A reader from Latvia, M. A., asks:
I understand your argument that a Christian could not possibly lose his/her salvation because “everlasting life” in John 3:16 by definition means a life that never ends—therefore a life that can’t be lost. But why couldn’t we see the “everlasting life” mentioned in the verse to solely mean life in heaven? That way Jesus would have been basically saying this: “Whosoever believes in Me has a place reserved in heaven or will live forever there or has everlasting life there.” I am troubled with this interpretation, though, because with it, of course, assurance of salvation is gone.
I really like this question.
There are two levels to the question.
First, is the understanding suggested by M. A. possible for John 3:16?
No. That understanding is not possible because the Lord Jesus speaks of everlasting life as a present possession, not as something we get after we die. Compare John 5:24; 6:47.
Once a person believes in Jesus for everlasting life, he has it. He does not wait until after he dies to get it.
Second, if someone understands John 3:16 as referring to life forever in heaven after we die, would he be born again believing that?
It depends. M.A. says that view eliminates assurance. He evidently is referring to Arminians who say that John 3:16 refers to life forever with God in heaven if we not only believe in Jesus, but also follow Him in obedience all our lives. Such a view does eliminate assurance. And it rejects what Jesus is saying is John 3:16. If someone understands John 3:16 to be a promise of life in heaven forever if we persevere in faith and good works, then he has rejected what the Lord says there.
But some people understand John 3:16 to refer to a guaranteed future life with Jesus in heaven for those who simply believe in Jesus. While John 3:16 is not about where we will spend eternity, that understanding of John 3:16 grasps the essential truth of the verse, that the believer will never perish but will spend eternity with the Lord in His kingdom.
The way evangelism is expressed in the NT is such that the condition is always stated as believing in Jesus, but the consequence is sometimes everlasting life, sometimes salvation, and sometimes justification. The point is clear that we must believe that when we believe in Jesus, we get a secure eternal destiny. If someone understands everlasting life in John 3:16 to refer to a guaranteed home in heaven forever for the one who simply believes in Jesus, then he gets the point. That is not quite the same as everlasting life now, but it does grasp the eternality of the salvation, which is the essential point.
The Philippian jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Paul’s answer was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved…” (Acts 16:31). The salvation in view is everlasting life, but Luke does not explain that. A person could believe once saved, always saved, and yet might think that everlasting life starts after you die. He would be wrong but born again.
Cornelius was told to send for Simon Peter “who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved” (Acts 11:14). As Peter was nearing the end of his message, he said, “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). At that moment, Cornelius and his household believed in Jesus for their salvation and were born again (Acts 10:44-48). They understood receiving the remission of sins as speaking of what occurs when one is saved (Acts 11:14). But there is no indication that they heard the specific expression everlasting life. To believe in Jesus for a secure salvation is that same as believing in Him for everlasting life.
Paul preached justification by faith alone (Acts 13:39). Believing that message is equivalent to believing in Jesus for everlasting life.
At our 2006 annual conference, Zane Hodges and Bob Bryant gave messages showing that a person had to believe in the promise of everlasting life in order to have that life. They did not say or mean that one could only be saved by hearing the specific promise of everlasting life. But some at the conference objected. Hodges and Bryant made it clear that they mean that one had to believe in the eternality of the life received. It could be understood as eternally secure salvation, justification that cannot be lost, a secure eternal relationship with God, everlasting life that cannot be lost, or even a guaranteed home in heaven forever (even though the future home of believers is the new earth, not the third heaven, as Revelation 21-22 show).
Thanks for the great question, M.A. I’m so glad our ministry is reaching people in Latvia and all around the world.