Is John 3:16 The Most Misunderstood Verse in the Bible?

Well, apparently so according to a post I recently came across (see source below). A comment I wrote in response wasn’t accepted and so I thought it okay to share my $0.02 here. 

What was initially blogged:

“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.”
(John 3:16)

This is perhaps the most oft-quoted, and least understood verse in the Bible.

This verse is used by many to teach that God loves all men the same, has provided salvation for all men the same, and it is up to man to do something with it.

This verse teaches no such thing!

The emphasis in this verse is not the quantity of God’s love, but the quality!

Whether the whosoever refers to one man, or one billion men, it has no bearing on the meaning.

If only one person was converted by this Gospel, it would not be any less glorious than if one billion people were converted by it.

The point of wonder is “God so loved the world…..that He gave…..His only Begotten Son…..that whosoever…..believeth in Him…..should not perish.”

My Response:

I don’t disagree that there is any sort of numerical value placed upon or within this verse such that the “whoever” refers to one person or all of the world’s population since the beginning of time – or for that matter any number in between.

However, it’s with interest that the definition of “whoever” in (what is for me) my trusty Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary actually means, “whatever person: no matter who”. With respect, I can’t help but sense that the plain text language of John 3:16 really does mean that God so loved the world that whatever person (i.e. no matter who) believes will have eternal life. To infer anything else here is, I believe, beyond the plain text of this verse and, I think, the context of this passage. To that end, if John 3:16 was the only verse in the Bible, I’m hard-pressed to believe that there would sufficient evidence to support the doctrine of election. This to me, then, is a reasonable indication that this verse doesn’t necessarily support the doctrine of unconditional election. As a non-Calvinist, I struggle with a lot of other verses regarding things such as predestination and election. However, John 3:16 isn’t one of those verses.



It’s a John 3:16 Mud Fight!

I made a feeble attempt in my previous post to incorporate some simple algebraic logic to help understand the wording of John 3:16 and whether or not Jesus is directing his words to “whoever” i.e. everybody or only those chosen by God for salvation (the elect). It seems more plausible (at least in my own understanding) that Jesus is inferring everybody and to that end I readily admit I’m biased against the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. 

Trying to dig up some additional information, I looked through my copy of, Debating Calvinism {five points, two views} by Dave Hunt & James White and was surprised to not find any references to John 3:16. Unfortunately, there are no scriptural references listed at the back of the book. So, if the verse is somewhere in the book, I missed it. Anyway, I did a Google search using [John 3:16 “Dave Hunt” “James White”]. Lo and behold, the first two links provide piles of ammunition for both sides of the argument which in some way only seems to add to the confusion rather than sort out, as it were, the wheat from the chaff. It’s also apparent that Hunt and White have been arguing back and forth for quite some time and there appears to be no love lost between them. In any event, it’ll take me some time to work through each of their letters – particularly James White’s as his delves deep into the Greek. If others are so inclined, below are URLs and a “teaser” paragraph.

From Dave Hunt: You go to great lengths to explain John 3:16 as no child could ever understand it. By your standard, not until they become “scholars” expert in Greek (or take some Calvinist’s word for it) will they recognize that Christ didn’t die for the whole world, but that salvation is offered only to an exclusive elect to which, by overwhelming odds, they most likely do not belong, being part of the vast multitude of the damned on the “broad road to destruction.” Eternal doom awaits them simply because the God who “is love,” from eternity past before they were born was “pleased” to predestine them to everlasting suffering with no hope of escape even though the merit of Christ’s shed blood is infinite.

From James White: It is your tradition to interpret John 3:16 in a particular fashion. That tradition includes two very important elements: 1) the idea that “world” means every single individual person, so that God loves each person equally (resulting in a denial of any particularity in God’s love, even in His redemptive love), and 2) that the term “whosoever” includes within its meaning a denial of particularity or election.

So, “God so Loved the World” Only Refers to The Elect?

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)

Large group

Non elect

Elect only

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? 

Studying the Torah to Move Beyond my Calvinist Divide?

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve posted anything much less done anything to move beyond my “Calvinist Divide”. To be honest, nothing has really changed. I’ve done precious little to resolve my faith conflicts. Perhaps I’ve been on an unintended sabbatical. I wish I had something to share, something to show – but I don’t. Recently, however, a friend suggested I put some time and effort into the Torah. My first thought was, “Oh please! Why waste my time learning about Jewish doctrine et al? I’m under grace and not the law and as such, what’s the point of delving into the Old Testament?”

Nevertheless, perhaps there is something to be said at looking at the root of Christianity – which I do believe is founded in the Old Testament. Of course, I look at the Old Testament as “Latin” – and why do I need that when I’m fluent in English – and even have Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary when I come across a word I don’t know? In any event, I’m intrigued by the gentleness and confidence of my friend and think that just maybe there is indeed something to the study of The Torah for a Christian. So, we’ll see.

Below is an email I sent to the reference I was given. 

Dear _____,

A friend has referred me to you saying that “[you have] taught us through the Torah study to look at scripture through the lens of our God being good and for life. With that lens you read every thing from a new perspective. The Torah study also gave new depth to the new testament when you realized that [the] Torah was the root and base that the new was grafted into.”

I’m one who’s struggled for years trying to understand the nature and character of God and how he relates to us as his creation. The center of my struggle, at least so far as I can determine, is what I call the Calvinist divide. It wasn’t all that long ago that I ran headlong into Calvinist doctrine through my son-in-law. Shortly thereafter I lost all sense of an assurance of salvation. Suffice it to say that I believe Christ paid for my sin on the cross. However, I couldn’t determine whether or not I was one of the “elect” or whether I had come to this understanding of my own accord. And, this Calvinist divide not only affects my assurance of salvation, it also affects who I perceive God to be and how he interacts with his creation. 

Perhaps I’m too logical and pragmatic to live a life of faith. I’ve always thought of scripture as, if you’ll permit me, sort of a “periodic table”. That is, I can know various things i.e. the number of electrons in a valence band, the mass of an atom, etc. Yet, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to know the truth about God through scripture. Perhaps the books on my shelf testify to that: Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, Four Views on Divine Providence, Debating Calvinism (Hunt & White), Across the Spectrum, and my two favorites for book (and author) bashing – Is God Really in Control? (Bridges) // Is God to Blame? (Boyd)

Honestly, what am I to believe when opposing perspectives are (at least to me) convincingly presented – using the same scripture references? To me, it shouldn’t be difficult for people of average intelligence through their own study of scripture to come to the same conclusions regarding matters of faith. We all work from the same text, don’t we? Or, so I think we all work from the same text. How is it if people with a PhD in theology (i.e. John Piper and Greg Boyd) can’t agree on matters of faith, how am I ever to know what is the truth – unless, of course, I simply “choose” what tenants or facets of faith I want to agree with and leave it at that? 

In any event, I have never spent any time in the Old Testament, in part, because I don’t really think it applies to us. We’re no longer under the law. Instead, we live under grace. Or so I’ve been taught and so I believe. Gee, I guess I’m guilty of “choosing” what I will believe. That said, perhaps there is something to the study of scripture through the lens of the Torah and any thoughts you have or references you could provide would be appreciated.