By Spencer D Gear
Shouldn’t it be crystal clear that God loves the world of people? Doesn’t ‘world’ in John 3:16 mean the whole world of sinful people? The verse states, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (ESV).
Lutheran commentator, R C H Lenski, leaves no doubt:
The universality already expressed in the title ‘the Son of man’ (1:51; 3:14) and in ‘everyone who believes’ (v. 15), is brought out with the most vivid clearness in the statement that God loved ‘the world,’ ton kosmon, the world of men, all men, not one excepted. To insert a limitation, either here or in similar passages, is to misinterpret. We know of nothing more terrible than to shut out poor dying sinners from God’s love and redemption. But this is done by inserting a limiting word where Jesus and the Scriptures have no such word (Lenski 1943:260).
To bolster his interpretation that ‘world’ refers to the world of ‘all men’, Lenski also referred to ‘all men’ in 1 Tim 2:4, which states of God our Saviour ‘who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (ESV).
Calvinists on God loving ‘the world’
But that’s not how some Calvinists want us to understand it. I encountered one such person on a Christian forum. He stated:
First, the scripture no where says that Christ died to give men the “opportunity” to be saved. It consistently says that He died “TO SAVE” men.
Second, your position is totally illogical. If God foreknows who will not believe, then there can be no “opportunity” for them to be saved. Christ’s death is nothing more than the basis of their judgment.
How should I reply? I proceeded with this line of reasoning:
Mine is the logical position for these reasons:
- God loved the world (Jn 3:16) and not your view of only loving the elect;
- God gave all human beings free will as they are part of the ‘whoever believes’ (Jn 3:16). To be ‘whoever believes’, they must have the ability to say, ‘No to the offer’. The corollary of this is that this is the ‘opportunity’ to be saved that is offered to ALL people.
- Jesus died for the whole world (1 Jn 2:2).
- To have the opportunity to receive Christ, people must hear the Gospel (Rom 10:17);
- The omniscient (all-knowing) God has determined that only those who choose to believe receive eternal life (Jn 3:16).
- Those who choose to reject this offer are damned – they perish (Jn 3:16).
- The final destiny of all human beings is based on how logically God has provided such salvation as here explained.
The Calvinist mentioned above promotes what I think is an illogical position where
- God’s injustice is exposed. He does not love the whole world (contrary to John 3:16) and does not offer ALL people the opportunity to respond to the Gospel.
- Instead, people are coerced into the kingdom by unconditional election and irresistible grace. And for some Calvinists, the rest are actively damned by an act of God (hardly the actions of the God of love for the whole world).
I don’t fall for the line that mine is the illogical position and this Calvinist’s view is the paragon of logic.
Calvinists can’t accept God loving the whole world of sinful people
So the response to my challenge of his illogical position was,
‘When Jesus said this the belief was that the Jews were the “world” in view. Furthermore, God sent Jesus only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Do you have proof that the term “world” meant to the ancients what it means to you?
You have NOT escaped the problem. If God foreknew who would not believe, then the death of Christ does not provide “opportunity” for them to be saved. It provides only the basis for their condemnation.
This is typical of Calvinists. They cannot accept the plain reading of the text where ‘world’ means the whole world of sinful people. So what did this fellow do? He redefined world to mean only the Jews. My response was: ‘There is not a word in the context to demonstrate that ‘world’ in John 3:16 meant only the Jews. This is what Calvinists like [this man] do to twist Scripture to make it mean what it does not say’. He came back with,
You’re wrong. Jesus spoke those words during His Galilean ministry which was exclusively to the Jews. He said, “For God so loved the world“ to Jews.
Furthermore, there is not one instance in John’s gospel where the term “world” means every human being. Example: The Pharisees said, “The world has gone after Him” (John 12:19). The Vulgate Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions read, “the whole world.” Yet verse 12 says that it was it was a “great multitude.”
They were a great multitude of Jews, not every human being. They were identified as “the Daughter of Zion” (verse 15). They were Jews.
What better way to refute this than to go to a Calvinist commentator who disagrees with him. I replied:
Calvinist commentator, William Hendricksen, agrees with me and disagrees with you. What does ‘world’ mean in John 3:16? Hendriksen states:
The term world, as here used, must mean mankind which, though sin-laden, exposed to the judgment, and in need of salvation (see verse 16b and verse 17), is still the object of his care. God’s image is still, to a degree, reflected in the children of men….
By reason of the context and other passages in which a similar thought is expressed … it is probable that also here in 3;16 the term indicates fallen mankind in its international aspect: men from every tribe and nation; not only Jews but also Gentiles. This is in harmony with the thought expressed repeatedly in the Fourth Gospel (including this very chapter) to the effect that physical ancestry has nothing to do with entrance into the kingdom of heaven: 1:12, 13; 3:6; 8:31-29 (Hendriksen 1953:140, emphasis in original).
So are you going to say that William Hendriksen, the Calvinist commentator, got it badly wrong and ‘world’ in John 3:16 does not refer to the world of mankind?
There is not a word in the context of John 3:16 to demonstrate that the meaning of ‘world’ was only to the Jews, a limited group of people. This Calvinist was engaging in a typical tactic of Calvinists I have encountered on Internet forums. When someone objects to their Calvinistic interpretations, they set about to redefine terminology in terms of Calvinism. This is known as using a question begging logical fallacy.
If Calvinism starts with a presupposition that Jesus did not love the entire world of sinners and did not die on the cross for all of these sinners, every verse they read that gives a contrary view is made to agree with the presupposition. That is, the conclusion agrees with the presupposition. We cannot have a logical discussion when any one of us uses illogic. And logical fallacies promote illogical thinking.
For further investigation of the truth that God loves the world and Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, see my articles:
- Does God love the world or only the elect?
- Did Jesus die for the elect or the whole world?
- Did Jesus die for the sins of the whole world?
- Limited atonement conflicts with God’s goodness
- The injustice of the God of Calvinism
- Did John Calvin believe in limited atonement?
- Does God’s grace make salvation available to all people?
I also recommend the article by Roger E Olson, ‘What’s wrong with Calvinism?‘ (Patheos, March 22, 2013).
Hendriksen, W 1953. New Testament commentary: Exposition of the Gospel according to John (2 vols complete in 1). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Lenski, R C H 1943. Commentary on the New Testament: The interpretations of St. John’s Gospel. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (limited edn assigned by Augsburg Fortress).
 The ESV footnote was, ‘Or For this is how God loved the world’.
 Ibid., OzSpen#390.
 Ibid., OzSpen#397.
 Ibid., The Boxer#398.
 Ibid., OzSpen#399.
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 November 2015.