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?

    • 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.

      Tell me, exactly how can you interpret John 3:16 as Jesus dying for "the world" and still hold to a limited view of atonement?

  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.

    • That's rather curious Matt. You say you've never heard James White define "world" in John 3:16 to mean anything other than "world" and then you go ahead to define world in exactly that sense. Please tell me, do you suffer from cognitive dissonance or do you revel it?

      In John 3:15-16 we have absolutely no reason (outside from theological bias and a desire to prop up our preferred theological system) to import a wholly new and alien definition of "world" into the text. You see, the issue in this case is quite clear, and what is surprising is that even Calvin conceded this point (which is why many think the doctrine of limited atonement was invented after his death), that God actually and efficiently loves the whole world and that the way he demonstrated that love is to send his only begotten son to die for the same (world/all men), so that (and this is key) whosoever will may repent and put their faith in Christ and be saved. You see, its a logical chain of events that is utterly obliterated if you redefine world here to only mean "world of the elect" because it then traverses the chain backwards and negates the love God Himself claims to have for the world.

      So the point is simply this: Either world means world in John 3:16, in which case we are speaking of an omni-benevolent being or else world means "world of the elect" in John 3:16 in which case we are talking about a semi-benevolent being who may or may not love us depending on whether we've won the divine lottery.

  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?

    • Its not a personal jab at all. You are obviously holding two conflicting ideas in your mind. On the one hand you seem to affirm the Biblical concept that God loves the whole world (as John 3:16 says) but on the other hand you seem to think that limiting the display of His love has no bearing on God actually loving the world in any way. As for nations vs/ "world of the elect", I invite you to study a little bit more since you apparently fail to understand that reading "world" as nations or "all kinds of people" is a prerequisite to reading the text in the desired limited fashion since reading world as world (as the text indicates) would pose a fatal defeater for the man-made concept of limited atonement.

  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.

    • Sorry, but you don't get to posit a mystery where there is, in fact, a logical contradiction between the notion that A.) God loves the whole world and demonstrates that love by sending His only begotten Son to die for the same vs B.) God only loves the elect and only sent His son to die for the same. The divine lottery is a rather important defeater for the un-Biblical notion of limited atonement because if God's love is limited and if God arbitrarily chooses (and it is arbitrary if it is not based on foreknown faith as the Bible also says) who to save and who to damn then we have no assurance whatsoever that we are part of this lucky group of divine lottery winners (and no, a works-based answer won't suffice here either).

  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.

    • So, are you making the claim that John lied when he wrote that God so loved the world? What about the whosoever, did he forget to tack on "of the elect" to properly limit the scope of his statement?

      No, the simple fact is that John 3:16 does not need much exposition because it is stunningly simple. It does say much about God's love for the whole world (every man, woman, and child) and how God loves the same so that whosoever will may (due to the generous outpouring of love demonstrated by Christ to all men) repent and accept the gift freely offered to all men (whom God loves and desires to be saved). You actually have to break the text to change the same word "kosmos" to mean one thing at the beginning of the verse and something else in the middle of the verse.

      So which is it? Are you going to argue for the minimizing of God's love (that He Himself said was for the whole world)? Are you going to argue that God only died for the elect and that somehow this doesn't have a direct bearing on the love He has for the whole world (since His love for the world was demonstrated in this way)? Are you going to argue that the only whosoever that is meant are only the ones who are going to be irresistibly drawn (thereby rendering the will part spurious at best)?

      It seems to me that this passage is exceedingly simple. Why do reformed people like yourself work so hard to twist it to conform to your presupposed theological system?

  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.

    • I believe we will have to agree to disagree at this point. I seem to believe that this passage clearly points out how God loves the whole world, in what way, and to what extent it applies so that "whosoever will" may be saved (as the text says). And you apparently feel the need to reinterpret this passage to prop up your presupposed theological system.

  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.

    • And there is where you murder the text. Because when you say that Jesus was sent to save the world, you smuggle in a hidden meaning of world. What you really mean to say (and shame on you for being intellectually dishonest by not admitting this but rather allowing the confusion you bring into this discussion to stand unabated), is that "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.

      No, the text is self-explaining. God loves the world, died for the world, so that the whole world may be saved on the condition of their belief in Jesus.

      You say that my simple reading (of which most of Christendom will agree) is an abuse of language. But what you fail (or rather refuse) to realize is that your redefinition of words in the text just to try and prop up your man-made theological system is not only an abuse of the text, but an abuse of God.

      Please, let God out of the theological box you've painted Him into. Perhaps then, like Jonah, you will understand that God's love cannot be contained merely because we have a burning desire to feel "extra" special.

  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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