3 Reasons John 3:16 Doesn’t Refute Calvinism

3 Reasons John 3:16 Doesn’t Refute Calvinism August 25, 2017

John 3:!6

“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)

It might surprise you that as a Calvinist I love John 3:16. I say this knowing that John 3:16 is a popular verse used to debate against Calvinistic soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Those opposed to Calvinism will often point to words like “world” and “whoever believes” as reasons why Calvinism is incompatible with scripture. The argument being that the scope and intent of the atonement were directed at everyone in the world.  Yet, this argument has a very flimsy foundation and falls apart after some careful evaluation.

Here are 3 reasons John 3:16 doesn’t refute Calvinism:

1) The Word “World” Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Let’s examine this word a little closer because its meaning is critical to what John is saying about the scope or intent of Jesus’ mission. The Greek word translated to “world” is κόσμος (kosmos). It is generally given a few definitions recognized among theologians:

  • An apt and harmonious arrangement or constitution, order, government
  • Ornament, decoration, adornment, i.e. the arrangement of the stars, and ‘the heavenly hosts’
  • The universe
  • The earth
  • The ungodly multitude; the whole mass of men alienated from God, and therefore hostile to the cause of Christ (the entire human race as all men are sinful and alienated from God)
  • Worldly affairs, the aggregate of things earthly
  • The whole circle of earthly goods, endowments riches, advantages, pleasures, etc.
  • Any aggregate or general collection of particulars people groups (Gentiles, Jews, etc.)

Wow, that’s a lot of possible definitions to work through. But, we can do so quickly. First, since we know that Christ came to save sinners (people), we can eliminate many options right away. We are left with just a few conceivable interpretations related to people. These are bolded above.

Now, we need to figure out how John is using the word. Does he mean to say that God loved and gave His son for all of fallen humanity (past, present, and future) or is he speaking of particular people groups?

For insight on the answer, one must remember the context when Jesus spoke those famous words. He is conversing with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. As a devout Jew, Nicodemus would have understood all language related to salvation to be for the Jews. After all, this had been the understanding for thousands of years; God’s people were the nation of Israel. Gentiles were generally considered to be outside the covenant and salvation of the Lord.

The words spoken by Jesus in John 3 would have been revolutionary for a Jewish audience.  Jesus is explaining that salvation is no longer limited to the Jews, but now has been expanded to the world. In other words, “For God so loved all types of men.” Or, men of “every tongue, tribe, people, and nation” (Revelation 7:9) as John wrote in another book.

John expands on this thinking just a few chapters later in his Gospel. He writes, “Jesus would die for the nation [Israel] and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52).  Again, this is the same book and author of John 3:16. I don’t know about you, but as a Gentile myself, this is great news!

While a full New Testament word study on the word “world” is not within the scope of this article, it is worth looking at one other instance. In this case let’s jump forward to John 17.  Jesus is making what is known as the High Priestly Prayer; He is interceding for His people. Jesus is clear to distinguish that He is not praying for all of mankind. He says, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but those whom You have given me, for they are Yours”

2) “Whoever Believes,” Says Nothing About Ability

This is 100% absolutely true! Whoever believes in the Lord shall be saved. Praise, God! There is nothing to debate here. Calvinists and Arminians can rejoice together that Christ will turn away no one who comes to Him! In the context of our overall objective, the better question is not focused on the who, but on the how.

Scripture is clear on man’s inability to seek after God on His own. We spiritually dead outside of Christ (Romans 6:11). In fact, Romans 3 states that “no one understands, there is none that seek God” (Romans 3:11). Dead men can’t do anything, because they are, well dead!

One of my favorite quotes on the subject comes from the esteemed hymn writer Augustus Toplady. He writes, “A man’s free will cannot cure him even of a toothache, or a sore finger; and yet he madly thinks it is in its power to cure his soul.”

Without the Holy Spirit acting first, no one will repent. Consider John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Jesus is saying that no one has the ability to come to Christ on their own; they need God to act first! But whoever does come, they will not be turned away.

Another reason this argument falls flat on its face as a rebuttal to Calvinism is found in the next few verses. John 3:19 reads, “And this is judgment: the light has come into the world, and people love darkness rather than light.” Outside of Christ, we are “condemned already” (John 3:18). The natural man hates the light and will never come to Christ on his own.


3) Atonement is Not Mentioned

My final point is related the atonement and what we take from John 3:16. While I will admit (as I also did above), this verse gives us some insight into the purpose and scope of Jesus mission, there is no mention of the atonement. To argue from this verse that Jesus died for the world is a major leap of logic; you’re saying something scripture doesn’t address. We must go to other places in the bible to rightly understand the atonement.

However, for the sake of discussion let’s assume we can use John 3:16 to argue Jesus died on the cross for all sins of all men. By this logic I am driven to ask why anyone is in hell? If everyone’s sins are paid for how could God judge them? To suggest that God judges someone unfairly would make God unjust; we know that is not possible!

If we approach scripture with an understanding that Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross (a substitutionary atonement), we are left 2 options. Either all men are saved everywhere, this is called Universalism (widely recognized as heresy), or Jesus only died for some. Any other interpretation of a substitutionary atonement is nonsensical. Scripture is very clear that Christ’s mission and atonement was focused effectually on His bride, the church (Ephesians 5:25).

A more in-depth look at Substionary Atonement is here.



While I hope these points will generate some healthy discussion between Calvinists and Arminians, my ultimate desire is that all can celebrate the beauty of John 3:16. Let us rejoice in the fact that God loves sinners so much that He gave us His only Son.

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  • Dennis

    I find that Calvinists are reluctant to spell out all of the ramifications of their detestable doctrine of election and double predestination, but one ramification is certainly this scenario: God allows the non-elect to live out their entire lives without God ever attempting to truly love them and draw these people toward him. They have no chance of salvation from the moment they were born, and God somehow takes pleasure in this because he was the one who unconditionally (i.e. not based on the condition that God foresaw what kind of lives they would live-evil or good) chose not to elect them for salvation.

    • Bill Scudder

      the Calvinist god is a cruel god and is the author of sin. Their god send people to hell because it’s his good pleasure

    • ctroop

      Two blind men, handling the body parts of an elephant … which neither of them can see. So they spend the rest of their lives disputing and fighting and bitching at eachother for their respective stupidity. This is Calvinism and Arminianism in a nutshell.

      • Dennis

        I’m an Open Theist. What is your view of God?

        • ctroop

          Dennis … forgive my ignorance … my only “theology” is the Bible. And all that means is, once I discovered that all those equally educated, equally credentialed and equally committed theological experts disagree with each other, I decided I could get along perfectly fine by just reading and studying the Scriptures on my own. I freely admit my ignorance of any and all other isms and ologies. So thus my question, what is Open Theism? But, first your question: My view of God is the God who revealed Himself in The Scriptures … The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God who came to Earth in flesh according to John 1:1-14. Simply put, I am just a Christian … a Biblical Christian. I don’t care a whit about Calvinism or any other “ism.” I do not “belong” to any particular organized group of Christians. I fellowship where ever the Christ of the New Testament is loved and believed. I am against no one. As Paul said, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” I won’t argue with Paul, but it’s hard for me to believe that he could have been a worse sinner than me. If that is a longer answer than you wanted I apologize.

          • Dennis

            ctroop: When you said “which neither of them can see” in your original reply I thought that meant that you are an atheist. Since you are a Christian, I commend you for reading the Bible. However, keep in mind that theology is not something artificially imposed on the Bible. As an example of what I mean, I encourage you to read all verses in the New Testament with “predestined,” “foreknew”, “foreknowledge,” “election,” and “elected” in them, then whittle down those verses to the ones in which God is supposed to be doing the action, and then try to reconcile all of them in a non-contradictory statement about God’s action. People have already done that and have come up with Arminianism, Calvinism, and Open Theism as different interpretations of what these verses mean. (These theologies also deal with other verses relating to different attributes of God, but I won’t get into that.)

          • ctroop

            Dennis … My two blind men (in my version of the story) represent the two leading theological camps, Calvinism and Aminianism. The basic message is simply this: John Calvin and Jacob Arminius were two, decent, Christian men, each writing down the results of their respective years of reading and studying the Scriptures. Both individuals (as many, if not most, rank and file Christians), took an “either-or” position on those controversial issues of Predestination and Freewill. I do not.
            I do not see this seeming dicotomy as a problem. And, by the way, I have read all those references you cited … many times over and in many different translations and paraphrases, and I still see no need for me to choose between Calvinism and Arminianism, nor do wish to put myself in some kind of combining camp consisting of a lttle bit of each.
            Not knowing anything of the “Open Theism” concept, I have no choice but to remain silent. I do at least, try, to refrain from comments on subjects I know nothing about.
            I see these terms, predestination (mentioned by word) and free will (mentioned by descriptive invitation) mentioned quite clearly through out the Scriptures … so much so, in fact, that it is simply intellectually dishonest for us to use any one, or all, of the verses describing the one, as proof-texts against the other. I also see no need (for me) to try to understand the mechanics of either.
            Over 40 years ago, I came to believe. And I CHOSE to accept, receive, embrace, and trust in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I also know that HE CHOSE ME … before the foundation of the word.
            Somehow, and I do not care how, His choice for me, converged with my choice for Him, OR my choice for Him, converved with His choice for me … either way … I became HIS … and I am born of the Spirit, washed in His blood, and passed from death unto life. That was on February 19, 1974.
            My wife and I spent 18 years in Christian ministry. I am now 75 years of age and retired. Please, tell me about, Open Theism … perhaps direction to a Web Page?

          • Dennis

            Greg Boyd is a leading proponent of Open Theism. Here is his site: http://reknew.org/ where you can search for his Open Theism stuff. I don’t agree with all of Boyd’s views, e.g. I disagree with his pacifism, but I do agree with his stuff on Open Theism. There is a lot of wrong info on Open Theism on the internet. So beware.

          • I have come to find Open Theism an intriguing position for reconciling free will and divine authority. In essence I think it says that God can know very few things in advance. A person with free will can decide to do A or B and God does not control that nor does he know in advance the decision. But He has plans for both the A direction and the B direction. Then suppose a second decision comes along for free will and it can be C or D. So now we have 4 possible universes: AC, AD, BC, and BD, and God has his plans for each of those possibilities. As Scripture says, “In everything He works for the good of those who love Him.” But, you say, that progression leads to a virtually infinite number of possible worlds! To which the reply is, “That is why God is infinite.”

  • Wayout1

    Although I may reluctantly admire the authors attempt to “clean up” Calvinism with respect to soteriology, he, as all Calvinists, fails most miserably. I’m always amazed that they ignore or do not understand the ramifications of their truncated view of soteriology. His exegesis is really a self-serving eisegesis. he should make an attempt to understand context! context! context!!!

    • Jack Lee

      Hi Wayout, thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I am aware of the context of the verse and am surprised you think this undermines Calvinistic soteriology. Can you explain how this is the case?

  • Wow! These comments are harsh!
    I would suggest that the weak point of the argument is to argue that if Christ died for all then Universalism is the only option. That is a ‘reducto absurdum’ (or whatever the proper term is for the logical fallacy). One alternative is to argue that Christ did indeed die for all but not all will accept the provision. The next verse suggests that people are not (any longer) condemned for their sins (which have been paid on the cross) but because they refuse to believe (which suggests it is possible for them to do so). If God is not willing that any should perish but all should come to repentance, doesn’t that suggest the Holy Spirit is working in everyone to the extent He is allowed?
    John 3:18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.

    • Jack Lee

      Hi Thomas, yes many of the comments are harsh. Sadly, few wish to have meaningful discussions and are only concerned with being heard (my take anyway). Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I list those two options as the logical conclusions if one believes in a penal substitutionary atonement. There are certainly other views of the atonement and what happened. I do not see how one can believe in a PSA and not hold to a either a particular atonement or universalism atonement (heresy).

      to your point on the “God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9), a careful reading of the text will show that Peter is speaking specifically to believers! It was written to the church and he reemphasizes that Christ will not return until all those appointed to salvation believe. Notice the word “Beloved” at the start of the chapter and repeated several times. We should nto assume a letter written to a specific person or group of persons applies to the mass of humanity.

      2 Peter 3:1-9

      This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, 3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

      8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you,[a] not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

  • ctroop

    That sure is a lot of verbiage for such a short passage of Scripture. And whenever someone says, something “…just might not mean what we think it means…” get ready to watch someone change the Word of God to mean something totally different than what it actually says when we read it!

    Let’s kill this foolishness that the world … the kosmos … is just talking about a few select people, and NOT every one in the world.

    The Apostle Paul said that “…Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners…” That does include everybody and excludes no one. All have sinned and are short of the glory of God … the only exception is Christ Himself.

    ANY doctrine and rationale to the contrary is just wront at the least, and a lie from hell at he worst. Many people will be in Heaven who never heard of John Calvin or Jacob Arminius. Neither of them will be any kind of a litmus test for Salvation.

    This entire world (and everyone in it) NEEDS Christ. Nobody can get into heaven without Christ. Everybody can get into Heaven without Calvin.

    Responses to this … whether positive or negative will not be answered. I may not be in agreement with Calvinists, but I AM in agreement with the clear and obvious meaning of the entire counsel of God’s Word. I care not about anything else.

  • Michael73501

    Does your translation/version (ex. NIV or ESV) MIS-QUOTE John 3:16 because it contains a Calvinistic “tilt”?? Lee was wrong from the very start!
    Jn.3:16 does NOT say “shall not” – – it says “SHOULD NOT” !!! I have been correcting my Baptist friend for years on this.
    Let’s look…

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him SHOULD NOT perish, but have everlasting life. NKJV
    ..should not…KJV / AV / NLT / CSB / YLT / HNV
    …MAY NOT… – BBE /Webster / Darby
    …might not… NIV

    -For God so loved the “kosmos”-
    -He gave His Son [for the kosmos]
    -whosoever [“pas” – each, any, every, all, the whole]
    -believes – [“pisteuo” – trusts, commits]
    -should not perish
    -but have everlasting life.

    John 3:16 DOES refute Calvinism b/c those thoughts must be read INTO the context.
    Study to know the Truth.

  • ounbbl

    Calvinism of TULIP is man-created unbiblical religious idea.

  • Ashwin

    Some of the main issues with the argument are as below :

    1) The meaning of the word “world”- You are arguing that in this passage, the word “world” is referring to people of ALL races/tribes etc who will Believe in Jesus. i.e the “elect”. The problem with the interpretation is John 3:19. In John 3:19, the world includes people who reject the light. So if, the world means , people of all communities (both Jews as well as Gentiles), then considering John 3:19, It should mean People of ALL communities, both who will accept christ as well as Reject hi,… i.e everybody.

    2) Whoever believes says nothing about ability: I agree with you that no one can accept Jesus without the grace of god/ work of the holy Spirit. I dont believe, this grace is irresistible. However, using John 3:19 clubbed with this idea is strange. Because John 3:21 says as below –
    John 3:21 But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God.” I don’t think John 3:19 or 21 is talking about human ability. Jesus is showing the kind of attitude required to accept him. A willingness to come clean, to stand without excuses before God. Its shoes two different responses to the holy Spirit.

    3) Atonement:
    Your argument falls flat because of the biblical truth that only those who believe are forgiven when they believe. i.e, if Jack is among the elect and Jesus Died for his sins. Jack’s sins were not forgiven 2000 years ago on the cross. They were forgiven as and when he comes to faith and through faith identifies with Jesus death on the cross.
    Even in Calvinism, its not really atonement that ensures the salvation, but rather the nature of election itself that ensures the person will be saved. However a person is actually saved only when he/she puts faith in Jesus christ.
    Substitutionary atonement + Jesus dying for all people is not equal to universalism for the same reason that
    Substitutionary atonement + Jesus dying for the elect is not equal to salvation before/apart from faith.

  • mallen717

    This would be an Onion article if the author wasn’t so serious. Calvinists and special pleading for unique definitions of biblical terms are like wars: there’s always another one coming along soon.

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