Without question, the most familiar Scripture in the whole Bible is John 3:16. The New American Standard Bible reads it this way:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

Similarly, the New International Version reads,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

These renderings leave no question in the reader’s mind that faith in the Son of God is a certain assurance of eternal life. Believers in Jesus shall not perish. The old hymn, Faith Is the Victory, comes to mind.

But look at how the old King James Version puts this familiar Scripture:

“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.”

The assertion of salvation by faith here may not appear as certain to some readers. In this version, anyone who believes should not perish. It’s semantics, but at any rate, the slight wording difference causes some to soften the rhetorical force of this passage. Does believing in Jesus mean I will (shall) have salvation? Or, as the old RSV puts it, “Whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Among the ranks of those that translate this passage with “should/may not perish” are the English Standard Version(should not perish), the American Standard Version (may not perish), the New King James Version, and several others.

In fact, most English versions opt to use should/might over shall/will in John 3:16. The reason is simple: The Greek word translated as “perish” is an aorist subjunctive. The subjunctive is one of four Greek moods.

“The mood of a verb is a morphological feature of the verb that indicates the author’s or speaker’s attitude (i.e., its actuality or potentiality) toward an event” (Köstenberger 199).

So, for example, if I were speaking about a definite historical event, I would use the indicative mood—because I know this event is set in stone, it happened. But if I were speaking of a hypothetical future event, I would use the optative mood because while it may happen or could happen, I don’t really know for certain—my mood isn’t very confident about it.

The subjunctive mood sits somewhere between the indicative (with all of its certainty) and the optative (with all of its uncertainty). Put simply, “The subjunctive mood represents the verbal action as indefinite but probable” (Köstenberger).

Given that simple definition, some preachers and teachers have suggested that John 3:16 means something like the following:

“If you believe in Jesus, you may go to heaven—but it’s not a guarantee because Jesus also expects for you to get baptized and live a faithful life.”

Baptism and faithful living aside, this take is a misrepresentation of both the meaning of John 3:16 and the actual use of the subjunctive mood. Throughout the New Testament, the subjunctive mood is often used for definite truths or events, which maintain a degree of uncertainty related to the event.

For example, in 1 John 1:9, John writes,

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The Greek word “forgive” is an aorist subjunctive, exactly like the word “perish” in John 3:16. Would anybody argue that if we confess our sins, God is faithful to maybe forgive us? Of course not. In this verse, the subjunctive doesn’t suggest uncertainty about God’s forgiveness at all. Rather, God’s forgiveness hinges on the precondition of confession being met. If confession doesn’t happen, then forgiveness won’t happen, either. That’s why John uses the subjunctive here.

Another example. In 1 John 2:28, John writes,

“abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”

The phrase “when he appears” is an aorist subjunctive, just like the phrase “should not perish” in John 3:16. Are we to argue that John’s use of the subjunctive casts doubt on Jesus’ coming? “He may come. He might come. We’re not really sure!” Would anybody argue that? The problem is that some persons apply simple definitions to a very complex system of language, and corresponding conclusions can be misleading. Regarding 1 John 2:28, this quote is helpful:

“John uses the subjunctive not because the return of Christ is uncertain, but because the time of his return is unknown to us and therefore is indefinite” (Köstenberger 202).

Therefore, it is an oversimplification of the subjunctive mood to pigeonhole every instance of it in terms of uncertainty.


In John 3:16, we read,

“For God so loved the world, in order that everyone who believes on him should not perish but have eternal life” (my translation).

A subjunctive verb following the phrase “in order that” (Gr. ἵνα) is very common throughout the New Testament. These are subjunctive result clauses. And the rhetorical purpose of the subjunctive is not to cast doubt on its certainty but to serve as the result of what preceded it in the text.

In John 3:16, Jesus is saying, the result of God’s great love for every sinful man is that perishing won’t happen and eternal life will happen. More specifically, God’s love results in such a future for everyone who believes in Jesus.

Jesus is not using the subjunctive here because he has baptism and obedience in the back of his mind when he said it. Nowhere in the Bible is faith described as the mere intellectual assent to God apart from an obedient spirit. In fact, separating faith into its own class and obedience into its own class is not something the Bible ever does. Everywhere in the Bible, we are told that salvation is by faith. We must not allow modern misconceptions and misapplications of faith to make us shy away from the clear things the Bible says.

Whoever believes in Jesus will not perish. The subjunctive mood casts absolutely zero doubt on the plain meaning of this Scripture. In fact, look at John 3:18: Jesus said, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” There is no subjunctive here. The statement is a present indicative. It is absolute. It is certain. And Jesus says it immediately after his prior subjunctive. By Jesus’ own words, he immediately undoes our simple misconstructions.

Now, we know that salvation is by faith. The Scriptures are too many to number. So, let us be faithful to the Lord by living lives of faith. Let us be faithful by acting faithful. Let us demonstrate Biblical faith in all that we do. Believing in Jesus means that we always look to him for everything. “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 9:33).

Our greatest work as the body of Christ is to demonstrate before the world what it truly means to believe. And then, they can understand what Jesus meant when he promised life to all such persons.


Work Cited

Köstenberger, Andreas J., et al. Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament. B&H Academic, 2020.

Daniel Mayfield
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"Daniel serves as a preacher and teacher at the Oldham Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. He does this work with the invaluable aid, wisdom, and encouragement of his wife, Miranda. They have two young sons, Judah and Zion, and one beautiful daughter, Eden. Daniel had served in Oklahoma for nearly five years, before which time he and Miranda served as missionaries in the Caribbean. Daniel is a graduate of both Bear Valley and Oklahoma Christian University. His greatest passion is to preach the gospel of Jesus to anyone who will listen."