A Defense of Unlimited Atonement


An Analysis Of Key Scripture Passages

John 3:16


Though John Calvin taught that the term "world" in John 3:16 included "all men without exception" (see his commentary on John 3:16), many of his followers who bear his name try to limit this word so as to include only the elect.

The word "world" [kosmos] is used in some interesting ways in John’s gospel. In John 1:10 we learn that "the world knew Him not." In 3:17 it is used to describe those who are in desperate need of salvation. In 12:31 and 16:11 it describes that dominion over which Satan is the prince and ruler. In 14:22 it is used in contrast to "us" (the elect disciples): "Lord, how is it that Thou wilt manifest Thyself unto us, and not unto the world?" In 15:18-19 we are told that the world hates believers (see also 17:14). In 16:8-9 the world is convicted of sin "because they (the world) believe not on Me" and thus in this passage the term "world" is nearly synonymous with "unbelievers." In 16:20 we find the world rejoicing because they have gotten rid of Christ (compare verse 19). If the term "world" is synonymous with "the elect" then John 17:6 could be re-written: "I have manifested Thy Name unto the world." But this would be the opposite of what it really says. Indeed, in 17:9 the term "world" is used in contrast to the elect ("them which Thou hast given Me") and in 17:21 the word obviously refers to the unsaved world. In 17:25 it describes those who have not known the Father in contrast to Christ’s own who have known. Such is the normal usage of this word.

The standard lexicons (such as Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, Thayer, Bullinger, Vine, etc.) are unanimous in saying that kosmos (world) as used in John 3:16 refers to "mankind, the human race." This is the obvious sense of the word in this context. To say that kosmos in John 3:16 refers to "the world of the elect" is very unnatural. It is a meaning that is forced by one’s theology, not by the text itself, nor by the context. This is why J.C. Ryle said, "It seems to be a violent straining of language to confine the word world to the elect...The world means the whole race of mankind...without any exception...I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by idolatrous veneration of a [theological] system."

This word does have some unusual usages. For example, in John 12:19: "Behold, the world is gone after Him." Is this an example where the word does not mean all men? Actually this is an example of hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration). The Pharisees could have said, "Everyone has gone after Him," and the meaning would have been the same. A universal term is used for the purpose of intentional exaggeration. The meaning of the term is similar in John 3:16--God so loved THE WORLD, that is, EVERYONE! The only difference is that in John 3:16 there is no exaggeration. It actually means everyone, every person, all mankind.

How can we be sure of the meaning of the term "world" in John 3:16? The context of this passage is often overlooked. John 3:16 cannot be fully understood apart from the account of the serpent in the wilderness as given in Numbers 21 (see John 3:14-15). The comparison is obvious. The Israelites were told to look to the bronze serpent, and those who looked lived. The world is told to look to the Saviour hanging on the pole of Calvary’s cross, and those who gaze upon Him with the gaze of faith live.

Did God LIMIT the number of Israelites who could look? Definitely not. The invitation to LOOK was given to all those who had been bitten by the serpents – all those who were dying and perishing, helpless and hopeless. The serpent on the pole was God’s complete provision for every Israelite who was bitten and who was perishing. Likewise, by the death of God’s Son, God made a complete provision for every perishing sinner. No Israelite would be healed without looking at the bronze snake. Likewise, no perishing sinner will be saved without personal faith in the WORK, WORTH and WORD of God’s Son.

Who is to look upon the Saviour? The WORLD – all those who have been bitten by the serpent of sin, all those who are dying and perishing, all those who are helpless and hopeless. It is these people who are embraced and included in the word WORLD. The Lord Jesus died only for those who are lost and perishing in their sins and who are in a hopeless and helpless condition apart from the cure provided at the cross.

The term "whosoever" in John 3:16 can literally be translated "everyone who believes" or "all who believe." "Whosoever" is also an accurate rendering of the term. Imagine a generous candy man standing on the street corner passing out free candy and saying, "Boys and girls, Come! Everyone who receives a piece of candy will also receive a free balloon." Regardless of the response of the children, would not this be a universal offer to all the boys and girls? No one hearing this invitation would be excluded. He could have said, "Whosoever receives a piece of candy will also receive a free balloon" and the meaning would have been the same.

The same Greek expression for "whosoever" is found in the Septuagint (LXX) in Numbers 21:8 – "everyone who looks upon it (the bronze serpent) shall live." Whosoever looks shall live! God so loved the Israelites that He provided a bronze serpent, that whoever should look upon it should not perish, but should live. Among those who believe in limited atonement, few seem to discuss Numbers 21. Apparently its implications are far too universal. John 3:16 cannot be rightly understood apart from its immediate context, and its immediate context involves verse 14 which refers to the serpent in the wilderness.

Here [John 3:14-16] the Saviour speaks of himself as the antitype of the brazen serpent. But the brazen serpent was lifted up for all the serpent-bitten Israelites in the camp, and therefore unless the type was more glorious than the antitype, the Saviour must have been lifted up on the cross for all the sin-bitten sinners in the world. If so, God has loved you, and given up his Son for you. --James Morison, The Extent of the Atonement (London: Hamilton, Adams &  Co., 1882), p.39

The little word "that" is significant in this verse: "God so loved the world THAT [;ste] He gave His only begotten Son." The word "that" [;ste] with the indicative ("He gave") expresses ACTUAL RESULT rather than conceived or intended result (Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, page 286). God not only conceived the plan of salvation in eternity past (Rev. 13:8) but He actually carried out this plan by the giving of His Son on the cross. Not only did God love the world, but He manifested this love (Rom. 5:8) by the actual giving of His Son on the cross for the world (John 1:29; 6:51; 1 John 2:2; etc.).

Martin Luther in Table Talk commented on John 3:16:

Moreover, who knows whether I am elected to salvation? Answer: Look at the words [of John 3:16], I beseech you, to determine how and of whom He is speaking. "God so loved the world," and "that whosoever believeth in Him." Now, the "world" does not mean Peter and Paul alone but the entire human race, all together. And no one is here excluded. God’s Son was given for all. All should believe, and all who do believe should not perish, etc. Take hold of your own nose, I beseech you, to determine whether you are not a human being (that is, part of the world) and, like any other man, belong to the number of those comprised by the word "all."

The extreme Calvinist has a problem understanding how God can love those who are not elect. For example, A.W.Pink argues that the rich young ruler in Mark chapter 10 must have been one of God’s elect and he must have been saved sometime after his interview with the Lord. He concludes this because the Bible says that Jesus loved this man (Mark 10:21) and Pink cannot understand how the Lord can love one who is not elect. The Bible does not say that the rich young ruler ever got saved. Indeed, it implies that he did not. Even though this man most probably was never saved, God loved him. God so loved the world that He gave His Son to die for all men, including the rich young ruler.

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