It has been contested that John 3.16 fits well within a Calvinistic framework. After all, as Calvinist R. C. Sproul has noted, whosoever will may come to Jesus. But, he continued, no one will ever will or want to come to Jesus. Thus God effectually draws unto Himself, through the granting of faith in Christ Jesus via regeneration, those whom He has elected for salvation. Moreover, God only loves the elect, and not “the world,” as John 3.16 unequivocally states.
Why must the Calvinist insist that God is 1) not obligated to love everyone (no one ever said that God was obligated to love anyone), and 2) that He does not love everyone in the same way? When it comes to John 3.16, these are the first two statements a Calvinist will make. Why? Is it because proper exegesis drove them to these conclusions, or is it because they have a theological system to defend? I believe it is the latter.
Furthermore, their theological system demands! that they believe such things, for if God actually did love “the world” (as the Bible states), then how would that correspond with their doctrine that God has chosen whom He will save and whom He will reprobate to hell? That would be rather inconsistent, would it not? But I digress.
Arminians wholeheartedly agree with Sproul that no one will ever will or want to come to Jesus on his or her own. No one! Sin has so affected the sinner, rendering every human being incapable of his or her own free will to come to Jesus for salvation whensoever anyone chooses. It is by the grace of God that a sinner comes to believe in Christ. Paul taught that it is the chrestos of God [the kindness, graciousness, the furnishing of what is needed] which leads a person to repentance (Rom. 2.14 NASB).
The context of John chapter 3 surrounds the concept of the new birth. Jesus told a Pharisee, Nicodemus, that unless he was born again (or born from above), he could never see or enter the kingdom of God. Surprisingly, the word “see” has been taken by some Calvinists to mean “perceive” or “understand.” Thus they teach that no one can “understand” the gospel unless he or she is born again (and regeneration must, therefore, precede faith).
This teaching is quite a stretch exegetically. First, Jesus’ statement is coupled with the idea of “entering” the kingdom of God (3.5). So, “seeing” and “entering” the kingdom of God is the same thing. Interesting enough, Calvinists use the same logic at John 6.35, noting that to “come” to Jesus is the same thing as “believing” in Him. But here at John 3.3, 5, they want to make a sharp distinction; and in my opinion, they do so only because it furthers their theory that regeneration must precede faith (though the Bible does not actually support such a theory).
Jesus went on to use Moses’ lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness to demonstrate how He must be lifted up. What happened in the wilderness with the Israelites has been noted by others at length, so let me state the situation briefly. The Israelites had disobeyed God, so He sent snakes into their camp. Moses pleaded with God for his people, so God told Moses to set a serpent on a pole and set it in the midst of the camp, so that whosoever would look at the serpent would be healed of their poisonous snake bites (Num. 21).
And then Scripture notes that Jesus would be lifted up so that “whoever believes may in Him have eternal life” (John 3.15 NASB). Yet, in the following statement is encapsulated God’s intention: “For God so loved the world . . .” (John 3.16a). The preposition “for” connects verse 16 with the previous statement found in verse 15. Another way of stating it would be, “Because of what was just stated, concerning whosoever believes in Him [lit. will] have eternal life, this is due to the fact that God loves the world.”
Whether one interprets the word “so” to mean “so much,” or “in this manner,” is not entirely relevant. The fact is that God has demonstrated His love for the “world.” Calvinists have, in my opinion, bent over backwards to assert that the word “world” (as well as the word “all”) does not mean “every single individual without exception.” Notably, there are places in the New Testament which the word “world” does not mean each and every individual (John 1.10; 12.19; Acts 17.6).
However, the majority of passages in the New Testament which speak of the “world” in general refers to each and every individual (e.g. the “whole world” is held accountable to God (Rom. 3.19); sin entered the “world” through one man (Rom. 5.12), etc.). Likewise, the word “all,” in its most basic meaning, is all-encompassing (e.g. “all” have sined (Rom. 3.23); death spread to “all” men (Rom. 5.12); God has confined “all” in disobedience (Rom. 11.32), etc.).
Dr. Terry L. Miethe, quoting Norman F. Douty, who argues against a Calvinistic hermeneutic, comments, “‘The passages that speak of Christ’s death for the world have been misunderstood (John 1.29; 3.16, et al.). The word world really means the world of the elect, the world of believers, the church, . . .’ Again, this is an important assertion. The question is Where does the burden of proof lie?
“Douty mentions the following works: Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament, Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, Robinson’s A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Souter’s Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Berry’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Arndt-Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbott-Smith’s Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Hasting’s Bible Dictionary and Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Tasker’s New Bible Dictionary, Everett F. Harrison in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, and John D. Davis in his Dictionary of the Bible (both Harrison and Davis list John 3.16 as referring to mankind, though both are Presbyterians).
“Then Douty says, ‘But amid all the divisions and sub-divisions listed, the word [for world] is never said to denote ‘the elect.’ These lexicons know nothing of such a use of kosmos in the New Testament, under which to tabulate John 1.29; 3.16-18; 4.42; 6.33, 51; 12.47; 14.31; 16.8-11; 17.21, 23; 2 Cor. 5.19; 1 John 2.2; 4.14.’
“Douty goes on to say: ‘All of this is disastrous for the advocates of Limited Atonement. They have ventured to set themselves above the combined scholarship of our lexicons, encyclopedias and dictionaries, when they have ascribed a further signification to the word kosmos, which will support their theological system.'”1
I believe the death nill to the Calvinistic interpretation of John 3.16 are the words “world” and “whosoever.” As a matter of fact, the word “whosoever” qualifies the meaning of “world” to include each and every single individual without exception, does it not? For the Holy Spirit to inspire the verse in this open-ended fashion is quite telling. He could have easily inspired the writer to insert “the elect” at verse 16 had that been His intention. He certainly mentions “the elect” in various other places in the New Testament.
But what must the individual do to inherit this offer of eternal life? Is this offer conditional or unconditional? And if the offer of eternal life is conditional, then what are the implications encompassing the doctrine of election? Is election also conditional?
The Bible, in no uncertain terms, teaches that whosoever will believe on Christ Jesus would have eternal life (3.16). So, God set a condition for all people for the inheritance of eternal life and this condition is belief in His one and only Son, Christ Jesus. Therefore, salvation is conditioned upon faith (which all orthodox Christians believe). This question must be asked. Who, then, has God elected/chosen to save?
We are left to conclude that God has elected to save believers (cf. 1 Cor. 1.21). Arminius wrote, “Predestination therefore, as it regards the thing itself, is the Decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which He resolved within himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt, and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of his own glorious grace, believers . . .”2
For Arminius (and the majority of Arminians), God has always known, in a familial sense, people as either believers or unbelievers. Thus for God to say that this one is elect and another one is not elect, means that in His infinite wisdom and knowledge, He has always known people as either believers or unbelievers, though all are sinners. Believers are the elect of God because of their union with Him through Christ Jesus. Unbelievers are not the elect of God because they are not united with Him through Christ Jesus, since Jesus is the Elect One of God.
However, Christ’s sacrificial death is clearly spoken of in the New Testament as provided for those who would never partake of it (though never applied to). Why? Because God will hold all people accountable for their decisions. Those who by God’s grace chose to believe in Christ will be granted eternal life in Him.
Yet, those who spurned God’s grace will be held accountable; they have “trampled under foot the Son of God, and [have] regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified, and [have] insulted the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10.29 NASB). This can only be spoken of those who ultimately rejected Christ Jesus (though the implication is definitely, contextually, of those who were once considered believers).
No Arminian I know of believes that God is obligated to love every single individual. It is not a matter of obligation, but of a matter of fact, due to His nature, which is love (1 John 4.8). Just as sin has entered the world and separated every individual from God, so has Christ Jesus given Himself to redeem every individual. That is exactly what Paul taught at 2 Corinthians 5.14. But He will only redeem those who trust in Him.
Conclusion: If “all” are dead (separated from God) due to their sins (2 Cor. 5.14; Eph. 2.1), then Christ Jesus has most definitely died for “all” (2 Cor. 5.14; 1 John 2.2). God demonstrated His love for everyone in giving His one and only Son, so that whosoever would believe in Him would have eternal life. The verse is so simple. One would have to do an exegetical and hermeneutical miracle to make it mean anything other than its basic prima facie meaning.
1 Terry L. Miethe, “The Universal Power of the Atonement,” The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), 77-78.
2 James Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: On Divine Predestination,” The Works of Arminius, Vol. II, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 226.