Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #749 ------- May 31, 2018
One who has been touched by grace will no longer look
on those who stray as "those evil people" or "those poor
people who need our help." Nor must we search for signs
of "loveworthiness." Grace teaches us that God loves us
because of who God is, not because of who we are.

Philip Yancey [b. 1949]

The "Shall" or "Should" Debate
Scrutinizing the Subjunctive in John 3:16

Max Lucado referred to John 3:16 as "the Hope Diamond of the Bible." He further noted the following about this powerful passage: "It is a twenty-six-word parade of hope: beginning with God, ending with life, and urging us to do the same. Brief enough to write on a napkin or memorize in a moment, yet solid enough to weather two thousand years of storms and questions. If you know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything about the Bible, return here. We all need the reminder. The heart of the human problem is the heart of the human. And God's treatment is prescribed in John 3:16." Most English speaking peoples are probably most familiar with this passage in the wording of the King James Version: "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." This is truly one of the most beloved passages in the Bible, and it has often been characterized as "the Gospel in a nutshell." Its focus is the salvation of those who believe: a salvation motivated by the Father's love and secured by the Son's sacrifice. It is a global gift of grace; an all-encompassing desire of deity that none perish, but that all would turn from darkness to light. Although none of us are inherently worthy of such mercy, His love covers our imperfection and embraces us as cherished children nonetheless, for by faith in such love and its divine expression we are redeemed.

As beautiful and beloved as this passage is, however, it is not without some criticism and controversy. The works-centered crowd is quick to suggest that, with respect to one's ultimate salvation, the teaching of this passage is insufficient. Yes, faith is vital, they will say, but it is baptism in water that secures our salvation, not faith alone. This, as we all know, has led to centuries of heated debate and disheartening division among disciples of Christ. There is also significant theological discussion over the use of the phrase "only begotten." Some translations have removed the word "begotten" and altered the phrase to read "only" or "one and only" or "unique." I have dealt with this in Reflections #26 ("A Study of Monogenes: The 'Only Begotten' Fallacy"). Further, there have been significant debates as to what "perish" means with respect to the everlasting fate of the wicked, just as there is debate concerning the concept of "everlasting life" and what that signifies for the redeemed. Over the years I have addressed each of these. There is another concern with this passage, however, that I have not previously confronted in my writings, so I will attempt to do so here. That concern is over whether the verse should read "shall (will) not perish" or "should not perish." This may seem trifling to many, but it is no small theological concern for some. For example, a reader in Colorado recently wrote me, saying, "Just a quick question about John 3:16. One of our elders made the point Wednesday night that the translation 'whoever believes in Him should not perish' is the only correct translation. He said that 'will not' and 'shall not' are not correct translations from the Greek. I would like to hear your view on this."

After examining about 60 different versions and translations of this passage at my disposal, I found that 33 of them opted for "should" or "may," while 27 chose "shall" or "will." Among the former are such notable versions as: King James Version, New King James Version, American Standard Version, English Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, and Young's Literal Translation, just to name a few. Some of those opting for the latter are: New American Standard Bible, New International Version, Contemporary English Version, New Living Translation, World English Bible, Wycliffe Bible, Holman Christian Standard Bible, and others. We quickly discern from this evidence that there is no real consensus among biblical translators as to how this phrase is to be translated. About half of them opt for "shall," while the other half opt for "should," and there are a number of well-respected versions behind each of these renderings.

The real question underlying this whole discussion and debate is whether or not one's salvation (motivated by God's love and received by man's faith) is conditional or absolute. If the latter, then those who believe will not perish, for God has so willed it; if the former, then those who believe should not perish, but that is conditioned upon each person's willful choice to either receive or reject that gift of grace (and then to continue in that grace or cast it aside). Those who believe strongly in the "eternal security of the believer" (what some might characterize as "once saved, always saved") tend to prefer the reading "will/shall not perish," while those who believe man has freewill to choose his path and destiny tend to prefer the reading "should not perish." Thus, one's theology about the nature of the sovereignty of God, and whether or not man has the freedom of will to make choices impacting his/her eternal destiny, has great bearing on which translation is favored (and I suspect it had great bearing on which wording the translators themselves chose). Also at the center of this whole debate is the matter of how to translate the subjunctive mood in Greek, for the phrase in question in John 3:16 does indeed appear in this particular Greek mood. Missing the meaning of the various Greek moods in the work of biblical translation can greatly, and often adversely, affect the outcome, not only in the wording of the text, but also in the reader's understanding of its original intent. Dr. Charles Ellicott is right when he observes, "Perhaps no verse in the Bible has been so much explained as this" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 402]. Too many have read too much back into this verse (which is eisegesis, rather than exegesis), and in so doing have necessitated the need for extensive explanation to get us back to the original intent of the text (and author).

In John 3:16, the aged apostle John employs this phrase: "...that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, ..." (KJV). What is too often lost in translation (and made evident in the diversity of translation) is the fact that this phrase is written in the Greek subjunctive mood, yet it is translated by almost half of the versions as though it were in the Greek indicative mood (which it is not). Thus, at this point we should probably pause for a brief lesson on the nature and purpose of mood in the Greek language. There are four moods in Greek: indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and optative. The most commonly used in the NT writings is the indicative mood (15,618 times). Next is the subjunctive mood (1858 times), then the imperative mood (1631 times), and finally the optative mood (68 times). These stats are courtesy of Dr. Daniel B. Wallace [Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, p. 447]. But, what exactly is "mood"? Simply put, it is the way of expressing the idea or action of a verb or verbal phrase with regard to its relation to reality (whether actual, possible or probable). "The essence of mood is the way in which the verbal assertion is related to reality" [Drs. Dana & Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 166]. "Just as with 'tense' and 'voice,' 'mood' is a morphological feature of the verb. 'Voice' indicates how the subject relates to the action or state of the verb, 'tense' is used primarily to portray the kind of action, and, in general, 'mood' is the feature of the verb that presents the verbal action or state with reference to its actuality or potentiality" [Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, p. 443]. Notice the following summaries and examples:

When we examine the text of John 3:16, in light of the above distinctions in the nature of the above Greek moods, we gain some additional insight. This beloved passage contains a phrase that is worded in the subjunctive mood, and there is a definite message conveyed by that grammatical construction. Our God loved the world (His creation, the chief aspect of which is mankind, for whom this glorious creation was made) so much, that He freely gave, as a remedy for sin, His one and only Son. That is a statement of fact presented in the first part of the verse. We then find the following Greek statement: "hina pas ho pisteuon eis auton me apoletai all' eche zoen aionion," which translates to: "in order that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life." There are several things we need to note here. "Everyone who believes" is a participial phrase, and the word "believe" appears in the present tense, which conveys the idea of continuing action. In other words, the Lord Jesus, as He speaks to Nicodemus, is talking about those who continue in faith/belief. This is a very important point to make in understanding this passage. The phrase "in order that" is actually a single Greek word: it is the conjunction "hina" (which is used with the subjunctive in conditional sentences, which the latter half of John 3:16 is). If this were not a conditional sentence, then the conjunction "hoti" would be used (which also means "in order that"). The same is true of the English word "not" in the phrase ("not perish"). It is the Greek word "me" (which is used with the subjunctive in conditional sentences); if the subjunctive was not being used here, then the Greek word for "not" would be "ou." These are all indicators that we are dealing with a subjunctive phrase (thus, a conditional sentence). Of course, this is also affirmed by the verbs themselves. "Perish" is here written in the form of an aorist subjunctive, and "have" is written in the form of a present subjunctive. Thus, perishing is something that is seen as occurring at a specific point, while the gift those continuing in belief "have" is also continuous in nature. The believer will have life eternal continually (forever), while those who perish will do so at a specific point, and that destruction will be a forever result (not a forever process).

What is Jesus saying to Nicodemus? "In this negative 'should not perish,' Jesus touches the first great warning for Nicodemus: God does not want him to perish -- does he himself mean to perish, nevertheless? He surely will if he becomes obdurate in unbelief" [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 265]. The word "perish" in the Greek construction of this sentence appears in the middle voice, to which Lenski alludes when saying of Nicodemus, "does he himself mean to perish?" This is really the question posed here by Jesus, both to Nicodemus and to mankind in general. You yourself, we ourselves, he himself -- we all have the freedom of will to make a choice; a choice that affects our eternal destiny. Will we choose to believe and continue in that belief, or will we choose not to believe, and continue in that disbelief, resulting in an eternal destruction (we perish)? God has no desire that anyone perish (2 Peter 3:9), yet He gives us the right to choose our destiny. God extends to all men a free gift: everlasting life! It is conditioned upon only one thing: accepting it by faith! Believe and live; disbelieve and die. "All that one has to do to perish is nothing!" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 50]. "Salvation is a gift received only by believing. ... Belief consists of accepting something, not doing something. The result of belief is that one receives eternal life" [ibid]. And yes, we can be absolutely sure that this salvation will never be taken from us by God, nor is there any power in the universe that can snatch you out of God's loving embrace. There is certainty in belief/faith. "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand" (John 10:27-29 - note: the phrase underlined appears in the subjunctive mood in Greek). "And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:11-13).

Yes, there is certainty and security for those who continue in their belief/faith. Yes, we often stumble and fall; there will be times in our continuing walk with Him that sin wins a battle in our lives -- but, for those who continue in faith, sin will never win the final victory (see: 1 John 1:1 - 2:2). For those who continually walk in the light with Him, there is continuing cleansing of all sin. God will not cast you off, nor is there any power that can snatch you from the hand of the Father. So, why then is John 3:16 written in the subjunctive mood? What is the conditional nature of this passage? It is you yourself!! Belief is a choice; so is continuing in that belief. God will not make it for you, neither will God force you, against your will, to continue in that choice. In this sense, we are masters of our fate. We can receive this gift of grace, or we can reject it. Having received it, we can also turn away from it, and then continue in that rejection. The consequence in either case is that we will perish. This should not happen!! WHY would anyone willingly choose this fate? Yet, because we have freedom of choice as a result of our God-given freewill, such choices can be made. WE are the uncertainty in the certainty of the Good News. "See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12). This is the danger that threatens us. This is the reason for the subjunctive in John 3:16. While no one and no thing can snatch this life from us, you and I can, and many do, tragically, turn away from it. "Be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest" (Hebrews 4:1-3). May it truly be said by each of us as we journey with Him through this earthly life: "We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved" (Hebrews 10:39).


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Readers' Reflections

A Special "Shout Out" to Buff Scott, Jr. -- This dear brother and I have been friends for a good many years, and we are genuine and vocal supporters of each other's ministries and writings. Buff, who lives in Arizona, has been publishing online, and sending out via email, his excellent thoughts in his periodical "Reformation Rumblings," to which I have long subscribed, just as he has been a subscriber of my "Reflections" from the beginning. What makes this friendship so very special to me is that Buff and I don't always agree on theological matters. Yet, our love and respect for one another has never wavered. He and I have both had many "friends" over the years turn against us because we dared to differ with their cherished traditions and teachings. I can't help but feel Buff and I exemplify a "better way" - a far more "godly way." In his May 13 issue of "Reformation Rumblings" he provided a somewhat different understanding of Matthew 27:50-53, with which I had dealt in Reflections #748: "Summoning Sheol's Sleeping Saints." At the end of his article, which is sent out to a large mailing list (as are my "Reflections"), he wrote the following, which is a reflection of his gracious, Christ-like character: "Endnote - For a different viewpoint on 'spirit' and 'flesh,' please contact author Al Maxey. This good brother has authored a book titled "From Ruin to Resurrection," wherein his observations are opposite mine. Yet he and I remain blood-brothers of the Lamb. He is among my favorite writers and authors. He also composed a recent column on Matthew 27:50-53. Please ask him for a copy. - Buff." If only more of God's children would show this same depth of brotherly love when they differ!! Thank you, Buff, for your godly example! By the way, if you are not on Buff's mailing list for his "Reformation Rumblings," I would urge you to write him at and request a subscription. He would be happy to add you.

A Special "Shout Out" to J. James Albert -- Five days after I received Buff's above referenced article, I received an article by another of my friends, who is also an author and a dear brother-in-Christ: J. James Albert. The subject line of that article dated May 18 was "For Your Thought - 69 (A Strange Phenomenon)." In light of the above remarks by and about Buff, I think these thoughts by Bro. Albert are very timely. He wrote: "The American Restoration Movement, or the Stone-Campbell Movement, as it is commonly called today, began as an effort to end sectarianism and unite the children of God. After considerable initial success, the members of the movement began to argue and dispute about interpretations relative to doctrinal matters. Before a century had passed it split into three denominations, one being the Churches of Christ. This denomination, in turn, split into multiple sects, each believing it was the one and only true body of Christ, and that truth lived and died with that sect. Those outside of their sect were deceived, false teachers, and heretical. I have even heard of those outside the sect in which I was raised being accused of being dishonest. What happened is a strange phenomenon. The sects of the Churches of Christ came about as a result of their being captured by the same spirit the movement was instigated to oppose. Among other things, brethren became judgmental and impugned the motives of others, although in many cases I think they were unwittingly reading their own motives into the hearts of others. Each sect developed its own unwritten creed which was/is used as a test of fellowship. It was no longer, 'No creed but Christ.' The unwritten creeds were/are more important than Jesus Christ. Unity in diversity gave way to the party line, and this created a 'walking on eggshells' atmosphere stymieing open discussion and sincere studying, questioning, and thinking. At the root of all of this was an attribute of the flesh: self-righteousness. Unfortunately, the spirit of this strange phenomenon is still with us to a great extent, although there have been some encouraging developments in recent decades. Sadly though, and to our shame, unbelievers are repelled by this turn of events, and sincere, spiritual brethren are intimidated and driven away. None of us are immune to being captured by the wrong spirit, but realizing we are saved by grace and that our righteousness is in Christ can help us to defeat it, or at least pacify it, somewhat." I applaud this brother's insight, and I urge you to write him and request to be put on his mailing list. You will not be disappointed.

From an Elder in Alabama:

I was just reading your Sheol document (Reflections #748: "Summoning Sheol's Sleeping Saints"), and I noticed, in your response in the "Readers' Reflections" section to the first reader, that you had once been blocked by AOL for "dirty" reasons. Who knows who blocked you or why you were blocked, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if it was because some of our conservative brethren did not want your teachings appearing on the Internet, and so they tried to hinder your efforts to spread the Truth. In contrast, I am very glad to get and read your timely comments in your Reflections.

From a Minister in New Zealand:

I intend to read all of your articles on "Conditionalism," which you have made available on your Topical Index site for your Reflections. I appreciate so much you making all of these available to your readers. Keep up the good work. If ever there was a time to stand firm, it is now! Also, I happened to come across the account in Ezra 10 and was quite awestruck by the actions taken here: i.e., that the men were to divorce their foreign wives. I then compared this with 1 Corinthians 7 and realized that circumstances largely dictate what is expedient. This has shown me again just how important it is to understand things contextually, and to be aware of the nature of their contemporary circumstances.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, Please send your Reflections to my new email address. I have been receiving your studies for some time now, but have recently changed my email address and don't want to miss any. I consider you to be one of the clear voices of our time! I pray for you and your work.

From a Reader in Georgia:

I just read your article titled "Summoning Sheol's Sleeping Saints." I hated to admit you were right about this (Conditionalism), but your book "From Ruin to Resurrection" was convincing! Regarding the saints who were raised -- can you imagine them going to their homes and wanting to know, "Hey, what happened to all my stuff?!" Blessings, brother!

From a Reader in Canada:

Once again, Al, you have thrown open the door, in your article "Summoning Sheol's Sleeping Saints," to a clear, simple understanding that has been confused and misunderstood for centuries. I am always amazed at how difficult it is to understand a simple biblical truth when we have been indoctrinated with a complex false version of that truth. I love how you are able to take such ridiculous religious teachings, break them down to simple statements, and then show us what God has really wanted all along. God has sent you to me as the biggest and most precious influence in my life for understanding the Word. Love you, brother!!

From a Reader in Maine:

In response to your request in your last Reflections for input, I offer this: I believe women and men are equal in God's sight, and that they should be equal in all respects in spiritual things. Galatians 3:19-29. Hence, how a woman might usurp the authority of a man is the same as how a man might usurp authority over another man (or a woman). More and more Christians and churches are coming to realize that we are to live and witness in our present culture, not as if we lived in NT times with its patriarchal system, primogeniture, education for males only, and general male dominance, which included men virtually owning women. Authority is to be granted voluntarily to others. Most men I know who insist on being the "head" of their wife, speak more about that when their spouses are not present; in reality, though, their marriages function largely as partnerships. By the way, I just recently heard of a sizable congregation on the east coast that recently added two women to its eldership.

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