Jesus says the following:
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (5:24).
and then a few verses later….
“all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those have done evil will rise to be condemned” (5:29)
Are Jesus’ words Contradictory?
If I go based on what I read only in v. 29, I’m in trouble. I do not have enough good works to merit life eternal. Not only that, but if this is the case, then following Jesus is no different than any other religion. Because every other religion on earth is based on the “scale system.” If your good works outweigh your bad works then you’re good. The “I’ve lived a good life’ then is enough.
But to read these verses we must read them in their context. And it’s noteworthy that Jesus has said that belief in him is what causes someone to cross over from death to life.
So since Jesus started this pericope with “belief,” let’s start there.
Believing in Jesus
Let’s back up to the beginning of John because from the beginning, believing in Jesus was central. And sandwiches this contextually:
- “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1:12)
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16)
- Whoever believes in him is not condemned” (3:17)
- Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (3:36)
- “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (5:24).
And then we come to 5:29. Then
- “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (Jn 6:29)
- Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (Jn 6:35)
- For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (6:40)
- Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life (6:47)
- Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them (7:38)
The Scriptures continue. The word “believe” is used 84 times in John. Clearly, and without a shadow of a doubt, Jesus has made it unequivocally clear that believing in him is the mode of crossing over from death to life. If you choose not to believe, your sins remain on you, and so does the wrath of God.
- “…whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (3:17)
- “Whoever … whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them (3:36)
- “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (Jn 8:24)
Why this Scripture?
Jesus has been talking about the day when the “dead will hear the voice of the Son of God” (v. 25) and that in Jesus is the “authority to judge” (v. 27). Jesus also has been granted “life in himself” (v. 26).
The first thing to understand is that the first “good work” is to believe in Jesus (Jn 6:29). This indeed is different than “doing good,” but it’s important to understand that as foundation.
Secondly, good works are the natural outcome of the life of faith. They are not the source of salvation but the fruit of it. We see these two things working together in one of Paul’s letters:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:8-10).
Good works aren’t the salvation. That is through grace through faith in Jesus, and is a gift. But good works are the fulfillment of who God made us to be, and the fruit of our salvation.
Third, those who have “done evil” have no protection from their sins as those who are in Jesus do. In fact, they ‘remain under God’s wrath’ (3:36). The difference between evil doers and Jesus believers are they may both have the same or varying degrees of God and/or evil works under their belt, but those in Jesus have been cleansed from evil. Those outside of Jesus have not. Therefore condemnation awaits for evil doers outside of Jesus. But those in Jesus rise to life, their sins erased.
The most important part of understanding this Scripture is to take it in context. Anything said by anyone can be distorted when removed from context. And without a doubt and with a significant number of Scriptures, Jesus makes it clear that for you who believe, there is no condemnation or wrath. For those who don’t believe? You remain in God’s wrath.