A brief exposition of John 3:16

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. -John 3:16

World is not merely nations in this text. Such a distinction, while required in order to prop up the doctrine of limited atonement, is simply not found in the text. What the text does say, however, is that God loves the whole world (without distinction so that we understand God to love all men, as is his revealed character throughout Scripture) in such a way as to give his only begotten son for the same (that is, all men without distinction, elect and non-elect, chosen and non-chosen) and that whosoever will may believe in Jesus and be saved (indicating how one may go from being one of the not-saved to one of the saved or non-elect to elect “in Christ”).

The glory of God here is that God is both willing (so loved) and able (that he sent) to save all men without distinction so that there is hope (whosoever will) for all men.

Curiously this verse does not say that God only loved the elect, only died for the elect, and that only the elect will (through irresistible and forceful changing of a person’s will against their desires/wishes/choice) be saved.

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21 responses to “A brief exposition of John 3:16

  1. I'm confused. I believe in Limited Atonement, but I've never needed to interpet 'the world' in John 3:16 to mean nations. It never occurred to me to think of it until I found this blog. I agree that such a distinction isn't found in this text, but I don't think I've ever seen or heard a Calvinist include such an argument in their exposition. I know I haven't. Do you have a link to a Calvinist author who made such an argument?

  2. I listen to James White on a regular basis, but I'm sure I've never heard him use that argument. Do you have a book or episode of the dividing line where he said that? Because if he did, I must have missed it.

    My definition of the world in John 3:16 is defined later in the verse as "…whoever believes in him." It says he loved the world in such a manner that he sent his son to save "…whoever believes in him." That is where the particularity comes in. That's where one may hold to Limited Atonement and say John 3:16 is a promise to believers, and that whoever does not believe will perish and not receive eternal life. I actually prefer the Holman Christian Standard Bible translation because it is more efficient in bringing out the particularity of the King James, the NIV, etc.

    "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life."

    The interpetation I read in your post demands that 'the world' means everyone without distinction, but I find that interpetation awkward, especially so when you look at John 3:16 in the HCSB.

  3. –You say you've never heard James White define "world" in John 3:16 to mean anything other than "world"…–

    No, I said, "…I'm sure I've never heard him use that argument," meaning defining 'the world' as 'nations'.

    "Please tell me, do you suffer from cognitive dissonance or do you revel it?"

    Um… I don't know why you got so personal all of a sudden, but I didn't misread what you said, you misread what I said. I hardly think I'm suffering from cognitive dissonance, I don't think you are either, so why the personal jab?

  4. As far as Calvin is concerned, I have not read his writings on this subject, so I can't say anything one way or the other about that. My interpretation still stands whether or not John Calvin would have disagreed with me.

    A divine lottery? Well.. Only if God rigged the balls. 😉 No, though it might seem like a random lottery competition from our human perspective, God's election is specific.

    I'd still like a quote from Calvin, White, or Sproul (or Piper, it doesn't make much difference) where they take John 3:16 and define 'the world' to mean nations.

  5. "….Calvin conceded this point…" Really? Not in his commentary on *this* verse. He doesn't stretch to re-interpret this verse as an unlimited-atonement-teaching verse. Rather, he seems to address what the passage actually says, that is, that here the apostle is showing the purpose of God in sending the Son. That purpose being that those who believe will be saved.

    Here is a link to Calvin's commentary on John 3:16: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.ix.iii.h

    The fact is that this verse speaks particularly to God's purpose (hence the ἵνα clause [as well, 'οὕτω' and 'ὥστε' show purpose]) not to the extent of the atonement. This certainly does not deny that God loved the world, even the whole world, but to say that this verse establishes that the atonement was applied to the whole world without exception confounds the very idea of what atonement is. Atonement must by definition be effectual.

    The dilemma you pose is a false dilemma. Try: C.) God loved the world and sent his only Son that the one who is believing in him will not perish but have eternal life. That is what the verse says. Not more, but if you want to speak about the extent of the atonement you shouldn't limit the ontological Trinity to be logically identical to the economic.

    God is eternal. He does not necessarily work in time. It is entirely possible for him to promise life to all who believe without having provided the atonement to each and every individual. It is perfectly true that all who believe will receive eternal life, but God's foreknowledge is bound by what actually will happen. Because he can only know the truth, things cannot possibly happen but as he knows they will. Never forget that he operates outside of time as well as acts inside of time. Time is not natural to him, but he, in love condescends to us by sending his Son in time to save those who believe. Thus he may call all to repentance, but justly provide atonement to those who believe only. It does not turn his call or promise into a lie, but rather establishes it.

    I wish that you hadn't claimed that an interpretation of 'world' as 'nations' is somehow necessary to 'prop up' limited atonement, because it simply isn't necessary. Nor do all try to interpret this verse as saying something other than it does. I can't explain or defend those who try to change this word 'world' into 'nations' or 'the elect', but I can speak for myself when I say that this verse is in perfect congruity with the doctrine of particular redemption when it is understood for what it says with out an extra importation of a meaning for world. Whether that importation is bringing in the idea of 'nations' or 'elect' or 'each-and-every-individual-may-if-he-wants-to'. The verse must stand on it's own in it's own context.

    The word cannot be limited to mean merely 'nations' for the apostle uses the singular phrase, "πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων," which could be rendered accurately, "every one who is believing." It must, then, be referring to all human persons without distinction of nationality, gender, age, socio-economic class, education, social-aptitude, or any other. This verse says that all who believe will not perish, but have everlasting life. To make the word mean only a distinction of nationality is to narrow it far too much. Nevertheless, it hasn't been shown how this passage, and particularly this verse shows that the atonement contradicts it's own meaning by not being effectual in every instance.

    Shortly, this isn't a brief exposition, but a brief topical assertion of a portion of your systematic theology misapplying Jn 3:16 to your purposes.

  6. Are you addressing me? Because your comments do not apply to my post at all. I *do not* hold to any definition of 'world' other that 'world'. I have said so explicitly. I hate that importation of 'elect' or 'nations', because it is simply a careless (or careful) mishandling and abuse of the Word of God. It limits far too much the scope of the word 'world'.

    "No, the simple fact is that John 3:16 does not need much exposition because it is stunningly simple. "
    Exactly, so you don't have to add ideas like "…so that whosoever will may …" It is simply not in this text. Can you actually show that it is? I have searched dozens of translations, and the original Greek and cannot find it. It doesn't say that.

    "Are you going to argue for the minimizing of God's love?" Nope.
    "Are you going to argue that the only whosoever that is meant are only the ones who are going to be irresistibly drawn?" Nope.

    "Why do reformed people like yourself work so hard to twist it to conform to your presupposed theological system?"
    I haven't. Why are you working so hard to place a theological system that isn't mine in my hands to defend it?

    The only positive case I have made is to show that 'world' means 'the whole world' and that it is only those who believe that will receive the benefits of the atonement, because that is what the verse says. To place an argument for the extent of the atonement into the verse is to abuse not only this verse, but your own system, as it's supports are now not true supports.

    I really wonder if you did read my post, or just look at my name? I didn't argue for any of the things that you accused me of. Not a single one. Could you just try to forget for a moment that you know I am a Reformed Baptist and address the content of my arguments? I don't need you to supply a theology for me, I have one of my own to present.

  7. We don't simply have to 'agree to disagree.' You could try actually showing where "whosoever will may" is to be found in Jn 3:16. "πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων" is a far cry from that to say the least; to put it more precisely, it cannot be translated that way at all. It can't be paraphrased that way either.

    Whatever you do I would genuinely like to know where I have reinterpreted this verse to "prop up" my "presupposed theological system." And also it would help if you told me what you think my "presupposed theological system" is.

    I would also appreciate it if you could tell me why you do not address the words that I write but rather supply a theology that isn't mine and then attack me as holding that system. It is a curious method that doesn't lend well to your credibility.

  8. The diagram of John 3:16 goes like this:

    1. For God so loved the world
    Establishes a premise, that God loves the world. κόσμον, kosmos, the same word mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5:19 among many other places including John 1:29.

    2. that he gave His only begotten Son
    Christ died for the sins of all mankind, the "world" mentioned above, in an expression of God's love. Romans tells us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Since we we all sin and fall short of the Glory of God, that includes all men (Romans 3:23).

    Further examples of God's love of the world being manifest in the death of Jesus for the sins for the world are evident in the passages: John 1:29, John 3:18, John 3:36, 1 John 4:9, 1 John 4:10

    We also know that Jesus's death was meant for all men because God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9) but that all should come to be saved, the how of which is answered in the next section…

    3. that whosoever believeth shall not perish but have everlasting life
    Whosoever is "all" in Greek so the verse is literally "all believers". Note that believers here is not a noun and as such does not connotate an elect group of people but rather "believes" is a verb (YLT reads: "every one who is believing"), an act of the will. The rest of the context of John 3 (as well as most of the book of John) further point out that belief is both required and expected. Some examples are John 11:25

    Further, the act of believing is treated throughout Scripture as a laudable or damnable act committed by the person in question. For example Abraham believed "and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6, Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:3).

    There's more, of course, some have spent whole lifetimes preaching on this one text alone since it is so rich in meaning and pregnant with real and attainable hope for all men. It is "the Gospel in a nutshell" as they say.

    So tell me, what do you object to? What IS there to object to? Are you opposed to God's loving the world as Jonah was? Are you opposed to the generous (and supposedly wasteful) outpouring of God's love even on those who would go on to deny Him? Are you opposed to the radical notion that God loves all men and desires all men to be saved as opposed to an elite group of people who have won the divine lottery and as such are in the "in" crowd" Tell me, what exactly is there to object to in this simple self-explaining passage of Scripture?

  9. If it is "self-explaining" then you should let it explain itself before you go as far out of it's context as to another author to establish your interpretation.

    I object to your eisegesis. I object to your abuse of II Peter 3:9 as that requires it's own exegesis before you start claiming that the 'you' of that passage is someone other than who Peter was writing to. I object to you misunderstanding of Greek grammar and how a participle functions. I object to your misunderstanding of how English grammar functions. I object to your refusal to simply look at this single text and do the exegesis of this text before you do systematics. I object to your insertion of doctrine into my mouth. I object to your insertion of doctrine into the text. I object to your not addressing my question: where are you finding the term "whosoever will may?" I object to your ignoring the rest of the context of John 3 making Jesus speak gibberish ("For God sent not his Son into all men?") I object to your continual avoiding of the serious questions presented by your interpretation of this verse. I object to your calling God's purpose and choice "the divine lottery" as if God were no person. I object to your farce of a "diagram."

    There is absolutely nothing to object to in this verse given by God to us. It tells us that God's purpose in sending His Son into this world was to save those who are believing, and that the reason the Father sent the Son was because He loved the world. In context: the Father didn't send the Son to judge the world, because the world was already judged (so many as do not believe), but to save the world.

    If you care to look up the word 'κόσμος' in a Greek Lexicon you will learn that redefining 'κόσμος' as 'all men' or 'each person' isn't only contextually impossible, but also it's impossible because the word simply doesn't mean that. The 'Little Liddel" reads thus:

    kosmos, ou, ho, (komew) order; kata kosmon or kosmw in order, duly; oudeni kosmw in no sort of order. 2. good order, good behaviour, decency. 3. a set form or order: of states, government. 4. the mode or fashion of a thing. II. an ornament, decoration, dress, raiment; plur. ornaments. 2. an honour, credit. III. the world or universe, from it's perfect arrangement, Lat. mundus.

    Vine's Expository Dictionary states that "by metonymy" it can mean "the human race, mankind," but to extend this group to mean "each individual" is an abuse of language.

  10. "…"world " in your understanding is "world of the elect" so that, in your understanding God's love, sacrifice, and hope of everlasting life are all limited"

    It's odd, no matter how many times I refuse this interpretation, and explain why and how, you still continue to force it on me and attack me as if I hold to it. I would love it if you would interact with my ideas rather than your own.

    "(of which most of Christendom will agree"
    It's an ad populum and not actually true either.

    The only meaning of 'world' I have smuggled in came from a lexicon.

  11. Lexicons are contraband among free-will types.

  12. Wes, you wrote: There are several, including Theodore Beza, John Gill, C. Van Til, John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, and James White to name a few. In fact, I'm rather surprised you claim to hold to Limited Atonement and have somehow never encountered this quite frequent reading of John 3:16.

    Please go read this sermon: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermo

    You will see that Piper (and the others mentioned if you will search out their teachings and writings) do not fit into the caricature (straw man) that you have created or bought into. Sorry, but history and good exegesis are not on your side.

  13. Dear Wes, If the 'world' in John 3 means every body, then verse 17 will contradict verse 18. If God did not send His son to condemn the world, why are the non believers condemned already?

  14. Ephesians 5:25 = Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
    Husband loves wife, Christ loves church. The Husband-wife or bride groom-bride analogy will sound very bad, if God loved ( love that saves a person) something more than the church. It would mean Husband loves his wife, plus many other women??

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