28Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
In the verses above, those who will experience the resurrection of life are said to be “those who have done good.” The resurrection of condemnation is reserved for “those who have done evil.”
In light of the fourth Gospel as a whole, and the teaching of justification by faith alone in the rest of the Bible, this is an impossible interpretation (see, for example, John 3:16-18, 36; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:47; Gal 3:6-14; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
There are four different ways to interpret these verses.
The Characterized-by-Good View
Some understand the Lord to be saying that all believers will be characterized by lives of good works. While believers are not sinless, all believers are good. If one looks at the course of the whole life, rather than at short segments, believers are good people in their experience.
The problem with this view is that there are passages which tell of believers whose lives were not characterized by good deeds (e.g., 1 Cor 3:3; 11:30; Jas 5:19-20). This leads to a second view where simply the presence of good works is meant.
The Some-Good-Works View
It is possible to understand these verses to teach that all believers will at least do some good works. This gets around the problem of suggesting that all believers’ lives are characterized by good works. In the parable of the four soils all three of the believing soils “sprang up” (Luke 8:6, 7, 8). The green shoots coming out of the ground suggest that all believers produce at least some good works. Of course, we may not recognize the works. They are surely not the basis for assurance (Matt 7:22). But unless a believer dies at the moment of faith, there will be some good deeds even if only God recognizes them.
One drawback to this view is that the context is about the need to believe in Jesus (5:19-23, 24-27). It is not about good works.
Another possible drawback exists if the Lord may be implying that the reason the first group is resurrected to life is precisely because they did good. That concern, however, is far from clear since nothing in these verses indicates causality.
The Positional View
Zane Hodges has suggested a different interpretation. He sees here an example of the Johannine use of absolute language. Positionally speaking all believers are holy and sinless: “Strictly speaking John 5:28-29 views men from the vantage point of the world to come…[Believers] are seen simply as people who have done good…The believer is justified from all things on the basis of faith.”1
Speaking further about justification by faith Hodges adds, “It follows, therefore, that if the acceptance [of the believer by God] is complete the believer must be regarded by God as completely holy…There no longer remains anything in His view of them— however minute—that could invite His judgment!…There is no hint of failure, no taint of isolated imperfection in any of them.”2
Unbelievers, however, are not holy in their position. Unlike believers they are evil doers.
The only possible objection to this view is that one might wonder whether the designation “those who have done good” most naturally refers to the perfect position of the believer.
The Believing-in-Jesus View
A final view is a slight variation to that of Hodges. In this view the good that Jesus has in mind is believing in Him. Similarly the evil in view is rejecting Him.
This fits the immediate context (see 5:24, 39-47). It also harmonizes well with 6:29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent,” and 3:36, “he who does not believe [or does not obey] the Son shall not see life…”
I was struck when I reread Hodges’s article how many times he refers to justification by faith and believing in Jesus. Clearly while he doesn’t call the good believing, he sees it as the reason they are good. It is a small step to understand the act of believing as the good which the believers have done.
There are no other uses of the designation “those who have done good” elsewhere in John or the entire New Testament.
The word good (agathos in Greek) occurs only two other times in John’s Gospel. In 1:46 Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Similarly in 7:12 some say of Jesus, “He is good.” There isn’t much help here.
There are two helpful parallels to these verses. First, there is another reference to the resurrection of the righteous in John’s Gospel. When Jesus spoke with Martha He said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25a). Then He said, “He who believes in Me, though He may die, he shall live” (John 11:25b). As the resurrection He promises to resurrect all who believe in Him!
Second, there is another reference in John to those who are condemned and those who are not. “He who believes in Me is not condemned. He who does not believe is condemned already, for he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Once again the ones not condemned are those who believe and the ones who are condemned are those who don’t believe.
It is reasonable to understand the Lord to mean that it is good to believe in Him. It is bad not to believe in Him. Indeed the only sin which condemns is the sin of unbelief (John 3:18; 8:24; Rev 20:15).
The first view, while widely held, doesn’t fit the context and is contradicted by other Scriptures.
The other three views are all possible. The question is which one best fits the context.
The last view has the advantage of simplicity and of harmonizing well with the immediate and greater context.
So, if you are a believer, you are in the group that has done good. You have eternal life, shall not come into condemnation, and have passed from death into life (John 5:24).
That truly is good news.