“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).
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.