Saturday, June 9, 2007

What about John 3:16?

What about John 3:16?

I first want to lay some groundwork, and then dive into John chapter 3. My purpose in this discussion is to take as honest a look as is possible at some of the bible verses and passages that have caused the most difficulty for Calvinism. Why do this? Because I believe in the Doctrines of Grace, and I want to be certain that my view of salvation is biblically accurate. If it is not, it is my view that needs to change, not the scriptures.

I say up front that I am a Calvinist because I do not want to mislead anyone. However, I also am not setting out to win an argument or to prove that Calvinism is correct. On the contrary, I really just want to look at certain passages and try to decipher their meaning. I hope my motives are pure; I'll do the best I can to avoid theological bias.

As we go through these verses, I will try to keep to the context, and not rip passages out of place when looking at them. Also, I will try to give the text the fairest reading possible without reading anything else into it. Of course, we also need to keep the teachings of the whole bible in mind; for example, if a passage is ambiguous, a clearer passage may shed light on it (and, don't worry, I won't use Ephesians 1:3-5 as a filter through which to read all of these passages).

Finally, I truly hope you will join in on this conversation over this series of posts. Please feel free to comment as much as you want. This will help us all learn together.

After John 3:16, I will look at the following verses and passages in this order:
1) Romans 10:9-10
2) I Timothy 2:3-4 and II Peter 3:9
3) I John 2:2 and 4:14
4) II Peter 2:1
5) II Kings 20:1-6
6) Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-29

I hope my reasoning for the grouping and ordering of the above verses and passages is (or at least becomes) clear.

Now, for John 3:16. It is important to understand the verse in context. Remember that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about being "born again." It would be best to read John 3:1-21 (click here).

I will now put several bible versions below, and then get to the discussion.

KJV "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 "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."

ESV "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

NASB "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."

NIV "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."

NLT "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."

"for God did so love the world, that His Son -- the only begotten -- He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during."

(The YLT refers to Young's Literal Translation. The YLT is very wooden in nature, but helps because it often comes the closest to the word order of the original Greek).

When looking at John 3:16 (and then the other passages), it is important that we look at the verses grammatically, and then try to determine exactly what the author was saying, and also what he was not saying. I very much want to avoid reading meaning into verses that simply was not intended by the author.

So, in John 3:16, we are told that 1) God so loved the world, so 2) God gave His only begotten son, in order that 3) everyone believing in Him may not perish but rather may have eternal life.

John informs us that God loved the "world." One question that arises is, "What does John mean by world?" Does John mean every person in the world, or every person who will be saved? After reading the passage several times, I have to say that John does not seem to make this clear, at least based on verse 16 alone.

Verse 18, which is part of the same thought, may shed some light on this. John 3:18 tells us, "He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." NKJV

Verse 18 tells us that some (the ones believing in Jesus) will not be condemned (sent to hell), but that others (the ones not believing in Jesus) are condemned already for not believing in Jesus.

It may be that the only conclusion we can come to about the meaning of "world" in John 3:16 is this: if John is referring to everyone in the world, then some people who God loves are still going to hell. If, rather, John is talking about only those going to heaven, then the ones God loves will be the ones who believe and will go to heaven, and the ones He does not love will go to hell.

To sum up, verse 16 seems ambiguous about the meaning of "world."

Some folks get stuck here and do not want to move on. Let's not do that. Why? Because the meaning of the verse can be determined apart from the meaning of "world."

We know that God loved the world. Because of this He did something amazing. He gave His only unique son. This was so that something else amazing would happen. What was that? That the ones believing in His son would not perish (eternally), but receive eternal life.

Verse 16 is amazing and simple at the same time. I think we often read more into it than it actually says. This is what we know based upon what John wrote:
-God loved the world.
-Because of this, He gave His only son.
-Because of this, everyone believing in His son may not die spiritually, but may have eternal life.

That is wonderful, but that is all we know based on John 3:16.

What don't we know? John does not speak to the following in verse 16:
-God's sovereignty related to salvation
-Whether or not man has free-will related to salvation
-Whether or not God wants everyone to be saved
-Whether or not everyone can be saved
-Specifically what the word "world" means here

So John has told us the basics of the amazing Gospel message in John 3:16. We should still be stunned by the truth of the gospel. However, John has not told us some of what is going on in the background of the gospel.

John 3:16 tells us great truths, but let's not read into it more than it says.

So, what do you think? Please let me know if I am incorrect about something (very possible), have missed anything (very possible), and/or if you disagree with me (very possible).


Alan Knox said...


Thanks for your exegesis and discussion of this verse. I agree with what you've said here. I thought that the free-will/election argument centered on the phrase "whoever believes in him" or literally "everyone who believes in him". Thus, the question becomes is believing a volitional act (free will) or is it predetermined (election)? There does seem to be a choice involved here...


Eric said...


Thanks so much for your comment, not to mention the time it took to read the post (it went longer than I meant for it to).

I do think John 3:16 makes it clear that there is some sort of general gospel call to all mankind. Clearly, anyone who responds by believing in the Son will receive eternal life.

John 3:16 makes it clear also that the gospel is a black-or-white issue in that one choice leads to one outcome, and the other choice leads to the other outcome.

As far as free-will and election are concerned, I think the verse is ambiguous, and may not speak to it at all. However, I don't think any Christian would disagree that man has a responsibility to believe in the Son, or there will be consequences.

Thanks again for your input.

Shan said...

I agree with you in large part, except for perhaps the phrasing “a general gospel call”, which sounds like an invitation for all men to be saved. I see the “universal call” to be more of a universal command in the scriptures: God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), to “believe in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:31), and to “believe in the light” (John 12:36). These are all imperative commands, not passive invitations.
Someone may ask, “does God command us to do something we have no power to accomplish?” I’ll respond with another question, does God not command us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), and to “be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet 1:15)? Which of these can you accomplish in your own power? Indeed, every action apart from faith is sin (Rom 14:23) and faith itself is a gift of God (Eph 2:8), so which of God’s righteous commands are done in our own power?
As a kingdom of priests our responsibility is to declare the gospel, calling all men to repent and believe, without discrimination, knowing that God will use the same word to bring the elect to salvations and to harden the reprobate toward destruction (2 Cor 2:14-17, 1 Cor 1:18).
As far as the volitional acts of repenting, confessing and believing, I certainly agree that men must choose each of these actions, and the choice springs from their desires. Will is merely the power of the mind choosing, and that according to desires. Desires, in turn are formed by the person’s circumstances and his nature, each of which I think we can all agree are beyond the control of the individual (a man inherits his nature from his father [Rom 5:12-21], and his every circumstance is according to the decree of God). The question is, out of which nature springs the desire: that inherited from Adam or that inherited from the heavenly Father. I assert as incontrovertible that the natural man never responds to the command to believe with assent, for it is foolishness to him (1 Cor 2:14). The regenerate man will always respond with repentance, confession, faith-filled belief for it is promised that “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

Eric said...


Thanks for your comment.

I should have been clearer in what I meant. As I look back, my wording is not what I wanted it to be. What I should have said was that we, as Christians, are to give a general gospel call to all men based upon passages like John 3:16.

Clearly, since both A) God has chosen who will be saved and B) some people are not saved, then He would not give an invitation to everyone.

The general call is our responsibility, but the effectual call comes from God.

You are correct in stressing the command to "repent and believe."

Thanks again.