THE ĎWORLDí OF JOHN 3:16 DOES NOT MEAN
ĎALL MEN WITHOUT EXCEPTIONí
by Rev. David J. Engelsma
It is now common among Reformed people that, when one confesses Godís election of some persons to salvation, Godís particular love for the elect, and Godís exclusive desire to save the elect, his confession is immediately contested by an appeal to John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Indeed, this is almost the rule. The one who thus appeals to John 3:16 intends to assert that God loves all men without exception and that God desires to save all men without exception. The basic assumption underlying this appeal to John 3:16, as an argument against election, is that the word, world, in John 3:16 means Ďall men without exception.
We do here announce, declare, and proclaim that this assumption is false. It is unbiblical. It commits one to a teaching that deviates from the gospel, fundamentally. The word, world, in John 3:16 does not mean Ďall men without exception.í
We plead with our Reformed brothers and sisters who insist on understanding "world" in John 3:16 as Ďall men without exceptioní and on using this text against the confession of Godís particular love for the elect to face up to the doctrinal position that they are taking. This, now, is their position:
When the all-men-without-exception-people quote John 3:16, this is how they are reading it: "For God so loved all men without exception, that he gave his only begotten Son to die for all men without exception, with the desire that all men without exception be saved, so that whosoever believeth in him, of his own free will, should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Whenever anyone challenges the confession of Godís particular, exclusive love for His elect by quoting John 3:16, we must regretfully conclude that he holds the doctrinal position set forth above and wishes to confess it publicly, in order thus to overthrow the Reformed doctrine of predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, effectual grace, and the preservation of saints (which is only an elaborate way of saying, salvation by grace alone ó the gospel).
The word, world, in the gospel of John does not mean Ďall men without exception.í Proof:
- John 1:29: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Did Christ by His death take away the sin of all men without exception? If He did, all men without exception shall be saved.
This last text points out that the word, world, in the gospel of John does not always have the same meaning. In John 3:16, the world is loved by God, with a love that gives the Son of God for its sake; in John 17:9, the Son of God refuses to pray for the world. The saints must not come to an understanding of the world of John 3:16 by a quick assumption, but by careful interpretation of the passage in the light of the rest of Scripture.
Loved by God with Divine, almighty, effectual, faithful, eternal love, the world is saved. All of it! All of them!
Redeemed by the precious, worthy, powerful, effectual death of the Son of God, the world is saved. All of it! All of them!
The salvation of all the persons included in the world of John 3:16 is due solely to the effectual love of God and the redeeming death of Christ for them; whereas the persons who perish were never loved by God, nor redeemed by Christ, that is, they are not part of the world of John 3:16.
The world of John 3:16 (Greek: kosmos, from which comes our English word, cosmos, referring to our "orderly, harmonious, systematic universeís) is the creation made by God in the beginning, now disordered by sin, with the elect from all nations, now by nature children of wrath even as the others, as the core of it. As regards its people, the world of John 3:16 is the new humanity in Jesus Christ, the last
Adam (I Corinthians 15:45). John calls this new human race "the world" in order to show, and emphasize, that it is not from the Jewish people alone, but from all nations and peoples (Revelation 7:9). The people who make up the world of John 3:16 are all those, and those only, who will become believers (whosoever believeth"); and it is the elect who believe (Acts 13:48).
This explanation of John 3:16 is not some strange, new interpretation dreamed up by latter-day hyper-Calvinists, but the explanation that has been given in the past by defenders of the Faith we call Reformed, that is, by those who confessed the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of sinners.
This was the explanation given by Frances Turretin, Reformed theologian in Geneva (1623-1687):
The love treated of in John 3:16. .. cannot be universal towards all and every one, but special towards a few... because the end of that love which God intends is the salvation of those whom He pursues with such love.. . If therefore God sent Christ for that end, that through Him the world might be saved, He must either have failed of His end, or the world must necessarily be saved in fact. But it is certain that not the whole world, but only those chosen out of the world are saved; therefore, to them properly has this love reference... Why then should not the world here be taken not universally for individuals, but indefinitely for anyone, Jews as well as Gentiles, without distinction of nation, language and condition. that He may be said to have loved the human race, inasmuch as He was unwilling to destroy it entirely but decreed to save some certain persons Out of it, not only from one people as before, but from all indiscriminately, although the effects of that love should not be extended to each individual, but only to some certain ones, viz, those chosen out of the world? (Theological Institutes)
About the word, world, in Scripture, Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian (1837-1920) wrote:
For if there is anything that is certain from a somewhat more attentive reading of Holy Scripture, and that may be held as firmly established, it is, really, the irrefutable fact, that the word, world, in Holy Scripture, means "all men" only as a very rare exception and almost always means something entirely different.
Essentially the same is the interpretation of Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952):
Turning now to John 3:16, it should be evident from the passages just quoted that this verse will not bear the construction usually put upon it. "God so loved the world." Many suppose that this means, The entire human race. But "the entire human race" includes all mankind from Adam till the close of earthís history: it reaches backward as well as forward! Consider, then, the history of mankind before Christ was born. Unnumbered millions lived and died before the Savior came to the earth, lived here "having no hope and without God in the world," and therefore passed out into eternity of woe. If God "loved" them, where is the slightest proof thereof? Scripture declares "Who (God) in times past (from the tower of Babel till after Pentecost) suffered all nations to walk in their own ways" (Acts 14:16). Scripture declares that "And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient" (Rom. 1:28). To Israel God said, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth" (Amos 3:2). In view of these plain passages who will be so foolish as to insist that God in the past loved all mankind! The same applies with equal force to the future . . . But the objector comes back to John 3:16 and says, "World means world. "True, but we have shown that "the world" does not mean the whole human family. The fact is that "the world" is used in a general way.. . Now the first thing to note in connection with John 3:16 is that our Lord was there speaking to Nicodemus, a man who believed that Godís mercies were confined to his own nation. Christ there announced that Godís love in giving His Son had a larger object in view, that it flowed beyond the boundary of Palestine, reaching out to "regions beyond." In other words, this was Christís announcement that God had a purpose of grace toward Gentiles as well as Jews. "God so loved the world," then, signifies, Godís love is international in its scope. But does this mean that God loves every individual among the Gentiles? Not necessarily, for as we have seen the term "world" is general rather than specific, relative rather than absolute. . . the "world" in John 3:16 must, in the final analysis refer to the world of Godís people. Must we say, for there is no other alternative solution. It cannot mean the whole human race, for one half of the race was already in hell when Christ came to earth. It is unfair to insist that it means every human being now living, for every other passage in the New Testament where Godís love is mentioned limits it to His own people ó search and see! The objects of Godís love in John 3:16 are precisely the same as the objects of Christís love in John 13:1: "Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His time was come, that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end." We may admit that our interpretation of John 3:16 is no novel one invented by us, but one almost uniformly given by the Reformers and Puritans, and many others since them. (The Sovereignty of God)
We can only marvel that Reformed men and women are so soon removed from the truth of Godís sovereign, particular, electing love in Jesus Christ, which truth has not only been confessed "by the Reformers and Puritans" before them, but has also been confessed by the Reformed church herself in her Creed, the Canons of Dordt.
Who hath bewitched them?
As for us, we are determined, out of love for the truth, to oppose the lie of a love of God in Jesus Christ for all men without exception; to try to rescue those who have been taken captive by this doctrine; and to preach and testify, near and far, in season and out of season, a love of God for the world that saves the world, a death of the Son of God that redeemed the world, a purpose of God for the saving of sinners that is accomplished, and a salvation of enslaved sinners by the sovereign power of the grace of God alone ó for the comfort of every believer and the glory of God.
David J. Engelsma David J. Engelsma (b. 1939) is emeritus professor of the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids Michigan. He received his A.B. from Calvin College, then attended the Protestant Reformed Seminary where he earned his B.D. while studying under Herman Hoeksema. He received his Th.M. from Calvin Theological Seminary, with his Master's thesis on the relation between the Trinity and the covenant.
He pastored Protestant Reformed Churches in America from 1963 to 1988. In 1988, he was appointed to be professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament studies at Protestant Reformed Seminary from which he retired in 2008. Engelsma continues to teach catechism classes and lecture. He is also working on additional books on doctrine.
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