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.
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 his love that God sent his only begotten Son into the world in order to save many sinners. And both agree that the object of God’s love is the world.
The disagreement is over the extent (or, content) of this “world” which is loved by God.
Arminians insist that the word “world” here means every fallen human being. But then they say that God sent the Lord Jesus Christ—not in order to save every fallen human being, but—in order to “make it possible” for them all to be saved.1
In other words, they are asserting that Christ’s atonement was intended hypothetically or potentially for all people in general—not only for some people in particular.
But what Jesus taught Nicodemus, a “master [teacher] of Israel” (see John 3:10) was this: in God’s love for those whom he will save in all the world (i.e. not only in Israel), “he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life”.
The Lord Jesus Christ did not come so that all should, or so that all could possibly, have eternal life. He came to save the “whosoever” that come to believe in him.
Therefore it cannot be inferred from John 3:16 that God desired to save or attempted to save any more people than those who shall believe in Christ. And consequently, neither can it be inferred from this verse that Christ actually redeemed or atoned for (i.e. reconciled to God) any more people than these.
Moses and the Brass Serpent
This truth may become clearer to our readers if they consider the prior explanatory teaching that the Lord gave to Nicodemus—his set-up immediately before the words that are recorded in John 3:16: “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).
Nicodemus would have already been very familiar with Moses and the brass serpent. He would have understood the comparison. And we too need to understand the comparison that Christ made here.
In the same way as Moses had lifted up the brass model of a serpent on a pole in the wilderness, so likewise Jesus Christ would be lifted up on the cross in his crucifixion.
But in what same way? What is the key point of Christ’s analogy here?
In the same way as that God would heal all those dying Israelites who looked upon the brass serpent on the pole, so likewise God will save all those who believe in the crucified Son of God.
It is evident that God did not intend, desire or offer to heal all the people of Israel, inclusively and indiscriminately, who were dying from the bite of the “fiery serpents”. His stated purpose was that he would heal all who looked upon the brass serpent with hope in God in their hearts: “and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (see Numbers 21:5-9).
So likewise, Jesus Christ was going to be lifted up on the cross—not for the salvation of every sinner of mankind, but for this stated purpose: “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:15).
And therefore we understand that what the Lord accomplished at Calvary (redemption, atonement, salvation) extends only to those who shall believe, even though there is a more general call to all “under the sound” of the preached Gospel of Christ, inviting all to turn to him in faith and repentance.
“Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22).
To the people Israel: “Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (Isaiah 55:3).
To the peoples of all the world: “And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men [i.e. people of Israel] might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things” (Acts 15:15-17; see also Isaiah 11:10; 54:1-3; Amos 9:11,12).
This is how “God so loved the world”, the Lord Jesus Christ explained to Nicodemus, and to all of us who read his words.
God himself calls all who hear the Gospel of salvation to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. But he only gives salvation (i.e. all that is meant by the phrase “eternal life”) to those who shall believe in him.
You Are Invited
There is a general and genuine Gospel invitation to all to come to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, which Christ commissions his servants to preach to “every creature” (Mark 16:15).
Thus “many are called” by God himself, through his ministers (Matthew 22:14—see the context). As many as are exposed to the Gospel in any way are invited—“bidden”—to come.
Moreover, salvation is not to be weakly offered to people; the preacher must strive to “compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23)—strongly urging and beseeching them, and warning them of the awful judgment of God that will justly fall upon them for their sins if they refuse to come to Christ for salvation.
God himself, through the worldwide proclamation of the Gospel, freely offers salvation to all hearers and readers. But the redemption and atonement that Christ accomplished on the cross at Calvary is only intended to save those who come to believe this Gospel.
All Christians can extend this call of the Gospel to anyone and everyone to whom the Lord, in his providence, gives them the opportunity to do so.
Indeed we ought to do so, for that is the “great commission” to all of us from our Saviour himself: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). And this is certainly a most excellent means whereby we are to glorify God.
Is it illogical for a Calvinist to invite any individual sinner to come to Christ? No.
If God the Father sent his only begotten Son into the world “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16), and thus any group of people can be addressed in general: “Believe in the Son of God, and you shall not perish but have everlasting life”—then we can certainly give the same particular invitation to an any individual as Paul and Silas gave to their Philippian jailor: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).2
Notice even here in this Gospel promise what these prisoners for Christ’s sake offered to their jailor: it was a promise of an actual salvation, not a potential salvation dependent upon the jailor’s decision for Christ: “Believe…and thou shalt be saved”.
Please understand this: believers in the Saviour are saved by the Saviour. It it not that he potentially saves all mankind, but it is that he actually saves believers.
Many Are Called
Christians believe and proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ who saves those who come to him, those who receive him, those who believe on him.
This is the true, Biblical Gospel that we freely offer to all mankind—or to so many as God in his providence enables us. This Gospel will be preached throughout the whole world, as the Great Commission is fulfilled (see Mark 16:15).
To whoever God in his providence leads us, whether elect or not, we can proclaim the same Gospel message. We can proclaim—we should proclaim—we do proclaim—for we are compelled to proclaim: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
So now we urge every reader of these words to apply this call of God to his or her own soul. You are certainly one of the many that are called! Even by your reading this article, you are being called.
“This does not comfort me,” you may be thinking, “‘For many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matthew 22:14)—and I don’t know whether I am in that smaller number of those chosen to be saved, or not.”3
Yes, we reply, but it is also written, “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
Seeing that “whosoever” correlation in John 3:16 is still true for today, therefore this “as many as” correlation in Acts 13:48 is still true for today.
As many as were ordained to eternal life—shall come to believe in Christ.
As many as believe in Christ—were ordained to eternal life.
If you truly believe in Christ, the Saviour of “whosoever believeth in him”, then you are one of the “as many as” who were ordained to eternal life. This is because those who come to believe in Christ the Saviour, and those who were ordained by God to receive eternal life, are the same people!
There is a definite promise of salvation unto eternal life made to all who will come to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Reader, this is speaking to you: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou—you shall be saved. You shall not perish but have eternal life.
To be continued.
- 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.↩
- Thou is the singular personal pronoun. This means you—singularly, individually.↩
- This chosen “few” is not so few! The elect are being saved thoughout world history, as the Lord builds his Church, to become “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (see Matthew 16:18; Revelation 7:9).↩