Problem Passages in the Gospel of John Part 4: Coming to the Light—John 3:20-21 -- By: Zane C. Hodges

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 135:540 (Oct 1978)
Article: Problem Passages in the Gospel of John Part 4: Coming to the Light—John 3:20-21
Author: Zane C. Hodges

Problem Passages in the Gospel of John
Part 4:
Coming to the Light—John 3:20-21

Zane C. Hodges

[Zane C. Hodges, Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis, Dallas Theological Seminary.]

At the very end of the famous discourse between the Lord Jesus and Nicodemus stands a statement which, upon reflection, is rather puzzling. The last words spoken in this segment of Johannine material are these: “But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God” (John 3:21). Although it is possible to read this assertion without immediately sensing a problem, it is not possible to come to terms with its precise meaning without realizing that it raises a very profound question which ought not to be casually dismissed. The purpose of the discussion to follow is to highlight this question and to suggest a solution which is consonant with Johannine thought.

The Problem of John 3:21

The problem encountered in John 3:21 may be succinctly stated. If “coming to the light” is to be regarded as synonymous with “believing in His name,” then it is hard to understand how persons so described can be regarded as individuals who “do the truth” and whose “deeds are wrought in God.” This difficulty was recognized long ago by John Calvin who wrote of it as follows:

21. But he that doeth the truth. This seems an incorrect and absurd remark unless you are willing to admit that some are upright and true before they are regenerated by the Spirit of God, which does not at all fit in with the general teaching of Scripture, for we know that faith is the root from which good works spring.1

Quite properly Calvin raised the question whether the prima facie meaning of this text is consistent with the analogy of the faith. Since it is a fundamental datum of Christianity that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) and since Jesus Himself said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32; cf. Matt 9:13; Mark 2:17), it is hard to believe that those who do in fact come to Christ in faith may be accurately described by the terms used in John 3:21. A sinner can hardly be, conceived of as “doing the truth,” still less as coming to the light so that his deeds can be “manifes...

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