The love of God is said to be all-inclusive. And the cliché is that the arm of the Lord is not too short to love all human beings and for Christ to atone for all their sins. There are many others, but it is usually supported by the all time favorite verse of many people, John 3:16. Interestingly enough, it is often read passionately from the King James version of the bible: “For God sooooo loved the world……that whosoever believeth…”
Most evangelicals today believe that the adverb “so” and the object of God’s love, the “world“, denote how much and how wide the extent of his love. Meaning, out of God’s great love for everyone in the world, so he sent his Son to die for all their sins. The relative pronoun “whosoever” is said to refer to the world and with it a notion of condition that must be met before the salvation, that was bought by Christ for everyone, to take effect. That is, Christ died for every individual, but only when you believe, his atoning sacrifice be of value to you.
There are at least three problems with that interpretation of John 3:16. First is their simplistic understanding of the adverb “οὕτως” or “so” as the degree of God’s love. Second, how they read into the object “world” the extent of the love of God, and lastly, how they understand the relative pronoun “whosoever” to refer to the world and draw from it the condition that must be met for anyone to be saved, assuming that everyone has the capability to believe.
In this article, I will try to address all, and see if God really is trying to save a faceless, undefined world or, as I will try to argue, God is not “trying” to save all but will indeed save a certain group as an expression of his love.
Functional versus Formal
A common misconception in biblical exegesis is the notion that it is always best to use a more formal or a word-for-word(i.e. if there’s a verb in the greek, there should be one in english, or that a word must be translated to one synonymous word only) translation of the bible than a thought-for-thought or functional one. But as Bill Mounce and even Daniel Wallace pointed out; translation involves interpretation. And if to be truly “literal” is to do a word-for-word correspondence, then our english bibles would be, for the most part, unintelligible to us. Sometimes the plain meaning of a greek word can only be expressed by using multiple words in english, and to translate it with just one word is to obscure the plain meaning of the text and worse become misleading. The translation of the adverb in John 3:16 is a good example. And I believe this is key in understanding this unit.
The adverb “so” is the “literal” or word-for-word rendering of the greek adverb “οὕτως” by major english bible translations(KJV, ESV and NIV). But just as Mounce in his translation, where he used a more functional reading: “this is how God loved the world”, and NET’s used of the same approach: “this is the way God…”, I am persuaded to render it as “in this manner” (which is technically the same as Mounce’s and NET’s), because most modern new testament scholars agree that “οὕτως” doesn’t just indicate the degree of an action but most often and accurately than not, it is the manner by which an action was brought about. So the emphasis should not be on the intensity and extent but rather on the manner by which God demonstrated his love. It makes a world of a difference in our understanding of how the love of God in v.16a relates to the rest of the passage whether we translate the adverb as “so” or as “in this manner or this the way“.
In english, the word “so” is very nuanced, and one of its usage can be that of describing the manner of an action. I’m guessing that the translators of the ESV or even KJV knew it(that’s why they still render “οὕτως” as “so“) and they are not mistaken. They just happened to lean in a more formal tradition when it comes to translation. There is no conspiracy of trying to hide the true meaning. In fact, ESV even added a footnote to John 3:16: “Or For this is how God loved the world.” However, in our pluralistic setting, people understand “so” as how much or how wide is the love of God, for them to either intentionally or unintentionally justify unbiblical teachings(such as universalism and arminianism) and a multitude of sin. If we use “so” as such, what follows is the result of the extent of God’s love(see the left portion of the image above). Meaning, out of God’s great love for all(past, present and future) sinners, God is somewhat impelled to send a savior and try to save all because after all, God loves everyone in the world. The logical relationship then is “Action-Result”. But if on the other hand we use “in this manner” or other similar phrases along those lines, what follows then is the manner of or how God demonstrated his love for the world(see the right portion of the image above). The logical relationship is “Action-Manner”. One is distinct relationship and the other is a restatement relationship. In a distinct relationship, the main proposition is supported by another proposition that is not inherently within the former. And in a restatement relationship, the supporting proposition clarifies the main proposition.
I’m not suggesting that the love of God is not great, on the contrary, I believe God’s love is so great and I know it because he demonstrated it in such a way of sending his Son into the world with a purpose to actually save(not try to, wishing that anyone would believe) and be a substitutionary sacrifice for a group of people, namely the believers.
Oh but it says “world“, “kosmos” in greek, that’s pretty much inclusive. “World” is without exception right?
Now, anyone who have read my other articles; Word Study 1 and Word Study 2, should immediately see the problem in that statement. Context must determine the meaning, and we must not ignore the other nuances of the word “kosmos“. To make progress in our discussion, both side should agree that our text doesn’t explicitly qualify the term “world“. But we can, from the context, see some hints.
In the Gospel of John alone, there are at least 8 usage of the word “kosmos“. In John 1:10, the first two instances of the word “kosmos”, is referring to the created order, but the third instance refers to the whole mass of ungodly men. We know that because the word “to know” is an action of a person, not by a non-person. In John 7:4, World is referring to the general public, same greek word “kosmos“. God is not loving an empty set, or faceless, anonymous, hypothetical people, who may or may not believe the gospel. Again in John 12:19, it refers now to a mob, not everyone in the world. Furthermore there is this world that Christ was sent not to condemn in John 3:17, and a world that Christ was sent to judge or condemn in John 9:39. If they are the same world then that would be a contradiction. So it clearly is a different world. Sometimes it is used to mean as Jews and Gentiles in general, the human realm as oppose to heavenly or angelic realm, moreover it could also mean the evil system of the world. Sometimes it means everyone in the world except the believers.
If we go to the first epistle of John, in chapter 2 verse 15, we are told “not to love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” So it is safe to say that this world is not referring to the world in John 3:16 even though they use the same greek word “kosmos”, else it would be a contradiction. One should ask instead: “What’s in the context that would determine the meaning of kosmos?”. It is not enough to just assume the meaning.
One Step Away from Reality
Many would argue that God loves everyone equally, and as a result he must’ve sent his Son to die for all. Paid their sins in full, and what’s left now for us to do is to believe it. They say that the use of the subjunctives “ἀπόληται” and “ἔχῃ” show that salvation may or may not happen depending on our choice to believe or not. So in essence, the decisive cause of our salvation is our believing, and not Christ’s death.
I think that there are many errors in those assertions, but I will deal with the used of the subjunctive only. According to Bill Mounce, “The normal definition of the subjunctive is that it is the mood of what may or might be. It is one step removed from reality (as opposed to the optative, which is two steps removed from reality, describing what we wish would be).” One might immediately say to me: “See? I told you, it may or may not happen depending upon the condition of faith.” That’s an oversimplification of what Mounce said, I would say. So why is it that “ἀπόληται” and “ἔχῃ” in the subjunctive? Is it because there is uncertainty, or maybe a condition needed to be met? Or perhaps, and I would argue, because it’s in a purpose clause? According to Mounce; “ινα introduces a purpose clause. The clause is not stating what is but rather the purpose of something. There is your one step removed from reality, from what is. God gave his only Son on the cross, and the purpose of that giving is so that (i.e., purpose) those who believe in him will most certainly not perish. Because it is a purpose clause, it cannot be in the indicative. It is not stating what is (in the sense of the indicative) but rather is stating the purpose of something.” The point of the passage therefore is the intent or purpose of God in bringing about the salvation of the believers, not the condition to be saved. Yes salvation is conditional, but you have to find a different text for it, not this one.
Missing Relative Pronoun and the Conjuction “If”
But “whosoever will”, some would still insist. Proponents of universal atonement believe that the Father sent his Son to die for all human beings so that they might be saved through faith(by the exercise of their own “freewill”). In a sense, Christ’s death, in of itself was not efficacious, but rather its efficacy is contingent. Their interpretation of John 3:16 hangs on the relative pronoun “whosoever” and the implied conjunction “if” in the english translation of the bible. The problem is, neither of the two were in the original language. They were added just to make the text readable in english. The literal translation is “so that all the believing (ones) in him..”
Relative clause and Substantival clause
A relative clause is a proposition that gives us more information about something. It usually begins with a relative pronoun that is pointing to other pronouns, nouns(object or subject), verbal ideas, or even whole phrases and clauses. On the other hand, a substantival clause is a proposition that usually don’t have a relative pronoun, or if it does, it is not pointing to something else but itself. The verbal idea is functioning as the subject of the predicate or that subject is implied in the verbal idea. What we have in verse 16 of John chapter 3 is a substantival clause. The greek for “believes” is “πιστεύων“. Literally the believing ones, present active participle. One thing to take note of is that it has a case ending. It is in the nominative case. And we usually think of cases as a way to determine whether a noun is the direct or indirect object, the subject, or if it is in the possessive. But here it is used in a verb. The nominative case is telling us that the subject of the verbs “will not perish” and “have eternal life” is the verbal idea “the believing ones”. The common syllogism is “if you do A you will not B but have C”. But I think that’s not the most accurate syllogism. Here’s mine: ” Those A will not experience B but will have C”. The text is not talking about a conditional or hypothetical statement, rather, it is a statement of purpose, it is telling us precisely that a certain group will not perish but will have eternal life because that’s the very purpose Christ came to die.To secure the salvation of all the believing ones in him.
In summary, here’s what John 3:16 is talking about:
– God loves the world in a particular fashion or manner
_ and the manner by which he demonstrated it was by sending his Son
– and his purpose in sending the Son is to actually save certain individuals
– namely all the believing ones in Christ
Now notice that if 16b indeed is the manner by which God demonstrated his love for the world, you would expect that the recepient of that love is the same group. So in essence John is actually qualifying the word “kosmos” as referring to “all the believing ones”. In fact the following verse would confirm that for us because it is actually a restatement of 16b.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. – NET
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. – ESV
Notice how verse 17 is constructed the same way as verse 16b. God sends the Son, that’s the action, and the purpose is, in order that negatively, not to condemn the world, but positively, to save the world. Again one might raise the subjunctives in verse 17, “might be saved”. Same thing above, the reason that there’s a subjunctive in verse 17 is because it’s in a purpose clause, and not because it’s contingent on our belief. I think NET got it right for using “should” instead of “might”.
Therefore God is not loving an empty set, or faceless, anonymous, hypothetical people, who may or may not believe the gospel. The Father loves a people and he will see to it that they will not perish but will have eternal life. What ever he purposed, he will accomplished. God’s purpose in incarnation can never be thwarted by our disbelief. God loves the world without distinction and not without exception. If it seems far fetched to you, not so with John see 1 John 2:2 :
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
And how John 5:51-52 is constructed:
…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.
And look at Revelation 7:9 :
from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
In John’s mind, the idea of a kind of love that goes beyond ethnic, racial, and language distinction is not foreign. So in essence he is saying that the Father’s love and Christ’s atonement are for all “kinds” of people, and not for everyone.
Lastly, in Christ’s high-priestly prayer in John 17:9, he prayed not for the world, but only for those whom the Father hath given him. It is remarkable that before dying for the “world”, what’s in his mind is us. Not everyone. And I am comforted to know that he thought of me and prayed for me before his death on the cross. Not even the world had that privilege. Only the elect can claim that for themselves.