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 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 the extent (or, the content) of this “world” loved by God.
Arminianism: God loves each and every fallen human being in all the world—and because of his love for all people in general, God sends his only begotten Son to make salvation possible for all (but then each person in particular needs to believe in his Son to make salvation actually happen, for themselves).
Calvinism: God has set his love upon partiular1 fallen human beings throughout all the world, not only among the people of Israel—and because of his love for them, God sends his only begotten Son to save them all (these being those people who will believe in his Son).
Arminians insist that the word “world” must mean every fallen human being. But then they back-track, and say that God sent the Lord Jesus Christ—not in order to save every fallen human being, but only in order to “make it possible” for them all to be saved2.
So, what is the Lord Jesus Christ teaching Nicodemus, that “master [teacher] 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—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 acknowleded that Jesus was also a great teacher, and more: “Rabbi, we [teachers of Israel] 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 some to hear for himself, and to take seriously what Jesus had to say.
As this whole passage progresses (John 3:1-21), the Messiah—the Lord Jesus Christ is certainly more Nicodemus thought he was—purposefully elevates and broadens Nicodemus’s perspective, so that he (and we, readers) can appreciate something of who Jesus is and what came to do.
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 has come to save sinners from among the human race in general, not only from among the people of Israel—he did not imply, merely, “Except an Israelite be born again”. Similarly, he says, “…so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (v.8)—another phrase not necessarily restricted to Israel. And later, Jesus says that he has been sent from God to provide salvation, so that “…whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (v.15).
We then discover, as Nicodemus did, that all along Christ 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”3 (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 actually saved the world. So, what we need to understand is, who are included in this “world” that God the Father sent his only begotten Son to save?
Are we ourselves in the “world” that Christ was sent to save? We are—if we believe in him. If we believe on God’s only begotten Son, then we shall not perish but have eternal life.
But master Nicodemus had not understood what Jesus was teaching him, for it was above 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 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 recieves 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 reaches back to an episode 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; see also Numbers 21:5-9).
It is evident that God did not intend to heal all the people of Israel, who were dying from the bite of the “fiery serpents”. He commanded Moses to set up the serpent of brass on a pole before them all—and he has Moses 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 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 model of a serpent upon a pole in the presence of all Israel in the wilderness, so that “every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon” the brass serpent, God would heal him of the fatal poison—
Inference: In the same way, the “Son of man” must be lifted up (in the preaching of the Gospel4 for all the world to hear), 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 verse 16 and verse 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 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 against God.
Therefore, John 3:14-18 does not teach that God wills to save, or attempts to save any people beyond those whom he does save—namely, those who believe.
What the Lord Jesus Christ has accomplished at Calvary (redemption, atonement, salvation) is intended by God to be only for 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.
To be clear: Arminians do not believe that the Lord Jesus Christ came to save all mankind, or came to save the world (by which they mean every human sinner)—although I have heard some say precisely that. Arminians are not universalists. ↩︎
And subsequently, when Jesus reverts to speaking about “men”, “every one” and “he” (vv.18-21), clearly he is still speaking about mankind in general—people from all around the world. ↩︎
This is not a reference to Christ’s crucifixion (not on a pole but on a cross), as some people think it is. Seeing that verses in 15 and 16, Jesus is speaking about the same thing (“That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life”), this implies that the lifting up of the Son is done in preaching the Gospel, in order that the “whosoever” might believe in the Christ being preached. ↩︎