calvinism, D.A. Carson, free offer of the gospel, gospel, hyper-calvinism, Jesus, John 3:16, John Calvin, John Piper
We’re studying John’s gospel in my Sunday School class. This week we’ll discuss a portion of chapters 3 and 4; part of our discussion will focus on John 3:16.
The way that verse is sometimes handled makes me sad. A few on one end of the theological spectrum want it to say that God loves only his chosen people, while a few on the other end want it to say that God loves all men in exactly the same way.
What the verse (and its surrounding context) actually does say, however, is astounding–so astounding that it should literally compel every believer to do at least two things: (1) to fall down and worship God for loving someone as undeserving as he, and (2) to get back up and tell everyone that he can about God’s amazing love for a world that deserves only his condemnation.
Below are excerpts from the writing and preaching of three men I respect (two living, one long dead, all three careful thinkers and expositors). I’ve found their reflections to be very helpful as I’ve meditated on this verse. What they have to say about John 3:16 deserves the attention of everyone who wants to understand and act on the clear, simple truth of the passage. (If some of this sounds familiar, I’ve addressed the topic before, but I’m thinking about it again now because of my Sunday School lesson.)
D.A. Carson, in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (pg 17), wrote,
I know that some try to take kosmos (world) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s gospel is against the suggestion. True, world in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness. In John’s vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God. In John 3:16 God’s love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such a wicked people. ..On the axis, God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.
On John 3:16, “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish,” John Calvin commented,
The outstanding thing about faith is that it delivers us from eternal destruction. For He especially wanted to say that although we seem to have been born for death sure deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ so that we must not fear the death which otherwise threatens us. And he has used a general term, both to invite indiscriminately all to share in life and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also significant in the term ‘world’ which He had used before. For although there is nothing in the world deserving of God’s favour, He nevertheless shows He is favourable to the whole world when He calls all without exception to the faith of Christ, which is indeed an entry into life.
John Piper, in a sermon last May, had this to say:
The question before us today is how God loves the world according to John 3:16. Jesus says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is so important that we let the Bible define what it means by love in any given passage. We should not bring all our assumptions about love and make the Bible mean what we think love must be.
From this verse, a few great things seem obvious.
- God loves the world—that is, he loves the great totality of fallen, sinful human beings.
- This love is of such a kind and such an intensity and such a magnitude that it moved God to give his Son to die for the world (John 10:17–18).
- One incontestably clear purpose and effect of that love, and that giving of the Son, is that “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” In other words, this love opens a real door so that anyone who believes on the Son will enter eternal life.
- Therefore, this love is indiscriminate. It may be spoken to and promised to and applied to everyone without exception. Because what this love says is, “If you will believe in my Son, I will give you eternal life. I can do this justly because my Son has cancelled the debts of all who believe. If you believe, your sins are cancelled. My love for you is this: I gave my Son so that trusting him is the only condition for living with me forever.”
We may, therefore, say to every human being, “God loves you. And this is how he loves you: He gave his Son to die, so that if you would believe, your sins would be forgiven and you would have eternal life.”
That is what the love of God means and promises and does in John 3:16. And that’s why this verse has been so amazingly blessed of God over the centuries in bringing people to Christ and to salvation. It expresses what we love to call the free offer of the gospel. There are no limits to this offer: It goes out to all people of every ethnic group and every age and every socio-economic category and, best of all, to every degree of sinner—from the bad to the worst. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever”—indiscriminate and universal—“believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
I suppose it’s a lot easier to argue about this passage than it is be profoundly moved by it to passionate worship and compassionate evangelism. From my perspective, that’s a crying shame.
Deek Dubberly said:
Whew, this is good stuff. I’m new to your blog so I wanted to say hi and that I’m reading. Three great thoughts from three great men of God – that’s a good way to start the day.
Barry Wallace said:
Hey, Deek. Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. I’ve actually followed you on Twitter for quite a while, and I just now subscribed to your blog. Looks great.
I remember about 15 years ago I was scared stiff to embrace a universalist reading of world in John 3:16 because I thought I was betraying Calvinism. It was Calvin who gave me the confidence to start thinking outside the box on that verse.
I wonder how many others are psychologically bound by the same sort of unstated fear of falling out of “calvinism” if they adopt Calvin’s reading.
I am glad to see Piper speak clearly on that.
Barry Wallace said:
I would imagine that there are a lot of other people who’ve had the same concerns you had, David. It’s ironic that some Calvinists are reluctant to adopt Calvin’s view.
My own experience was almost the opposite of yours. I came from an Armininan background, but shortly after my conversion 35 years ago found myself drawn to the emphasis that men like J.I. Packer and John Stott placed on the sovereignty of God. However, I was slow to embrace Calvinism because I thought I would have to accept what I thought were very forced interpretations of John 3:16 and other universalist passages of Scripture.
Interesting. Thanks for sharing your experience, David.
Anthony DeDona said:
cant you think for yourself?
Aaron Armstrong said:
Excellent post here, Barry. I particularly love Carson’s comment that it’s not how big, but how bad the world is. Truly shows the amazing-ness of God’s grace to save anyone, doesn’t it?
Barry Wallace said:
I thought Carson’s comment was profound, too, Aaron. How can we not be overwhelmed by the “amazing-ness” of God’s grace?
Robert Leitch said:
I’ve been up to my eyes in this stuff for the past few months and I was almost at the point of thinking that God wasn’t loving at all if some of these passages about His sovereignty are saying what some say they are. Reading the excerpts above have lifted some of the burden off me. Calvinism in some of it’s forms truly paints God in an ugly light and one whom I’d have real trouble sharing with anyone I love. I’ve always thought that it’s precisely because God is soveriegn that He can choose how He acts rather than being dictated to by some theologians.
Barry Wallace said:
Thanks for visiting, Robert. Interestingly, the men I quoted above are all “Calvinists.” I encourage you to continue thinking through some of the difficult passages on God’s sovereignty and wrestling with the implications. It’s certainly not an easy subject, but it is very important. My ultimate goal is to know God as he really is, not as I imagine him to be.
I plan to post a few more thoughts on the subject when my work schedule settles down. Hope you can check back once in a while.
Robert Leitch said:
I look forward to reading those and will definitely be checking in from time to time to catch up on old and new stuff on the site.
In the first 40 seconds or so of this Youtube video (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yqwg1y6aF8), Mark Keilar deliberately and unapologetically misrepresents, specicifically, Thayer, Strong, and, in general, “all the Greek experts” stating that they “specifically cite Jn 3:16 as an example when ‘kosmos’, or ‘world’, refers to ‘believers only’.” My objection here is not a matter of questioning his theology but of integrity. I tried to inform him of his error but he refuses to acknowledge it (see my comments under “banuchu” underneath the video). Your thoughts? (I was also wondering if you, as a Reformed believer, would comment on that Youtube page advising Mark Keilar of his error).
Barry Wallace said:
Nelson, I watched the video and read a number of your comments. I can see that you’ve been trying to address the issue for a long time, and think you’ve done a pretty good job of interacting with the other commenters. That particular video is posted on Lane Chaplin’s channel, so I don’t know if Mark Kielar himself would see the comments. You might try to contact Lane at his blog and see if he can tell you how to contact Mr. Kielar directly.
I watched the video too. It was very sad and very bad. I was struck by his claim that any first year bible college student should know about the “rule” that the narrow must interpret the broad.
I think its made-up stuff like this, which is actually more problematic. A factual claim about Thayer or Strong can easily be shrugged off and perhaps even some alternative source enlisted. But its claims about totally made-up “hermeneutical” rules which really serves to mislead and in a more long-lasting kind of way.
Btw, on another matter, did you catch Dom’s comment to us in his recent comment on the C&C site?
Barry Wallace said:
Hopefully it’s not a deliberate misrepresentation. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, once a misstatement like that takes root, it’s hard to correct.
Thanks for pointing out Dominic’s reply, too. I look forward to his return to blogging. Grace and peace to you, brother.
Hi Barry, sorry I took soooo long to respond.
I did contact Mark Keilar via Email and he refuses to retract his statement. He told me I needed to buy his video set and watch it all to get a proper understanding. I practically told him, I don’t need to read a whole dictionary to to know that the word “far”, for example, would be incorrectly defined if the meaning reads, “being close to”. The issue is not ignoring the context of what he states but that he is making an statement that contravenes the facts.
I’ve been trying to post a video response but am not having any luck…technical difficulties on my end, I guess.
Anyway, I appreciate the rime you took to look at the video and read my responses. Thanks.
Isibor Imieka said:
Hi guys read through all the comments made here fantastic post by the way, is it a coincidence that John 3:16 happens to be the most popular verse of the good book? so much so that the verse earned the esteem title “olden golden text” it is such a powerful piece of the scripture that encapsulates the will and purpose of God for a fallen world. Having said that let me make it clear that the death of Christ was for the whole of humanity just the way Adams disobedience was the peril of all humanity. John 1:29 categorically states “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world”. However, all the world will not be saved because the gift of salvation is only efficacious to all those that BELIEVE as stated in John 3:16. Now how a man comes to the place of exerting faith in Christ’s finished work is a function of God’s Spirit, because the gospel which is Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin, his Resurrection, ascension and the concomitant benefits of his finished work is indeed foolishness to the natural man (Both Jews and Non-Jews). As Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 4:6 “God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts to give light to the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus”. My point is this: Christ died for the whole world (all of humanity), however his death is only efficacious to those who believe, and those who believe are brought to faith by the administration of the Holy Spirit who is God that works ALL things according to the counsel of His own will. I leave you all beloved of God with this beautiful verse of Scripture. “In Christ we were chosen to be God’s people, because from the very beginning God had decided this in keeping with his plan. And he is the One who makes everything agree with what he decides and wants”. Ephesians 1:11 (New century version)
Barry Wallace said:
Isibor, thanks for visiting and taking time to comment. I agree with you. John 3:16 is an amazing and humbling passage, precisely because it declares God’s gracious disposition toward the whole world, even those who continue to despise and mock Him. Thanks again, brother.
Isibor, you stated, “My point is this: Christ died for the whole world (all of humanity), however his death is only efficacious to those who believe…”
Although I can agree with this statement, some clarifification is required.
There are those who assert Christ died for the world but intended from eternity by the coulsel of his own will to save only those whom he has selected and, consequently, has given them – and only them – what they call, the “gift of faith”; and the rest he choose not to save, “passing over” them, leaving them in their sin. This is known as the Calvinist position.
There are others who assert that Christ died for the world with the genuine intention to save all but will only save on the condition of faith. This is basically the Arminian position.
Which position do you hold behind your statement that “Christ died for the whole world (all of humanity)”?
My point is this: Christ died for the whole world (all of humanity), however his death is only efficacious to those who believe, and those who believe are brought to faith by the administration of the Holy Spirit who is God that works ALL things according to the counsel of His own will. I leave you all beloved of God with this beautiful verse of Scripture.
David says: I agree.
ron stimphil said:
This is good stuff! I think that God has given me some insight on this pronlem as well.
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Ellen Oh said:
Thank you so much for this post. We have this debate in our family, where my father in law believes that this verse John 3:16 only refers to God’s love towards the elect. But I resonate so strongly with DA Carson and John Calvin and John Piper as you quote them here. It causes my heart to worship God in His great love towards sinners like me, and to a fallen and rebellious world that He would give His Son that those who believe in Jesus may have eternal life. How great is the love of God!
Barry Wallace said:
Thanks for stopping by, Ellen. I don’t blog any more, but I still try to interact with my visitors. I think it’s helpful to hear statements like that from men who are/were Reformed and careful thinkers. I think we need our understanding of God’s love expanded. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians that we would “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” jumps to mind. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!