Question: “I was asking a minister about his belief in Eternal Security. He said there is only one thing that makes him wonder. In John 3:16, the words “should not perish” confuses him. He said it seemed to him that if you cannot lose your salvation it would say shall not perish. I was wondering if you could help me explain to him?”
I think the minister’s concern of eternal security as far as John 3:16 is a great question but in the end it is unnecessary. The verse says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”(John 3:16). I think your friend is concerned because of the conditional aspect of the word “should” as you indicated in your question above. Or, even after I trust in Jesus as my Lord and Savior is there a possibility I might lose my salvation status?
There are a couple of avenues you could take to assist your friend. I’ll pursue three such avenues.
First, look at the overall conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. If we look down from verse 16 to verse 18 where we see this: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18). Here it is obvious that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that if a person does not believe in Jesus Christ during this life then he is condemned in the next life. Yet, if a person believes in Jesus Christ during the span of his life then this person is saved from future condemnation. So the present action of belief elicits a future verdict of non-guilty after your death.
Later on in the same chapter, Jesus will same the same thing: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). The clarity both in verse 18 and in 36 assists us when trying to figure out the word “should” in verse 16. Because these verses are so clear and they are in the same conversation as John 3:16, we have a better grasp of Jesus’ thought. Simply, they both confirm that when a person places their belief in Jesus Christ they avoid future condemnation.
Second, see the magnitude of God’s love in John 3:16. Jesus’ point is to show the intensity of God’s love for His children. If a person were to look at verse 16 and ask, “How does God love people according to this passage?” The quick reply would be that the Father loves people to such an extent that He gave them the most infinitely valuable gift possible – His Son.
We see this more clearly when we look back at verses 14 – 15 where believers are to look at Christ as Old Testament saints looked at the bronze snake. Jesus is likewise lifted up for all people to see. The words of verse 16 “he gave his only Son” (emphasis mine) stresses the greatness of God’s gift. God the Father gave the very best gift possible as He gave His Son. We know that the Son was the best gift possible when we see the Gospel of John’s emphasis on the Father’s love for the Son (see John 3:35; 10:17; 15;9-10 for a few examples). When believers look at the greatness of the God’s gift, we see His immense love and sacrifice for us. Later on the Apostle Paul would say when looking at the Father’s sacrifice of the Son: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 5:8). If a person has the Son, then he has everything. There is nothing God has not given the person who has the Son. If your friend is worried about losing his salvation, what else could God give Him that he doesn’t already have?
Third, realize the purpose of Christ’s death. The word “should” in verse 16 should not be read as if it raises uncertainty for those who trust Jesus Christ. The reason why the word “should” need not cause us concern is because it follows the word “that”. The word “that” signals the reader to the purpose of Jesus’ death as it is referred to in Greek as a “hina” clause. This technical term is used to express purpose in the original language of the New Testament. It can often be translated “in order that.”
Putting this together now… Jesus died in order that anyone who trusts in Him will most certainly not perish. In other words, the purpose of the cross was for believers to have eternal life. When God sets out to do something, He will most certainly accomplish His designated task. God sent forth His Son to die on the cross for sinners. His Son’s death will definitely accomplish God’s purpose. Anyone who trusts in Christ will indeed have eternal life. Nothing can prevent God from saving the individual who trusts in His Son (see also John 10:27-30).
I would also point you to two sermons I have uploaded on 1 Peter 1:3-5 as these verses are as clear as any in the New Testament on a person’s assurance of salvation. You can view them here.