(Jn. 3:36) Does this passage require obedience in order to have saving faith?

CLAIM: Jesus says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (Jn. 3:36). John MacArthur writes, “Thus the true test of faith is this: does it produce obedience? If not, it is not saving faith. Disobedience is unbelief. Real faith obeys.”[1] Lordship theologians use this verse to equate faith with obedience. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: The Greek word for “disobey” here is apeitheo. But in this context, what does it mean to “disobey” God? Live a sinful lifestyle? Not follow the Ten Commandments? No, in this context, the term is used in contrast to “believe” (pisteuo). Therefore, many commentators simply understand “obey” (apeitheo) to refer to unbelief. D.A. Carson writes, “If faith in the Son is the only way to inherit eternal life, and is commanded by God himself, then failure to trust him is as much disobedience as unbelief.”[2] BDAG writes, “Since, in the view of the early Christians, the supreme disobedience was a refusal to believe their gospel, apeitheo may be restricted in some passages to the meaning disbelieve, be an unbeliever. This sense, though greatly disputed (it is not found outside our lit.), seems most probable in John 3:36.”[3]

In other words, “disobey” means to “reject” Christ (as the NIV and NET translate John 3:36). In fact, this term (apeitho) is translated as “disbelieve” by the NASB in Acts 14:2. Elsewhere, this term is used synonymously with “unbelief” or “disbelieving” (For instance, see this in Heb. 3:18-19; 1 Pet. 2:7-8).

[1] MacArthur, John F. The Gospel According to Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan House, 1988. 47.

[2] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 214). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[3] Cited in Morris, L. (1995). The Gospel according to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.