One very common Calvinist proof text for limited atonement and a limited salvific will on God’s part is in John 17:9. The context of the passage is Jesus in the Garden Of Gethsemane. The synoptic Gospels do record some of the content of Jesus’ preaching, but the Apostle John chooses to reveal a lot more content than simply “If it be Your will, let this cup pass from me.” From John’s Gospel, we know that Jesus’ prayer was a whole lot longer than what the synoptic Gospels tell us. Well, in verse 9 of John 17, Jesus says “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” In other words, the Calvinist interprets this as Jesus saying that He’s not praying for the salvation of the world, but only for the salvation of those who were predestined (i.e., “those you have given me”). But does this mean that Jesus doesn’t really want everyone saved? Is that why He’s not praying for them?
Before I give my exegesis of this passage, there’s something we need to keep in mind.
The Bible Says God Wants The Whole World Saved In Several Other Passages
John 3:16-18 (the most well known passage in the New Testament) states “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son. Whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. Everyone who believes in Him will not perish but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the only son of God.” A plain reading of this passage indicates that God loves everyone. Why? Because it says He loves the world. Is Hitler part of the world? Am I part of the world? Are you part of the world? Was Judas Iscariot part of the world? Was Caiaphas part of the world? This passage seems to be using the word “World” because Jesus wanted Nicodemus (the person he was speaking to in this chapter) to know that God the Father was giving Him up for every single human being, i.e., anyone who is part of the world. He loves everyone who is a part of the world, such that He gave up His only son to die for them.
But then you have 1 Timothy 2:4-6 which affirms not only God’s salvific will, but also for whom Christ died. “This is good and pleases God our savior who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.“
2 Peter 3:9 likewise affirms that God “…is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
1 John 2:2, says “[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
You also have Hebrews 2:9 which says that Jesus “tasted death for everyone.”
There are several other passages that teach us that the number of people God wants to save is every single person who walks the face of the Earth. I get into a lot more of them in my blog post “Is Molinism Biblical?” Anyway, since scripture teaches that God loves everyone, wants everyone to be saved, and that Jesus died on the cross for everyone, whatever Jesus means here in his Gethsemane prayer, it’s probably not that He doesn’t want the whole world saved.
We should always interpret the unclear passages of Scripture in light of the clear passages. The Bible says over and over and over and over that God wants “all people” to be saved (2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4). That’s why Jesus died for “the world” (John 3:16), the “whole world” (1 John 2:2), for “everyone” (Hebrews 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:6). And this explains why He grieves when He has to send anyone to Hell for their sins (see Ezekiel 18:23; Ezekiel 18:33; Luke 19:41-44). In light of these clear passages of Scripture, however we interpret John 17:9, we should do it in light of these above quoted Scriptures. Interpret the unclear passages in light of the clear.
What Did Jesus Actually Mean in John 17:9?
Well, it seems to me that the Calvinist is reading a limited salvific will of God into the Scripture. There doesn’t appear to be anything about the verse that indicates Jesus doesn’t want the whole world saved. Jesus is speaking in the present tense. Jesus says “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” Jesus said “I am not praying for them.” Jesus doesn’t say “I have not” or “I will not” or “I have never and will never” pray for the world. He’s saying “I am not” praying for the world.
In other words, “I am not currently praying for the world. I’ll save that for a later date. Rather, right now, I’m praying for my disciples, and the ones whom you’ve given me.” It is the case that Jesus is not praying for the world in that particular instance. It would be like if I said a prayer today and prayed “Lord, I am not praying for all unbelievers, but only those who are closest to me. I care about them and want to spend eternity with them. Please bring them into a loving relationship with Yourself somehow.” Now, that doesn’t mean I’ve never prayed for unbelievers whom I’m not close to (like Richard Dawkins for example). It is just that I wasn’t praying for them in that particular moment. It seems to me that this is what we have with Jesus in John 17. Jesus isn’t praying for the salvation of the world in that particular moment. Jesus is simply praying for the elect, and as we shall see, only some of them.
Perhaps Jesus prayed for the non-elect on occasions prior to this which we don’t even know about, which the Gospel writers didn’t record. The gospels do only record Jesus’ birth, an incident that happened when He was 12, and His 3-year ministry. It doesn’t record all of the prayers that Jesus ever prayed. Maybe He did pray for the entire human race on unrecorded occasions. Given that God wants all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4), it would certainly make sense if He did.
Moreover, Jesus isn’t even praying for all believers, only the 12 disciples. This is evident from the fact that Jesus says in John 17:20, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message” So Jesus isn’t even praying for all believers until several verses later.
In conclusion, this Bible verse does not say what the Calvinist wants it to say. It in no way indicates that Jesus wants anyone less than the whole world to be saved, only that He isn’t praying for the whole world at that particular moment. Moreover, not only is He not praying for the whole world at that moment (in John 17:9), He’s not even praying for the “world of the elect” either. Not until verse 20 does Jesus even pray for all who would eventually believe.