Friday, April 14, 2006

Common Misunderstandings of John 3:16

(My church has an extended newsletter called "Echoes From The Plains" it puts out bi-monthy. I usually submit an article on simple apologetic issues. The following is from January 2005).

Isn’t it uplifting to meet another Christian where you least expect to? Maybe you’re at your job, and you strike up a conversation with a coworker you don’t know very well. Eventually, you (or they) say something that leads to, “Hey, are you Christian?” “You know, I thought there was something different about you!” Here you thought you were alone in your faith at your job, school, or commute to work. Take to heart our Lord’s words, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). This is a wonderful gift of God’s providence. The next question that most often arises is, “Where do you go to Church?” Here, unfortunately is where an “apologetic” situation may occur. Remember, Apologetics is simply a term for “defending the faith” (1 Pet. 3:15). How could the inquiry of where one attends church lead to defending the faith when you’re talking to another Christian?

I take great joy in answering the above question: “Pompton Plains Reformed Bible Church.” Now, the majority of Christians in the United States do not attend Reformed churches. I would venture to say a great many Christians have no idea what the word “Reformed” refers to. “What’s a Reformed Bible?” “What did your church reform from?” I enjoy the opportunity to explain why the word “Bible” is a foremost attribute of our church. As succinctly as I can, I then explain our heritage as a Reformed church. These are great opportunities. Most often they lead to an invitation to our services, or at least the giving of our web-page address. Now, this cordial exchange isn’t always the norm. I have at times come into contact with other Christians who know some of the distinctives of Reformed theology, or at least have a presupposed idea of what they think they are: “Your church is Reformed? …You aren’t one of those Calvinists are you?” By the tone of the question and the introduction of the term “Calvinist” I am immediately put on the defensive. It becomes time to provide an answer as to why I believe what I believe.

In situations such as these, it has been said to me more than once, “You Calvinists don’t really believe what the Bible says. It says, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). You Calvinists believe that God chooses a select few people against their will to be saved, and then sends billions to Hell. But God’s word clearly says in John 3:16 that He loves everybody, and everybody has a chance to be saved.” I wish I could say that I’m simply presenting an imaginary caricature. Such is not the case. I have heard these words repeated by family, close friends, and acquaintances. All appeal to John 3:16 as the definitive verse that says, “Case closed: Reformed theology is unbiblical.”

How does one respond to charges like these? First, any answer you give should be done with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). I have “bit my tongue” on more than one occasion, as comments directed towards my Reformed beliefs have been degrading or insulting. There’s no need to return fire with fire. The person you’re talking with more than likely has never been to a solid Bible-based Reformed church, or has ever read a positive presentation of the doctrines of grace. This is your opportunity to open up the Bible, and simply let it say what it says, in context.

The first thing to point out is that John 3 begins with a strong statement of our lack of choice in salvation. Jesus is engaged in discussion with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Jesus tells him “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”(v.3). Like physical birth, spiritual birth is not a choice we make for ourselves. Jesus says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit…the wind blows wherever it pleases” (v.7-8). Recall that earlier John has written that we who believe “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13, NAS).

Secondly, Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (v.15, NIV). Now it’s important to look closely at what this verse says, and doesn’t say. It says that those who believe may have eternal life. Does it say that every single person who has ever lived has the ability to believe? No. Recall the conversation that Jesus just had with Nicodemus. The Spirit of God chooses who will believe. Only those that believe will look up to the Son for their salvation. We are also told elsewhere in Scripture that there are no God seekers (Romans 3:11), that man is dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), and that unregenerate man is unable to do anything God pleasing (Romans 8:5-8). Surely, unregenerate man by his own ability, looking to Jesus for salvation would be a God-pleasing act. The Bible though informs us that this will never happen, unless the Spirit first “blows wherever it pleases.”

Finally we arrive at John 3:16. John uses the term “world” throughout his gospel and his three letters. One cannot simply assume that each time the word “world” is used it means every single human being who will ever live. One has to allow the context to determine how the word should be understood. We’ve already seen how the verses preceding speak strongly against understanding the term as “every single individual.” Look ahead to John 3:17. Jesus says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” One has to ask, is every single person who has ever lived saved? The Bible says no. Jesus describes those who are condemned because of their disbelief (John 3:18). John then, is not using the word “world” all-inclusively. He is referring to all those who believe, those whom the Spirit has given birth to. John later tells us in Revelation 5:9 explicitly who this “world” is: “Because [Christ was] slain, and with [His] blood purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” But doesn’t John say “whosever” believes can have salvation? As Dr. James White has pointed out, “Anyone familiar with the text as it was written [in Greek] knows that the literal rendering of the passage is ‘in order that every one believing in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ The verse teaches that the giving of the Son guarantees the salvation of all the believing ones.”[i]

After presenting a consistent exposition of John 3, why won’t my non-Reformed acquaintances accept what the Bible clearly says? Some will. I have had close friends rally against Reformed theology with all their might, only to acquiesce to its truth years later. Others though will not. The reason? Tradition. The non-Reformed interpretation of John 3:16 stated above is well entrenched in our evangelical culture, and it is a tradition not based on the consistent exegesis of Scripture. One must rely though on God’s word to do its work. I know from experience: I was the person who quoted John 3:16 to Calvinists many years ago. Praise God for his Spirit that blew into my heart, and continues to guide me through His word.

[i] James White, The Potter’s Freedom, (New York: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 194.


Robbie said...

Excellent! A blessing to read.


FM483 said...

James, while reviewing a few older posts of yours, I wanted to respond to your personal account as to your conviction of the reformed viewpoint regarding John 3:16. My understanding is that the Reformed interpretation of this verse is that “world” refers to the Elect only.I understand from a human logic point of view this would make sense – that only those who “believe” are saved. Now this emphasis upon God’s point of view presumes that fallible man can focus his limited mental abilities upon the entire process of creation/redemption from God’s perspective and comprehend the end results from the beginning of things. This approach taxes our limited mental abilities to the point that we fail to focus upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Hence, the Gospel becomes secondary in our energies. Instead of focusing upon God’s masterpiece in Christ and His works, we focus upon God’s perspective and foolishly assume we can comprehend everything like a chess game. This reformed emphasis is tantamount to criticizing the inspired authors of Scripture to the point that when we read the word “world”, we believe the writer should have stated “Elect”- which the Holy Spirit did NOT select. The Holy Spirit chose the word “world”instead of “Elect”. The preoccupation with God’sperspective robs the believer of his assurance. Instead of the assurance that God sent His Son as my substitute, because I am part of the human race in the “world”, I am always focusing upon whether I am of the “Elect”. The intent of Scripture is to assre the entire world that Christ has already reconciled the entire human race toGod through His perfect life, death, suffering, and resurrection:

2 Cor. 5:19
that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

This is wonderful news and gives me the peace of God which passes all human understanding. I recall the words of Jesus when He reappeared after His resurrection – “Peace be with you”and”Be not afraid”. This is assurance. The entire Word of God is riddled with the fact that all men have been reconciled back to God – that it is His desire that all be saved, not merely the Elect. Consider a few other verses which emphasize this wonderful news:

1 John 2:2
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 Tim. 2:3-4
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, [4] who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Contrary to what you have said, I believe that the intelligence of man often hinders the GOOD NEWS, the Gospel. That is why geniuses like Calvin and others concentrated upon the hidden will of God rather than the revealed will of Jesus Christ and His propitiation of the entire world. Sometimes we humans cannot receive the Gospel as little children and simply say “Thank You Jesus”. We often insist that our fallible and limited human intelligence is capable of understanding the entire creation/salvation process from God’s perspective – like the clay pot talking back to the potter in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.


Frank Marron