“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
Every time I have heard a denominational preacher teach the false doctrine of “faith only” salvation, they always quote John 3:16 as their proof text. Even though the verse doesn’t say, “whoever [only] believes in Him,” that is how they use it. Not only do they insert a “faith only” definition where the verse doesn’t say it, they are also divorcing this beautiful statement of God’s love for us from its immediate context. Wouldn’t it make sense to define the term “believes in Him” according to the illustration that Christ had just given? Of course it would!
In this context, Jesus is having a conversation with Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1-2). Jesus had already told Nicodemus that a person must be born again to see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3). Nicodemus expresses his confusion over what Jesus told him (Jn. 3:4). Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, what more did he need in order to see (i.e. enter, Jn. 3:5) the kingdom of God? Jesus explains that this new birth is of a spiritual nature, not physical (Jn. 3:5-8). Nicodemus was thinking only physically, of a physical kingdom entered by physical birth and physical lineage. Jesus was telling him of the coming spiritual kingdom (Jn. 18:36) entered by a spiritual birth (1 Cor. 12:13). Nicodemus had some trouble understanding, or accepting, this spiritual application (Jn. 3:9). Jesus tells Nicodemus that he should have been prepared to receive these things as “the teacher of Israel” (Jn. 3:10). That Jesus refers to him as “the teacher of Israel” may indicate that Nicodemus was himself a respected rabbi. Nevertheless, he should have been prepared for what he was seeing and hearing from Jesus through his knowledge of the Scriptures. John the Baptist and Jesus, with their disciples, were preaching repentance and baptism in water for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4; Lk. 3:2-3; Jn. 3:22-23; Jn. 3:26; Jn. 4:1-2). They were preaching what they knew from the Father (Jn. 3:11). If Nicodemus was having trouble with these things that he could see and experience and correlate with his knowledge of the Scriptures, how would he be able to understand the spirituality of the coming kingdom? (Jn. 3:12-13). Jesus then gives Nicodemus an illustration from the Scriptures of how Christ would bring salvation to the world (Jn. 3:14-17). Christ goes on to correct the misconception of the Jews concerning the nature of the Messiah (Jn. 3:18-21). They believed the Messiah would be a warrior king that would destroy Israel’s oppressors. But Christ didn’t come to condemn the word, he came to save an already condemned world from sin.
When Jesus says “whoever believes in him,” in John 3:16, it is in this context. The only way to properly understand and apply Scripture is to keep it in its context and apply it the way it is applied where it is used. The idea of “faith only” is nowhere found in this passage! For a passage that discusses “faith only” we would need to go over to James 2, and there we will find the only place in the entire Bible where the actual term “faith only” is used (Jas. 2:24).
In the context of John 3:16 we have Jesus telling Nicodemus to be baptized (Jn. 3:3-5) and illustrating belief in him by the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness to save the children of Israel from the deadly bites of the fiery serpents (Num. 21:9). Is the bronze serpent an illustration of “faith only” salvation? Absolutely not! The children of Israel had to hear the word of God delivered to Moses (Num. 21:8), and obey that word (Num. 21:9) in order to be healed from those deadly bites. According to today’s “faith only” false teaching, the children of Israel would have been healed from their serpent bites when they believed, not when they actually went and looked at the bronze serpent in faithful obedience to God.
How is Jesus lifted up on the cross illustrated by the lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness? Just as they were suffering and dying from a deadly poison, all men are poisoned by sin (Rom. 3:23). Just as God gave a remedy for the deadly serpent bites, he has given a remedy for the deadly bite of sin (Rom. 6:23). Just as the children of Israel had to look to that which was lifted up in believing obedience to God’s word, all must look to Jesus in believing obedience to be saved from sin (Rom. 6:3-5, 17).
To quote John 3:16 as a proof text for “faith only” salvation is to twist the Scriptures to your own destruction! (2 Pet. 3:16). Salvation is not by anything only. It is the result of hearing God’s word (Rom. 10:17), believing what it teaches (Acts 8:12), repenting of sin (Acts 17:30), confession of faith (Rom. 10:9-10), baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) and faithful living in the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:23). That scheme of redemption that we see pictured all through the Bible and fulfilled in the lifting up of Christ on the cross is “the grace of God that brings salvation (Tit. 2:11). Being saved through faithful obedience to the gospel of Christ is being saved by grace (Eph. 2:8; Tit. 3:5). The only reason we have a plan of salvation to obey is because God’s loving mercy, his grace, made it possible. To say that salvation is by “grace only” or “faith only” is a destructive twisting of the word of God. There is no such thing as biblical faith apart from obedience (Jas. 2:18-19; 1 Jn. 2:4; Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16).