The Truth about John 3:16
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
For 20th and 21st century Americans John 3:16 is perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible. Though it was quoted and preached in other places and times, it never became the omnipresent verse that it has here. It is common for people to have it memorized, even if they do not ordinarily memorize scripture. In familiarity, it ranks with "Judge not, lest you be judged" as one of the most quoted verses in scripture. That it is a household verse is beyond dispute. But the question is this: Is John 3:16 as well understood as it is well known? My conviction is that it is not. In fact, I believe that it is greatly misunderstood. It is also my conviction that the consequences of misunderstanding this verse are enormous. I will deal with these consequences throughout this booklet, but let us now briefly consider some of the ramifications of misunderstanding John 3:16. If we do not interpret this verse correctly:
1. We will have a distorted doctrine of man. We may think that God loves us all so much because we are so lovable. We may think that the main point is our worth to God, rather than the worth of Christ to save unworthy sinners. This gives glory to the sinner, rather than the Savior, and essentially turns the gospel on its head.
2. We will have a distorted doctrine of God. We may think that God sent His Son to die for us because He needed us and couldn't bear to live without us. If we think He can't live without us, we may think He could never send anyone to hell. We may think that God was uncertain who would believe in Him and sent Christ in the hope that people would believe. This strips God of His divine nature, characterizing Him as a wishful deity, sitting on the edge of His throne, waiting to see whether His plans will succeed. This is not the God of the Bible. This is an idol made in the image of man.
3. We will have a distorted doctrine of faith. We may think that we are believers because we believe a few spiritual facts about Christ, thereby deceiving ourselves about the condition of our souls. We may think that faith is our gift to God, rather than God's gift to us. We may think that we are saved by our free will, rather than by the sovereign will of God. Consequently, we may trust in ourselves, instead of Christ.
4. We will have a distorted doctrine of eternal life, thinking that it is an endless duration of fleshly pleasures, instead of a loving knowledge of God Himself.
It is with these consequences in mind that I now undertake a biblical exposition of John 3:16.
Before we delve into the meaning of the text, however, we should keep several things in mind:
1) John 3:16 is one verse in the entire Bible. It is neither a chapter nor a book. Therefore, it should not be treated as a self-contained systematic theology. That is, it is not capable of unilaterally teaching us the broad scope of doctrines in the Bible.
2) John 3:16 is part of a chapter, which is part of the gospel of John, which is part of the Bible. It should be interpreted in light of that overall context.
3) Christ never set John 3:16 apart as THE verse above all verses. It is no more inspired than John 3:15 or John 3:17. Christ never told us to memorize John 3:16 above other passages.
4) Christ never told us that John 3:16 was the clearest verse in the Bible and that we don't need to put forth any effort in interpreting it. We cannot simply assume its meaning is self evident and label as "unclear" any verse in the Bible that seems to contradict our assumption about John 3:16.
5) John 3:16 is not an ace card that can be pulled out in a debate to trump verses that teach God's sovereignty in salvation.
The true meaning of John 3:16
As with any verse of the Bible, a proper interpretation is obtained by examining the definition of the words, by comparing the themes in the text with the same themes taught elsewhere in scripture, and by a careful look at the grammar and the context.
Definitions of words and comparison with other scriptures
Let us begin by looking carefully at those words that have more than one possible meaning and that have often been at the heart of common misunderstandings. In some cases, we cannot define one word without properly understanding those words that are connected to it.
For instance, we cannot completely define the word love apart from the word world. We won't know fully what it means that God loved without first understanding what is meant by world, which is the object of God's love in John 3:16. We cannot simply look up love and world in a lexicon, put them together and have a complete understanding. We must understand the phrase, not just individual words.
Furthermore, we cannot understand the phrase, "For God so loved the world …" without first examining the context and then examining the uses of love and world in other scriptures. The reason for this is because the scriptures reflect the unified mind of God. Since God is the ultimate author of all scripture, what is said in one place will not contradict what is said in another place. If it does, then we have misunderstood one or both of the "contradictory" passages. In this case, our understanding of what it means for God to love the world cannot contradict other passages of scripture that address the same subject matter.
So, in this manner
It is usually assumed that the phrase, "God so loved the world …" refers to the intensity of God's love for all mankind. God loved us SO much. In truth, the word ουτως (houtos) in Greek simply means, in this way or in this manner. In other words, this is the way God loved the world, not, this is how much God loved the world. The translators of the Bible translation, God's Word, have rendered John 3:16 in this way: "God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life." Likewise, the NET Bible reads, "For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."
The obvious question then is why it came to be translated so — God so loved the world. The reason is because in English the word so can refer to the manner in which something is done, as well as to the degree in which it is done. For instance, if I say, "The song goes like so," I mean that the song goes in this way, or in this manner.
Consequently, "For God so loved the world …" is a legitimate English translation, but it is also a potentially confusing one. It tends to make us think of the intensity of God's love, not the manner in which He has shown His love. The consequences of this can be enormous when accompanied by other misunderstandings of the text. It may lead us to focus on our value and worth, rather than on Christ's value and worth. We may read John 3:16 and think to ourselves: "Wow. God loves US SO MUCH. We must be really special for Him to go to such trouble on our account." A better translation would lead our thoughts in a different direction and cause us to say, "Christ must be precious and of infinite value—for when God chose to love us, He gave us His Son. What a Savior!"
In 1 John 4:9-10, the apostle John, seems to refer back to John 3:16, but he phrases it a little differently. "By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might (would) live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Here John explains the way, not the degree, in which God showed His love. God showed His love in this way: He sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we would live through Him.
This is not to deny that God's love for His people is of an infinitely high degree and that He loves them with a very great love (see Ephesians 2:4-7, Ephesians 3:14-19). I am simply noting that John 3:16 does not teach us primarily about the degree of God's love, but rather the manner of His love.
Below is what John 3:16 looks like in the Greek text. Next to each Greek word is the English translation. In Greek, there is great flexibility in word placement. Verbs, subjects and other parts of sentences can be moved around in different places, without altering the meaning or making it unreadable. Subjects don't need to precede verbs in the order of a sentence, as they do in English. One example of this is seen below, where the subject God follows the verb loved, instead of preceding it. Since the sentence order is quite flexible, those words that come first in the sentence often reflect emphasis.
Notice that the first word in the sentence is ουτως (houtos), which means "in this manner." This indicates that the manner in which God loved the world is of primary emphasis in John 3:16. If we were to translate it accordingly in English, it would read, "For in this way God loved the world: He gave His only begotten Son …"
Ουτως (in this way)
ο θεος (God)
τον κοσμον (the world)
τον υιον αυτου (the son of Him)
τον μονογενη (the only begotten)
εδωκεν (He gave)
ινα (in order that)
ο πιστευων εις αυτον (the believing ones in Him)
αποληται (would perish)
What does it mean for God to love the world? Is love a feeling that God has for the world? Does it mean that He is so enamored with human beings that He'll do anything to spend eternity with us? Does it mean that He loves us no matter what? Does it mean that He'll give us whatever we want? Does it mean that nothing bad will happen to us? Does it mean that we don't need to fear hell? Scripture defines love, not Hollywood, and not the pop or country music industry. We cannot take the popular conception of love today, apply it to John 3:16 and assume that God's love for the world is the same kind of love as that defined by American culture. Scripture must define what love means in John 3:16 and in every other passage.
There are two words usually used for love in the Greek language— αγαπη (agape) and φιλεω (phileo). In John 3:16, the word for love is agape. According to Thayer's Greek Definitions, agape means "brotherly love, affection, good will, love, benevolence." According to Archibald Thomas Robertson, in his Word Pictures in the New Testament, agape is the highest form of love. However, M.G. Easton, in his Illustrated Bible Dictionary, seems to dispute this notion and suggests that phileo is the stronger term, denoting greater intimacy and affection. Resolving this disagreement is an undertaking well beyond the scope of this booklet. In any case, whether agape is a stronger term than phileo or not, it is certainly strong enough. For it is the word that Jesus uses in John 17:23-26 to describe the Father's love for the Son before the foundation of the world.
This brings up an important point about love. Love existed before the creation of the world. The Father and the Son loved one another with a perfect love before the foundation of the world, and the Holy Spirit was and is the very personification of that love. In 1 John 4:7-8, we read: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
God is love, and love is from God. Love begins with God. Because God is a Trinity of persons, He does not need humanity to show love. Love existed between the members of the Trinity long before humanity came into being. God's very nature is love. Before the foundation of the world, God did not show wrath, anger, jealousy, grace, mercy or patience. There was no context for such attributes to be shown, because there were no sinners to judge or forgive. There was no need for the Father to be patient with the Son, or vice-versa, for they were and are infinitely perfect. But there was love. God is love. This consideration will protect us from a man-centered view of John 3:16. Instead of reading the text and thinking how wonderful we must be to have secured God's affections, we will instead reflect on how wonderful Christ is to be the one gift the Father chose to give as an expression of His love.
Furthermore, if we will but consider an obvious point implicit in John 3:16, we should be humbled, not proud—namely, believers would have perished in sin and in hell if God had not given His only begotten Son as a substitute. We were full of sin and God's wrath was upon us. Every believer has committed a countless number of sins and would justly perish in hell forever because of those sins. But God intervened and gave His Son as a propitiation for believers. Therefore, His Son is of infinite worth and value; we are not. He had to be of infinite worth to be accepted by the Father as the ransom price for millions of believing souls.
To properly understand John 3:16, we must also reckon with a very unpopular truth, but one which must be acknowledged and pondered—namely, God does not love everyone, at least not with redemptive love. I realize that this is a shocking statement to a generation that has been nurtured on a romantic, man-centered misunderstanding of John 3:16. It is so objectionable that many will henceforth walk with me no longer. But before you depart, consider the following verses:
"Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I will drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them." (Leviticus 20:23)
"There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you." (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
"The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity. You destroy those who speak falsehood; The LORD abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit." (Psalm 5:5-6)
"The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates." (Psalm 11:5)
"For they provoked Him with their high places and aroused His jealousy with their graven images. When God heard, He was filled with wrath and greatly abhorred Israel." (Psalm 78:58-59)
"There are six things which the LORD hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers." (Proverbs 6:16-19)
"My inheritance has become to Me like a lion in the forest; She has roared against Me; Therefore I have come to hate her." (Jeremiah 12:8)
"All their evil is at Gilgal; Indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; All their princes are rebels." (Hosea 9:15)
"Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." (Romans 9:13)
See also Leviticus 26:30; Deuteronomy 25:16; Psalm 106:40; Proverbs 3:32; Proverbs 11:20; Proverbs 12:22; Proverbs 16:5; Proverbs 17:15.
Such verses may be unpopular, but they are true. They are not usually memorized or put on signs at football games, but they are no less inspired than John 3:16. God hates the wicked. Look at the verses carefully and notice that they do NOT say God hates the sin, but loves the sinner. On the contrary, God hates both the sin and the sinner. We are not dealing with one lonely verse that is obscure and hard to understand. We are dealing with many verses, and they are not hidden in a corner. If such verses are largely unknown, it is because we are either biblically illiterate or willfully ignorant. It is not because such verses are unimportant.
Objection: But that's the Old Testament! We live in the New Testament!
Answer: Putting aside the fact that Romans 9:13, quoted above, is an Old Testament verse quoted in the New Testament, this is hardly an objection worth answering. Has God changed? Has He undergone a personality transplant? Has He lightened up? Has He learned from His "mistakes" in the Old Testament and repented of His hatred for the wicked?
Scripture itself answers these questions: "For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed" (Malachi 3:6). "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow" (James 1:17). The point is that God is perfect. He always has been. Therefore, He does not change or need to change. Sinners are the ones who need to change. God hated the wicked in the Old Testament, and He hates them today. His hatred is a perfect hatred and He does not need to repent of it.
Objection: But the Bible says that God loves everyone!
Answer: Where? No doubt you will quote John 3:16. But, as we shall see when we examine the word world, there are other legitimate ways of interpreting what it means that God loves the world besides the notion that He loves every single person in the world. As I said from the beginning, John 3:16 is not a self-contained systematic theology. It cannot be taken out of its context and understood apart from the rest of the teachings of the Bible. If there are verses which teach that God hates the wicked, then we must allow those verses to shape our understanding of John 3:16. We have no right to ignore them, simply because we don't like them or because they mess up the traditions we inherited from our forefathers.
Objection: But God is love!
Answer: Yes, but what does scripture mean by that? Does the fact that God is love necessarily mean that God loves every sinner? The devil is a sinner. Does God love the devil? If God hates the devil, is it inconsistent for Him to hate the children of the devil? (John 8:38-47; 1 John 3:10-12). Isn't it true that you can love certain things and hate others? If you love justice, isn't it true that you automatically hate injustice? If you love honesty, do you not hate lying? If it is possible for you to hate the antithesis of what you love, then it is also possible with God.
Objection: It is wrong for God to hate anyone!
Answer: Who determines what is right and wrong? God does. If scripture declares that God hates the wicked, we may safely conclude that it is right and good for God to hate the wicked. It can be wrong for sinners to hate sinners, but it is not wrong for God to hate sinners. Why? Because God is perfect and His hatred is perfect. We are sinful and our hatred is often sinful. There is a similar rule with respect to forgiveness. We are obligated to forgive other sinners (Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 18:21-35; Ephesians 4:32), but God has no such obligation to forgive. When He forgives, He does so freely.
Objection: God commands us to love our neighbor without distinction. But how could we love someone that God doesn't love?
Answer: This is a good question. This is where the traditional theological distinction between God's love of benevolence and His love of complacence is helpful. God's love of benevolence is His kindness and goodness to all men. God's love of complacence is His redemptive love and His delight in believers. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves in a way of benevolence, treating them in the way we wish to be treated. This is consistent with God's kindness toward the wicked.
God's love of benevolence is seen in verses such as the following:
"The LORD is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works." (Psalm 145:9)
"The eyes of all look to You, and You give them their food in due time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing." (Psalm 145:15-16)
"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:44-45)
"In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." (Acts 14:16-17)
Even though the word love is not used in these verses, theologians generally understand God's kindness and benevolence to be an extension of His love. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13:4, "Love is patient, love is kind …" Therefore, God's kindness and patience to unbelievers are, in some sense, His love. Furthermore, all human beings are created in God's image and therefore bear a lovely image. The image has been marred by sin and defaced, but it is nevertheless visible to God. The love God has for His own image allows Him to extend a benevolent love even toward those He hates.
But this love is not worthy to be compared to the love God has for believers. God's love of complacence is seen in the following verses:
"The perverse in heart are an abomination to the LORD, but the blameless in their walk are His delight." (Proverbs 11:20)
"Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who deal faithfully are His delight." (Proverbs 12:22)
"You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. It will no longer be said to you, 'Forsaken,' nor to your land will it any longer be said, 'Desolate'; But you will be called, 'My delight is in her,' and your land, 'Married'; For the LORD delights in you, and to Him your land will be married. For as a young man marries a virgin, so your sons will marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you." (Isaiah 62:3-5)
"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), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2:4-7)
"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless." (Ephesians 5:25-27)
God gives food, clothing, health, shelter, employment, friendships and countless other gifts to believers and unbelievers alike, but God has given His only begotten Son, the Holy Spirit and eternal life to believers alone.
Let us consider an analogy. I may love all women in a benevolent way, but I love my wife in a far greater way. I am called to give myself up for her in a way that I am not called to give myself up for all women. It is the same with Christ. Christ may love unbelievers in a benevolent way but love His bride (the church) in a far greater way.
Objection: But how can we share the gospel with sinners and evangelize them if we can't be certain that God loves them with redemptive love?
Answer: The gospel is not a declaration of God's love for any particular sinner. Look through the gospels and the sermons in Acts and you will not find Jesus or the apostles ever telling their hearers that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives. You will see commands to repent and believe the gospel, but you will not see declarations of God's love given to unbelieving sinners. The gospel is the good news that God has provided a way for sinners to be saved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ upon condition of repentance and faith.
A gospel message to unbelievers might start with a revelation of the law of God and the character of God. The preacher would aim to show the unbeliever that he does not keep God's law and is a transgressor of it. Instead of telling the sinner that God loves him, he would tell the sinner that God is angry with him and that God's wrath abides on him. He might go into detail about the terrors of hell, or speak of the Day of Judgment in which God will repay everyone according to their deeds. He would then speak of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the significance of all three. Rather than telling any particular sinner that Christ died for him, the preacher would declare that Christ came into the world to save sinners. He would show the sinner that Christ alone is the way to be reconciled to God, and that Christ is able to save forever those who come to God through Him. Christ alone, not good works, is the way to obtain the righteousness of God. The preacher would declare that Christ beckons those who are weary and heavy laden to come to Him and find rest for their souls. He would urge upon the sinner the necessity for repentance and faith and then tell the sinner the biblical meaning of those words.
There are of course a variety of circumstances unique to each sinner. Any number of issues might be addressed or expounded upon. Conversations might take place over a period of weeks, months or years. Some points might need to be stressed more than others, depending on the person and circumstances. Formulas are not adequate for true evangelism. If a sinner responds to the gospel with repentance and faith, and brings forth fruit in keeping with repentance, he would then be baptized. But in no way should the preacher tell the sinner to pray a sinner's prayer and then assure him that he is saved because he prayed it. Such methods are foreign to the Bible. They promote faith in formulaic prayers rather than in Christ, and they give people a false assurance of salvation.
It is often assumed that world in John 3:16 refers to every single person in the world. For many this is self evident, but is it? Certainly the word kosmos in Greek, translated world in English, can refer to all the inhabitants of the world, but it does not always mean this.
Sometimes it refers to the planet, as when scripture refers to the foundation of the world.
Sometimes it refers to the Gentile world, as opposed to the Jewish world (see 1 John 2:2 and Romans 11:11-15).
Sometimes it refers specifically to the world of believers (John 1:29; John 3:17, John 6:33).
In other cases world refers specifically to the world of unbelievers, as in John 7:7: "The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil" (see also John 14:17; John 12:31 cf. John 3:17). Obviously, believers love Christ, and so they are not included in the world of people that hate Christ.
Sometimes world simply means a multitude of people, as in John 12:19: "So the Pharisees said to one another, 'You see that you are not doing any good; look, the world has gone after Him.'" Here, world cannot mean every single person in the world, since the vast majority of people in the world were not living in Israel and were not following Christ. Furthermore, the Pharisees themselves were not going after Christ.
The assumption has been that John 3:16 refers to every inhabitant of the world, but there are other possibilities, and we will have to consider the context, as well as consult other scriptures, before we can determine which use of the term world is being employed here. There are many scriptures to consult and consider, but we will limit ourselves to the following texts:
John 1:29, "The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
Here, John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares that Christ takes away the sin of the world. He does not say that Jesus will try to take away the sin of the world but fail because most people will not let Him. No. He says that Jesus takes away the sin of the world. There is no hint of failure. So we must ask the obvious question. Who is meant by the world? It cannot mean every single individual in the world, for that would mean that everyone's sins would be taken away and everyone would go to heaven. But that cannot be the case, since the scripture clearly teaches us that the road to eternal life is narrow and few find it (Matthew 7:14). The scriptures have much to say about hell and sinners suffering the wrath of God for eternity. In what sense then did Christ take away the sins of everyone in the world? If He took away everyone's sins, why do most people perish in hell? The truth is that Christ did not take away the sins of every person in the world. Rather, Christ took away the sins of all believers in the world. And so, in John 1:29, world means the world of believers. Since world has this meaning in John 1:29, we are not without warrant in interpreting it the very same way in John 3:16.
John 6:32-33, "Jesus then said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.'"
Here Jesus speaks of bread which comes down out of heaven (Himself) and gives life to the world. He does not speak here of merely offering life to the world. He speaks of giving life to the world. Who does Christ give life to? He gives life to believers. If Christ gave life (i.e. eternal life) to every single person in the world, then all would be saved. Since all are not saved, world must mean the world of believers.
Some will surely object and insist that Christ offers life to everyone, but each person must decide whether to accept that life. Again, this is a presupposition brought to the text of scripture, not a truth drawn out of scripture. The Bible teaches that before we were converted, we were dead in sin. While dead, Christ made us alive (Ephesians 2:1-9). A dead person does not make a free will choice to allow Christ to do something. A dead person remains dead until someone resurrects him. When Christ commanded Lazarus to come forth out of the grave, Lazarus was made alive by Christ. Lazarus didn't think about it and make a free will choice to come alive.
Romans 11:11-15, "I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?"
In this passage Paul is speaking of the transgression of the Jews and how their transgression has brought salvation to the Gentiles. In verse 12, he says that the Jewish transgression (i.e. their rejection of Christ) is riches for the world. In verse 15, he says that their rejection is the reconciliation of the world. He does not speak of God trying to reconcile the world. He speaks of the actual reconciliation of the world. But is every single person in the world reconciled to God? Indeed they are not. Only believers are reconciled to God. Therefore, world must again mean the world of believers, specifically Gentile believers.
1 John 5:19, "We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one."
In this verse, world clearly means the world of unbelievers, for believers do not lie in the power of the evil one. Believers have been freed from the devil by Christ. John is contrasting we (believers) with the world (unbelievers).
Revelation 12:9, "And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him."
In this verse, Satan is said to deceive the whole world. But we know from the rest of the book of Revelation that believers do not follow him and do not receive the mark of the beast. Therefore, once again, world cannot mean every single person in the world. Here it means the world of unbelievers.
1 John 4:9-10, "By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins."
As we have already noted, this passage is a parallel to John 3:16. Here John speaks of the way in which God has shown His love—by sending His only begotten Son. The similarities between these two passages are obvious. But here we see some different expressions and some things which are not explicitly mentioned in John 3:16. Here John is clearly speaking about believers. The epistle, like all other epistles, is written to believers. The pronouns us and we refer to believers, not to unbelievers. John speaks of the love of God being manifested in us. Who is the love of God manifested (revealed) in? It is manifested in believers. In verse 10, we see that God loved us. The word world is not used here as the object of God's love, but rather us. If we compare John 3:16 with 1 John 4:9-10, we see that God loves the world in the former and God loves us in the latter. Seeing that these passages are parallel and knowing that they do not contradict one another, we must conclude that John 3:16 is teaching the same thing as 1 John 4:9-10—namely, that God loved believers (us) in the world.
Consider an example. Suppose I am a millionaire and I write a letter to my son telling him that I will be giving him my inheritance. At the beginning of the letter, I say, "Dear Son," and thereafter I simply refer to my son as "you." In the letter, I say things like "I love you very much and I desire to give you all that I possess." Now, let's suppose that another young man whom I do not know finds my letter and starts reading it as if it were written to him. Suppose he ignores the salutation and simply reads the word you as if it meant him. He gets excited about all that he is going to get from me. Though this illustration is ridiculous, it is the way many people read scripture. They ignore the salutation of each letter. They forget that it was written to a church and they foolishly apply all the promises in it to every inhabitant in the world. When John says that God loved us, he is talking to believers and talking about believers.
How did God show His love for us? He did so by sending His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. What does it mean for Christ to be the propitiation for our sins? It means that Christ satisfies the justice and wrath of God on our behalf. God cannot simply look the other way and ignore the sin of believers. He must punish their sins or else He is not a God of justice. So how can believers, who have sinned times without number, be admitted into heaven and dwell with God for eternity? Their sins must be punished. Christ became the sin of believers, became a curse for them and received their punishment. When Christ went to the cross, He was bearing all the sins of every believer and suffering the punishment for every believer who ever lived before Him and every believer who would come after Him.
As Isaiah 53:6-7 puts it beautifully, "But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him."
Objection: But Christ died for every single person!
Answer: If Christ's death was a propitiation, then He could not have died for every single person in the world. If He did, every single person would be in heaven. We must remember that propitiation means a satisfaction of justice and wrath. Christ bore the sin and suffered the punishment for our sins. If our sins refers to the sins of the entire human race, then why would God still punish most of the human race in hell for sins of which Christ has already been punished? God does not punish a sin and then punish the same sin again later. When He punishes, He punishes satisfactorily until His justice is satisfied. Once He has punished a sin, there is no more need to punish it. Only the sins of believers were imputed to Christ and it was only their sins for which Christ was punished.
Some will reply, "Those in hell suffer for the sin of unbelief and of not receiving Christ." I reply, Isn't unbelief a sin? Where is it written that Christ did not suffer for the sin of unbelief? If Christ did not suffer for unbelief, then who has paid for the sins of unbelief committed by all believers before they became believers? How will anyone get to heaven if that sin has not been punished and paid for? The truth is that Christ was sent to be the propitiation for all the sins of believers, including the sin of unbelief. But this cannot be true of every person in the world, or else everyone would be in heaven. Christ not only suffered for the sins of unbelief committed by all believers; in time, He also gave them the gift of faith so that they would not continue in unbelief.
Consider the consequences of asserting that sinners go to hell only for the sin of unbelief or rejection of the gospel. What then becomes of those who have neither heard nor rejected the gospel? Do they go to heaven? If so, then why do we send them missionaries? Why did Christ tell the disciples to go into all the nations and preach the gospel, if everyone's sins are already forgiven, except one sin which they have not committed yet? And why give people the opportunity to commit that one sin by preaching the gospel to them, knowing that they might reject it and forfeit the eternal life that is apparently already theirs? What nonsense is this! The truth, according to Romans 1:18ff, is that God condemns sinners for their sins against the truth that He has revealed to them through nature and through conscience, not for rejecting the gospel alone. If someone hears the gospel and rejects it, then they have added one more heinous sin to the mountain of sins they have already accumulated. But rejection of the gospel is not the only sin for which those in hell suffer.
Objection: 1 John 2:2 teaches that Christ is the propitiation for everyone. It says, "… He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
Answer: This verse does not teach that Christ is the propitiation for every single person in the world. It teaches that Christ is the propitiation, not merely for the sins of Jewish believers, but also for those in the Gentile world (namely, believing Gentiles). As we have seen, the word world has a wide semantic range. It has various meanings and we have to look at the context to discern which meaning is being used. One of the meanings of world is the world of Gentiles. It is almost universally agreed upon that 1 John was written to a Jewish audience. It is apparent in many places in the New Testament that the Jews were prone to prejudice against the Gentiles and were highly provincial in their conceptions of the kingdom of God. In fact, it would be an understatement to say most Jews were shocked that the Gentiles would be included in the kingdom of God.
This is why Peter was reluctant to go to Cornelius the Gentile (Acts 10:20, 28-29) and why Peter was given the riot act by other Jews when they found out he had gone to a Gentile (Acts 11:2-3). For the entire history of the world, few Gentiles were included in the kingdom of God. As the psalmist declared, "He declares His words to Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; And as for His ordinances, they have not known them. Praise the LORD" (Psalm 147:19-20).
Paul's words in Ephesians 2:11-12 describe the spiritual condition of nearly every Gentile, prior to the inauguration of the new covenant. "Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called 'Uncircumcision' by the so-called 'Circumcision,' which is performed in the flesh by human hands--remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."
These things considered, it is not surprising that John would remind his Jewish readers that Christ was "the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." Furthermore, what we have already noted concerning the very meaning of propitiation still applies here. If propitiation means a satisfaction of the wrath and justice of God, then we must ask how it can be that Christ is the propitiation for every single person in the world. If He is, then God's wrath has been satisfied and quenched by Christ on behalf of every person. Consequently, everyone would be in heaven.
Christ died for believers
In addition to many verses in which world means the world of believers, there are other verses which specifically and explicitly say that Christ died for believers. One of them is Ephesians 5:25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her …" Here we are told that Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. John 3:16 tells us that God gave His Son for the world, but Ephesians 5:25 specifies who in the world Christ was given for—specifically, for the church.
Another verse is John 10:11, where Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." We know that Jesus is not using the analogy of sheep to describe all of humanity, for he says to some of the Jews in verses 26-28 of the same chapter, "But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand." Again, this verse is more specific than John 3:16. Here we see that Christ laid down His life specifically for the sheep.
How do we reconcile passages that teach Christ was given for the world (or for all) and passages that teach He was given for the church or for the sheep? We know that the Bible cannot contradict itself and so the passages must agree with one another. So the question is: Do we interpret the specific words like church and sheep through the broader words like world and all, or vice versa? There is only one sensible answer. We must interpret the broader words through the specific ones. The narrow, specific words church and sheep help us to understand what is meant by the broad and more general words world and all. We have already seen many clear instances in which the word world cannot mean every single person in the world and has a more specific focus. The same could be done for the word all. (For one example of this, read Romans 8:32 in the context of Romans 8:28-34.) So we are not guilty of artificially narrowing these words when we see that scripture itself narrows them in many cases.
Furthermore, let us consider what it would mean to interpret the specific words church or sheep through the broad words such as world and all. In other words, what would happen if we interpreted Ephesians 5:25 in a universal way? "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her …" In order to make this passage fit with a universal interpretation of John 3:16, we would have to conclude that the word church meant every person in the world. Such an interpretation would be nonsensical. If church means every person in the world, then the word church is inherently meaningless and every comparison in scripture between the church and the world is also meaningless.
Consider an example of the ways we make general statements about certain things, and then become more specific about those same things in other instances. If, in one instance, I say that I went to Florida, and in another instance, I say that I went to Orlando, no one would accuse me of contradicting myself. Furthermore, my statement that I went to Orlando helps to interpret my statement that I went to Florida. It helps explain that I went specifically to Orlando, Florida. In this way, the specific statement is allowed to interpret the general, not the other way around. Surely no one would object and say, "Wait a minute. You said you went to Florida. You can't limit that word and make it so narrow!"
Every professing Christian, except the universalist, believes in a limited atonement of some sort. Some limit the power and effect of the atonement by saying that Christ died for every single person, but is unable to save everyone unless they let Him. Others limit the scope and intent of the atonement, saying that Christ did not die for every single person, but only for the elect. The latter is true. God gave His only begotten Son to secure the salvation of believing ones. God's hopes have not been dashed. God is not a frustrated deity. The people who are saved are the very people Christ was sent to save. As Jesus said in John 6:37, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out."
That He gave His only begotten Son
Having shown earlier that the Greek word ουτως (houtos) should be translated in this way rather than so, I now turn to the manner in which God has shown His love. God showed His love for the world of believing ones in this way: He gave His only begotten Son to them. The verse could have simply said, "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His Son so that all those believing in Him should not perish but have eternal life." But instead, special emphasis is given to the fact that Jesus is God's only begotten Son. In this way, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is highlighted. God has many sons and daughters by means of adoption. Every believer is an adopted child of God. But God has only one begotten Son.
What does it mean that Christ is God's only begotten Son? It is unlikely that this refers to the incarnation. John 3:16 implies that the Son was already begotten when the Father gave Him. The decision to give the Son occurred long before the incarnation. Before the eternal Son of God became flesh He was already the only begotten Son of God. The Son of God was eternally begotten of God. Theologians refer to this as the eternal generation of the Son of God.
Christ has always existed as the Son of God. He did not become the Son at the incarnation. There was never a time that He was born in the sense that we are born. How can we explain this? We cannot. It is a profound mystery. The best we can do is to say that Christ is eternally begotten. In the human realm it is fathers who beget children, while mothers bear them. An example of this distinction is found in Jeremiah 16:3: "For thus says the LORD concerning the sons and daughters born in this place, and concerning their mothers who bear them, and their fathers who beget them in this land." See also Matthew 1:1-16 in the King James Version.
There is much that we cannot understand here, but there are some things that we can understand. God has created us in His image and in family relationships that mirror the Trinitarian relationship in some ways. Because we exist in families, we can understand the love a father can have for a son. We can understand how precious an only son would be to his father. We can also understand something of what it would mean for a father to give up his only son to die for wicked sinners and sworn enemies. What we cannot comprehend, however, is the infinite degree of love between the Father and the Son. The love of a human father for his son gives us a paradigm to understand God's love for His Son, but it does not help us to understand the infinite degree of love. No human father has ever loved or could ever love his son to the degree that God the Father loves God the Son. Additionally, we can understand what it is to be disgusted by the sin of someone else, but we cannot comprehend how disgusting sin is to an infinitely holy and righteous God. Consequently we cannot fathom what it was for God to give up His infinitely precious Son for the salvation of such hateful sinners. At best, we catch only a glimpse of the glory due to God for the gift of His Son, as expressed by John 3:16.
Furthermore, God did not merely give His Son to come and die. As we have already seen, Christ died as a propitiation for the sins of believing ones. This means that Christ was not merely tortured and put to death by Jews and Romans. When Jesus went to the cross, He was suffering the punishment for all the sins of all believing ones for all time. God was righteously angry toward the sins of believers. He was obligated to punish them. All of that anger and wrath was turned on Jesus Christ when He went to the cross. It is one thing for God to give His Son to die for others. It is a greater thing for God to give His only begotten Son to die for others. It is an even greater thing for God to give His only begotten Son to die for law-breaking sinners. It is yet greater for God to pour out His wrath upon His dear Son to redeem law-breaking sinners.
It is hard to comprehend the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross. Consider that even one sin committed against an infinitely holy God deserves infinite punishment in hell. Consider that one believer has committed a countless multitude of sins. Consider that there is a countless multitude of believers for whom Christ suffered. The math is staggering. What must Christ have suffered on the cross in order to satisfy the righteous anger of God that was stored up for every sin of every believer? How could Christ have satisfied the wrath of God in just a few hours on the cross? Surely, there is much that is hidden from our eyes as we see Jesus crucified. Perhaps this gives us more insight into Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane and His desperate cry on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?"
Let us again marvel at the words of Isaiah 53:4-6: "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him."
Perhaps no word has contributed to a misunderstanding of John 3:16 more than the word whoever. This is interesting, considering the fact that the word whoever is not found in the Greek text. In Greek, the word πας (pas), often translated whoever, literally means all. If it were translated this way, John 3:16 would read, "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish …" Technically, all who and whoever are interchangeable expressions and mean the same thing. But the word whoever in English can have the connotation of uncertainty. That is, it can suggest that God does not know who will believe in Him. If we allow that English connotation to creep into our interpretation of John 3:16, then we may imagine that God had no idea who would believe in Him, or if anybody would believe in Him. We might begin to think that the Father simply gave His Son in the hope that someone, anyone, might believe in Him. The truth is that God knew exactly who would believe in Christ, even before the foundation of the world. He wrote their names in the Lamb's book of life before the world was created (Revelation 13:8, Revelation 17:8). He chose them before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-6), and in time He gave them the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
I have heard people lay great emphasis on the word whoever in John 3:16 to make the point that God desires to save everyone and leaves it up to the free will of man to choose. The fact is that the word whoever is not found in the Greek text and is at best a misleading English translation. God did not send Christ to create a possibility of salvation. He sent Christ to successfully seek and save believing ones. The glory of God shines through a proper translation. Rather than trying to save everyone but only succeeding with "whoever would let Him," Christ has instead saved all believers – every single one of them. Not one believer will be missing in heaven. God sent His only begotten Son so that all believers would not perish but have eternal life.
Believes in Him
It is often assumed that to believe is simply to utilize free will to make a choice and invite Christ into your heart. Or it is assumed that to believe means to mentally agree that certain facts are true. For instance, it is suggested by many tracts that there are just a few things that a lost person needs to believe to be saved. One fact the lost person is to believe, ironically, is that God loves him and has a wonderful plan for his life. This "fact" is based on the assumption that when John 3:16 says that God loved the world, it means every person in the world without exception. We have already shown that this assumption is unwarranted. Therefore, the unbeliever reading the tract is being asked to believe something that may not be true. God may not love that person with redemptive love.
Another "fact" the lost person is told to believe is that Jesus died for him – a "fact" based on the assumption of a universal atonement (i.e. that Christ died for every single person). Since Christ did not die for every single person in the world, it cannot be known whether Christ died for him in particular. To tell him to believe that Christ died for him is to tell him to believe something that God has not revealed in scripture. If he is not one of God's chosen, then he is being asked to believe something that is not true. We can only know that God loves us and that Christ died for us when we have credible evidence of repentance and faith. And yet these are the sorts of things the lost person is told to believe. If he believes them, he is often congratulated for his faith and his decision to accept these facts. He is then welcomed as a new child of God and encouraged to go to church and read his Bible. This is a good way to make false converts.
Even if the above "facts" were true things to be believed, there is abundant biblical evidence to suggest that faith is much more than agreement to certain truths. As the apostle James reminds us, even the demons believe and shudder (James 2:19). The demons believe that the scriptures are the inspired and inerrant word of God. The demons believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The demons believe in the Trinity. The demons believe in heaven and hell. The demons believe that salvation is by grace, not the works of the Law. The demons believe that Christ is the only name under heaven by which we must be saved. The demons believe far more facts than we do, yet they are not saved.
Of course, we do need to believe the facts of scripture, but John 3:16 says "all who believe in Him" will not perish. What does it mean to believe in Him? We will need to look at more scriptures than John 3:16 to arrive at a biblical understanding of this phrase.
According to Strong's Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, the word πιστευω (pisteuo) means "to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), that is, to credit; by implication to entrust (especially one's spiritual well being to Christ): believe, commit (to trust), put in trust with." Similarly, in Thayer's Greek Definitions, the word is defined as, "To think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in … used in the New Testament of the conviction and trust to which a man is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of soul … to trust in Jesus or God as able to aid either in obtaining or in doing something …"
To believe in Christ, at least from a strict Greek dictionary point of view, involves believing Christ's words to be true and entrusting oneself to Him. Since the context of John 3:16 is salvation, we can add that believing in Christ is entrusting oneself in Christ for salvation. Furthermore, John 3:16 speaks of believing in Him. This is evidently more than believing certain facts to be true.
But we must go beyond the lexicon and see what faith looks like. This will help us to define faith more thoroughly. There are many examples in the gospels of people who had faith in Christ. A careful study of these examples will show that faith is the opposite of pride and self-confidence. Those who came to Jesus seeking mercy were trusting in Jesus alone, not in themselves or their merits or their efforts. They were humble and completely dependent on Christ for aid. We could look at many examples to show this, but will focus on only two examples that powerfully demonstrate this point.
The example is taken from Luke 7:36-50, "Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.' And Jesus answered him, 'Simon, I have something to say to you.' And he replied, 'Say it, Teacher.' 'A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?' Simon answered and said, 'I suppose the one whom he forgave more.' And He said to him, 'You have judged correctly.' Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.' Then He said to her, 'Your sins have been forgiven.' Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, 'Who is this man who even forgives sins?' And He said to the woman, 'Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'"
At the end of the passage, Jesus says that the woman's faith saved her. Of course, Jesus was not denying that He saved her. He was not giving glory to some separate thing called faith. He was simply saying that the woman's faith was the means by which she had been saved. If Jesus is the physician, then faith is the feeding tube. When a doctor hooks up a feeding tube to a dependent patient and thereby saves the patient's life, many different things contribute to that patient's "salvation"—the doctor, the tube and the food that goes through the tube. In that sense, it can be properly said to the patient, "Your tube saved you." It is also proper to say that the doctor saved the patient, or that the food itself saved the patient. Scripture does the same thing. Sometimes our salvation is attributed to God, sometimes to Christ, sometimes to the cross, sometimes to the blood of Jesus, sometimes to the righteousness of Christ and sometimes to faith.
In the same way, Jesus is the physician and faith is like a feeding tube, through which the life and righteousness of Christ comes to the sinner, thereby bringing salvation.
Since Jesus says that the woman had saving faith, we should then take a second look at this woman to see what faith looks like. What we see is that the woman was humble. She was a sinner and she knew it. Even though she had a scandalous reputation, she was not too proud to come into the house of a Pharisee (presumably uninvited) to see Jesus. Surely, she knew she would be scorned in Simon's house. Yet she came anyway. She considered Christ to be precious, not herself, and so she gave up her costly perfume to anoint Christ, rather than saving it for herself. Her sorrow for her sin was so deep that she wept. She was not too proud to weep in front of others, and subject herself to the scoffing of religious leaders who doubted her sincerity. She had such a profusion of tears that she was able to sufficiently wash Jesus' dusty feet with them. Instead of using a rag to wipe His feet, she used her hair, that crown of glory that God has given to women (1 Corinthians 11:15). Women take great care of their hair, and yet this woman used that honorable part of her body to wipe the dirt off one of the least honorable parts of Jesus' body. Not only did she wipe his feet with her hair, she also kissed His feet many times. This sinful woman had faith. What does it look like when someone has faith? It looks like her.
Another powerful example of faith comes from the parable Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14, "And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
How does this parable demonstrate what faith is like? Even though the word faith is not used in this parable, Jesus tells us that the tax collector went to his house justified, and we know from many passages in scripture that we are justified by faith (Romans 3:28; Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:16, etc.). Therefore, the tax collector is an example of faith.
What we see with the tax collector is what we saw with the sinful woman. Faith is humble. The tax collector was so ashamed of himself that he was unwilling to lift his eyes to heaven. He demonstrated a hatred for his sin by beating his breast. He called himself the sinner, instead of a sinner. He did not compare himself with the Pharisee. He did not say things such as, "I thank God I'm not like this Pharisee, who is proud. At least I'm sorrowful." He did not compare himself with pagans and say, "I thank God that at least I came to the temple. At least I'm praying, unlike some people I know." On the contrary, the tax collector's only hope was in the mercy of God. He did not trust in his tears, his brokenness or his prayer. He trusted in the mercy of God alone. That is what faith looks like.
These examples illustrate the point of Habakkuk 2:4, "Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith." Here we have two types of people, set in contrast with one another—the proud one, and the righteous man who lives by faith. They are in contrast because faith is humble.
Perhaps this is why the Westminster Larger Catechism gave the following answer to question 72, "What is justifying faith?" Answer: "Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition (italics mine), not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation."
It is to be feared that many people have wrong notions of eternal life. Is eternal life just an endless life of the sort of things I enjoy here on earth? What if I enjoy sin? Is my hope of eternal life a hope of an endless duration of sinful earthly pleasures? The meaning of eternal life is fairly straightforward from a Greek dictionary. It means life that is everlasting. But Jesus gives us something more than a lexicon definition in John 17:3, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." Eternal life, then, is not merely a quantity of life. It is a quality of life. Eternal life is knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ His Son. Before his rebirth, every Christian was ignorant of God. He was ignorant of God's glory and beauty. But God caused him to be born again and for the first time he knew God and began to grow in true knowledge of Him. This is eternal life. It does not start when a Christian dies and goes to heaven. It starts the minute we are reborn. We have the very life of the eternal God in our soul.
Understanding eternal life in this way gives John 3:16 a God-centered flavor, not a man-centered one. For now we see that God loved the world of believing ones and gave His only begotten Son so that they would not perish but know Him. God did not sacrifice His only begotten Son so that believing ones could simply get out of hell and enjoy an eternity of fleshly pleasures. He sacrificed His only begotten Son so that believers might know God and His Son. Knowing God and knowing Christ is the greatest prize of all. God showed His love for believing ones by giving them the great privilege of knowing Him.
David understood the privilege of knowing God. In Psalm 27:4, he said, "One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD and to meditate in His temple." In Psalm 73:25-26, he said, "Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." In Psalm 142:5, he said, "I cried out to You, O LORD; I said, 'You are my refuge, My portion in the land of the living.'"
Paul also prized the knowledge of God above all things. In Philippians 3:8-11, he said, "More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead."
Do you also consider the knowledge of God to be your portion? Do you long to know Him more? Is heaven a pleasant prospect because God will be there and you will know Him more? Or are you merely hoping to get out of hell, enjoy fleshly pleasures and be reunited with friends and loved ones? If so, you are not yet among the company of those believing in Christ.
Perhaps the most significant point grammatically in John 3:16 has to do with the phrase "all who believe in Him," which is often translated "whoever believes in Him." The verb believe is a present active participle, indicating ongoing action. If we were to translate very literally, the text would read: "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son so that all the believing ones in Him would not perish but have eternal life." If we were to tweak it further to make it conform to the rules of the English language, it would simply read, "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son so that all those believing in Him would not perish but have eternal life." This brings out a different emphasis than the traditional translation whoever believes in Him. It does so in three ways:
1) It suggests a definite object to God's redemption: namely, believers. It establishes a connection between the world and those believing in Him, indicating that God's love for the world is God's love for believers in the world.
2) It removes the suggestion of uncertainty, created by the word whoever, and replaces that sense with one of success. God sent His Son so that all those believing in Him would not perish. Since all believers are in fact saved, the plan of salvation was a success.
3) It reveals that believers are not those who exercise a one-time act of faith, but rather those who continue in a state of believing.
John 3:16 is a sentence in a paragraph, in a chapter, in a book of the Bible. Let us first examine the beginning of John 3. Instead of assuming that believing in Christ is a free will choice, we should examine the context to see if such an assumption is warranted. What we find in John 3:1-8 is a teaching on the rebirth which refutes that assumption. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, had come to Jesus by night and acknowledged that He had come from God. "Jesus answered and said to him, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said to Him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?' Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God'" (John 3:3-5).
Jesus' teaching demonstrates that salvation is something more than human choice. His logic is elementary. A child must be born before he can see and walk. Likewise, a person must be born from the Spirit before He can see and enter a spiritual kingdom. How can we see the kingdom, if we are not yet born? How can we enter that kingdom, if we are not yet born? We cannot. Put another way, how can we believe the gospel, (see and enter the kingdom) if we are not yet born? We cannot. We must first be born.
Nicodemus did not understand Jesus and thought he was referring to physical childbirth. In John 3:6-8, Jesus replied to him, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again (literally, from above).' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." In other words, the rebirth is an act of the Spirit's will, not the human will.
It is also important to see that Jesus emphasized a spiritual birth into a spiritual kingdom of heaven, not a physical birth into a physical nation of Israel. The majority of Jews thought of the kingdom of God in terms of the kingdom of Israel. In their thinking, if you were born a Jew, you were in the kingdom. This is one of the reasons they had such a difficult time accepting Gentiles as legitimate heirs of the kingdom. Jesus taught Nicodemus that the kind of birth that really mattered was spiritual birth. We must be born again (literally, from above) and born of the Spirit. This teaching shook the confidence of Jews and all those who trusted in Jewish blood and genealogy. Being born an Israelite amounted to nothing if you were not also born of the Spirit. But the Spirit blows where He pleases. Therefore, we are not in control of salvation. God is. This teaching also shakes the confidence of those today who trust in free will, the sinner's prayer and good works. Jesus' question to Nicodemus in verse 10 could be asked of hundreds of pastors today: "Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?" We should not be surprised when the respected teachers of the church today do not understand the basics of the gospel--namely that salvation is by the will of God, not the will of man.
We see then that the verses leading up to John 3:16 teach something very different from the assumptions often attached to John 3:16. It is often assumed that we contribute our own faith and are then born again as a result. But Jesus teaches the opposite. We cannot see the kingdom unless we are already born again. Faith is the result of our rebirth. Rebirth is not the result of faith.
As we look backward in the gospel of John, we see a similar truth. In John 1:12-13, the apostle says: "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."
We often think that receiving Christ is an act of our will which results in the new birth. But John refutes that idea in verse 13. There he tells us that our birth (that is, our rebirth) is not of blood (lineage), nor of the will of the flesh (our own will), nor of the will of man (the will of someone else), but of God. It is God's will that brings about the rebirth, not our will. This is what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus. We must be born again by the Spirit of God. The Spirit blows where He pleases. We cannot control Him to make Him save us. We cannot make Him save a lost loved one. We cannot predict where He will move or when.
This context cannot be ignored when we get to John 3:16. We should not interpret John 3:16 in a way that contradicts what has already been taught in John 1:12-13 and in John 3:1-8. God brings about the rebirth, not us. Jesus uses birth to describe the inception of our spiritual life. Just as infants are not conceived or born by an act of their own will, neither are believers born by an act of their will. When we come to John 3:16 and we read, "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life," we should not conclude that faith is something we do in order to be born again. Rather we must conclude that faith is something that comes immediately after we are born again. Adoption comes after that in the order of salvation. That is why John says that to all who receive Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12-13). This does not mean that faith is what we contribute to salvation and adoption is the reward. Rather, God causes the rebirth, then God gives faith to the newborn Christian, then God adopts the newborn Christian.
The same truth is taught as we look forward in the gospel of John. In John 6:44, Jesus said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:44). Here Jesus teaches that men do not have the ability to exercise faith (come to Him), unless the Father draws them. Again, the context of the gospel of John shapes our interpretation of John 3:16. We cannot ignore these passages and interpret John 3:16 in isolation from them. These passages teach us that God is the author of salvation. God is sovereign in all things, including salvation, and it is by His will that anyone is born again. We find this same truth supported throughout the Bible, which is the larger context of the gospel of John (Matthew 11:25-27; Romans 8:29-30; Romans 9:16; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3-5, et al). Therefore, when we come to John 3:16, we cannot read into the text notions that contradict these other passages. John 3:16 does not teach that salvation comes as a result of a free will choice of man. It simply teaches that God gave His only begotten Son so that believers would not perish but have eternal life.
As we look further into John 3, we see that Jesus makes reference in verses 14-15 to Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. God was angry with the Israelites because of their grumbling, rebellious ways, and in His wrath He sent fiery serpents to bite and kill the complainers. The people pleaded with Moses and asked him to intercede for them. The Lord then instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a standard that would be raised up high. When an Israelite was bitten, he was to look to the standard, trusting in God's provision for life, and he would be healed.
In the same way, the Son of Man must be lifted up (on the cross), so that all those believing in Him would have eternal life. Let us look at verses 14-16 together: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; (15) so that all those believing in Him will have eternal life. (16) For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son so that all those believing in Him would not perish but have eternal life." (translation mine)
The context helps us to understand the meaning of believing. For the Israelites who were bitten by serpents, to believe meant to look to the bronze serpent, trusting in God's chosen instrument for their salvation from death. This is the analogy that Jesus uses to introduce the subject of believing in John 3:15-16. Therefore, faith is a looking to the crucified Christ, trusting that He alone is the God-appointed provision for our salvation. It is not asking Jesus into your heart--a concept foreign to the Bible. Neither is it merely confessing certain facts about Jesus (though every true Christian will believe and confess the facts about Christ). It is looking to Christ alone, trusting in His death as the only acceptable sacrifice for our sins.
Verses 17-18 are also crucial. Together with verse 16, they read as follows: "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son so that all those believing in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. (17) For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world would be saved through Him. (18) He who is believing in Him is not judged; he who is not believing has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." (translation mine)
Most translations have used the English word might in John 3:17. "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him" This is an unfortunate translation because it suggests uncertainty about whether the world will be saved. It leads to the erroneous view that God sent Christ in the hope that He might save everyone. It implies that God wasn't sure if anyone would be saved. He just created an opportunity for salvation so that all might be saved. In other words, the plan of salvation was a big MAYBE.
In the Greek text, no such uncertainty exists. The Greek words from which the phrase might be saved is translated are ινα σωθη (hina sothay). Literally, they mean in order to save. The first word ινα (hina) is a conjunction meaning "in order to" and indicates purpose. The word σωθη (sothay) is an aorist passive subjunctive—aorist means past tense; passive indicates that the direct object (world) receives the action, rather than actively performs the action; subjunctive is the mood used to indicate purpose. The phrase expresses God's purpose in sending His Son. His purpose was that the world would be saved, not that the world might be saved. When the word would is used, instead of might, it better conveys the meaning of the verse.
Why then have many translations chosen the word might instead of would? Good question. The word might is a legitimate translation, just like the word so and whoever in John 3:16. The following sentence is an example of an English sentence in the subjunctive mood, using the word might: "I'm going to get up early tomorrow in order that I might see the sunrise." In this example the word might does not suggest a mere possibility of seeing the sunrise. There is no hint of doubt, uncertainty or failure. It could have easily been phrased, "I'm going to get up early tomorrow in order to see the sunrise." The two sentences have identical meanings and either option is a legitimate way of saying it. The same is true in John 3:17. The phrase might be saved is a possible way of translating the purpose clause from the Greek text, but it is a potentially misleading way of translating it.
If we were to translate John 3:17 very literally, it would read, "For God did not send His Son into the world in order to judge the world, but in order that the world be saved through Him." If we polished it a little for proper English, we could add the word would or should. It would then read: "For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world would be saved through Him."
The use of the word world in verses 17-18 also helps us to understand the use of the same word in verse 16, for there is a consistency in its meaning in this context. What we see is that it is impossible to define world as "every person in the world" in this context. Why? For two reasons:
1) In verse 17, we see that Christ was not sent to judge the world but that the world would be saved through Him. This does not speak of God trying to save everyone in the world and failing. This speaks of God sending Christ that the world would be saved. There is victory in this verse, not failure. But whom does Christ actually save? He saves believers, not every single person in the world. Therefore, world must refer to the world of believers.
2) In verse 18, we see that many people in the world are judged already, namely unbelievers. Think about it. Did Christ come to save people who were judged already? No, He came to save those who believe, not those who disbelieve and are already judged.
Objection: But how could unbelievers be judged already? Isn't everyone an unbeliever before Christ saves them? If so, then wouldn't everyone be already judged and no one ever saved?
Answer: When Jesus refers to those who are judged already, He is speaking of those who remain in a state of unbelief throughout their lives. They were known to God before He ever sent Christ to this world, and when Christ came, they were already judged. The point here is that Christ did not come to save those who were pre-judged, and so He could not have come to save every person in the world.
We must remember that God knows the future because God has planned the future. God did not send Christ to save everyone and is now in shock because most have not believed in Christ. God is not surprised by mankind's rejection of Christ. He is not frustrated that so many people have not heard the gospel and that so many who have heard it have rejected it. But we might think that God is shocked and disappointed if we supposed that God sent His Son to save every person in the world.
If God was hoping to save every single person in the world and is even now trying to save every one, then we must come to one of the following conclusions:
1) God has tried to save everyone and failed. Therefore, God is weak.
2) God is not trying very hard to save everyone. Otherwise He would do more to send missionaries to every person in the world. Therefore, God is half-hearted and insincere in His desire to save everyone.
3) God has left it up to us to save everyone and we have failed. Therefore, God is not wise, since He delegated salvation to incompetent human beings.
Which one of these gods do you want? As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord God Almighty. The God of the Bible is omnipotent. He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3; Psalm 135:6). No one can resist His sovereign will (Daniel 4:35; Romans 9:18-19). He chooses some for salvation even before the foundation of the world. (Ephesians 3:1-11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). He sent His Son to die for them and be the propitiation for their sins (John 10:14-16; Isaiah 53:5-6). He knew who would believe in Him because He chose to give them the gift of faith (Philippians 1:29; Ephesians 2:8-9).
We have seen how many assumptions have been made about John 3:16 and how such assumptions are read into the verse, not derived out of it. We have seen the enormous consequences of making assumptions instead of carefully studying the context and comparing John 3:16 with the whole counsel of God. Let us now review the meaning of this famous verse.
John 3:16 does not teach us that God was lonely and needed fellowship with sinners to fill a void in His life. On the contrary, God is self-sufficient. He has existed for all eternity in a Trinity of persons. He has no needs. If He were hungry, He would not ask us (Psalm 50:12). No one has ever given to God that it should be repaid back to him (Romans 11:35). The earth and all it contains was created as an overflow of the infinite glory of God. God created us in order to give from His fullness, not receive from our fullness. All that God "receives" was first given by Him and simply returns to Him (Romans 11:36; 1 Chronicles 29:14-16). When we give glory to God, we are not adding to His glory. We are simply giving verbal recognition to the glory of God that is already full and complete. Therefore, John 3:16 is not a man-centered verse, exalting the sufficiency of man to meet God's needs. It is a God-centered verse, exalting the sufficiency of God to meet man's needs. God didn't send His only begotten Son so that He could have the privilege of spending eternity with us and getting to know us. He sent His only begotten Son so that we could have the privilege of knowing Him for all eternity. This is eternal life, and the privilege is all ours.
John 3:16 does not teach that God loved every person in the world with redemptive love, but has failed to secure the affections of the vast majority of people. It teaches that He loved all those believing in Him scattered throughout the whole world. He did not merely love believing Jews. He loved believing Gentiles as well. Christ's sacrifice on the cross has not been a colossal failure. It has been a resounding victory. Those God loved and gave His Son for are those God has saved and will save. Furthermore, God gave His only begotten Son as a propitiation for the sins of all believers. Christ became their sin, so that they would become the righteousness of God in Him. Christ became a curse and suffered the punishment their sins deserved. Christ drank every drop of the cup of God's righteous anger toward sinful believers.
John 3:16 does not teach that the world of believing ones was so winsome and lovable in God's sight that He was willing to sacrifice His Son for them. It does not glorify the loveliness of man. It does not teach us our worth and it is not the basis for man to build a robust self-esteem. Instead, it glorifies the worth of Christ by showing that He is the way in which God loved believers. God loved the world of believing ones in this way: He gave His only begotten Son to them. God did not have to love believers. He could have consigned them to perish forever in hell. Instead, He chose to give them His love by giving them His Son. In this sense, He loved them freely--free of cause.
John 3:16 does not teach that faith is man's contribution to salvation or man's gift to God. On the contrary, faith is God's gift to His elect (Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29). Therefore, believers cannot boast in their faith as though it is a work they perform to earn eternal life. Believers cannot boast in their faith any more than a dependent patient can boast in his feeding tube. Faith is not a giving instrument. It is a receiving instrument. Believing ones are saved through faith, and that not of themselves, lest anyone should boast. They are saved through faith that it might be in accordance with grace (Romans 4:16). Therefore, it cannot be of themselves, or else they could boast of it. The only thing that believers have contributed to their salvation is their sin. That is why they cannot boast in anything except the cross of Christ.
John 3:16 does not teach that God is uncertain about who will be saved. The word whoever is not found in the original Greek and is a misleading translation of the Greek word pas, meaning all. God knows exactly what will happen before it happens because God works out all things after the counsel of His own will. He knows what will happen, not merely because He foresees it, but because He has fore-ordained it (Ephesians 1:11).
John 3:16 does not teach that God created an opportunity for salvation for anyone who would exercise his free will and make the choice to accept Christ. We are not free by nature. We are slaves to sin and need to be freed by Christ (John 8:34-36). If God merely created an opportunity to be saved in Christ and then waited for man to take advantage of that opportunity, He would still be waiting, for no one seeks God (Romans 3:10-12). On the contrary, God sent His Son so that all those believing in Christ would not perish but have eternal life. If Christ was sacrificed for every individual in the world on the basis of an uncertain hope that all would be saved, then God has been sorely disappointed. No, God sent His only begotten Son so that the sheep whom He chose before the foundation of the world could be forgiven and made righteous in Christ. God sent Christ so that all those He intended to give faith to, would have a Savior to put faith in.
The true meaning of John 3:16 should arm us with confidence in evangelism. No longer must we declare an ineffective and meaningless love of God for all mankind that usually accomplishes nothing. No longer must we portray a weak, frustrated God who loves everyone so much, but can't save any of them unless they let Him. No longer must we portray the death of Christ as securing nothing without human help. No longer must we portray a God who sent His only Son to die for everyone because He couldn't live without them.
On the contrary, we can declare a God who victoriously loves everyone who believes in Christ. We can lift up the sufficiency of Christ to save the worst of sinners who believe in Him. We can exhort sinners to put their trust in One who is so trustworthy. As for believers, we can look them in the eye and tell them in earnest that God Almighty loves them.
John 3:16 is a glorious verse when understood properly, for the glory of God shines through it. May the clouds of man-centeredness melt away from this verse and may the glory of God rise like the sun in all its strength. May God use John 3:16 to shine in your heart the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Amen.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE (R), (unless otherwise indicated) Copyright (C) 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.