I’ve been listening to a lot of debates regarding reformed theology of late and have heard many Arminian-synergist preachers rail against it. Some of the most commonly quoted verses usually include an emphatic whosoever in the preaching-style responses.
The claim is that whosoever wishes to believe in Christ may have eternal life and the implication often made is that anyone can. It’s open to all. Whosoever will may come.
The emphasis led Dave Hunt in a debate with James White to say that John 3:16 claims that anyone has the ability to believe. Ergun Caner, the former dean of the seminary at Liberty University, claimed that he was “a whosoever kind of guy” in his straw man attacking sermon entitled “Why I’m predestined not to be a hyper Calvinist”.
Would it surprise you to find out that this often emphasized word is not in the Greek text of John 3:16? Listen we all have our traditions but we need to analyze them against the text of the Bible.
The most popular[ly misapplied] verse
You may know it from the King James Version as I originally memorized it:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. (KJV)
This doesn’t differ that much from most modern translations in the key clause:
…that whoever believes in him… (NIV)
…that whoever believes in him… (ESV)
…so that everyone who believes in Him… (HCSB)
…that whoever believes in him… (NASB)
…so that everyone who believes in him… (NLT)
Believe it or not (cringe) I think the NLT might be closer to the sense of the text. The Greek is relatively simple and straightforward here.
ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν
ἵνα: “so that” or “in order that”
πᾶς: “every” or “all”
ὁ: “the” or “the one who”
πιστεύων: “believing ones”
εἰς: “in” or “into”
ὁ πιστεύων is a present active participle functioning as a substantival adjective. It’s not the ones who believed (in the past) but the ones who believe now in the present or are continuing to believe. There is no ambiguity about it. This is not talking about people who have a capacity to believe or people who might believe if given the right sales pitch. It’s the believing ones, the ones who believe. Believers in the proper sense.
Interestingly it is Wycliffe’s English version of 1382, often criticized as being too literal, that is the best here: “…that each man that believeth in him…”
Quite literally it reads, “…in order that all the believing in him ones…” The problem is that this reading is quite wooden and awkward so we have to smooth it out. “The believing in him ones” becomes “the ones who are believing in him”. This becomes “the ones who believe in him” which becomes “Whoever believes in him”.
So you can see how a proper motivated attempt to smooth out an awkward reading can lead to a bit of ambiguity in the English.
If there were to be a proper sense of the “whosoever” one would expect to see a form of the Greek indefinite pronoun ὅστις or τις. This comes through in the following examples: “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” (Matthew 5:39 “Whoever humbles himself like this child…,” (Matthew 18:4) and “the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.” (Galatians 5:10)
These examples show an ambiguity as to the referent of the pronoun, but John 3:16 has no such ambiguity. It’s not about whosoever might believe.
Yes but what about the quotation over the gates of heaven according to C.S. Lewis, “whosoever will may come”? Ah, that’s from Revelation 22:17 and is a most beautiful passage.
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let him that heareth say, “Come.” And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. (KJV)
What a fantastic picture of the Holy Spirit and the Church (the Bride) bidding those to come and drink freely of the water of life in the new heavens and new earth. Again however we see the similar construction in Greek.
“And whosoever will…” in the KJV comes from one simple substantival present active participle, ὁ θέλων.
“The wishing one,” “the desiring one” is bid to come. The same construction is evident for “the thirsting one” as well. The problem with reading an ambiguous group here is that we know that not anyone desires to come to Christ. In fact, no one does without the regenerating work of the Spirit. So who is “the willing one?” It is the one who is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, it is the one who is born again. It is the believing in him one.