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

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? 

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  1. charles
    March 10, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    so let’s start with john17:

    John17:8…they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours…20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one…

    context tells us that Jesus is praying for believers – both those who believed at that time as well as those will come to believe in the future. He says He is NOT praying for the world. logic should tell you that “world” does not refer to “every single person in the world” here – otherwise He would not even be praying for the disciples – but rather “the world of unbelievers.” this is straightforward enough, right?

    “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.”

    so why would an honest person randomly start inserting “elect” for “whoever” rather than “world” as you state here? your thinking is awfully random here.

    16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

    John 3:17 tells us that Jesus was sent to save this “world” that God loves – not to condemn this “world.” yet v.18 tells us that while believers are not condemned, unbelievers are condemned “already.”

    so Who is it that condemns these unbelievers? if Jesus did not intend to condemn them, is the Father in opposition to the Son? is the Trinity divided? if unbelievers are condemned “already” (most likely not in a “loving” way), how does that fit with Jesus lack of condemnation in v17?

    this is the short answer as to why (at least some) calvinists believe that world in John17 means “world of unbelievers” and world in John3 points more to the “world of believers.” Jesus is speaking to believers, with unbelievers as more of a side note.

    you say that God is reconciled to unbelievers (that’s what “atonement” means), the bible says that God’s wrath abides on them – John3:36.

    calvinists naturally affirm that God knows the future perfectly and has had an intimate knowledge of His people from Creation.

    Isa46:10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’

    Heb10:13Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

    calvinists believe that God is God and we are not. God could identify all believers by name from the foundation of the universe – He gave His Son so that each one would not get the condemnation we deserve but be saved from the wrath that remains on others. and He accomplishes everything that He intends:

    Psa33:10 The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. 11 But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.

    Psa135:6 The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths.

    we – of course – are not God, so we leave the identities of the “elect” to Him and freely invite all to come and be saved.

    Rom8:32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

    More biblical context in Rom8 – more logic for you: if Jesus was given up for “us” (“those whom God has chosen”), how will He not give “us” all things, including justification? Who can condemn “us” while Jesus intercedes for “us?”

    logically, who is the “us” in this passage? internal evidence says it’s talking about the “chosen” – it’s talking about believers. Jesus said in John17 that He intercedes for us and NOT the world, right? The unbelievers are condemned “already” but Jesus came to save His people (Matt1:21; John3:17), not condemn them. This is all part of why (some) calvinists look at “world” the way we do. no gymnastics needed – the bible interprets itself consistently, if you are willing to let it.

    as i’ve probably mentioned before, if you are interested in reading the “photographic negative” of John3:16 – something aimed at unbelievers with believers as a side note, check out psalm 2 (which is echoed in Heb10:13 above):

    4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
    5 He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
    6 “I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain.”…
    9 You will break them with a rod of iron;
    you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

    10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
    be warned, you rulers of the earth.
    11 Serve the LORD with fear
    and celebrate his rule with trembling.
    12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
    and your way will lead to your destruction,
    for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

    (sorry to be so long-winded.)

  2. charles
    March 10, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    for further reference, Greg Welty wrote of “kosmos”/world in the Johannine literature:

    John says that “the world did not know Him” (Jn 1:10).
    Does this refer to all without exception? Did no one
    know him, not even his own disciples?

    John the Baptist says that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who
    takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). So, did
    Jesus take away the sin of every person without exception?

    When the Pharisees said, “Look, the world has gone after
    Him!” (Jn 12:19), were they really claiming that every
    person without exception (including themselves) had followed Jesus?

    When Jesus said that the Spirit of truth is the One
    “whom the world cannot receive” (Jn 14:17), was he
    claiming that every person without exception cannot
    receive him?

    When Jesus told his disciples that “the world hates you”
    (Jn 15:18-19; 17:14; 1Jn 3:13), was he claiming that every
    person without exception hated them?

    When Jesus said that “the world will rejoice” at his
    crucifixion (Jn 16:20), was he predicting that every person without exception would rejoice?

    When Jesus said, “I do not pray for the world,” (Jn
    17:9), was he saying he refused to pray for every person
    without exception?

    When Jesus said to the Father that “the world has not
    known You,” (Jn 17:25), was he claiming that every person without exception didn’t know God?

    When Jesus said, “I spoke openly to the world,” (Jn
    18:20) was he claiming that he spoke openly to every person
    without exception?

    When John said that “the world does not know us,” (1 Jn
    3:1), was he claiming that every person without exception did not
    know any Christians to be Christians?

    When John said, concerning antichrists, that “the world
    hears them” (1 Jn 4:5), was he claiming that every
    person without exception hears them?

    When John said that “the whole world lies under the sway
    of the wicked one” (1 Jn 5:19), was he claiming that
    every person without exception lies under the sway of
    the devil?

  3. charles
    March 10, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    one more thing – “world/kosmos” is one issue in John3:16.

    a somewhat separate issue is that there is no “whoever” in the greek – which may be part of your confusion above.

    interpreted as originally intended, it’s fine to interpret John3:16 as saying “God sent Jesus so that anyone – (more accurately) “everyone” – who believes will not perish but be saved.” calvinists are agreed that whoever believes will be saved.

    the problem is that many noncalvinists interpret the english word “whoever/whosoever” to suggest that God doesn’t really know the future and that He’s just running something up the flagpole to see if anyone might maybe salute…which is nonsense.

    if you look back at our previous exchanges, the word being translated as “whoever” in John3:16 is actually the greek word “pas” (“all” or “all kinds”)…so the greek in v16 points to Jesus as the Savior of “all believers” – or possibly toward the jewish pharisee Nicodemus “all kinds of believers” (whether jew, gentile or samaritan). there is no uncertainty implied in john3:16 in the greek – every believing one will not perish but will be saved – but the english translations can muddy things a little if you are careless (as dave hunt certainly is).

    • Bob
      March 11, 2012 at 11:36 am

      Thank-you, Charles. You’ve offered up much for consideration and it’ll take a bit of time to digest and think through your replies. One quick response, though – I didn’t necessarily take issues with Dr. Lawson’s contention that there are various interpretations for the word “world” and your references above confirm that. Context is critical for understanding – to which I’m sure we both agree. More to follow. Be well.

  4. charles
    March 11, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    after looking again, i think you were just conflating the two separate issues. no big deal but again, even if you disagree at least try to represent the other side accurately.

    i’ll impose a little more just to add that calvinists like john piper and charles spurgeon both offer relatively traditional interpretations on John 3:16. from what i’ve read at least, neither seems to get too hung up on v18…both suggest that God loves the world so much that He if offers and invites every single person to come. (Even knowing the invitation will be trampled by many, like the lord with the banquet in Luke 14.) And that it’s a simple, temporal offer in our terms to “whosoever will” come and believe.

    so let’s be clear that most calvinists are fine with the traditional interpretation of John3:16. and even calvinists who think v18 and that v16’s “all believers” = “elect” point to “world” meaning specifically “world of believers/elect” as that is toward whom the benefits of Jesus’ coming are promised are not opposed to the free invitation of the gospel to every person (again, God is God and we are not) – just not so much from this particular text.

    but while some noncalvinists teach unbelievers that “God loves you and Jesus died for you” and will only warn of “future” condemnation (if any at all), at least balance the teachings of John 3:16 with the warnings from John 3:18 and 36…as long as you teach both, you’re in the bounds of orthodox teaching, calvinist or not.

    i’ll try to check back soon to see how you are processing things…in the mean time, here is a useful tool (noncalvinist, so far as i know) that i may have posted before:

    http://biblelexicon.org/john/3-16.htm

    • Bob
      March 12, 2012 at 8:37 pm

      “[E]ven if you disagree at least try to represent the other side accurately.”

      I hope I’m not sounding “huffy” here, but honestly, Charles, in spite of my inherent disagreement with the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election, I try to accurately represent what I understand Calvinist doctrine to be. Perhaps there’s some ignorance on my part – fine and well – and please feel free to enlighten me. But I hope you don’t think I am intentionally misrepresenting Calvinism in my posts.

  5. charles
    March 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    sorry, i don’t think it’s intentional. i’m just trying to get a sense of how you got from 1) ” ‘world’ means ‘world of the elect’ ” which might naturally lead you to something like this in v 17:

    “(17) For God did not send his son [to the elect] to condemn [the elect] but to save [the elect] through him.” (which some calvinists do agree with)

    to jumping over to 2) ” ‘whosoever’ means ‘elect’ ” in v18, which doesn’t logically seem to follow at all.

    “(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. “ (which no calvinist has ever taught)

    • Bob
      March 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm

      I apologize for the delay in responding, Charles. I’m out of town attending the memorial service for my father (who died a year and a half ago) and my 104 year-old grandmother. I wrote a post about her a while ago. My mother had my father cremated and his ashes have been sitting on the mantle until no.

      I’ll be back home on Tuesday and will hopefully have something back at your shortly thereafter.

      As to your question, I didn’t necessarily question just what the meaning of “world” was – pertaining to Dr. Lawson’s radio sermon. And since then, as I’ve further read and looked at the scriptures you provided; yes, the word “world” can have any number of meanings. What I was attempting to do by inserting “elect” into V17 was to show that this verse (logically, at least to me) doesn’t make sense if, as Dr. Lawson contended, this passage – or John 3:16 to be fair and more specific – refers only to the “elect” because, so far as I understand, those elected individuals are not condemned.

      In any event, I’m not trying to avoid the discussion. I will respond. I appreciate your patience.

  6. charles
    April 8, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    “What I was attempting to do by inserting “elect” into V17 was to show that this verse (logically, at least to me) doesn’t make sense if, as Dr. Lawson contended, this passage – or John 3:16 to be fair and more specific – refers only to the “elect” because, so far as I understand, those elected individuals are not condemned.”

    Eph2:1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.

    apart from the work of Christ, the elect deserve condemnation, though. by nature, the elect were objects of wrath…following the ways of this world… no different than those who persist in unbelief. no smarter. no more spiritual. no more willing to turn to God.

    until God “made us alive” as Eph 2:4 puts it.

    Jesus could have come to condemn every single person – that would have been a just judgment. Yet He came to save some through His death and resurrection.

    i can’t tell if you just have a bias against the word “elect.” let’s divide “the world” into those who will come to believe in Christ before the end of their lives and those who persist in unbelief. (and i will pull out the “whosoevers” since they are not in the greek as discussed earlier and don’t really change the meaning unless you propose that God is uncertain about which is which.)

    “16For God so loved [those who will believe] that he gave his one and only Son, that every believer shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son to [those who will believe] to condemn [those who will believe], but to save [those who will believe] through him. 18 The believer in him is not condemned, but the unbeliever stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

    for this subset of “every single person”, the passage still makes sense.

    “16For God so loved [unbelievers] that he gave his one and only Son, that every believer shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son to [unbelievers] to condemn [unbelievers], but to save [unbelievers] through him. 18 The believer in him is not condemned, but the unbeliever stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

    for this subset, it doesn’t make much sense. if God knows they will persist in unbelief, then sending Jesus just frustrates them – as in psalm 2, they do not desire His rule as they prefer to do what they want. adding a “whosoever” doesn’t help, as the benefit (“eternal life”) of God’s expansive love in v16 is only for believers one way or the other. (there may be other benefits provided by Jesus life and death, but not so far as John3:16 is concerned).

    and again: v17 says that Jesus did not come to condemn unbelievers and yet v18 says they are condemned already (God’s wrath remains on them) – I really would like to see your solution for this issue if you find one.

    regardless, happy easter!

  7. Bob
    April 9, 2012 at 5:51 am

    Being completely candid, shortly after I returned from the funeral services, in trying to come up with a response, and using my “logic” and word-interchange, I came across the dilemma that you have just put forth and, again to be candid and honest, am not able to fully unpack what the scriptures appear to be saying. That doesn’t mean that I’ve given up as it were. But at this time I don’t really have a rebuttal or reply. I think we can agree that everyone who believes will be saved – whether from God’s electing (as you believe) or from man’s own volition (as I believe). That said, God knows the future and therefore knows who will and who will not believe. And obviously, there are various meanings for the term “the world” – referencing your examples/explanations of John three & seventeen, Dr. Lawson’s comments and also my own common sense in reading and understanding scripture.

    But, here’s what I’ve been working on (albeit much more slowly than I would like to admit): using a concordance to look up the word “chosen”, it is not obvious to me that each time someone is “chosen” they are guaranteed salvation. Tying in with that, as a father of three, I am terribly conflicted that a loving father would, irrespective of kid’s defiance and behavior, predetermine before their birth who would receive, say, the inheritance.

    I DO appreciate you and your willingness to engage and regret my lapse in responding. But, I’m obviously not the “sharpest tack in the box” and often it takes me a while to think through and respond. Blessings to you, Charles, and happy (belated) Easter.

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