Home > Calvinism > A Calvinist’s Perspective on Jn 3:16

A Calvinist’s Perspective on Jn 3:16

The below post is a letter that a good friend and an ardent Calvinist (who just happens to be the husband of my daughter) recently gave me in response to my contention that Jn 3:16 (along with 2 Pet 3:9, Rev 3:20. Tit 2:11, 1 Tim 2:3) refutes the concept of election. Mike was kind enough to provide a detailed response to each of these verses. Hopefully on subsequent posts I’ll respond to those other verses. However, with this post, I’m focusing in on Jn 3:16. Mike’s letter is heartfelt and reflects the passion and commitment he has for his Christian faith. Mike is heavily involved in Equip Campus Ministries at South Dakota State University and I would encourage people to check out their web site: www.equipsdsu.org. I appreciate Mike and with his permission, I’m pleased to offer his letter for the reader’s consideration. I’ll post my response to this letter in the comments section.

Jn 3:16

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son and that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

Arminian Interpretation: God loves the entire world, meaning every single individual in the world. However, He has also designed the world in such a way that only believers will have eternal life.

Calvinist Interpretation: God loves the entire world, meaning every single individual in the world. However, He has also designed the world in such a way that only believers will have eternal life.

So what’s the problem?

I think it’s helpful to notice what question this text doesn’t address. It doesn’t address the question for why some do believe and others don’t. All Jn 3:16 says is that God saves the believers.

Why do some believe and others don’t?

We must admit that Jn 3:16 doesn’t answer this question. Here are a few examples within John that will suggest that belief starts with God and not man.

Jn 3:5-8 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Sprit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.

Thoughts:  It seems like we were born of the Spirit the same way we were born of the flesh. When I was born of the flesh, I played no part in my birth. My birth was 100% a result of my parent’s choice. So it is with my spiritual birth. It has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with God. From our perspective, John says it’s like the wind, you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.

Jn 6:28-29 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.

Thoughts: The people want to know how they can be doing the works of God. Jesus replies by saying, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Observation:

Belief is a work. Which presents a problem because Eph 2:9 says that salvation is not a result of works.

But this works because Jesus says that our belief is a work of God, not a work of man.

This is like Jn 1:12-13 that says, “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

Jn 10:24-28 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “how long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Observations:

Jesus is answering the question we posed about, namely, “who do some believe and others don’t?”

His answer to why the Jews don’t believe is, “because they are not a part of his flock.”

In other words, those who are a part of Jesus’ flock will believe.

Again, to put it another way, being a part of Jesus’ flock is the prerequisite for belief. If we are in Jesus’ flock, we will believe. If we are not in Jesus’ flock, we will not believe.

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  1. Bob
    July 26, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Dear Mike,
    You’ve articulated well your reasons that Jn 3:16 justify election. To your point that this verse doesn’t answer why some people believe and others don’t – well, I could easily enough say that this verse doesn’t answer the question as to how much lumber will be required to rebuild the deck on the back of our house. There’s no correlation to this verse regarding lumber. Similarly, this verse can’t answer the question as to why do some believe and others don’t because it’s not germane to the topic of being born again.
    Ref Jn 3:5-8
    • When I read these verses in context, I sense Jesus explaining to Nicodemus that earthly flesh will wither and die and because God is spirit, we must become spirit to enter into His kingdom. As such, I don’t think your analogy of your physical birth to your spiritual birth and playing no part in either is valid. You may not have had a choice about your physical birth. However, you most certainly have a choice about your spiritual birth – you can choose to either accept new life in Christ or reject it. I think Jesus was trying to convey to ‘Nick’ that a spiritual birth is entirely different from a physical birth. Nicodemus asked how he was supposed to climb back into his mother’s womb. One can see a physical birth. One cannot see a spiritual birth. Hopefully, however, people can see the results of a spiritual birth through the fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22-23). However, that’s a different topic.
    • Paraphrasing Greg Boyd in his book, Is God To Blame, am I to conclude that behind the image of God dying in love for humanity is the real God who creates certain individuals for the sole purpose of displaying His eternal (albeit perfect) wrath? Simply put, Mike, I do not see this verse in any way, shape, or form teaching that God so loved some of world that He gave His only Son.
    Ref Jn 6:28-29
    • I don’t doubt that belief starts with God – He’s given us the capacity to believe. That God loves all seems to indicate that He has provided everyone with the capacity to believe. After all, He wants none to perish (2 Pet 3:9). I don’t agree that the aspect of “choosing” Christ is a “work”. Looking through a concordance for the word ‘believe’, I find no indication that believing is a “God thing”. Examples such as Acts 16:31 (Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved) and Jn 20:31b (Believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name) don’t indicate that God has given you belief so now you can believe. Rather, the evidence is there in front of us – Christ. What is to be our decision? Do we choose to believe or do we choose to reject?
    Ref Jn 1:12-13
    • This verse does not say that God gives the elect the ability to choose eternal life in Christ. It says, in essence, believe in His name and He’ll give you the right to become children of God.
    Jn 10:24-28
    • I don’t see Jesus teaching that God had already decided who were (or would be) His sheep. There’s no indication that this passage refers to a time prior to these people being born. It seems to me that when Jesus spoke these words, some people believed (the sheep) and others did not (let’s call them the goats). The sheep, recognizing His voice, responded. The goats didn’t.
    Miscellaneous thoughts:
    • Eph 1:13 seems to imply that the Ephesians listened to the message of the truth (the Gospel) and then they believed. My conclusion is that man has a role in coming to Christ – believing the message.
    • Scriptures are clear that the will of God is that none perishes (2 pet 3:9 among others) but not all will come to repentance. Jn 3:16 – Jesus’ message is for everyone – the “whole world.” I simply do not see the Bible teaching that God elevated certain individuals and not others. The Gospel is for everyone (the world), not just the elect of God. Jesus came to give His life for the world – even those who ultimately reject Christ. That said, those who reject God’s gift of salvation are eternally lost. Saying Jesus’ use of the word “world” is in reference to the elect of God seems problematic because: 1) You’re reading into the text something that I don’t think is there. 2) The context of the passage seems to refute the notion of “an elect”. 3) Others Scripture (2 Cor 5:19, 2 Pet 3:9, 1 Tim 2:5-6) address the world as mankind in general.
    • God calls all people, and it’s obvious that only a few respond to the call. Let’s put the concept of “the elect” into an analogy. When you and Becky were married, you invited (let’s say) 200 people. And, let’s say, only 100 showed up for the ceremony. Therefore, 200 were called but only 100 attended your wedding. The 100, I would submit, are the elect. In a similar manner, God calls out to all people but not all people will come to God.
    Well, I should close here. Thanks again, Mike, for your post and allowing me to put it up on this blog. As I stated earlier, I’ll try to respond to your thoughts on the other aforementioned verses. However, I owe Colleen a response and for whatever reason, there’s stuff going on that seems to preclude time and attention I would like to give to this blog. Life just gets in the way sometime. In the meantime, feel free to comment to anything that I have said. Take good care and give my girl a hug for me. Good luck in raising your support levels. Talk to you soon.
    Bob

  2. July 28, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Dear Bob,

    I’ve responded to a few of your points. Your comments are in brackets, and mine follow. Let me know what you think when you get a chance.

    Mike

    [[[You’ve articulated well your reasons that Jn 3:16 justify election.]]]

    RE: I’m not arguing that John 3:16 justifies election, instead, my argument is that it does not contradict election. John 3:16 says, “God loves the entire world.” My view is that God offers salvation to every individual in the world, but only the elect believe and are consequently saved. Calvinists say that God offers salvation to everyone just as much as the Arminian is willing to say. We just go one step further and believe that God offers a more grace than what the Arminian thinks. As an Arminian, you believe that God offers salvation but leaves the accepting bit up to us. In other words, God has paid our debt and now it’s up to us to cooperate by receiving his gracious gift.

    The Calvinists will not deny what the Arminian affirms at this point. The difference is that Calvinists also believe no one will receive the gift. Everyone is disinterested in God’s offer. We are too rebellious to accept his gift. Therefore, if all God does is offer salvation, we all go to hell. For salvation to be accomplished in a sinner’s life, God must do more than what the Arminian says. As a Calvinist, I believe that God offers salvation to everyone in the world, however, everyone is turning down that offer. If God simply left me to my freewill, I would feely choose hell every time. Fortunately for me, God didn’t leave me to my freewill. He actually saved me by offering more grace then what the Arminian assumed. God actually pulled out my hard and unbelieving heart and replaced it with a soft believing heart. When he did this, I believed.

    The problem with Arminian theology is it assumes that some people are good enough to respond to God’s offer. Some people are smart enough, humble enough, wise enough, good enough, or disciplined enough to make the good decision of accepting his gift. Conversely, those who don’t take God up on his offer are simply foolish, proud, bad, or lazy. In the Arminian system, no matter how you slice the pie, you are forced to believe that some people are just better than others. Calvinists won’t go there because the scriptures say we are all the “same lump of clay” (Ro.9).

    Again, Calvinists will say that if God only offers salvation, then heaven will be an empty place because no one will respond. Therefore, God must do the work for me if I am to have any hope.

    [[[Simply put, Mike, I do not see this verse in any way, shape, or form teaching that God so loved some of world that He gave His only Son. […] Jn 3:16 – Jesus’ message is for everyone – the “whole world.” I simply do not see the Bible teaching that God elevated certain individuals and not others. The Gospel is for everyone (the world), not just the elect of God. Jesus came to give His life for the world – even those who ultimately reject Christ. That said, those who reject God’s gift of salvation are eternally lost. Saying Jesus’ use of the word “world” is in reference to the elect of God seems problematic because: 1) You’re reading into the text something that I don’t think is there. 2) The context of the passage seems to refute the notion of “an elect”. 3) Others Scripture (2 Cor 5:19, 2 Pet 3:9, 1 Tim 2:5-6) address the world as mankind in general.]]]

    RE: I do not interpret John 3:16 the way you suppose. Again, my interpretation is, “God loves the entire world, meaning every single individual in the world. However, He has also designed the world in such a way that only believers will have eternal life.” I must again point out the fact that I interpret John 3:16 the same way the Arminian does. Therefore, John 3:16 is not a problem for me as a Calvinist.

    [[[Looking through a concordance for the word ‘believe’, I find no indication that believing is a “God thing”.]]]

    RE: John 6:29 – “Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'” If I quote the verse, it literally says that the work of God is that you believe. Explain how this is not a “God thing”.

    John 10:26 –”Jesus said, ‘You do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” Again, this literally says that the Jews didn’t believe because they were not part of his flock. If they were part of his flock, they would have believed. In fact, the next verse says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” You use the analogy of a sheep and a goat. If someone is a sheep, they will believe. If someone is a goat, they will not believe. We cannot decide whether or not we are a sheep or a goat.

    [[[God calls all people, and it’s obvious that only a few respond to the call.]]]

    RE: 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 – “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” In this verse we see three groups of people. There are Jews and Gentiles, which should be everyone in the world. If you are not a Jew, then you are a Gentile. But Paul points out a third group, they are “the called”. This verse seems explicitly clear that those who are called see the cross as the “power and wisdom of God.”

  3. Colleen
    July 29, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    Hello Gentlemen,

    At the risk of responding to the wrong blog post (the Lord knows I have my hands full with the Salt and Grace post!), I offer this:

    Setting aside God’s sovereign election of individuals to eternal life, let us agree on three other types of election. First, what we could call a “national” election. Wouldn’t you agree that some nations and communities have been given more exposure to a knowledge of true religion and the gospel that others? God undoubtedly does choose some nations to receive much greater spiritual and temporal blessings than others (i.e., America). The contrast is very striking when we compare these to third-world nations such as Africa, India and China. Did these people choose their fate? I don’t think anyone would say they did. The diversities of religious privileges in the different nations can be ascribed to nothing but the good pleasure of God.

    Another form of election taught in scripture is that of individuals to the external means of grace, such as hearing and reading the gospel, association with other people of God, and sharing the benefits of the civilization which has arisen where the gospel has gone. None of us has had a chance to say at a particular time in world history or in what country we would be born–or whether we would be a member of the white race or some other. One child is born into health and wealth in a favored land, while another is born into poverty or neglectful parents. Have these things not been sovereignly decided for them? Furthermore, was it not of God’s own choosing that He created us as human beings, in His own image, when He might just as easily have created us as frogs or mosquitos or cats? These things, too, are due to God’s overruling providence, and not to human choice.

    Lastly, I offer yet another kind of election, that of individuals to certain vocations. Some are given to amazing gifts for classical guitar, and others have gifts of painting or singing or speaking. Some people have been given personal beauty, some intelligence, some a kind disposition. Did we choose these gifts? I’m here to tell you, Bob, no matter how many guitar lessons I might take, I will never play in the beautiful way you do.

    In each of these “types” of election, God gives to some what He withholds from others. We can easily see from conditions in the world and from our own everyday experiences that these blessings are bestowed sovereignly and unconditionally, irrespective of any previous merit or action on the part of those so chosen.

    If we are highly favored, we can only be thankful for His blessings; if not highly favored, we have no grounds for complaint. Why, precisely, this or that person is placed in circumstances which lead to saving faith can only rest in the providence of the God Himself.

    I’m done now–and will commence my next post to Salt and Grace. Thanks for indulging me!

    In Christ Alone,
    Colleen

  4. Bob
    July 30, 2008 at 11:17 am

    Hey Mike!

    Wouldn’t you know it, Colleen found us over here! Go figure. Two guys having a pleasant conversation and there’s a momentary pause in the conversation and – well – guess what happens? But that’s okay. And that little statement at the end – “I’m done.” Well, me thinks NOT! And for that, I am truly glad. I am very appreciative of you Colleen. Your willingness to “engage” and bring forth thoughts and perspectives that I, in my own ignorance wouldn’t contemplate, is refreshing. As I’ve stated before, I’m trying to come to grips with aspects of my Christian faith that have troubled me for a very long time. Thank-you for your participation in this journey.

    Colleen, I hope you don’t mind but I will copy your letter and start a new post. I sense that the points you’re bringing up here are in essence a new topic that can better be followed and responded to separate from our on-going Calvinist discussion. So, lets see where it leads and we’ll go from there. Feel free to chime in, Mike (or anyone else for that matter).

    I’m doing this over lunch. Hopefully in the next day or two I’ll respond to both Mike’s and Colleen’s letters.

    Cheers,

    Bob

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