John 3:16 is one of the most familiar and best-loved passages of Scripture. It is a favorite of the Arminian, who appeals to it to establish the following assertions:
In this essay, we examine the dubious foundations of the Arminian interpretation and offer a more Biblical alternative.
John 3:16 is a unified statement describing God's motive, His action, and His purpose in saving men. These three parts of the verse divide naturally at the two occurrences of the word "that"...
Please notice that this is a complete sentence... a unified thought. God's love for the world purposed that only believers should be saved by the death of Christ. John 3:16 tells us how God's love benefits those who will believe, but it gives us no reason whatever to believe that it provides any benefit for those who will not believe. How, therefore, can we imagine that God's love for the world was in any way directed toward those who would never believe?
Consider twin brothers, Tom and Joe. Tom trusted in Christ and was a faithful Christian, but Joe died a committed Atheist. If we apply John 3:16 to Tom and Joe the way most people understand the word "world", we could say...
For God so loved Tom and Joe that He gave His only-begotten Son so that Tom shall not perish but have eternal life.How does God's purpose to save Tom display any love for Joe? How is God's love for Joe manifested in a purpose to save Tom alone? The passage makes no sense when we understand "world" to include those who will never believe. —And an interpretation of Scripture that leads to nonsense is simply false.
Sometimes, the Arminian considers the expression "whosoever believeth" to represent an arbitrary or hypothetical group of people that only becomes definite in time when an individual actually believes. In the distant past, when God decided to give Christ to die, the Arminian's "whosoever believeth" was only a bare hope or wish on God's part that perhaps someday someone would believe.
The more orthodox Arminian acknowledges God's omniscience, and confesses that God, in eternity past, elected those whom he foresaw would believe. But once the Arminian admits that "whosoever believeth" is a definite group of specific people, he is faced with the dilemma that God's love for the "world" is manifested by a purpose to save only those specific people whom He knew would believe. Where, in this scheme, is there any evidence of God's love for those He knew would never believe?
Such considerations seldom enter the mind of the Arminian, for he supposes that God's great love is manifested, not in actually saving any particular person, but merely in offering salvation to men. It is the offer of salvation, not salvation itself, that, in Arminian thinking, is the great outcome of God's love. While this affords great breadth to the love of God (since the Gospel is proclaimed to far more people than actually respond to it in faith), it does so at the expense of the depth of God's love... as though He is not concerned with actually saving anyone, but only in putting salvation within their reach... as though God's great purpose is not to save people, but only to make them "savable".
Yet Scripture never describes God's saving purpose or works in terms of "making men savable". Rather, it says that God saved us...
2 Timothy 1:9 - who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity,The Arminian concept of God's love is further reduced by the fact that the offer of salvation does not reach all men. There have been billions of people throughout history who have not heard the Gospel. And that means that it does not actually put salvation within reach of all men, since one must hear the Gospel before he can believe it and be saved.
Titus 3:5 - He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,
Romans 10:14 - How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?What, then, does God's alleged universal love for all men accomplish? It merely makes all men hypothetically "savable", provided 1) the Gospel is brought to them, and 2) they choose to believe the Gospel. For a vast portion of mankind over the course of history, salvation was forever out of their reach, and thus they were not truly "savable". The love of God and the death of Christ, according to the Arminian scheme, did not actually benefit them in any way. While it provided some links in the chain of salvation, it didn't provide enough links in the chain for them to actually be saved, or even to be faced with the decision whether to accept or reject salvation. Truly, the Arminian notion of divine love is barren of fruit and not worthy of the name.
The Trinitarian Structure and Unity of the Passage
There is a distinct Trinitarian structure to John 3:16...
Whether we view this as the united work of the three persons of the Trinity, or as the threefold plan of the Father, this emphasizes the unity of the passage, and of the people who are the objects of divine love and action.
Scripture teaches us, in various places, that God's love is the motive behind all His great acts in securing our salvation...
Moreover, we are not at liberty to divide up the various saving works
of the Trinity, supposing that the Father has chosen all whom He foresaw
would believe, that the Son died for all men without exception, and that
the Spirit quickens whoever has the good sense to trust in Christ. The
three members of the Godhead work in unison, seeking the same
purpose... namely, the salvation of those whom God is pleased to save.
In John 3:16, they are called "whoever believes in Him", because
it is the Father's good pleasure to grant saving faith to all His chosen
ones, and because it is this God-given faith that provides evidence that
we are God's elect.
The Arminian understanding of John 3:16 requires that "the world" in this passage must mean "every single man, woman and child of every age". If this premise is false, then so is the claim that John 3:16 teaches that God loves all without exception and that Christ died for all without exception.
It is truly remarkable that, of the over 150 occurrences of this word (Greek: kosmos) in the New Testament, it seldom if ever has this meaning!
The word "world" is used in Scripture in a great variety of ways...
|The general public—or, that portion of humanity we encounter in everyday life ...||John 7:4 - For no one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.|
In short, the word "world" (Greek: kosmos) is subject to such a variety of meanings that it is ludicrous to insist that it must mean "every man, woman and child who has ever lived, or who ever will live."
In fact, it is questionable whether it ever has this meaning in Scripture. Romans 3:6, at first glance, might appear to support this meaning ...
Romans 3:6 - May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?However, God will judge both men and angels, so Romans 3:6 may very well include the angels, just as 1 Corinthians 4:9 does. (Paul's point in Romans 3:5-6 is this: Even though a sinner's wickedness provides a contrast that magnifies God's righteousness, this does not make it unjust for God to punish that sinner. This principle applies to angels as well as men.)
If the word "world" in John 3:16 did include the angels, this would mean that Christ died for the sins of Satan and the demons. However, Scripture makes it clear that our Lord did not redeem the angels...
Hebrews 2:16-17 - For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.Romans 3:19 is another verse that might appear to use "world" to mean "every man, woman and child who will have ever lived" ...
Romans 3:19 - Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God;However, Romans 3:19 is speaking of the Law, by which all the world is made accountable to God. Of course, the Law could not do this for those who lived and died prior to Moses, through whom God gave the Law. Thus "world" in Romans 3:19 does not have in view those who died before the Law was given. (Yes, they were accountable to God for their sin, but not because of the Law that had not yet been given.) So "world" in Romans 3:19 cannot mean "all people of all ages".
So what is the significance of the word "world" in John 3:16?
The word "world" is often used in Scripture in a relative or general way, to include Gentiles as well as Jews, or to speak of ethnic or geographic diversity. In other words, the phrase "God so loved the world" can mean that God's love extends beyond the borders of Israel, to men of other nations as well. It does not have to mean that God loved every person who has ever lived... it is enough to say that God loves many people in many nations of the world.
Or, "world" in John 3:16 may speak of God's condescending love—that is, "world" may designate the earth in contrast with heaven. God, in condescending love, looked down upon the "world" of mankind, choosing certain members of humanity to be the recipients of His redeeming mercy. As David sang of Him...
Psalm 8:3-4—The word "so" (Greek: houtos) in John 3:16 has the meaning "in this manner". How did God display love toward human creatures? ... By sacrificing His Son so that those who believe in Him will be saved. In other words, the manner of God's love toward humanity was selective: purposing to save only those who believe in the Son.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
There is no reason to suppose that the word "world" is intended
to identify the specific humans whom God loved. The remainder of
the sentence does that, by teaching that God's love purposed that only
those who believe in Christ should be saved.
The Origin of Human Faith.
The claim that "Salvation depends upon the individual's free-will decision to trust in Christ" is simply not taught in the passage. John 3:16 says that "whosoever believes in Him" will be saved, but it does not say where that faith comes from. There are some who imagine that the word "whosoever" lends some support to the Arminian position, but they are blinded by their own prejudice. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be saved—whosoever He may be—but this does not settle the question of where his faith comes from.
To answer the question: "Where does genuine faith come from?" We must turn to other passages of Scripture. John 3:16 simply does not address this question.
Scripture tells us that faith is given to us by God...
Ephesians 2:8 - For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
Acts 5:31 - He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 11:18 - ... Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.
Thus, when we raise the question: "What is the origin of human faith?" Scripture repeatedly answers the question by telling us that God grants faith and repentance to whomever He pleases. John 3:16 does not answer the question, but many other passages of Scripture do. Concerning faith, John 3:16 simply says that "... whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life," and leaves the question "Why do some believe unto salvation while others stubbornly refuse to believe?" to be answered elsewhere.
Fallen man has a deep-seated prejudice against believing in a God who would treat some people differently from others. Modern Americans, especially, insist upon "freedom of choice" for everyone. There is a great problem when we apply this idea to salvation: According to Scripture, fallen man has a stubborn, insatiable desire to please himself, and wants nothing to do with a holy and sovereign God. Thus, if God merely left every person to make his or her own decision whether to believe in Christ, we would all, without fail, freely choose to remain in our sin and unbelief.
Psalm 53:2-3 - God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there is anyone who understands, Who seeks after God. Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.Concerning the non-elect, we agree with the Arminian that God leaves them to make their own decision whether or not to believe. Where we disagree is 1) we believe unregenerate man has no genuine desire for the things of God, and so will invariably make a free choice not to believe, and 2) God has chosen certain rebellious unbelievers to be saved in spite of their stubborn unbelief by graciously changing their hearts, giving them spiritual life while they are still "dead in sins" (Ephesians 2:1-5).
John 6:44 - No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.
Ephesians 2:4-5 - But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),Thank God He does not leave every person to travel the "wide path" that leads to destruction! Praise God that, for some people, He has graciously overruled their freely-chosen unbelief, taking away their stony, impenitent heart, and giving them a loving, trusting "heart of flesh".
Ezekiel 36:26 - Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
There are many who suppose that the word "whosoever" somehow proves, or at least supports, the notion that God's love extends to all people without exception, and that it is left up to the individual to choose to believe or not.
The word "whosoever" translates the Greek word "pas", which means "all", "every" or "all manner of". Thus, we might just as properly translate the passage "... that everyone who believes in Him might not perish ..."
Because the word "whosoever" sometimes creates an aura of uncertainty, the Arminian unwittingly supposes that God was uncertain who would believe—as if to say "... that whosoever believes in Him, whether elect or not, might not perish ..." But the passage simply does not say such a monstrous thing.
When God chooses an individual unto salvation, He chooses for that person to have faith, and He ensures that the person will believe, by changing his heart—giving him the kind of heart that naturally and spontaneously trusts in Christ.
2 Thessalonians 2:13 - ... God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.To suggest that God was uncertain whether a particular person would believe is not only a denial of His sovereign election, but also denies His omniscience. It is to assert that there are some things that God does not know. This diminishes God to the level of a pagan deity, rather than acknowledging His rightful place as the Creator and Lord of all.
John 1:12-13 - But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Romans 11:7 - What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened;Scripture often tells us that God saves people from every language, nation, race, gender and station of life. The phrase "whosoever believes in Him" is designed to teach us that God saves every believer in Christ, no matter what his outward circumstances: whether prince or pauper, male or female, Jew or Greek. Whoever he is, if he has a genuine faith in Christ, he will be saved.
Hebrews 4:13 - And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
1 Corinthians 1:26-27 - For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,
Galatians 3:28 - There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Revelation 5:9 - And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation."
Revelation 7:9 - After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;
"believes in Him"
What does it mean to "believe in Christ"? Our faith is to be placed in Christ alone. However, the Arminian view—when it emphasizes man's "free will" and makes salvation dependent upon his free choice to believe—divides our faith between Christ, who died for us, and our own act of believing in Him. The Arminian interpretation destroys the purity and single-hearted devotion of genuine faith in Christ whenever it elevates human faith and free will, and focuses on our act of believing rather than on God's mercy and Christ's sacrifice, as the ground of our salvation.
Who or what do we trust in for our salvation? Who or what is the object of saving faith? Wherein lies your confidence that you will escape the wrath of God? If a person asks you "How do you know you are saved?" do you answer "Because Christ died for me"? Such an answer makes no sense if Christ died equally for those who will end up in hell. If He died for them too, then the death of Christ alone is no basis to conclude that you will be saved.
Faith must enter into the answer we give, for faith is what distinguishes the saved from the lost. But it is how we view the role of faith that makes all the difference in the world. Saving faith is never a self-focused faith. It does not boast that my salvation depends on my choosing to believe. It does not regard the Lord as a cosmic vending machine that delivers a package of salvation whenever we punch the button of faith. To think of Him in this way is to depersonalize Him and dethrone Him.
Instead, saving faith looks to Christ, and humbly cries out to God for mercy. It is a merciful God, and not our own free will or wonderful faith, that makes the difference between our being lost and being saved. Those who make much of their faith, or who view their faith as the "deciding factor" in their salvation seem to forget that God is not obligated to show mercy—it is His prerogative to show mercy to whom He pleases.
Pure, Biblical faith confesses it own emptiness and seeks salvation from Christ alone. It does not imagine that faith somehow "completes" the work of redemption, for it confesses that the very nature of Christ's cross-work is redemptive, substitutionary and effective. We exercise saving faith when, crushed by the weight of our utter corruption and helplessness, we cry out to God to be merciful, and to grant to us the perfect salvation that is found in Christ alone.
The common interpretation of John 3:16 can be expressed this way...
God loved every single person of every age so much that He gave His only-begotten Son to die for them so that as a result, anyone can receive eternal life simply by making their own free-will decision to trust in Jesus Christ.Please notice that this interpretation subtly changes the purpose of giving Christ. Under this interpretation, Christ was not given to save anyone, but only to make it possible for people to be saved, if they will simply provide the deciding factor by trusting in Christ.
John 3:16 says that God's purpose for giving Christ to die was to save believers. The "free will" interpretation says that God's purpose for giving Christ to die was to make it possible for people to save themselves by believing.
The chasm between these two interpretations is far wider and more profound than most appreciate. It is the difference between an almighty God who saves helpless sinners and a frustrated God who, having done all He can do, must now wait to see which (if any) of the sinners He sought to save will choose to provide the missing ingredient (faith) and be saved.
This chasm is accentuated by the fact that the "free-will" interpretation diminishes the power and grace of God (teaching that no one can be saved by God's power alone), and ascribes to man an innate power and virtue that Scripture says he simply does not have (i.e. the virtue of desiring true righteousness, and the power to exercise genuine faith).
It cannot be overstated that the mindset that prefers to diminish God's power, grace and authority in order to exalt man's power, virtue and importance is the spirit of rebellion and idolatry that we have inherited from Adam. It is the spirit that says "I am the master of my own destiny," "I can do it myself," "I'm not really as bad as you think" and "Don't tell me what to do."
These sentiments are all summed up in that touchstone of modern psychology: "Have faith in yourself." Scripture often exhorts us to have faith, but that faith is never to be directed toward ourselves. Rather, we are to have faith in God, and in Jesus Christ.
Titus 3:6 - He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,I do not doubt that there are those who believe in human "free-will" who do not trust in their own faith. However, if you believe that human faith is the essential, determining factor in who will be saved, and that no one can be saved solely by what Christ did at Calvary, then you are trusting far more than you realize in your own act of faith.
Romans 4:2-3 - For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS."
Ephesians 2:8-10 - For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
A Better Interpretation.
If the Arminian understanding is faulty, then what is the correct way to understand John 3:16? Here is a checklist of items we must keep in mind...
God loved humanity in this manner: He gave His only-begotten Son to die in order to secure and guarantee the eternal salvation of a particular portion of humanity: those people who possess a genuine faith in the Son.Or, to provide a Scripture-based commentary on the passage, we could state it this way...
God set His love upon a vast number of incurably rebellious, sinful people of many nations throughout the world, and gave up His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die for their sins as their sacrificial Substitute, so that, there being no cause left to condemn them, they would never come under God's condemnation, but would receive eternal life. Those for whom God has done these amazing things are, in due time, characterized by the repentant, Christ-directed faith that God, the Holy Spirit, creates in them when He changes their hearts. Anyone who possesses a genuine repentant faith in Christ alone can have the confident assurance that he is one of God's elect, that Christ has fully satisfied the demands of God's justice against his sins, and that he will never perish in hell, but already has eternal life.
John 3:16 is a single, unified statement which requires that those who actually receive salvation must be the ones whom God loved. To say that John 3:16 means "God loved all men so much that He purposed to save only those who believe in Jesus" is to turn the passage into nonsense. Those whom God loved must be the very same ones who, because of that love, He purposed to save.
The word "world" is used in a myriad of ways in Scripture, but it is questionable whether it ever has the meaning it must have to support the Arminian (free-will) interpretation. Even if one or two passages of Scripture uses "world" to mean "all people of all ages", this is no proof that it should have this meaning in John 3:16. God loves people of every nation, but not necessarily every person of every nation.
The phrase "whosoever believes in Him" does not imply that man has the innate ability to trust in Christ. John 3:16 makes the simple assertion that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved—whoever he might be. But this does not tell us how a man comes into possession of faith. Other passages of Scripture are quite clear that faith is God's gift to those whom He has chosen, and that fallen man is utterly devoid of any desire to genuinely trust in Christ.
According to John 3:16, saving faith is to be directed toward Christ alone. Yet, if he insists that man's faith is the determining factor in who is saved, the Arminian divides his faith between Christ's work of redemption and his own act of believing. The Arminian interpretation says that God's purpose for giving Christ was merely to make salvation a possibility for all men. However, John 3:16 says that God's purpose for the cross was to make salvation a certainty for everyone who believes in Christ. The free will interpretation diminishes the glory of God and magnifies the goodness and power of man. It only seems "natural" to us because we have inherited from Adam an idolatrous nature which seeks to serve and exalt self rather than God.
John 3:16, properly understood, agrees with other passages of Scripture
which teach that God chooses, redeems and regenerates
every single person whom He loves. It is fitting that we should
love and rejoice in this brief statement of Scripture, for it gives wonderful
assurance to every person who truly believes in Jesus Christ of God's amazing
love for him and of his sure deliverance from hell unto eternal life.