I thought it would be fun to do a series of posts addressing some oftentimes misunderstood and misused verses, with the hope of giving both exegetical insight and clarity. There are a lot of assumptions about these verses, and like any part of Scripture, they are prone to be ripped out of context (eisegesis). To start this series off, I’m going to address John 3:16–
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)
Before we get to the context, I want to do some Greek to help make sense of the words (this is very important). This is from the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 27th Edition with McReynolds English Interlinear. I have shortened so it appears in unison when formatted for different screens:
οὕτως / γὰρ / ἠγάπησεν / ὁ / θεὸς / τὸν / κόσμον
Thusly / for / loved / the / God / the / world
ὥστε / τὸν / υἱὸν / τὸν / μονογενῆ / ἔδωκεν / ἵνα
so that / the / son / the / only born / he gave / that
πᾶς / ὁ / πιστεύων / εἰς / αὐτὸν / μὴ
all / the / one trusting / into / him / not
ἀπόληται / ἀλλʼ / ἔχῃ / ζωὴν / αἰώνιον.
might be destroyed / but / might have / life / eternal.
Take note (in bold and underline) the first word in the Greek: houtōs. It means “thusly” or, “in this way.” It can also mean, “therefore,” and “accordingly.” It’s a connection to what has been said before. What was said before? Jesus just had a conversation with Nicodemus and told him that he must be “born again.” Nicodemus is confused, unsure as to how he can get back into his mother’s womb. Jesus tells him that he can’t do it himself. In other words, you can’t born again yourself. Only the Spirit does it. (We call this the doctrine of regeneration). And this isn’t physical, it’s spiritual. The only way to see the kingdom of God is by being born again (John 3:3), that is, born of the Spirit (Jn. 3:6). To continue the conversation, John (the writer) draws out even more implications to what Jesus said to Nicodemus by transitioning: “In this way, God loved…”
Here’s where it gets tricky. Many, many people come to the text with presuppositions. Their presupposition is often, “See, God loves the world, meaning everyone in it, and WHOSOEVER (they love to emphasize that part, though it’s not in the Greek as we shall see) believes shall be saved.” Well, that’s true, in one sense. God does have a general loving disposition towards His creation–He made it! But his love is not entirely salvific for everyone (a topic for another day). And yes, belief (faith) is what is required for salvation. But what does the context say about this verse?
1) Jesus is talking to a Jewish leader. This is important, because the word kosmos doesn’t mean every single person in the world. It has many different meanings, and the context always determines what it means. It could refer to the universe as a whole, the earth (in a metaphysical sense), the world-system (evil), the entire human race (e.g., Romans 3:19), humanity minus believers (John 15:18), Gentiles in contrast with Jews (as is the case here), and it sometimes refers to believers only (e.g., John 1:29; also the case here).
But with regard to the author of this gospel, John, he says in his first letter, not to love the world (1 John 2:15). But wait, doesn’t God love the world? Why would he say NOT to do what God does? And why would Jesus say in John 17:9, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world (kosmos) but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours”? I thought God loved the world? Again, context is important. The point here in John 3:16 is that God doesn’t just love the Jews… his work of salvation in Jesus extends to the Gentiles, too. Context, context, context.
2) Jesus is explaining His mission and how it works. After this verse, he goes on to say that he didn’t come to condemn the world (Why? Because it’s condemned in sin already!), but to bring salvation to bear on both Jews and Gentiles. The problem many have when coming to this text is trying to reconcile free will, and God’s sovereignty. Some start with a position of neutrality: “God loves everyone and it’s up to them to choose him!” Not according to this text. In fact, it says the opposite. Man is condemned in unbelief because he is a slave to sin. Yes it is man’s responsibility to repent, but he can’t even do that until he’s born again! (see context of John 3:1-15; cf. 1 John 5:1 which confirms that regeneration precedes faith). This gives glory to God because God alone saves sinners who cannot save themselves. That’s why we call it grace. And Christ’s mission is to be a light in dark places, announcing to the world that God has become king. Don’t lose sight of the verses that come after 3:16, either.
3) pas ho pisteuōn. This little Greek phrase is often translated, “whosoever believes.” The assumed implication by some? Man is neutral, sin isn’t that extensive (he’s certainly not so depraved that he cannot help save himself!), and that people will go to hell unless they hear the gospel. It’s true (partly). People do go to hell if they do not believe in the gospel. But they do not go to hell because they do not know God. They go to hell because the reject the God they DO know! (see Romans 1). Regardless, pas doesn’t mean everyone everywhere in the world at all times. “All” simply means those people of that condition and/or group. In other words, you can translate this phrase, “all the believing ones.” (See this video for more exegesis). “The ones that believe“ is a good translation. Stated another way, it does not mean “all can believe,” but “everyone believing.” The word pas is modified by whatever follows. It’s not all (“every single person everywhere”), but “all who do ongoing belief“. Here’s a paraphrase:
“This is how God loves the believers: all those believers with true saving faith (belief) in Jesus will not perish but will have eternal life.”
So, who are the believing ones? Great question. The context of John is clear: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Who are the believing ones? The ones given to Jesus by the Father. Why won’t they be cast out? Because they have been given to Jesus! What about those who come to Jesus, are you saying that can’t? Frankly, yes, at least not without a regenerated heart: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). But why don’t some believe? “…but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:26-27).
Perhaps another verse will help: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 John 5:1). The person who has continuing belief and faith in Christ has been (past tense) born of God. In other words, regeneration precedes faith.
John 3:16 says nothing about a universal/unlimited atonement, nor does it say anything about a neutral man with a freed will capable of belief. It says nothing about those who do not believe, either. Pas modifies ho pisteuōn, meaning that the context in John 3:16 is about those within the realm of belief, not those outside of the realm of belief.
Perhaps an illustration will be helpful: Many imagine that Christ is standing at heaven’s door with arms-wide open and that everyone is running to him, but since he doesn’t pick (elect) everyone he turns a bunch a people away by hanging a “This place has reached maximum capacity” sign on heaven’s door. The reality is, however, Jesus is standing at heaven’s door with arms-wide open and no one is coming to him. In fact, mankind is walking in the opposite direction! Yet God in His infinite grace saves some for his good will and pleasure.
John 3:16 is NOT a proof-text for the former example, but an assurance of the latter. It’s a promise from God, that his love is so sure, holy, pure and righteous, that everyone believing will be secure in him and inherit his kingdom forever. Soli Deo Gloria