What Does “World” Mean in John 3:16?

what’s not to admire about cityscapes and farmlands, fine cuisine and backyard barbecues, classical symphonies and folk ballads, Renaissance paintings and kindergarten squiggles? The world we know is filled with texture, intrigue, opportunity, and cheer. The problem is that for all that is good and interesting and beautiful about the world, it is overrun with sinners. Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, the world has become a wasteland. No matter how wonderful the world may appear, it is not worthy of God’s redeeming love.

Understanding how undeserving the world is of God’s love is the key to John 3:16. Only then will we appreciate the unexpected gift that God gives. This point was well made many years ago by the esteemed theologian Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. In his sermon “God’s Immeasurable Love,” Warfield probes the meaning of the term “world” (Greek kosmos) in John 3:16 in order to plumb the depths of God’s love.

What is the meaning of “world” in this passage? Drawing from the insights of Warfield, there are four possible answers.

In the first place, many people believe that “world” means all people without exception. In other words, when John 3:16 says that God loves the world, it means that He loves every person, head for head, equally. The logic goes something like this: God loves every person; Christ died for every person; therefore, salvation is possible for every person. However, this view seems to suggest that God’s love is impotent and Christ’s death is ineffectual. Otherwise, the natural conclusion of this position would be that every person is actually saved rather than just potentially saved. If God loves every person, and Christ died for every person, and God’s love is not impotent, and Christ’s death is not ineffectual, then the only conclusion one can draw is that salvation has been secured for every person. Yet this viewpoint contradicts the Bible’s teaching on God’s judgment as is evidenced by the immediate context in John 3:17–21.

Second, others argue that “world” means all people without distinction. This option emphasizes that God loves more than one type of person or ethnic group. The death of Christ on the cross was not only for Jews but also for Gentiles. The love of God is not confined to national boundaries but extends to all kinds of nations, tribes, cultures, tongues, and peoples. To this, all God’s people––Arminian and Calvinist alike––say a hearty “Amen.” While this view has the benefit of being undoubtedly right and fits within the larger context of John’s gospel concerning the global identity of the “children of God” (e.g., John 1:9–13; 4:42), it doesn’t quite capture the jolting contrast between “God so loved” and “the world” that John 3:16 deliberately draws.

Third, a popular nuance of the previous option among Reformed theologians is to argue that “world” in John 3:16 refers to the elect. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus emphasizes the particularity of His grace. “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (6:37). “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me….I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:14–18). “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (15:9). “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (17:9). And so on.

The point is that God’s people are chosen from an unbelieving world. Again, this view strikes an important note by underscoring the biblical doctrine of election, but the focus of the term “world” in John 3:16 is not so much on the identity of God’s people but on the nature of God’s love.

This leads us to the final option. A solid case can be made for believing that “world” refers to the quality of God’s love. Warfield convincingly states:

[World] is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for it.

The world represents sinful humanity and is not worthy of God’s saving love. Apart from the love of God, the world stands under God’s condemnation. But in Christ, believers experience God’s surprising, redeeming, and never-ending love. John 3:16 is not about the greatness of the world but about the greatness of God.

John 3:16 – Sermon Notes

Yesterday, for the first time ever in any of my sermons, I focused exclusively on the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. Here are my sermon notes:

John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

GOD SO LOVED – The word “so” often denotes intensity. For instance, a man may say to his wife, “I love you sooooo much,” as he wishes to express the measure and depth of his love. Though this is a popular understanding of this verse, that is NOT how the word “so” is being used in John 3:16.

There is another way of using the word “so” in English, which describes the way in which something occurs. When a mother is seeking to train her children how to place cutlery on the dining room table, she might well place the knife and fork in position and say, “now when you put the knife and fork down on the table, place them just so” (or in this way).

In John 3:16 it is this “just so” concept that is in view. We could rightly read the text as “God’s love for the world is seen in this way…” A note in the margin of the ESV states this concerning “For God so loved the world” as it reads, “Or For this is how God loved the world.”

THE WORLD – There are at least ten different uses of the word “world” (Greek kosmos) in John’s gospel. Context is a most vital component in determining the meaning of words. Here, the word kosmos is being used in a general way to speak of humanity, of Jews and Gentiles.

GOD GAVE HIS SON – God’s love for the world is seen in tangible terms – the giving of His Son…

PURPOSE – God gave His Son with a particular goal in mind.

Notice there is a strong element of particularity (rather than universality) here. The purpose was not to save everybody on the planet (past, present and future) but to save those who believe in Christ.

WHOEVER BELIEVES – Literally, the text reads “in order that every the one believing in Him…” It says “every” or “all the ones believing…” That’s hard to express in English but in essence, it is saying “all the believing ones.” That’s what is being communicated. It is saying that there is no such thing as a believing one who does not receive eternal life, but who perishes. Though our English translation says “whoever believes,” the literal rendering is accurately translated as “every believing one” and the emphasis is NOT AT ALL on the “whosoever,” but on the belief.

The ones BELIEVING will not have one consequence, but will have another. They will not perish but will have everlasting life.

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Those Pesky Arminian Verses

This blog title is written with a big “tongue in cheek” as I am convinced that the Bible presents a consistent message and that when properly understood, there are no “Arminian verses” in God’s word. However, four verses are normally raised as proof texts for their view:

John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4 and Matthew 23:37.

For those who like videos, here are some that have been made to specifically address these verses in their context. The first three are by Pastor Jim McClarty of Grace Christian Assembly, Smyrna, Tennessee. The last one is by Dr. James White of www.aomin.org. Enjoy!

John 3:16

2 Peter 3:9

1 Timothy 2:4

In this last video, which is longer than the others (above), Dr. James White deals with Matthew 23:37, 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9.

John 3:16 and Effectual Grace

Dr. R. C. Sproul, in his book, “Chosen by God” writes:

“It is ironic that in the same chapter, indeed in the same context, in which our Lord teaches the utter necessity of rebirth to even see the kingdom, let alone choose it, non-Reformed views find one of their main proof texts to argue that fallen man retains a small island of ability to choose Christ. It is John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

What does this famous verse teach about fallen man’s ability to choose Christ? The answer, simply, is nothing. The argument used by non-Reformed people is that the text teaches that everybody in the world has it in their power to accept or reject Christ. A careful look at the text reveals, however, that it teaches nothing of the kind. What the text teaches is that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved. Whoever does A (believes) will receive B (everlasting life). The text says nothing, absolutely nothing, about who will ever believe. It says nothing about fallen man’s natural moral ability. Reformed people and non-Reformed people both heartily agree that all who believe will be saved. They heartily disagree about who has the ability to believe.

Some may reply, “All right. The text does not explicitly teach that fallen men have the ability to choose Christ without being reborn first, but it certainly implies that.” I am not willing to grant that the text even implies such a thing. However, even if it did it would make no difference in the debate. Why not? Our rule of interpreting Scripture is that implications drawn from the Scripture must always be subordinate to the explicit teaching of Scripture. We must never, never, never reverse this to subordinate the explicit teaching of Scripture to possible implications drawn from Scripture. This rule is shared by both Reformed and non-Reformed thinkers.

If John 3:16 implied a universal natural human ability of fallen men to choose Christ, then that implication would be wiped out by Jesus’ explicit teaching to the contrary. We have already shown that Jesus explicitly and unambiguously taught that no man has the ability to come to him without God doing something to give him that ability, namely drawing him.

Fallen man is flesh. In the flesh he can do nothing to please God. Paul declares, “The fleshly mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7, 8).

We ask, then, “Who are those who are ‘in the flesh’?” Paul goes on to declare: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9). The crucial word here is if. What distinguishes those who are in the flesh from those who are not is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. No one who is not reborn is indwelt by God the Holy Spirit. People who are in the flesh have not been reborn. Unless they are first reborn, born of the Holy Spirit, they cannot be subject to the law of God. They cannot please God.

God commands us to believe in Christ. He is pleased by those who choose Christ. If unregenerate people could choose Christ, then they could be subject to at least one of God’s commands and they could at least do something that is pleasing to God. If that is so, then the apostle has erred here in insisting that those who are in the flesh can neither be subject to God nor please him.

We conclude that fallen man is still free to choose what he desires, but because his desires are only wicked he lacks the moral ability to come to Christ. As long as he remains in the flesh, unregenerate, he will never choose Christ. He cannot choose Christ precisely because he cannot act against his own will. He has no desire for Christ. He cannot choose what he does not desire. His fall is great. It is so great that only the effectual grace of God working in his heart can bring him to faith.”

John 3:16 – Pas ho pisteuwn – ‘everyone believing’ not ‘all can believe’

Yesterday on the blog here, I posted an article on John 3:16. For those who would like more detail on the original Greek text I would point you to this video (below) by Dr. James White. Dr. White is a critical consultant on the New American Standard Bible and an acknowledged scholar of New Testament Greek having taught it at the seminary level.

Also on this theme of John 3:16 and what it actually teaches, here’s a video by Jim McClarty of salvationbygrace.org:

Understanding John 3:16

How can you reconcile belief in Divine election with John 3:16?

Actually, if we carefully take a look at the text and not just assume its meaning, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

When hearing the biblical teaching on the subject of Divine election, some seek immediate refuge in a traditional and may I say, unbiblical understanding of this verse. They say this: “God can’t elect certain ones to salvation because John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that gave His Son so that WHOEVER believes in Christ would have eternal life. Therefore, God has done His part in offering the gift of salvation in His Son and just leaves it up to us to receive the gift through faith. Amen. Case closed!” (emphasis theirs)

Or so it might seem… Though this is a very common tradition, and one I held to myself for many a year, it needs to be pointed out that in spite of the emphasis made by many people here on the word “whoever”, the text does not actually discuss who does or who does not have the ability to believe. Someone might just as well be quoting John 3:16 to suggest that all churches need to have red carpets in their sanctuaries! Why? Because that also is not a topic addressed in the text. The verse is often quoted, but actually it has no relevance to the subject. Continue reading