Limited Atonement vs. John 3:16

Question
A friend used John 3:16-17 as a refutation of the Calvinist belief of limited atonement. How do you understand this passage?
Answer
John 3:16-17 is a pretty common text that people use as an objection to limited atonement. The basic idea behind the objection is generally that because God's love for the world motivated him to give his Son in order to save the world, therefore Jesus atoned for everyone in the world.

The first thing to notice about this text is that it does not mention atonement, the cross, Jesus' death, or anything else that might be taken as an explicit reference to the idea of atonement (John 3:14 is not a reference to Jesus being physically lifted up on the cross, but figuratively lifted up as the object of hope and salvation -- remember the serpent was not killed). Thus, it does not appear that John's purpose in this text was to teach about the extent of the atonement.

Rather, John's purpose throughout the chapter seems to be to teach how people enter the kingdom of God, especially through regeneration by the Holy Spirit and by faith in Christ. The section of text in question deals most directly with the idea of salvation through faith in Christ (John 3:13-21), that is, with faith as the means of salvation. It does not deal with the atonement as the basis for justification.

Nevertheless, the text does tell us something about God's intention in sending Christ, and this intention implies certain things regarding the extent of the atonement. Specifically, it tells us: 1) that God sent Christ in order to save "everyone who believes" (John 3:16); and 2) that God sent Christ in order to save the world (John 3:17).

The first point is not so clear in most translations. The Greek, however, is quite clear. It identifies a specific group of people whom God sent Christ to save, and it labels them "all the believers" (pas ho pisteuon). Greek does have a way to say "whoever" (hos tis), but that is not the language used here. More literally, the text ought to be translated something like: "in order that everyone who believes in him should not perish." Older translations often render the verse in this way (e.g. Wiclif [1380], Tyndale [1534], Geneva [1557], Rheims [1582]), as do modern versions such as the NRSV. The same is true throughout this passage (e.g. John 3:18). In other words, neither in John 3:16 nor anywhere else in this context does John state that it was God's intention to make salvation possible for everyone, or to save an undefined group of people. Instead, he states that God's purpose was to save all the believers. Clearly, a universal atonement is not necessary for the accomplishment of this purpose. Rather, the fact that God's purpose was limited to saving believers actually strengthens the case for limited atonment by demonstrating that it was never God's intention to save everyone.

The second mention of God's intention in sending his Son is found in John 3:17. There we see that God sent Christ in order to save "the world." Generally, the term "world" in this verse and in John 3:16 is taken to mean "every person" or "all men." From this interpretation it is argued that God's intention was to save every person, or at least to make salvation possible for every person, and that in order to accomplish this he must have atoned for every person. It is worth mentioning, however, that none of these points is explicit in the text. Rather, the text explicitly says only that Christ came to save "the world."

One obvious difficulty with the argument that God intended to save "every person" is that not every person is saved -- this implies failure on God's part (i.e. God did not fulfill his goal). One way people attempt to salvage this idea is to say that Christ made salvation possible, but this idea is totally foreign to the text. The text says nothing about God's intention to make salvation possible. Rather, it speaks of God's intention to save.

Another difficulty with this argument is that it is not at all clear that "world" ought to be interpreted as a reference to "every person" or "all men." The word translated "world" is kosmos, which literally means "the whole order of things." It most directly denotes the planet itself, or even the universe. Only metaphorically is it sometimes extended to refer to mankind as the primary inhabitants of the world. Now, this is not to say that the metaphoric use of kosmos in reference to mankind is uncommon, but only that this use is not the only, or even the most basic, meaning of kosmos. Kosmos appears five times in this context (John 3:16,17,19), and in two of those appearances it clearly does not refer to people at all ("God did not send his Son into the world"; and "light has come into the world"). In both these instances, "world" refers to the creation or the planet, the realm in which people exist. Now, it is not impossible that John might have used two different meanings for the word kosmos within this single context (compare John 1:10). Still, it is far from evident that he did so, and the only clearly establishable meaning of kosmos in this context does not support the interpretation "every person."

It seems to me that the most consistent and evident meaning of the passage is that God loved and intended to redeem the kosmos itself (i.e. creation), and that he intended to do this through the remnant know as "the believers." In fact, this doctrine is clearly taught in such passages as Romans 8:19-22; Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:13-20. This is also, I believe, John's meaning in John 1:1-18, where John used language reminiscent of Genesis 1 in order to demonstrate that Christ came in order to renew the whole creation. He came to restore what had been destroyed in the Fall -- not just man, but the entire creation. In fact, insofar as the language of John 3 also echoes Genesis 1 (e.g. "world," "light," "darkness"), it is quite reasonable to assume that the language refers not just to mankind, but to the whole creation.

In summary, there is no evidence in the text itself that supports the doctrine of a general ransom, and there are no theological implications which can be clearly drawn from the text to support the doctrine of a general ransom. Instead, the implication of the text supports the doctrine of limited atonement.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.