, assuming normality of human to human interaction. Likewise, to call upon someone to “repent” and “believe” presupposes that one thinks they have the natural capacity to understand the words, the meanings, your intent, their expected duty, etc. However, if we took Paul’s words literally, they should not even be able to grasp any of that.

    That God invites citizens of the world to “believe” presupposes something. The natural-moral distinction is trying to do justice to that.

    You say: RE: Historically. Luther’s thoughts on the will of man and his inability/unwillingness are quite striking, aren’t they?

    David: If you mean, Luther’s bondage of the will had a great impact, sure. If you mean that everything he said was correct, I would have to disagree, for that is the point we are engaging.

    You say: Who is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem?” Every single person of the city or the leaders? Context says it’s the leaders – the verse (if only an island unto itself, again, which ignores context) talks about their unwillingness to have the chicks (the rest of the population under their false shepherding – see John 9-10) be gathered to Jesus. Why were they unwilling? Because they were not of His sheep (John 10, again).

    David: I would seriously encourage you to check out Silversides comments on this verse. Silversides is a Calvinist up north, and has debated the Heoksemians. Silversides is, essentially a Banner of Truth Calvinist, which is a good thing. David Silversides on Matthew 23:37: An Effective Refutation of Hypercalvinist Exegesis: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=10196

    Silversides deconstructs the idea that the children of the city are to be distinguished from the leaders of the city or the city itself. If you read his comments, I think you will agree there can be no basis for making any such dichotomies.

    Regarding the “unwillingness” I think you are misreading the text. The leaders were unwilling to allow Jesus to gather the children. Anyway, check out Silversides.

    You say: Read each account of Pharaoh’s hardening his heart and we see in most cases it is followed by some form of “just as the Lord said,” fulfilling the prophetic words of chapter four where God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. It is not a case of sometimes Pharaoh hardening his own heart and others of God’s doing the hardening – they are cases of both being true, such as God inciting David to take the census, using Satan as His agent and David confessing his own sin in taking the census. We think it has to be an either/or, while it’s a both/and scenario. The last case of hardening is even more striking – Pharaoh has let the people go, they are on their way and 14:8 says the Lord hardened his heart, resulting in Pharaoh’s futile pursuit of the people and the wiping out of he and his army.

    David: Sure, but this all comes back to the question of how exactly does God harden a heart. Historically, it has only been the hypercalvinists wo have asserted that God in some direct and/or efficient and/or immediate manner hardens heart. I would assume you have some respect for Francis Turretin. You might consider reading his balanced approach here: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=207

    You say: 5) He is unwilling but at the same time he is unable. The Bible describes the consequence of the Fall as not a mere loss of desire, but as a loss of ability as well.

    David: I think at this point we are now returning to the starting point. I simply put it to you, could God command a person to do that which is naturally and physically impossible for us to do? That is the core of it. My thinking is, God does not mock men.

    Anyway, thanks for your time. Please do scope out the Silversides comments.

    David

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