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John 3:36, Critique of Lordship Salvation, Tom Stegall


February 8th, 2019

by Tom Stegall

The English Standard Version reads at John 3:36: “Whoever believes [ho pisteuōn] in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey [ho apeithōn] the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Other English Bibles also translate ho apeithōn in this verse as essentially “the one who does not obey.”[1] While this translation of the present-tense, articular-participle form of the verb apeithō is not wrong, it is imprecise and can be better translated “the one who refuses to believe.” Some proponents of Lordship Salvation and perseverance soteriology see in the translation “obey” in 3:36 support for their teaching that genuine initial faith in Christ for salvation always manifests itself afterwards by an obedient life.[2] For example, George Turner claims:

The fact that John used [apeithōn] as the opposite of “believe” suggests that to him saving faith in Christ also included obedience to Christ. The person that did not believe to the extent of becoming obedient was not born again and naturally did not have eternal life. The present participles for both believing and disobeying imply continuance in: not a single act of life, but rather a procedure in and a relationship to.[3]

This interpretation of apeithō in verse 36 is inaccurate for several reasons. First, it practically makes eternal life conditioned on faith plus obedience, rather than faith apart from works, which is the clear teaching of Scripture. Lordship Salvation proponents will argue that they are not teaching eternal salvation by faith plus obedience/works but by a faith that obeys or works. Thus, Turner says in the previous quote, “saving faith in Christ . . . included obedience to Christ.”[4] According to the Lordship Salvation view, works are still necessary for a sinner to be counted righteous ultimately in God’s sight at so-called final justification.[5] Popular Reformed scholar and author Thomas Schreiner states, “The New Testament clearly teaches that bare faith cannot save and that works are necessary for final justification or final salvation.”[6] This is a flat contradiction of Romans 4:5‒6: “but to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.” God cannot require for justification (whether initial or “final”) both a faith that works and a faith that does not work or is apart from works. These two positions are mutually exclusive.

Second, the Lordship Salvation view misinterprets the significance of the present participles for “believe” and “obey” in John 3:36. While both ho pisteuōn and ho apeithōn are present-tense, substantival participles, the present tense-form in Greek does not inherently denote continuous action.[7] The tense forms of these words in verse 36 indicate absolutely nothing about a pattern of obedience or disobedience. Instead, the meaning of ho apeithōn must be determined by the context.

Third, the immediate context of the verse itself contrasts ho apeithōn with ho pisteuōn. This shows that John is speaking of a particular form of disobedience in verse 36, namely, unbelief. Since the opposite of ho apeithōn is ho pisteuōn in verse 36a, ho apeithōn in verse 36b must refer to willful unbelief. For this reason, some English Bibles translate ho apeithōn in this verse as the “one who does not believe.”[8]

Fourth, the intermediate context of chapter 3 supports ho apeithōn referring to a particular form of disobedience—unbelief. Earlier in the same chapter, verse 18 already stated that the opposite of belief in God’s Son is unbelief: “He who believes [ho pisteuōn] in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe [ho de mē pisteuōn] is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” [9] The same parallelism occurs in verse 36.

Fifth, the larger context of John’s Gospel supports the interpretation that apeithō in verse 36 refers to a particular form of disobedience, namely, unbelief in God’s Son. The Gospel of John repeatedly uses pisteuō as the only condition for salvation, yet the only occurrence of the root word peithō in the entire book is in verse 36, where ho apeithōn is the mirror opposite of ho pisteuōn. This confirms that John intended apeithō here to be understood as a particular type of disobedience; that is, a refusal to believe.

Lastly, support for the meaning of “does not obey” in verse 36 as willful unbelief comes from the rest of the New Testament where the root word peithō is used several places interchangeably with pisteuō to describe one form of obedience, namely, belief. Thus, the second edition of the standard New Testament Greek-English lexicon states regarding apeitheō:

[S]ince, in the view of the early Christians, the supreme disobedience was a refusal to believe their gospel, a[peitheō] may be restricted in some passages to the m[eaning] disbelieve, be an unbeliever. This sense, though greatly disputed (it is not found outside our lit[erature]), seems most probable in J 3: 36; Ac 14: 2; 19: 9; Ro 15: 31, and only slightly less prob. in Ro 2: 8; 1 Pt 2: 8; 3: 1, perh[aps] also vs. 20; 4: 17; IMg 8: 2. M-M.[10]

Some English translations of John 3:36 capture better the nuance of ho apeithōn being disobedience in the form of unbelief, translating the substantival participle as the “one who refuses to believe.”[11]

God has only one command for the lost to fulfill in order to be saved, and that is simply to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31). Fulfilling this sole condition involves an act of the will. Thus, when anyone chooses to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation, this is described in Scripture as obeying the gospel (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8–10).[12] Choosing to believe in Christ is called “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), where “faith” is in the genitive case and functions as a genitive of apposition, meaning “the obedience which is faith.”[13] In other words, there is one type of obedience that saves: belief in Jesus Christ or believing the gospel of Christ. Conversely, to choose not to believe or to refuse to be persuaded to believe in God’s Son is the one form of disobedience that results in eternal condemnation. Therefore, we may conclude about the meaning of apeithō in John 3:36 that to “not obey the Son” is simply a matter of choosing not to believe “the testimony of God to His Son as found in the gospel.”[14]


Tom Stegall is an associate pastor at Duluth Bible Church and the publication director for Grace Gospel Press.

[1]. These include the American Standard Version (ASV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), Revised Standard Version (RSV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the Roman Catholic New American Bible (NAB).

[2]. Wayne Grudem, “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 53-54; idem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 180; John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 33 n. 30, 47, 53, 174, 178.

[3]. George Allen Turner, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 102.

[4]. The conclusions of J. E. Botha’s important word study of pisteuō contradict popular notions of “saving faith.” He concludes that this term often means agreement that something is true, or trust in someone or something, but not obedience or works (“The Meanings of Pisteuō in the Greek New Testament: A Semantic-Lexicographical Study,” Neotestamentica 21 [1987]: 225-40; see esp. 236). While faith may result in works, and faith may be one form of obedience (such as compliance with God’s command for the lost to believe the gospel), works and ongoing obedience are separate from “saving faith” and not inherent to it. Botha’s study also confirms that faith includes the elements of knowledge, mental assent, and trust, but not works.

[5]. John Piper, “The Justification Debate: A Primer,” Christianity Today (June 2009): 35.

[6]. Thomas R. Schreiner, Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 191.

[7]. See the article in this journal on the Greek present tense.

[8]. These include the King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), and the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims translation.

[9]. Dennis M. Rokser, Shall Never Perish Forever (Duluth, MN: Grace Gospel Press, 2013), 77 n. 6.

[10]. Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 82. Unfortunately, this entry was edited by Danker in the 3rd edition of this lexicon published in 2000, evidently without any lexical evidence or basis for doing so, making the alteration appear theologically motivated.

[11]. These include the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) and the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible and New Jerusalem Bible.

[12]. Rokser, Shall Never Perish Forever, 77 n. 6.

[13]. C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 1:66-67; Frederic L. Godet, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977), 82; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 50.

[14]. W. Robert Cook, The Theology of John (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 93 n. 42.