In the Lord Jesus Christ’s encounter with Nicodemus, he said, “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). Elsewhere, the apostle John says that Jesus is “the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14), and that he is “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In his first epistle, John writes that Christ is “the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Consider also Paul’s statement that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Corinthians 5:19; compare also Colossians 1:20)1.
Arminians interpret these verses as teaching that Christ’s atonement hypothetically covers every member of the human race, and therefore it could potentially have saved every fallen human being (past, present and future). Calvinists interpret these verses as teaching that Christ’s salvation extends all around the world, so that it includes Gentiles as well as Jews. And they say that Christ’s death only actually atoned for the sins of those whom he saves.
The main problem for Arminians who look to the “Saviour of the world” verses to prove their position is that in each case, the context of the word “world” does not speak of a hypothetical (or potential) salvation but of an actual salvation and an actual taking away of sins. Simply put:
If Christ is the saviour of the world, then the world is saved.
If Christ takes away the sin of the world, then the sin of the world is taken away.
If God was in Christ reconsiling the world to himself, then the world is reconsiled to Christ.
If Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, then God’s justice is appeased for the sins of the whole world, so that the whole world no longer incurs God’s wrath against its sins.
Arminians insist that, in these verses, “world means world, means every individual fallen human being”. However, not wanting to be universalists, their position immediately forces them to insert an idea that is not found in these texts quoted above, or in their contexts: a hypothetical effect of Christ’s sacrifice, that becomes actual only when a person believes in it.
The secondary problem for Arminians is that in the Bible, the word “world” does not always, and does not necessarily, mean every individual fallen human being. We have to look at the context in order to see who (or what) is meant by “world”. We have to consider who the original speaker or author was referring to, whom he meant to include (and exclude) when he used in the word “world”.
The are a few New Testament Greek words translated “world” in the English Bible, King James Version. The word used in the passages in John’s Gospel, quoted at the start of this chapter, is the most frequently used: it is the Greek word κόσμος (kosmos). This word means order, arrangement, ornament, adornment2, and it is used to refer to:
Planet earth (e.g. Matthew 13:35; Acts 17:24)
The earth, in contrast to heaven (e.g. 1 John 3:17)
Mankind in general (e.g. Matthew 5:14; John 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 5:19)
“Gentiles” as distinguished from Jews (e.g. Romans 11:12, 15)
The “present condition of human affairs,” in alienation from and opposition to God (e.g. John 7:7; 1 John 5:19)
The “sum of temporal possessions” (Matthew 16:26)
There are three other words used elsewhere in the New Testament, each translated “world” in the KJV—and none of which necessarily mean “every human being”:
αἰών (aion) meaning an age, or a period of time. This word is often used in connection with this world’s/age’s cares and concerns, wisdom, rulers. It is also the world used to refer to the “end of the world” and the “world to come”. E.g. Matthew 13:22; Luke 16:8; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:6-8; 3:18; 10:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4 Galatians 1:4.
οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), meaning the inhabited land/earth/world, or the inhabitants of the earth in general. The word has to do with the place where people live (i.e. reside). Sometimes this word is used to refer to the Roman empire, or its inhabitants in general. E.g. Matthew 24:14; Luke 2:1; Acts 11:28; 17:6; 31; Romans 10:18; Hebrews 2:5; Revelation 12:9.
γῆ (ge), (from which we get our geo- words such as geography and geology), meaning the (planet) earth, and its inhabitants in general. This word is used in Revelation 13:3, 8, where it means all the inhabitants of the world except Christians!
The word “world” (whichever Greek word it translates) does not necessarily mean each and every human being in particular.
John’s Gospel uses the word “world” in a variety of ways. In John 1:29 (“…Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”), and John 4:42 (“…the Christ, the Saviour of the world”), the word “world” is used to emphasise the fact that Christ came to save not only Jews but Gentiles too.
Similarly In John 3:16-17, (“…God so loved the world…that the world through him might be saved”), the word “world” means all mankind in general. God’s love for the world (in general) was such that he sent his only begotten Son to save those (in particular) who would believe in him. Christ came to save the world (in general) by saving those who will believe in him (in particular).
The truth is that Christ died for the sins of particular sinners from all around the world: God’s elect.
The Lord Jesus Christ, who “was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” lived a life of perfect and entire obedience to the law of God; and then, being the Good Shepherd that he was, he gave his life for his sheep (John 10:11, 14-16).
Not every indivicual human being is included among Christ’s “sheep”. Only Christ’s “sheep” have these things to be true of themselves: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6).
The name Jesus means Jehovah3 is Saviour, and the Lord Jesus Christ really is the Saviour! “He shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
That blood which Christ shed on the cross at Calvary outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago was the blood of God. John understood who the Lord Jesus Christ is: “Hereby perceive we the love of God4, because he laid down his life for us…” (1 John 3:16). Paul likewise understood this, and he emphasised the Divinity of Christ when he urged the overseers of the church at Ephesus to continue their pastoral charge: “feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28).
The precious blood of Christ did not fail to redeem, atone for, purge away the sins of—or, in a word, save—any of those for whom it was poured out.
To these examples can be added other places where Paul asserts that God is the Saviour of the “world” or of “all men” (1 Timothy 2:3-4; 4:10). ↩︎
See Strong’s Concordance. The list that follows is a selection taken from W.E. Vine’s An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Strong and Vine have been used for this word study. ↩︎
The words “of God” have been added in the KJV (this is why they are there in italics), to bring out John’s meaning. “Of God” has been supplied from the context (even though we might have expected this to say “of Christ”), because throughout this epistle, John has a lot to say about the love of God, the children (people) of God, and their identifying characteristics. “Of God” has been repeatedly used by John throughout the portion of the epistle that we have marked as chapter 3. ↩︎