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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.

  1. God loves the world—that is, he loves the great totality of fallen, sinful human beings.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.