This section is excerpted from StudyOfJohn.com: Last week, we posted the excerpt of the whole chapter three. Today, we have shortened this to just the study of John 3:16. By doing this, we have reduced the post from 6900 words to 1300 and still retained our main arguments. What we are studying in this passage is who Christ died for and what He meant when He told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world…”
THE COMMON MISINTERPRETATION OF JOHN 3:16
Most Christians hold to a misinterpretation of this verse: “For God so loved the world…” They treat it as a standalone verse promoting man’s freewill and choice and they neglect to look at the verse in context with the conversation.
The context is Nicodemus and the Jews believed one had to be child of Abraham or a proselyte to be saved. Jesus told Him God has brought salvation to the world – not solely to the Jew. This context is reinforced in the following verse, where Jesus said He did not come to condemn the world – because the Jews believed the Messiah was going to put down the nations and exalt Israel. We will compare what Jesus meant with the common misperception of this verse after we complete our discussion of John 3:16.
The problem is most Christians interpret John 3:16 to mean Christ died for the sins of the whole world, as in every living being in the world and it is only a man’s freewill that separates him from God. Certainly, most Christians do not believe in universal salvation – the idea that all men are saved; and even the Jews, in their limited view of redemption, knew that not all children of Abraham were saved. When challenged with comparing this verse between the opposing views of universal salvation and God’s predestination of the elect, most Christians will settle for the interpretation Christ died for the sins of the whole world but only those who believe are saved. And, in the face of competing doctrines, this interpretation can appear to be safe – and less controversial – but it is wrong.
Having been raised on easy-believism, I was in this camp. However, the more I read and studied the Scriptures, the more the doctrines of the elect and predestination jumped out at me. I was not armed with commentaries, nor had I read any books on doctrine. All I had was a Scofield Study Bible and I read it over and over again and studied and studied. The more I read and studied, the more I disagreed with Scofield’s notes. And, for you who know of Scofield’s works, you know he is not in agreement with the Reformed view of election or predestination; he is one of the modern day authors of freewill, choice and easy-believism.
It is clear in Scripture God does not love evil and there are many Scriptures listing the evil men God hates. So when the verse says “loved the world,” either Christ died for everyone’s sin and God is looking at the world as forgiven, or there must be some exclusions to the definition of the word “world.” Meaning, there are some people Christ did not die for and even within the verse, Christ implied some cannot be saved when He said, “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Here are a list of verses that are misinterpreted along with John 3:16:
1) “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” [1:29].
2) “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all [men] to Myself.” [12:32].
3) “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” [Rom 5:18].
4) “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things.” [Rom 8:32].
5) “He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised”. [2Co 5:15].
6) “In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself.” [2Co 5:19].
7) “Who gave Himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” [1Ti 2:6].
8) “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” [1Ti 4:10].
9) “… so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” [Heb 2:9].
10) “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” [1Jo 2:2].
11) “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world.” [1Jo 4:14].
WHAT JESUS MEANT WHEN HE SAID GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
There are three Scriptures I believe are key when considering who Jesus was referring to when He said, “God so loved the world.” The first is Mark 10:45. In this verse, Jesus said He came to give His life as a ransom for many. The first thing to consider in this is the ransom: A ransom is paid to redeem someone who belongs to you – it is not generic. The second thing to consider is the “many.” Christ did not claim to ransom “all” or everyone in the world nor did he ever say He was going to die for everyone’s sin.
The next Scripture to consider is Revelation 5:9. The praise in this verse is, “by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Here again is the concept of a ransom and the ransom is for people from the whole world – every portion of the world but not everyone in the world. This defines the “many.”
The third Scripture to consider is Isaiah chapter 53. In verse 6, Isaiah wrote, “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Later in the chapter, in verses 11 and 12, it is more clear, who is the “all.” In these two verses, the prophet reveals from his sufferings, the Messiah, will “make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.” Here again, is the “many” – the ones who will “be accounted righteous” and it is clear it is for their iniquities He suffered. Three times the “many” are referenced in these two verses and the third time it is reinforced whose sin Christ bore on the cross – “He bore the sin of many.”
These three passages are key to identifying who Christ died for – and the quantity. Did Christ ransom the entire world from sin, or the many? And, if the many, who are they? John 1:9-13 and 6:44 help us to understand who are the many. In these verses we find those who receive Christ are drawn by the Father and are saved by the will of God, not by the will of man. We are not saved because of our choice but because of God’s choice (1:13) and Christ confirmed this when He said no one comes to Him unless the Father draw him (6:44).
Paul said we are saved by God’s grace alone; not by works or anything else we can do – we cannot even “make a decision” – lest any man should boast (Ep 2:8-9). Our only participation in the Gospel of Salvation is that of recipient. We can only receive it – and even this is by the grace of God because the Bible is clear there is NO one who seeks after God (Psa 14:1-3; Isa 53:6 ; Rom 3:10-11) because the natural bent of our hearts is rebellion toward God. To summarize a quote from Charles Spurgeon arguing against the theology of freewill: a man’s will is either held captive by sin or it is held in the blessed bonds of grace.
Therefore, it is important to interpret John 3:16 in the context of God’s sovereignty and not in the context of man’s sovereignty – or freewill. To use John 3:16 to promote choice or freewill is an error.