The Trinity: What Does ‘Only Begotten Son’ Mean in John 3:16?

This is the most important and well-known verse in the Bible, but do we consider what that phrase means?

Ultimately the interrelations of the two persons of the Father and the Son in the one God is a mystery, but the verse needs to be opened up.

A few theologians, like Berkoff (p. 89, 93-94) and Frame (pp. 490-96) and the authors of the Nicene creed believe that begotten means that the Father eternally generates the Son. It is vital to say eternally generates because the Scriptures affirm that the Son does not have a beginning. It’s a Father-Son eternal relationship in the Godhead, not similar to the human father and human son, both of whom have a beginning.

Frame suggests, humbly, that begetting is connected with the Son becoming man or the incarnation.

Thus the fact that Jesus was begotten and born in history does give us some hints as to his eternal nature. His earthly begetting images something of her eternal relationship with the Father. I suggest that perhaps the phrase eternal generation could be taken to designate that parallel. To say that the Son is eternally generated from the Father is to say that something about his eternal nature makes it appropriate for him to be begotten in time. (p. 494, emphasis original)

Translation: It’s a parallel. Begetting in eternal heaven without beginning or creating the Son is like the Son being born in the womb of Mary, conceived by the Spirit, on temporal earth. This begetting had a beginning. However, the eternal begetting has no beginning, by definition because it is eternal.

Jesus is revealed in the New Testament as the Son, when he was born. As the Son, it was he who was by divine decree chosen to be born on this planet and in human time. The Father ordained his earthly birth. The word Son seems appropriate and suitable to that calling.

See my post: When Did Jesus “Become” the Son of God?

However, the details of the divine generation are forever hidden in that God relationship.

Still another interpretation:

Grudem (pp. 1233-34) and Moody (pp. 210-11) have a different and simpler idea about John 3:16.

The key word in John 3:16 is monogenēs in Greek, which had been traditionally translated as “only begotten” because the prefix mon– means “only” or “alone” or “unique.” The second half had been interpreted as “beget” as discussed above.

However, new research shows that the word more accurately means “one-of-a-kind” or “unique” or “in a class by itself” and has nothing to do with begetting or generating. The New American Standard Bible says in the margin at John 3:16 “unique, only one of his kind.” The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “only Son.”

“The only begotten does not suggest a coming into existence, but rather it expresses the uniqueness of the person. Christ was unique as the Son of God, sent by the Father from heaven” (Moody p. 210, emphasis original)

So Jesus is one-of-a-kind who belongs in a class by himself. Therefore the idea of the Son’s eternal generation by the Father is removed, and the interpretation of John 3:16 is simplified and clarified.

My choice: Frame’s ideas are very appealing, but if Grudem and Moody find the evidence, then so be it. If forced to choose, however, Frame is my preference—for now. But Frame is quick to point out that since we are not clear, we should not declare each other heretics or outside of orthodoxy.

So how does knowing about the Trinity help me know God better?

There is an entire ten-point post that answers that question, here:

The Trinity: What Does He Mean to Me?


When Did Jesus “Become” the Son of God?


The Trinity: What Are the Basics?

The Trinity: What Are Key Terms?

The Trinity: What Are Some Illustrations?

The Trinity: What Does the Old Testament Say?

The Trinity: Three Persons Together in the New Testament

The Trinity: What Do Theologians Say?

The Trinity: What Are His Roles in Creation and Redemption?

The Trinity: What Does ‘Only Begotten Son’ Mean in John 3:16?

The Trinity: What Do Arians and Jehovah’s Witnesses Teach?

The Trinity: What Are Defective Ideas?

The Trinity: What Are Replies to Objections?

The Trinity: Why Would God Seem So Complicated?

The Trinity: What Does He Mean to Me?


Elmer Towns came up with this table, which shows that each person of the Trinity shares the same attributes as one God:


Attributes Father Son Holy Spirit


Jer 23:24 Matt 28:20 Ps. 139:7-12

(All Powerful)

Rom 1:16 Matt 28:18 Rom 15:19

(All Knowing)

Rom 11:33 John 21:17 John 14:26
Immutability (Unchanging) Mal 3:6 Heb 13:8 Hag 2:5
Eternality Ps 90:2 John 1:1 Heb 9:14
Holiness Lev 19:2 Heb 4:15 Name “Holy”
Love 1 John 3:1 Matt 9:36 Name “Comforter”
This list is far from exhaustive. Careful! Christ in his human nature was limited, but not in his divine nature (Towns p. 100)

Elmer Towns came up with this table too, which shows all three persons doing works that only God can:


Work Father Son Holy Spirit
Creation of World Ps 102:25 John 1:3 Gen 1:2
Creation of Man Gen 2:7 Col. 1:16 Job 33:4
Death of Christ Is 53:10 John 10:18 Heb 9:14
Resurrection of Christ Acts 2:32 John 2:19 1 Pet 3:18
Inspiration Heb 1:1-2 1 Pet 1:10-11 2 Pet 1:21
Indwelling of Believers Eph 4:6 Col 1:7 1 Cor 6:19
Authority of Ministry 2 Cor 3:4-6 1 Tim 1:12 Acts 20:28
Security of Believer John 10:29 Phil 1:6 Eph 1:13-14
This shows the unity of the Trinity. Each person of the Trinity contributed to each of these wonderful works, to God’s glory and for our salvation and redemption (Towns p. 100)


Works Cited

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