A week or so ago I had to set the alarm to 4:00am. Truly, I’m not a morning person and getting up this early was painful. The radio was tuned to a Minneapolis radio station, KKMS (980AM). As I was laying in bed half-awake trying to get my eyes to focus, I realized someone was saying that John 3:16 – where Jesus says, for God so loved the world – doesn’t refer to everyone in the world. Rather, according to Dr. Steven Lawson (of whom I’m not familiar), this passage pertains only to those persons whom God chooses (the elect) to save. Well, this got my adrenalin going. I was immediately awake and listening intently. Unfortunately, without paper and pencil and with my bride beginning to stir, I wasn’t able to jot down any notes. Dr. Lawson stated that there are a dozen meanings for the Greek word Cosmos (sp?). I’ve listed those definitions I can recall along with the supporting scriptural references:
The entire universe (John 1:29)
The physical world (John 13:1)
Humanity minus believers (John 7:7)
As such, Dr. Lawson contends we need to exercise caution in interpreting John’s use of the word “world”.
I’ve been unsuccessful finding out what, according to Dr. Lawson, are the other interpretations for the word “the world” and getting some additional details of this sermon. In any event, I’ve experienced before that what appears to be to be a plain text passage in the Bible is often interpreted quite differently by my Calvinist friends. But this is the first time that I’ve come across the word “world” in John 3:16 not referring to all of humanity.
To me, John 3:16 (at least in the NIV) is pretty easy to understand: For God so loved the world that he gave is one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. It’s certainly a fair point of argument if the word “the world” in the context of the passage implied something other than every person. But I don’t think that is the case here.
To help me better understand Dr. Lawson’s contention that John 3:16 is only for the elect, I replaced the words “world”, “whoever”, “everyone” etc with “the elect” or some Calvinistic equivalent. I’ve been chastised for doing similar things before because I’m “twisting” scripture in order to reach a desired conclusion. Well, that’s not my intent. Rather, I find it a useful exercise to help me understand whether or not the logic of an argument (in this case, whether “world” represents everybody or only the elect) makes sense. In chapter three, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus. The Calvinistic “twist” that follows doesn’t seem to make sense to me:
(14) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert so the Son of Man must be lifted up,
(15) That [the elect] who believe in him may have eternal life
(16) For God so loved [the elect] that he gave his one and only Son, that [the elect person] believ[ing] in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
(17) For God did not send his son [to the elect] to condemn [the elect] but to save [the elect] through him.
(18) [Whichever elect person] believes in him is not condemned, but [whichever elect person] does not believe stands condemned already because [that elect person] has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
(19) This is the verdict: Light has come [to the elect], but [the non-elect] loved darkness instead of light because [the non-elect’s] deeds were evil.
(20) [Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that [their deeds will be exposed.
(21) But [whoever] lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what [he] has done has been done through God.
For me, verse 18 appears most problematic. Jesus says whoever believes is not condemned and whoever does not believe is condemned. This seems pretty straight-forward to which my Calvinist friends would say that God saves those he wishes to save and to those God wishes to save he gives the ability to believe. However, it’s the same word in the verse- whoever. And there is significant tension when I insert “the elect” for “whoever”. [The elect person who] believes in Jesus is not condemned, but [the elect person who] does not believe stands condemned already because [that elect person] has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. According to what I know and understand about Calvinism, there’s no such thing as an elect person not believing.
Therefore, in my simplistic reasoning, if one doesn’t accept that “the world” in this passage doesn’t refer to everyone (i.e. all of humanity) there have to be significant linguistic gymnastics to overcome (what I think is) the obvious and plain context of the passage And I have to wonder, whether Dr. Lawson (and all Calvinists for that matter) find it necessary to alter the clear verbiage of scripture in order to more closely follow a system of belief i.e unconditional election?