Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, May 28, 2018

Does John 3:16 Say "Whoever"?

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 naive 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."


Hi Dr. Mounce. I agree with most of what you wrote. But I have a question about this part: "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." I'm curious about this contextual remark. In the conversation with Nicodemus, what contextual features indicate that Jesus is saying God not only loves those who follow him, but rather God loves those who follow him and those who do not follow him? That is, why think *that* contrast (or rather, expanse) is in view? Is it that you think Nicodemus held the view that God only loves those who follow him and that's what is being corrected here when Jesus expands out to "world" and whoever believes? If so, what contextual features indicate that it is that specific belief of his that is being corrected rather than, say, some other mistaken belief? When I read the surrounding context (specifically John 2:13-25 and 3:22-26), I don't come away with the same interpretation as you. But neither do I think "world" means "elect" or anything about individuals. In any case, I am more interested in understanding how you get to your view than to convince you of anything. So could you clarify here how you get that? Or can you point me to a source that already has developed this? Thanks so much.

I can think of four ways in English of expressing the totality of the scope of 'the believing' in John 3:16. They are: '... that whoever believes ...' '... that anyone who believes ...' '... that everyone who believes ...' '... that all who believe...' The first two use a singular person from which to apply the generalisation (anyone); the third and fourth use a group of people to which the generalisation applies (every, all). Using my lexicon (Louw & Nida; UBS 1988) I can find two Greek constructions to express this meaning. (There may be more that you know of!) 'Hostis' corresponds to 'whoever', referring to a single indefinite entity from which to generalise. 'Pas' (b) corresponds to 'anyone', referring to a single indefinite entity which is a member of a totality. 'Pas' (a) corresponds to 'everyone' or 'all' referring to a group, or totality to which something applies. Now, I think it is true that whichever construction the original writer used (and who had the freedom to use either), or whichever construction is used in English to translate it, the application is the same in each case. But why not, as a principle of absolute faithfulness to the text (wherever this is possible, since 'All translation is approximation'), use the English construction which most closely matches the Greek construction? In this case, I think it would be '... that all who believe...' as most close to a word-for-word rendition of '...that all the believing...'. In Matthew 5:28 I would choose ' that everyone who looks...' because the sentence goes on to use a singular referent 'kardia autou' which translated as 'his heart' matches the 'one' of 'everyone'. P.S. In para 3 of your article, is 'hē' a typo? Should be 'ho'? P.P.S. What's your opinion of Louw & Nida's lexicon?

I was intrigued by your article while aware of your opponent James White on this subject. I never knew that you were Reformed, but have read clips from your various works by highly educated men on the original languages which I do not know. Being Reformed I think you probably put a great emphasis on theology. However, your point about not reading Reformed theology into the verse was much appreciated and received. I see great confidence in you about being Reformed, as the Scriptures properly exegeted will convey Reformed Theology. No need to defend our theology, we turn to Scripture and let Scripture settle the matter of whether Reformed theology is correct. Just thought to share one of the things I took away from your article. God bless, William

I have often been annoyed by the breaking of the text into chapters, verses, and paragraphs to the point where I have typed the part I am studying without them. It makes it much easier to maintain the flow of the author's thoughts.

Hi Bill, You say: "However, we do have an indefinite construction in John 3:16 with the use of πᾶς and an articular imperfective participle (πᾶς ἡ πιστευών) ..." My dictionary says "πᾶς ὁ πιστευών" in John 3:16. What am I missing? God bless, Peter