From the outset I must be honest and let you know that I abhor hyper-Calvinism in all its forms. I believe it to be a matter of disobedience to the clear command of Christ upon the life of his people to be sharing the gospel indiscriminately. When we fail to obey Christ because our theology would forbid it, something is wrong with our theology. Having said that, I do not think that the current issue regarding John 3:16 needs to bear a label such as hyper-Calvinism.
I think the major issue at hand is whether or not we can tell people that God loves them when we share the gospel with them. Which means two things: we understand the command of Christ that we are to be sharing the gospel, but we also want to be faithful in the gospel that we present. Which are both good and virtuous things which I believe can both be present in such a way that our witness is unhindered.
First, we must not forget our calling to “go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19).” We must not forget the example set by the early church in Acts as they went into all the world preaching, teaching and engaging in robust dialogue (Acts 17:17, 18:4, 28) over the truth of the gospel. We must not overlook the fact that we have been given a ministry of reconciliation to attend to (2 Cor 5:16-21). We must not fail to follow the command of Jesus to be lights in this darkened world as we hold forth the word of truth (Phil 2:16).
This is our great task and to fail in this is to disobey our Lord and this disobedience is sin. We sin against our savior when we fail to obey his commands. Let us not overlook this fact that we belittle God when we sin against him. Let us be broken by the fact that Christ died to free us from rebellion to God and to remain in rebellion after having been freed from it is akin to insanity. “How can we who died to sin still live in it (Roman 6:2)?” Our greatest concern in this matter must be that we are not found in rebellion to Christ, but that we are found faithful in sharing the gospel.
Second, we must be careful that our zeal for evangelism does not cause us to outrun the truth or to misrepresent Christ. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul labored in bold speech to ensure that they were not corrupting the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his letter to Timothy he warned the young elder to, “pay close attention to yourself and to the teaching…persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1Tim 4:16).” Gospel fidelity is a consistent theme in the writings of Paul, so I consider it of great importance that we know the gospel accurately and we triumph it in our lives.
With that, let us take a closer look at the verse in question…John 3:16. This is likely the most well known verse in all of the New Testament and it comes from the middle of a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, a high ranking Pharisee. The Pharisees were experts in the law of God and prided themselves on the fact that they, above all other people, were pure and acceptable in the eyes of God on account of their law keeping. This is interesting given the current context especially when you allow the context to determine the meaning of the term world (kosmos).
This term appears in the Gospel of John 80 times. It would be an over simplification to say that the term has one meaning in this letter, but the overarching use of the term does paint a specific picture. The term is used in many different ways but primarily it used to refer to humanity in general that is estranged from God on account of sin. John does not simply see the World as a globe upon which all of God’s creatures reside; he sees it as a sin stained representation of the fallen creation and this field of meaning has major implications for the use of the term in John 3:16. Listen to D.A. Carson’s take…
I know that some try to take kosmos (world) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s gospel is against the suggestion. True, world in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness. In John’s vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God. In John 3:16 God’s love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such a wicked people. ..On the axis, God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect (D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God pg 17).
The evidence for Carson’s remarks are clear from within the text of Scripture, especially when it comes to whether or not we can interpret world to refer to the elect. Looking at the overall context of John 3:16-21 we see that a distinction is made by Jesus own words. He outlines two very distinct categories of people: general sinful unbelieving humanity (ie. the world) and those who believe (ie. the elect).
To carry the case a bit further it is helpful to see the juxtaposition between general sinful humanity and the elect in the other teachings of Jesus. In instances when it is clear that Jesus is speaking of the elect he does not use the term kosmos he uses other words and phrases altogether. In fact, he uses the word kosmos to distinguish between humanity in general and the elect. Let’s look at a few of these instances…
John 17:6 says, I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world (kosmos). Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.
John 15:18-19, If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
The word used here for world is the same word that Jesus used in John 3:16 but a distinction is made between the world and those who believe (the elect); to say that Jesus means elect when he uses the term world in John 3:16 is not wholly honest or I should say it is not so cut and dry. It is clear that God’s specific redemptive love is solely placed upon the elect, but there is also a sense in which God’s love for his creation is seen in his daily mercy and provision for even the unrepentant sinner.
If you are having trouble with that last statement let me encourage you to take a look at a well known encounter between Jesus and an unrepentant rich young man. We know the story of the rich young man who comes up to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17)?” Jesus then commands him to keep the commandments in obedience to God. The rich young ruler insists on his innocence in regard to the law, to which Jesus points out that he has not yet mastered covetousness. But before Jesus tells him to go and sell all that he has we find something interesting.
And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth. And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell all that you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Mark 10:21-22).
Did you catch it? Verse 21 says that Jesus loved him. This rich young man who was called to repent of sin and to follow Christ, in fact did not obey and he remained unrepentant. Yet the text clearly states that Jesus loved him.
So what does this mean for the sake of our understanding? It seems clear to me that God’s love is not relegated to one application ie. to the elect, but it is present in many forms. Again Carson’s work should not go unnoticed. He points out that the Bible speaks of the love of God in different ways:
- The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (John 3:35 and John 5:20)
- God’s providential love over all that he has made (Gen 1)
- God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world (John 3:16 and I John 5:9)
- God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect (Eph 5:25)
- God’s love is directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way on account of obedience (John 15:9) – Carson pgs. 16-21
When it comes to evangelism there is no reason that we should feel compelled to tell each person that God has a specific and immense love for them, but we can surely say that the love of God has been made known to us in that he sent his Son to redeem all those who believe. The real impact of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3 are to show that God sent his Son into a world that was estranged from Him on account of sin and that rather than to bring immediate condemnation to that world (John 3:17), He came to bring salvation. Jesus goes on to point out that the world He came into is made up of those who believe and those who do not. He tells Nicodemus that those who do not believe in the name of the only Son of God are condemned by their unbelief; but those who believe in His name are saved.
This passage really serves two purposes to inform and to warn. Perhaps, that is the way we should view our efforts in evangelism. To share with those around us that the love of God is seen in the fact that He gave up His Son to die for sinful man (inform) and the only hope we have is to believe on Him (warn). The power to transform a worldling into a child of God is not dependent upon the force of our argument or offer. No, that power rests in God alone (John 1:11-13).