I recently received the following question:
Hi Bob, hope you’re well. Can you give me your thoughts on the word “should” in John 3:16 vs Ephesians 2:10? “Should” in John seems to have to mean “certainly will” whereas the one in Ephesians 2:10 seems to have to mean “ought to happen, but may not”. How do we explain why the same word means different things?
I ask to be better equipped for a conversation likely to come up with a person at our church who used to be free grace and has now become convinced Calvinism is the correct understanding.
Here is my reply to that great question.
The word should in both verses is not actually a separate word in the Greek. It is placed there by translators because the mood of the verb in both cases is subjunctive. In Greek (as in English) the subjunctive mood expresses a possibility or a consequence which results if a condition is met.
In the case of John 3:16 the condition is “whoever believes in Him.” When that condition is met, two things happen. The person is guaranteed that he will never perish (aorist subjunctive) and that he has (present subjunctive) everlasting life.
Notice that elsewhere the Lord did not use a subjunctive mood of the verb to have (echein in Greek). “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). That is the indicative mood, a statement of fact. He says the same thing using the indicative mood in John 5:24. He also uses the subjunctive mood elsewhere to emphatically affirm eternal security for the believer: “He who comes to Me shall never hunger (aorist subjunctive), and he who believes in Me shall never thirst (aorist subjunctive)” (John 6:35). “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die (aorist subjunctive)” (John 11:26).
Actually, half or more of the English translations of John 3:16 do not use the word should, evidently because the translators felt that might confuse people. The NASB and NIV read, “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The NET Bible, LEB, and HCSB have the same translation except that they replace shall with will (will not perish). Among the major translations, only the NKJV, KJV, ESV, and RSV have should not perish.
Now what about Eph 2:10. The first thing to note is that Eph 2:8-9 has second-person plurals (by grace you have been saved through faith…not of yourselves) but Eph 2:10 has first-person plurals. Why the change? Why doesn’t Eph 2:10 say, For you are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that you should walk in them?
The reason is simple. In Ephesians the second-person plural refers to the Gentile believers in Ephesus. The first-person plural refers to the Body of Christ, the Church, Jews and Gentiles together in one body. Notice that Eph 2:11 starts, “Therefore remember you, once Gentiles in the flesh…” In verse 14 Paul says “he has made both [Jews and Gentiles] one.
Thus Eph 2:10 is corporate, not individual. The Church of Jesus Christ has been designed to produce good works. By application, all local churches should produce good works. By further application, all believers should be in local churches and should be doing their parts to aid the entire assembly in doing good works.
Could we translate Eph 2:10 as that we shall walk in them? Certainly. The NASB says “so that we would walk in them.” Many versions simply translate the end of verse 10 as a statement of fact. See, for example, NIV, NRSV, and CEB. That does not mean that every believer is producing a life characterized by good works. It doesn’t even mean that every local church is characterized by good works. But it does mean that the Body of Christ will produce good works. Did not the Lord guarantee that when He said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His church (Matt 16:18)?
I happen to believe, by the way, there every single born-again person produces good works, with the exception of one who dies at the moment of faith in Christ. I think it would be a rare day when a believer in Jesus Christ did not do at least some good works. Even baby believers, in my opinion, do good works each day. But that is a far cry from saying that Eph 2:10 guarantees that every believer will be faithful, will be spiritual, will confess Christ, and will produce more good works than bad works. We know from 1 Corinthians that believers might think and act like unbelievers (e.g., 1 Cor 3:3-4). But yet the carnal believers in Corinth surely were doing some loving acts toward their spouses, their children, their extended family, their friends, and others (cf. Matt 7:9-11).
 Matthew 7:9-11 seems to imply that even unbelievers do some good works. The reason is that they still retain the image of God (though His image has been marred due to the fall). And the Holy Spirit is moving all to do good works. See also Acts 10:1-8.