Calvinism and John 3:16?

Doesn't John 3:16 mean that Christ died for every single person in the world, therefore disproving definite atonement?

John 3:16 is probably the first verse that most in the Christian faith memorize. It is more than likely the most misinterpreted verse in Scripture.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In transliterated Greek it reads,

Houtos gar egapesen ho Theos ton kosmon, hoste ton Huion ton monogene edoken, hina pas ho pisteuon eis auton me apoletai all eche zoen aionion.

For (gar)

The word "For" (gar) is an article indicating that John 3:16 is connected with the object of John 3:15; "that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." The greater context includes the story of Nicodemus (John 3:1-13) and Jesus' OT illustration of the brazen serpent (John 3:14-15; Num 21:8-9). In the wilderness, whoever was bitten by a serpent and looked upon the serpent on the pole lived and when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of a sinner to look to Christ alone he shall live (John 3:3; cf. Matt 11:5; Acts 26:18; John 6:40). Some state that the serpent did not die in the wilderness (Num 21:8-9) and therefore does not symbolize Christ. However, in Moses' Christology I believe the brazen serpent is pointing to the fact that Christ bore the curse for those who believed (Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21; cf. Deut 21:23). Jesus removes the sting of death of his people (1 Cor 15:55-57).

We note that "many died," before the pole was even made (Num 21:6). So, the text can't possibly be speaking about every single person in the world - some are "condemned already" (John 3:18; cf. Prov 16:4).

God so loved (Houtos egapesen ho Theos)

The author of this love displayed above in John 3:1-15 and John 3:16 is God himself. The word "so" (houtos) is the first word in John 3:16 and therefore emphatic. So, this is no ordinary "love" it is extraordinary (egapesen, is the aorist active indicative of agapao). There is no greater or higher love that can be displayed; "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Therefore whoever the object of this love is very special to God (Eph 1:4-6). As Peter says, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Pet 2:9-10; cf. Deut 7:6; 14:2; Psa 33:12; Isa 41:8-11; Rev 17:14).

the world (ton kosmon)

The object of this extraordinary love is the "world" (kosmon). Depending upon context, the word kosmos can have numerous meanings: (1) the entire universe as a whole (John 1:1-3, 10b, 17:5); (2) of the earth (John 13:1; 16:33; 21:25); (3) the world system (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11); (4) the entire human race (John 1:10c); (5) of humanity minus believers (John 17:9; 15:18); (6) of Gentiles in contrast to Jews (1 John 2:2); (7) the elect only (John 3:17b, c), (8) the non-elect (John 17:9), (9) a large group (John 12:19), (10) Jews and Gentile (John 4:42), (11) the general public (John 7:4).

So, what does world (kosmon) mean in John 3:16? First, kosmos appears five times in the immediate context (John 3:16, 17, 19). Two of these uses definitely can't refer to people! So what does it mean? I believe John aids us the answer in John 1:1-3, where he refers to creation (Gen. 1-2), including God's elect Adam and Eve (Gen 1:26-31), who were saved in the Garden by God spilling blood (Gen 3:21; Lev 17:11; John 1:29; 1 Pet 1:18-21; Rev 13:8). God so loved his "entire creation." Why wouldn't he, as before the Fall it was "very good" (Gen 1:31).

God is coming back to redeem the earth, which he created and loves. God's word never returns void, it always accomplishes its divine purpose (Isa 55:11). The same is true of his words of creation (Gen. 1-2). God made a very good world and made elect Adam as his vice-regent to rule over it. He told the elect couple to be fruitful and multiple, to fill and rule the earth with other elect ones (Gen 1:28 - note that the Fall had not happened yet, so no one but the elect could have been born at the time the command was given). Adam and Eve failed their great commission and a divine purposeful pause came about by the Fall. Why? One reason was so God could teach his people more about the fullness of his character, his love (John 15:13). Another was to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). God's word was/is still working accomplishing that which God desires (Isa 46:10; cf. Num 23:19; Isa 40:8; Matt 24:35). Ultimately, in the fullness of God's time, the new heavens and earth is coming after this church age (Rev 21:1). All creation awaits (Rom 8:20-21; cf. Acts 3:21: 2 Pet 3:13). Moreover, Jesus is coming back to gather his chosen people called the "world" in 2 Corinthians 5:19 (cf. Rom 8:29-30; Matt 13:43; 24:31; Rom 8:17; 9:23; Phil 3:21; Col 3:4; 1 Pet 5:1; Rev 7:9; 22:5).

So the definition (#12) of "world" in John 3:16 is the elect and the original universe [including the now but not yet of the new heavens and new earth].

that he gave his only Son (hoste ton Huion ton monogene edoken)

God gave what was most dear to him - his Son. His love is so extraordinary and his gift is just as special (Rom 8:31-32; 1 John 4:9-10). What a great unfathomable love! (Eph 2:4-5). God didn't have to do anything, but he chose to do everything for his people. God is rich in mercy, love, grace, and kindness (Eph. 2:4-7), to the praise of his glorious grace (Eph. 1:6).

"Only Son" refers to being the only one of his kind, class, or unique in kind (cf. John 1:14, 18; 3:18; 1 John 4:9). John was essentially concerned here with revealing that Jesus is the Son of God (John 20:31; 1 John 5:1). So, he uses monogene to highlight Jesus' uniqueness as only God's Son - that is as the second Person of the Trinity; very God of very God - as opposed to believers who are God's sons and daughters by adoption (Eph 1:5). As the Heidelberg Catechism 33 states:

Why is He called God's "only begotten Son," since we also are the children of God?

Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God; but we are children of God by adoption, through grace, for His sake.

Christ is unique from those that are adopted. Eternal generation is taught in the Nicene Creed; "the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages." The generation of the Son stands outside of time and space. He is eternally begotten of the Father "before all ages." He is not created, he always has been. Christ is "the only Son."

Moreover, Jesus is the "firstborn" (Rom 8:29; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:6, etc.), which doesn't deal with time, but status and position. It refers to the special status of the firstborn as the preeminent son and heir to be held in great honor (Gen 49:3; Exod 11:5; 34:19; Num 3:40; Psa 89:27; Jer 31:9).

Being the "only-begotten" (monogenes) and "firstborn" (prototokos) distinguishes Christ, revealing his utterly unique relationship to God the Father. He reveals the Father (John 1:18) and therefore his people glorify the Father (John 1:14). He is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). Of course, Christ is unique in numerous other ways too, including but not limited to being sinless, the authority for forgive sin, his unbroken relationship and knowledge of the Father, etc.

that whoever believes (pas ho pisteuon)

Houtos gar egapesen ho Theos ton kosmon, hoste ton Huion ton monogene edoken, hina pas ho pisteuon eis auton me apoletai all eche zoen aionion.

pas ho pisteuon, in bold above, is the Greek phrase which we normally read in our Bibles as "whosoever believes." However, as any Bible student can see there is no word in the Greek text which means "whosoever" (hostis = "whosoever" and is only used by John in John 8:52; 21:25; 1 John 1:2). "Hostis" is not in John 3:16 in any Greek text I have examined (Stephens 1550 Textus Receptus, Scrivener 1894 Textus Receptus, Byzantine Majority, Alexandrian, NA27, NA28, The Greek New Testament: SBL edition, etc.). Note, that the Greek phrase "pas ho pisteuon" is also used in John 3:15; 12:46; Acts 13:39; Romans 10:11; 1 John 5:1. Its use in each of these verses can be properly translated as "all the believing ones into him." Why? The word pas is translated as "all," "the whole" or "every kind of" and it modifies "ho pisteuon."

John was a Jew. A Hebrew. "Jews" (Ioudaioi) is used 71 times in his Gospel, as compared to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which only mention the word 16 times. So, comparably where was John's emphasis? Who was his primary audience? The Jews, or the Hebrews. The beginning of a John 3 mentions Nicodemus, "a ruler of the Jews" (John 3:1). So, what Jesus is doing is teaching his audience that salvation is not only for "all the believing" Jews, but also for "all the believing" Gentiles (Isa 49:6; Zech 2:11; Acts 28:28; Rom 3:29-30; 10:12; Gal 3:28; Eph 3:6; Col 3:11). As if to re-emphasize the point, Jesus ministered to the Samaritan woman (a Gentile) in the very next chapter (John 4). "Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me all that I ever did"" (John 4:39).

So, the text should read, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that the believing ones [both Jews and Gentiles] into him should not perish but have eternal life."

in him (eis auton)

Believe in who? "In him" (cf. John 3:15). This refers to "his only Son"(John 3:16; cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4:9) the "Son of man" (John 3:13-14) - Jesus Christ. Jesus told Nicodemus earlier, "unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God," "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" - "You must be born again" (John 3:3, 5, 7). Born again to believe what? Believe that the Son of man was lifted upon the Cross, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven (John 3:13-14; 1 Cor 15:1-4). Note that in the order of the text: regeneration (John 3:1-8) is followed by faith (John 3:13-14). As John wrote, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3:36; 1 John 5:11).

should not perish (apoletai)

Those who believe will "not perish" (John 3:16, 15, apoletai). The Greek may be translated as "perish," "destroyed" "cutting off entirely," "render useless," or "lose." It implies a permanency - forever (Matt 10:28; cf. Matt 25:46).

John uses the word "perish" again in John 6:12, where it is translated "be lost" and John 10:28; 11:50, translated "perish." Its use in John 11 is especially revealing. John 11:49-52 say:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish." He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Note that once again, John mentions the inclusion of the Gentiles (children scatted abroad). This is consistent with John 3:16 (see "world" above).

but have eternal life (all eche zoen aionion)

"Eternal life" includes the knowledge of God's love (John 17:3). But it is not just a mere knowledge, but an experimental knowledge (John 15:13).

Romans 8:29-30 is all about God. God foreknew, God predestined, God called, God justified, and God glorified! In this text, beginning with God's will and purpose (Rom. 8:27, 28; Eph. 1:4-5, 11), Paul gives a brief description of the chain of grace with its completion in Romans 8:30. Every link in this chain includes divine action; God's good pleasure (cf. Eph. 1:5-6, 9, 11).

What is particularly interesting here is the Greek word proginosko meaning "foreknowledge" (Rom 8:29; cf. Rom 11:2) meaning to have knowledge before hand. It is a compound word made up of pro ("before") and ginosko ("to know"). The word ginosko or "to know" is the same word used in the Septuagint (Greek version of the OT) that Adam "knew" (yada, in Hebrew) his wife Eve and she bore a son (Gen 4:1; cf. Gen 4:17, 25, etc.). So, in the OT and even in the NT (Luke 1:34) "to know" describes the most intimate of relationships - sexual relations between husband and wife. Husband and wife are no longer two, but "one flesh" (Gen 2:24; Matt 19:5; Mark 10:8). Our relationship with God is just as intimate. As Paul writes, "For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior" (Eph 5:22-33).

So, eternal life means more than a great expanse of mere time. It is the quality and closeness of life being defined. It is an intimate relationship that exists throughout all eternity - forever. However, eternal life does not begin when the believer gets into heaven. Everlasting life is a present-tense possession. It begins "now" in this life (John 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 6:40, 47). As John later writes, "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13). Do you know it?

So, eternal life here is not merely an existence. It is the opposite of "perish" above. Eternal life includes not facing the eternal wrath of God, not being separated from him, no more tears, mourning, crying, or pain, etc. (Rev 21:4). Those that perish do not know and obey God (John 3:36; Heb 5:9). Eternal life is "now" for the believer!


So, John 3:16 does not mean that Christ died for every single person in the world, but only for the elect from "every nation, tribe, people and language" (Rev 5:9; 7:9). But in the Arminian interpretation of John 3:16 we observe a god that died for every soul - even Satan's seed (Gen. 3:15 - the non-elect). We see a defeated god - a god that cannot save, as people save themselves. According to the Arminian interpretation a person is regenerated because of their own free will! Salvation of those that believe is their own work (cf. Isa 64:6; John 1:13; Rom 9:16). This is not grace (Eph 2:8-10).

Christ gave his life for the elect - and them only (2 Thess 2:13). Not a single drop of his precious blood was ever wasted; rather it accomplished what it was meant to do. Christ died upon the Cross not simply to make salvation a possibility, but to actually save those he died for. He actually died to save them, not merely to make them savable. Christ literally became incarnate to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The Bible explicitly teaches that Christ would see his sacrifice and be satisfied knowing that it would actually save his people (Isa. 53:11). "Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for his own chosen people." [1] See Isaiah 53:8, 12; John 6:37-40; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 1:4; Colossians 2:13-14; Revelation 5:9. "It is finished" (John 19:30). Only those that believe will be saved (John 3:36).


[1] J. I. Packer's Introduction to The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, by John Owen.

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).