How Does Your Theology Read John 3:16?

January 30, 2014

by Ron F. Hale

(comments pre-moderated)

“John 3:16, perhaps the best known verse in the Bible,” says Dr. Jerry Vines, “is also perhaps the first verse we learn and the last one we forget. This one verse has brought multitudes to Christ. Herschel Hobbs called it ‘the Gospel in superlatives.’ Martin Luther called it ‘the Bible in miniature.’ A.T. Robertson referred to it as ‘the Little Gospel.’ Others have called it the ‘Mount Everest of Holy Scripture.’ Still others have called it ‘the most exquisite flower in the Garden of Holy Scripture.’ I like to call it ‘the Gospel in a nutshell.’” [1]

This golden text is simple enough to speak to the head and heart of a child and demanding enough to woo a theologian to a cloistered calling studying the scope of God’s sacrifice and salvation.

However, the reader brings certain presuppositions to the text. These personal presumptions may be driven by biblical understanding, a system of theology, philosophy, logic, cultural mores, emotion, and a host of learning experiences.

Yet, these presuppositions lead us to draw conclusions on John 3:16 like:

  1. Christ’s atonement is universal in scope (He died for all persons made in God’s image) but applicable only to those who believe.
  2. Jesus died only for the elect.
  3.  Jesus died for everyone and all will be saved regardless of belief or behavior.[2]

Let us examine several possible translations of John 3:16 based on the presuppositions that one may bring to bear on the text.

The Arminian reading of John 3:16

Norman Geisler shares, “Arminians insist that the Bible uses belief in the present tense, not as a once-for-all completed act when we were first saved. For example, the famous verse in the gospel of John that promises eternal life for believing does so while speaking of belief (present tense) as a continual process. Hence, verses that call on us to believe can be translated, for example:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever continues to believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, emphasis added).[3]

The suggestion is obvious, when “believing” ceases or faith is abandoned — then salvation is lost. Geisler follows by saying, “Many Arminians contend that if we can exercise faith to “get in” Christ, then we can use the same free will to “get out” of Christ.

The Calvinist reading of John 3:16

John Owen (1616-1683) believes the word love speaks of the special love of God to his elect.[4] Owen pens the following retranslation reflecting his reformed theology:

God so loved his elect throughout the world, that he gave his Son with this intention, that by him believers might be saved (emphasis added).[5]

The Owen version of John 3:16 points to a belief that God in eternity, sovereignly chose certain ones (the elect) to be saved and to show forth his mercy, grace, and glory. God unconditionally elects these, draws the chosen ones by his grace, and regenerates them so they believe. Others do not receive the effectual call of God for salvation. The elect persevere to the end in their belief.

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) said of this verse, “However it is certain that not the whole world, but only those chosen out of the world are saved; therefore to them properly this love has reference.”[6] The Westminster Confession says, “…some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.”[7]

John MacArthur cautions those newly infatuated with Reformed doctrine and quickly assuming the position that God doesn’t love everyone; he says:

The argument inevitably goes like this: Psalm 7:11 tells us “God is angry with the wicked every day.” It seems reasonable to assume that if God loved everyone, He would have chosen everyone unto salvation. Therefore, God does not love the non-elect. Those who hold this view often go to great lengths to argue that John 3:16 cannot really mean God loves the whole world.

Perhaps the best-known argument for this view is found in the unabridged edition of an otherwise excellent book, The Sovereignty of God, by A. W. Pink. Pink wrote, “God loves whom He chooses. He does not love everybody.” He further argued that the word world in John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world…“) “refers to the world of believers (God’s elect), in contradistinction from ‘the world of the ungodly.'”[8]

The Universalist reading of John 3:16

Regardless if one looks to Jesus in faith, there are some that believe everyone will eventfully enjoy heaven for all eternity; they may envision the verse to read:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all God’s children may come to believe that they will inherit everlasting life.

C.E. Autrey (1904-1993) says of the Universalist, “Some people contend that all men are children of God, and that the sole purpose of evangelism is to inform them that they are part of the family of God.”[9]

The “Traditional” Southern Baptist reading of John 3:16

Wheter young or old, many Southern Baptists first memorized John 3:16 in Sunday school, Bible drill, or VBS, in the King James Version (KJV)[10] of the Bible, and it says:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

Most Southern Baptists read the words “world” and “whosoever” without theological sophistication and deem that any sinner can be saved if they meet God’s biblical conditions. For instance, I came to Christ at 23 after being reared in a family that did not attend church or have family Bible readings. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit used verses like John 3:16 in drawing me to faith in Christ, I realized that I was a sinner and a “whosoever,” and Jesus would and could save me from my sins if I would turn from my sins (repentance) and look to him in faith by calling on Him to forgive me.

More than 35 years later, and after obtaining several educational degrees from Baptist institutions, I have not wavered from that basic belief that anyone and everyone (from the gutter-most to the utter-most) can be saved if they meet God’s biblical conditions.

I believe that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross of Calvary was intended both to provide salvation for all and to procure salvation for all who believe (emphasis added).[11]

The Apostle Paul explains it best as he encouraged young Timothy with these words, “and from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).[12]

© Ron F. Hale, January 21, 2014

[1] Jerry Vines, “Sermon on John 3:16” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism (ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 13-14.

[2] This is not an exhaustive list of possible presuppositions.  

[3] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, Third Edition, (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2010), 324.

[4] William H. Gould, editor, The Works of John Owen, Volume X (reprinted by Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 323.

[5] Ibid. 326.

[6] James T. Dennison, Jr., editor of the Institutes of Elenctic Theology – Volume One: First Through Tenth Topics by Francis Turretin, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), 405.

[9] C.E. Autrey, The Theology of Evangelism, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1966), 80.

[10] This statement is not to suggest that Southern Baptists should be KJV only. Until its recent changes, I used the NIV while preaching, and now I use the NKJV.

[11] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume Three, Sin & Salvation, (Bethany House: Minneapolis, 2004), 179.

[12] Holman Christian Standard Bible