Perhaps the Bible verse most often quoted in the controversy between Calvinists and Arminians is John 3.16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that it was as a manifestation of God’s love that he sent his only begotten Son into the world in order to save many sinners (not to save all sinners, for neither Arminians nor Calvinists are universalists). And both agree that the object of God’s love is the world.
The disagreement is over whether God sent his only-begotten Son with the purpose of providing a hypothetical (potential) salvation for the entire human race, or with the purpose of saving only those (in all the world) who will believe in him.
- Arminianism: God loves each and every fallen human being in all the world—and because of his love for all people, God sends his only begotten Son to make salvation hypothetically possible for all people in general—but then, each person in particular needs to believe in God’s Son to make salvation actual, for themselves.
- Calvinism: God has set his love upon particular fallen human beings throughout all the world, not only among the people of Israel—and because of his love for these people, God sends his only begotten Son to save them—these being those people who will believe in his Son.
So, what is the Lord Jesus Christ teaching Nicodemus, that “master1 of Israel” (John 3.10), and all who read these words? It is this: because of God’s love for those whom he will save—an enormously great number of Jews and Gentiles from all around the world—“he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v.16).
This important teacher of Israel came to Jesus by night, and he respectfully acknowledged that Jesus was also a great teacher, and more: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (v.2). So, Nicodemus already had a high appreciation of this God-taught, God-sent rabbi from Nazareth. He had come to hear for himself, and to seriously consider Jesus’s message from his own lips.
As this passage (John 3.1-21) progresses, Jesus purposefully elevates and broadens Nicodemus’s perspective, so that he—and we, readers—can appreciate something of who Jesus is and what he came to do. (The Lord Jesus Christ is certainly more that Nicodemus thought he was, at that time.)
Jesus first declared the necessity of the new birth—that quickening of a spiritually dead person, without which he cannot “see” or “enter” the kingdom of God (vv.3,5; see also Ephesians 2.1). This regeneration comes by the work of the invisible Holy Spirit in the soul (vv.5-8; see also Titus 3.5).
We must also notice how in verse 3, Jesus begins to explain that he came into the world to save sinners from among the human race in general, not from among the people of Israel only. He did not imply, merely, “Except an Israelite be born again” when he declared, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Similarly, Jesus says, “…so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (v.8)—another phrase not necessarily restricted to Israel. And later, he says that he has been sent from God to provide salvation for those who turn to him in faith: “…that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (v.15).
Jesus then makes clear to Nicodemus, and to us who read these words in the Bible, that all along he had in mind the world in general and not only Israel, because he eventually declares, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (vv.16-17).
The words translated “that the world through him might be saved” do not mean that Christ provided only the possibility of salvation for the world, but that he does save the world—“might be saved” does not mean “maybe saved.”
So, what we need to understand is, who are included in this “world” that God the Father sent his only begotten Son to save? Thinking personally, are we included? We know that we are—if we believe in him.
If you, reader, believe on God’s only begotten Son, then you shall not perish but have eternal life.
But master-teacher Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was teaching him, at first, for it was beyond his spiritually dead mind to accept it. He was ready to reject it as unbelievable and untrue. And in doing so, he would have disrespected the Messiah himself, as well as his doctrine. Yet he should have known these things, as someone who had an in-depth education in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. He asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” (v.9); and for his question he receives this reproof: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (v.10).
In order to make these truths more clear, therefore, Jesus Nicodemus about an event in the history of Israel, and he uses it as an earthly analogy from which he will bring out John 3.16 as his inference: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3.14-15; also Numbers 21.5-9).
It is evident that God had not intended to heal all the people of Israel, who were dying from the bite of the “fiery serpents.” He commanded Moses to set up the brass model of a serpent on a pole before them all, and he instructed Moses to proclaim to them all, “and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Numbers 21.8). We see that God’s stated purpose was that he would heal (only) those who looked upon the brass serpent with repentance and hope toward him in their hearts.
Therefore, let us understand:
- Analogy: Moses lifted up the brass serpent on a pole in the presence of all Israel in the wilderness, so that “every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon” it, God would heal him of the fatal poison.
- Inference: In the same way, the “Son of man” must be lifted up,2 so that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Jesus continues: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3.17-18).
This is still part of Jesus’s same inference from his analogy involving Moses and the brass serpent—this whole passage stands together as one unit, linked together by his repeated conjunctive, “For…” (see the first word in both verses 16 and 17). So:
- Analogy: It was God’s will to heal all who looked upon the brass serpent from the deadly snake bite. God intended to heal Israel (in general) by healing those (in particular) who looked up to the brass serpent. Those who would not look, died.
- Inference: In the same way, it is God’s will to save all who will believe in God’s only begotten Son from their sins and the Hell that they deserve. God sent his Son in order to save the world (in general) by saving those (in particular) who believe in him. Those who do not believe in Christ remain under condemnation to Hell for their sins.
Therefore, John 3.14-18 does not teach that God wills to save, or even that he attempts to save any people beyond those whom he does save—namely, those who will believe.
What the Lord Jesus Christ has accomplished at Calvary—redemption, atonement, salvation—is applied only to those who believe, even though there is a more general call to all “under the sound” of the preached gospel of Christ, inviting and commanding all hearers (and readers) to turn to him in faith and repentance.
Leader and teacher. ↩︎
Gospel preaching “lifts up” Christ so that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John Calvin restricts the meaning of verse 14 to gospel preaching, whereas others (e.g. Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole) interpret this as including Christ being lifted up on the cross in his crucifixion. ↩︎