Putting John 3:16 In Its Place: The Meaning And Purpose Of This Text
Posted by Job on March 19, 2013
John 3:16 “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.”
Romans 5:8 “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Some use passages like these to assert that those who believe in limited atonement (or particular redemption) instead of universal atonement deny that God loves everyone. The argument goes that if God loves everyone, then it means that Jesus Christ died for everyone and that those texts “prove” it and accuse men of twisting scripture in order to claim otherwise.. Well C.S. Lewis and other believers of religious pluralism and universalism use 1 Timothy 4:10 –“For to this end we labour and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe “ – and many other scriptures to justify it. Is it similarly twisting scripture to say that they are wrong also?
Of course not. Why? Because we know that 1 Timothy 4:10 is not the only thing that the Bible says about salvation. So, it is because that we put 1 Timothy 4:10 in the context of all the other things that the Bible says about how God saves – including John 14:6’s “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” – in order to deny that this text teaches that men above the age of accountability can be saved outside of personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Thus, the same is true of John 3:16. While that text is extremely popular, very well known and much beloved, that is no reason to make it the primary text on the issue of salvation through which all other texts must be judged, held subject to and viewed in light of. That is interpreting scripture according to human opinion and emotion – our tendency to grab hold upon and emphasize the things that please and comfort us while putting less emphasis on the things that disturb and challenge us – instead of letting scripture speak for itself.
It is all well and good to love John 3:16. But we cannot use John 3:16 to pretend that Proverb 16:4 “The LORD hath made all [things] for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil ” isn’t in the Bible, especially since Romans 9:13-23 clearly uses Proverb 16:4 in order to explain the nature and purpose of God’s election as it applies to the Jews and the Gentiles? Now that is what requires the twisting of the Bible scriptures. Accepting those texts and putting them into the proper contexts is why the so-called 5 point Calvinists exist. The only alternative is to deny the meaning and application of those texts, which is what most theologians and other Bible students do … precisely what they accuse the believers of limited atonement of. Perhaps the best example of this is the common explanation of deniers of limited atonement that predestinate in Romans 8:29-30 doesn’t mean, well, predestinate, or the many others who claim that it really means “foreknowledge.” Similar explaining away is done with and who do the same with Ephesians 1:3-12 and also with the many “Calvinistic” texts that appear in the Gospel of John just as does John 3:16.
So, for example, using John 6:65’s “And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” and John 10:26-29’s “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any [man] pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave [them] me, is greater than all; and no [man] is able to pluck [them] out of my Father’s hand.” to interpret John 3:16 is not imposing an artificial human framework on the Bible. Instead, claiming that John 6:37 is based on God’s foreknowledge – and doing so in the complete absence of textual evidence to support it and when so many texts like Romans 9:13-23 contradict it – is when the denying the plain meaning of scripture from its literal, contextual interpretation is being done.
Does this mean that God does not love the world — all people and not just the elect — with an unconditional love? That begs the question of whether unconditional love as our modern humanistic Enlightenment-driven society defines it is a Biblical concept to begin with. If it were, then that would necessarily mean universalism. You may ask whether “world” really mean world or does it mean only the elect and whether world can be both, meaning all people in general, but only or especially the elect in particular?
Many do precisely those types of interpretative gymnastics, but they are not necessary. The “world” of John 3:16 does mean the world. But understand this: God is perfectly capable of loving the world and saving only the elect. Again, making the case that God’s loving everyone obligates Him to save everyone can only lead to universalism. The non-Calvinist viewpoint deals with this problem by saying that God TRIED to save everyone but failed. Now if you limit this “failure” to those who made a free will decision to reject Jesus Christ then that “solves” the failure issue after a fashion. The problem is that “God tried to save everyone but His efforts were thwarted by the free will that He gave us to accept or reject Him” theology simply cannot be a sufficient answer for the fact that the overwhelming supermajority of humanity has never heard the name Jesus Christ, and moreover before His advent had never encountered Judaism or the pre-Judaic Yahwism.
Truthfully, the pluralism of types like C.S. Lewis and the Roman Catholics (purgatory) and contemporary religious moderates do a much better job of explaining this problem, which is so real and vast that it has been a source of great heartache for missionaries like Hudson Taylor, who knew that he could not possibly reach every person in the vastness of China with the gospel of Jesus Christ and fell victim to the slough of despond and the giant despair (see Pilgrim’s Progress) as a result. God rescued him from that fate with the instructions for Taylor to be satisfied with going to the people that that God sent Taylor to. (And incidentally Taylor was not a Calvinist).
And here is the real irony for those who reject the Biblical doctrine of limited atonement. Even if you do not believe in limited atonement, the requirement of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation serves as a practical limitation anyway. Again, the only way to avoid that practical limitation is to be a universalist or pluralist. How “general” is the atonement to the person who lives his entire life as a sincere, upstanding, devoted, honest moral adherent to the Hindu religion because he spent his entire life in India in the 1500s and Hinduism is all he ever knew? The only relevance of general atonement to that person is that even though that person had absolutely no possibility of ever being saved, Jesus Christ still died for him so that “proves” that God loved him. Christ’s death on the cross made this person’s salvation hypothetically, theoretically possible in the spiritual realm even though it was still impossible in the natural one. Which means that the true purpose of general atonement that it provides a comfortable, reassuring view of God to the people who hold it. The doctrine is of no use to the sinner whatsoever. Whether you hear the gospel and do not respond with faith and repentance or never hear the gospel at all, from the sinner’s perspective the extent of the atonement doesn’t matter because the fate of the sinner is still the same. The issue is all about whether serving a God who limits the atonement or serving a God who doesn’t IN THEORY but does IN PRACTICE “feels better.”
Still can’t look at John 3:16 and “see” limited atonement? Well, you may not see religious pluralism in 1 Timothy 4:10 either. But that is what C. S. Lewis saw when he looked at it … justification for the religious pluralism doctrines taught by the Roman Catholic Church – and Lewis fellowshipped with a lot of Catholics, including his friend J.R.R. Tolkien – and embraced by virtually all moderate (meaning neither evangelical or liberal) Christians and an increasing number of evangelicals like Rob Bell. So often we see what we want to see instead of what the Bible says, and that has to change.
Does limited atonement mean that God takes pleasure in the destruction of the wicked? Ezekiel 18:23 would tend to say otherwise with “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: [and] not that he should return from his ways, and live?.” But just as we being in the image of God often have to do things that give us no pleasure but are necessary, God’s justice requires that His wrath must be poured out on the wicked. The key to remember that merely because destroying the wicked does not give God pleasure does not require God to act in order to avoid displeasure. Claiming that it does is judging God by arbitrary standards created by our own emotionalism; our refusal to accept things that appear to us to be unjust. But why do they appear to be unjust to us? Because we feel that God owes us something. The truth of what the Bible says, which is that we are the sheep of His pasture (Psalm 100:3) to do with as He pleases is denied because of our unwilling to countenance the idea that God is the measure of all things and not man; that the universe is God-centered and not man-centered.
It is curious: no Bible-based Christian (as opposed to the idolatrous animal rights activist) takes offense at the notion that man, a mere creature made in God’s image, has the right to breed sheep for the purpose of eating them even while they are juveniles (lamb chops, leg of lamb, rack of lamb etc.) Yet we are offended at the idea that God, who is worth more than the entirety of creation (meaning that the distance between man’s worth and a lamb’s worth is much smaller than the distance between man’s worth and God’s worth) has the right to do with us as He pleases or else be judged as unloving and unrighteous, so we stumble at Yes, the Bible does not say that God takes pleasure in the destruction of the wicked, but texts like “The LORD hath made all [things] for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” and “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” as a result.To do this we must make God out to be worth less than He is or we make ourselves out to be worth more than we are at God’s expense. Either way it is man-centered heresy.
So if you are struggling with the question “how can I say that God loves you without knowing whether you are elect or not”, I emphasize again that this goes back to the fundamental question of whether God can love someone without electing them to salvation. This answer – yes – is most clearly given in Matthew 5:45 … “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Also, an excellent teaching on this topic can be found here: http://www.gty.org/resources/articles/a294/the-love-of-god-and-the-nonelect
This brings about the inevitable question: how will this affect my evangelism? Well you can certainly everyone that God loves them, and use this truth clearly taught in the Bible as the basis for your evangelism. The Bible does not say to use the fact that God did not elect everyone to hinder evangelism, because quite the contrary God said that many are called (in that they hear the gospel … note that it does not say that ALL are called because all do not hear the gospel) but few are chosen (meaning that of those who hear the gospel, few will be saved). And this truth was illustrated by several of Christ’s parables, such as the parable of the sower of Matthew 13:1-23 and the wedding parable of Matthew 22:1-14.
So John 3:16 does not have to be abandoned by the Christian who believes in limited atonement. It means that when sharing the gospel we can tell sinners that everyone who believes – whosoever believeth – will be saved.The key is to stop right there and not add anything to it. Don’t say “Jesus Christ died for all of you so that means all of you can be saved if all of you believe.” Why not? Because the Bible doesn’t say so. General atonement is nowhere in the Bible. If it were, I would believe it and so would you. So whether in mixed company, hostile company (all unbelievers like Paul at Mars Hill) or all believers like Jesus Christ at His high priestly prayer or the disciples in the upper room awaiting Pentecost, limiting yourself to what the Bible actually says is all that is necessary, sufficient and justifiable.
So evangelist, just say “Christ died so that all who believe will be saved” and you will be true to the Bible. And that is the true meaning of the John 3:16. Before it was written, there was no promise, assurance or guarantee that everyone who believed would be saved. Now we contemporary Christians presuppose that and take it for granted because we have always known it. But keep in mind that the apostle John was originally writing that gospel not to people with 2000 years of Christian tradition behind them like us. Rather, the first audience who received his gospel was made up of pagans with a very different view of salvation than we have, and also to Jews who believed in justification by the works of the law in addition to faith.
So for both the Gentile pagans and even the Jews, it was very possible to believe in God (or the gods for polytheistic pagans) and still not be saved. For the Jew, one could believe and still be condemned if you did not keep the law. As for the pagans, their gods were arbitrary, unpredictable, conferring – and withdrawing – their favor on whims. So the true purpose of John 3:16 is not to talk about the extent of the atonement, but to teach the doctrine of justification by faith alone, sola fide, to the Jews first and then the pagan Gentiles.
This is evident if you stop taking John 3:16 in isolation and instead look at the entire chapter of John 3. This chapter begins with the rabbi going to Jesus Christ to seek instruction on spiritual things because He recognized that as God was obviously with Christ due to Christ’s miracles, Christ would know such things to teach. Christ in response taught the rabbi about the need for, meaning and nature of regeneration, being born again. The context of Christ’s discussion with the rabbi was never who could be saved, but how people are saved.
John 3:3 – by being born again. John 3:5-8 – by a work of the Holy Spirit, not of man. John 3:11-17 – Christ stating that it is by and through Him that this salvation will be achieved because of His divine sonship. And John 3:18-21 – the fate of those who do not believe, with 3:18 being the inverse of 3:16. In that context, the true context and meaning – it is crystal clear that the text never intends to claim that God gave Christ so that all can theoretically be saved! Instead, it states that God gave Christ so that all who believed would be saved, and that all who did not believe would not be saved! This fact that we today take for granted today was in complete opposition to the religious mindset of Jews and pagans of the time and place of John’s gospel. It was a truly radical, revolutionary groundbreaking idea that was foolishness to the Gentiles and an offense to the Jews.
So as this is all the scripture ever meant and was intended for, why claim that it says or was intended to proclaim more? Anything more is adding to scripture, which should not be done, chiefly because it is a sin, but also because there is no reason to. The sinner needs no more information than that, and the only reason to add more information than that is for the benefit of the evangelist sharing the message. It reassures the evangelist and makes his job superficially (by that I mean according to the flesh) easier, but the Bible makes it clear that our jobs in service to the God of the Bible are not going to be easy or flesh-driven to begin with.
John 3:16 is 100% true and very powerful. But the Christian should not and cannot impose meanings on it that do not exist because it makes us feel better. We Christians should cast aside such works of the flesh and acknowledge to ourselves that the Bible says what it means. God gives the evangelist the responsibility to share the gospel with all. God gives the sinner the responsibility to respond to the gospel with repentance. But the only ones who will be saved are those that God supplies with faith. Everyone who receives faith from God will be saved. No one who does not receive faith from God will be. It is this way because with our salvation as with everything else, God alone shall be glorified. That is the point of John 3:16, the point of the entire canon of scripture, and the point of all of creation in the first place. And when viewed next to the glory of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent perfect God, such notions that God only wants to be worshiped by those who choose to do so out of their free will – as if it is illegitimate for God to compel the sheep of His pasture to worship Him, and to train and condition us into doing so by conforming us into the image of His Son and providing His Spirit to live in us – must be rejected for the plain betrayals of the Bible and the picture of God that is revealed to us through His creation that they are.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. Colossians 1:16
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. Romans 11:36
“I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43:6-7
If you are saved, walk in this truth. If you are unsaved, you are without excuse. Repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ today.