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What is the Reformed Interpretation of John 3:16?

In this piece I will attempt to say what the Reformed interpretation of John 3:16 is as it pertains to God’s love for the world. It is entirely possible, however, that there is no such thing as the Reformed interpretation because there are may be many interpretations given by Calvinists.

The method I employ to satisfy that attempt is to examine or describe the interpretation of those who identify as Calvinists. That method may be unsatisfactory to some readers because of the following thought. If the majority of Roman Catholics believe that the Son was created by the Father, that would not thereby make that view the Roman Catholic view. That is true. There are mechanisms in place that define conceptual boundaries about the relationship between the Father and the Son, about the nature of the persons of the Trinity, and so. An official creed, for example, is one such mechanism. But sometimes those conceptual boundaries do not exist. What is the Democrat view of abortion? The answer is determined by counting the views of self-identified Democrats at a time.  There is no timeless Democrat view of abortion because Democrats, like Republicans, flipped on that topic. It seems to me that identifying the Reformed view is a lot more like identifying the Democrat view than the Roman Catholic view. But to satisfy the intuition that it is more like the Roman Catholic view, I’ll accept the constraint that the Reformed view is to be described by its widely recognized scholars, representatives, and works. So this will be a survey of writers and works in the Reformed literature, or about the Reformed literature on this topic.  Answering what the Reformed view is, then, is an empirical inductive matter.

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.”

What is the Reformed view about God’s love for the world as it occurs in this passage? In answering this question, we need to keep in mind a distinction between meaning and reference, a point raised by Bignon and myself (link). As an example of this distinction, “President of the United States” has a meaning. It is something like, person elected to an office with the following powers… The thing about being the President is that the referent of “President of the United States” changes every four or eight years. The meaning does not change every four or eight years. To identify the referent, we have to do more than know the meaning of the expression. We have to know who was voted into that office.  It may be, however, that one can identify the referents based on the meaning. One might think that the meaning of “world” just is “every human person”, in which case the meaning fixes or settles the identity of the referent(s).  But identifying the referent is not always possible given the meaning, as we saw in the case of “President of the United States.” Pertinent to John 3:16, one might deny that “world” has anything to do with individuals. Perhaps the meaning of “world” is “creation”, which does not mean “every human person” even though every human person is a part of creation. The referent of “world”, given that meaning, is not fixed or settled by the meaning of “world”. The referent may either be the whole and not any of the parts, or it may be the whole and some parts, or it may be every thing created – all the created parts. Determining which referent is relevant depends on other factors beyond knowing the meaning of the word. The significance of this is that one cannot infer that because an author thinks the referent of “world” is the elect, the author therefore thinks that the meaning of “world” is the elect.

I now turn to identifying different views about the meaning of “world” in John 3:16 associated with Reformed writers.

God’s Love for the World is God’s Love for the Elect

One answer is that God’s love for the world in John 3:16 is really God’s love for the elect; that is, the meaning of “world” in John 3:16 is “elect.” To this, some give the following objection. The problem is that God’s love is really for the world, not a subset of the world. That’s why John 3:16 is problematic for Calvinists. This concern about the Calvinist interpretation of John 3:16 is suggested by the following authors, some of whom are Calvinists.

Ben Witherington:

… the term ‘world’ (kosmos in the Greek), in this Gospel refers to the whole world of fallen humanity whom Christ has come to save. So when we hear in John 3.16-17 that God loves ‘the world’ there is no way possible that this could be gerrymandered into the notion that God has covenant love for the elect. (link)

Jerry Walls & Joseph Dongell

Calvinists have offered their own accountings of these passages. Some argue, for example, that the “world” loved by God in John 3:16 must refer only to “the elect within the world.”  Similarly, they read the unqualified all in restricted senses (e.g., “all types of people” or “all the elect”). Accordingly, the scriptural claim that Jesus died not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world means that Jesus died not only for the sins of (some) Jews but also for the sins of (some) Gentiles. (Why I am Not a Calvinist, page unavailable)

William Mounce

Contextually, John is asserting a relatively unusual notion that God not only loves those who follow him (John’s normal usage) but he actually loves the entire world, hence requiring an indefinite construction. To limit the meaning of the statement to a subgroup of people, “those among you who believe,” is to read in a theology not supported by the Greek (and I am Reformed).  In the larger context, it agrees with statements like 1 Tim 2:4 that says God “wishes all people (πάντας ἀνθρώπους) to be saved and to come into a knowledge of the truth.”  True, each/every person who believes is a subset of the whole (the “world”), and the gift of eternal life is only for that subset, but to somehow limit God’s love to a subset of people runs counter to the Greek, the meaning of πᾶς, the grammar, the immediate context, and the larger context. If you believe in election (as I do), then you understand πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων as referring to the elect, but let’s not dismiss the clear meaning of the text and suggest that God does not, in some way, love the world. (link)

D.A. Carson

I know that some try to take κόσμος (“world”) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s Gospel is against the suggestion. True, world in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness… Nevertheless elsewhere John can speak of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2), thus bringing bigness and badness together. More importantly, in Johannine theology the disciples themselves once belonged to the world but were drawn out of it (e.g., John 15:19). On this axis, God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect. (The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 17)

Walls and Dongell suggest alternative interpretations of the Reformed view; they do not identify a single view as the Reformed view. They recognize that there are a variety of possible meanings of “world”: all types of people, all of the elect, all ethnic/national groups. These are not the same meanings, even if the referent is the elect. Walls and Dongell’s quote is included in this section because they propose the interpretation that “world” might mean “all of the elect” according to Calvinists. Witherington implies that there is a view according to which the meaning of “world” (the notion of world) is the meaning “all the elect.” Mounce objects to a view that he describes as limiting the world to a subset. It is clear that the view he has in mind takes the subset to be the elect. Carson, another Reformed writer, also suggests (but rejects) this view; he won’t accept that the referent is only the elect.

As we go through other Reformed writers, it is interesting to ask who are these people who think “world” means “elect”? The above authors do not cite any clear examples of anyone taking up that position. But in their defense, I think this is not an unsurprising thing to say about Calvinists.

(1) The people cited above all work in positions that place them into contact with Calvinists – students, fellow faculty, people in churches, at conferences, and so on. Are there Calvinists who shoot interpretations from the hip and have perhaps suggested that “God loves the world” means “God loves the elect”? I wouldn’t bet against that. I do not think it is plausible to accuse the above authors – Witherington, Walls, Dongell, Mounce, and Carson – as merely making up a view that no one holds. And there are cases where it looks like the Calvinist authors may indeed hold this view.

(2) The Reformed have not always been clear on this distinction between meaning and reference. We’ll look at an example in a moment. In addition, the authors quoted above may not have been thinking of this distinction either when attempting to understand Reformed writers; some people might have said aloud that “‘world’ means ‘elect’,” which is complicated by the fact that the people making that assertion might themselves not have the distinction in mind either and so might be confused in their ideas.

(3) There is a very natural line of thought that can lead someone to think “God loves the world” means “God loves the elect” once the noted distinction is ignored. The question sometimes arises whether God loves everyone; Calvinists can say yes or no. If no, then when John says “God loves the world” one way to take that is “God loves some group (whoever the world is), but it is not everyone (since we assume the answer is ‘no’, God doesn’t love everyone), so this must be the elect”. So “God loves the world” means “God loves the elect.” If the Calvinist says, yes, God loves everyone but has a special love for the elect which involves sending the Son for the propitiation of their sins, then one might argue that the act of God’s love specified in John 3 is God’s love for the elect. So “God’s love for the world” means “God’s love for the elect.” And then going one step further for those who ignore this distinction, if someone already accepts (a priori) that “world” means “everyone,” then when any Calvinist limits the referent to a subset of everyone, it appears as if Calvinists rejects that “world” means “world”.

To illustrate how unclear some Calvinists writers are, we’ll look at the writings of A.W. Pink. In the Appendix II to his book, The Sovereignty of God, Pink surveys a number of possible meanings behind “world.” Then he writes:

Should it be asked further, But how is a searcher of the Scriptures to know which of the above meanings the term “world” has in any given passage? The answer is: This may be ascertained by a careful study of the context, by diligently noting what is predicated of “the world” in each passage, and by prayer fully consulting other parallel passages to the one being studied. The principal subject of John 3:16 is Christ as the Gift of God. The first clause tells us what moved God to “give” His only begotten Son, and that was His great “love;” the second clause informs us for whom God “gave” His Son, and that is for, “whosoever (or, better, ‘every one’) believeth;” while the last clause makes known why God “gave” His Son (His purpose), and that is, that everyone that believeth “should not perish but have everlasting life.” That “the world” in John 3:16 refers to the world of believers (God’s elect), in contradistinction from “the world of the ungodly” (2 Pet. 2:5), is established, unequivocally established, by a comparison of the other passages which speak of God’s “love.” “God commendeth His love toward US”—the saints, Romans 5:8. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth”—every son, Hebrews 12:6. “We love Him, because He first loved US”—believers, 1 John 4:19. The wicked God “pities” (see Matt. 18:33). Unto the unthankful and evil God is “kind” (see Luke 6:35). The vessels of wrath He endures “with much long-suffering” (see Rom. 9:22). But “His own” God “loves”!

Pink starts out with a question about meaning but then focuses on the question of reference. He assumes, mistakenly, that because the referent is believers, the proper meaning of “world” is believers. It is very tempting, then, to think that Pink believes that the meaning of “world” “the elect”. But making that would be hasty because he has more to say on the topic. Consider what Pink writes in Chapter 11 of this work:

Turning now to John 3:16, it should be evident from the passages just quoted that this verse will not bear the construction usually put upon it. “God so loved the world.” Many suppose that this means, The entire human race. But “the entire human race” includes all mankind from Adam till the close of earth’s history: it reaches backward as well as forward! Consider, then, the history of mankind before Christ was born. Unnumbered millions lived and died before the Savior came to the earth, lived here “having no hope and without God in the world,” and therefore passed out into eternity of woe. If God “loved” them, where is the slightest proof thereof? Scripture declares “Who (God) in times past (from the tower of Babel till after Pentecost) suffered all nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). Scripture declares that “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient” (Rom. 1:28). To Israel God said, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). In view of these plain passages who will be so foolish as to insist that God in the past loved all mankind! The same applies with equal force to the future . . . But the objector comes back to John 3:16 and says, “World means world. “True, but we have shown that “the world” does not mean the whole human family. The fact is that “the world” is used in a general way… Now the first thing to note in connection with John 3:16 is that our Lord was there speaking to Nicodemus, a man who believed that God’s mercies were confined to his own nation. Christ there announced that God’s love in giving His Son had a larger object in view, that it flowed beyond the boundary of Palestine, reaching out to “regions beyond.” In other words, this was Christ’s announcement that God had a purpose of grace toward Gentiles as well as Jews. “God so loved the world,” then, signifies, God’s love is international in its scope. But does this mean that God loves every individual among the Gentiles? Not necessarily, for as we have seen the term “world” is general rather than specific, relative rather than absolute. . . the “world” in John 3:16 must, in the final analysis refer to the world of God’s people. Must we say, for there is no other alternative solution. It cannot mean the whole human race, for one half of the race was already in hell when Christ came to earth. It is unfair to insist that it means every human being now living, for every other passage in the New Testament where God’s love is mentioned limits it to His own people — search and see! The objects of God’s love in John 3:16 are precisely the same as the objects of Christ’s love in John 13:1: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His time was come, that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end.” We may admit that our interpretation of John 3:16 is no novel one invented by us, but one almost uniformly given by the Reformers and Puritans, and many others since them. (The Sovereignty of God)

Pink seems to recognize the global ethnic significance of God’s love for the world in the context of speaking to Nicodemus. This is a clue that Pink has in mind a meaning different than the elect, although he wants to say it refers to God’s elect. Indeed, in his commentary on John 3:16, Pink is explicit about this: “the scope of God’s love—’God so loved the world.’ It was not limited to the narrow bounds of Palestine, but it flowed out to sinners of the Gentiles, too.” (link)

In Pink’s case, there is at least one passage where he suggests “world” means “elect”. But it is apparent that he has two different views in mind that are not clearly separated: whether “world” means “elect” and whether it refers to the elect. Because of this, Pink is a bad representative of what the Reformed view is because it is not entirely clear what his view is.  On the question of to whom “world” refers, there is no question what Pink’s view is. But when it comes to meaning, it is impossible to know what Pink’s view is.

R. K. McGregor Wright is another example of someone for whom it is tempting to say he holds the view that “world” means “elect.” He writes,

Arminians assume a great deal about this verse [John 3:16], some of which contradicts the Greek. They assume that “so loved the world” must mean “loves every existing human being equally and without difference.”… The passage states that as a result of his loving the world, God gave his Son, which is usually understood to be a reference to the incarnation and atonement. The Greek says “in order that every one believing in him may not perish.” There is no word for “whosoever” in the original. On the contrary, far from God’s giving his Son to provide a generalized atonement for everyone who exists, the verse states that he gave his Son for the express purpose of saving a specific group. Since this group excludes all unbelievers and is less than all existing human beings, John 3:16 states explicitly that the purpose of God in sending his Son to die was limited to atoning for believers only, that they “should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism, 159)

It looks very strongly that Carson and Mounce have in mind someone like Wright (if not Wright himself, although we are not told). It is not conclusive, however, that it would be right to think Wright thinks “world” means “elect.” Wright does not focus upon the use of the word “world”, but instead focuses upon the purpose of the incarnation and atonement. Although Wright does insist that the group for whom the atonement is intended is not everyone and he does reject that meaning of “world”, he does not say just say what “world” means. He might think it “means” elect, but nothing in the text forces him to say this. As we will see, there are other ways “world” is understood which are consistent with the purpose of the atonement being limited in scope.

God’s Love for the World is for Every Human Person

An alternative meaning for “world” suggested by some is God loves every created person. Sometimes this is put in terms of God loving all men, or every human person. Perhaps some authors would replace “human” with “created” in order to capture persons outside of the human race as part of the object of God’s love. This view is clearly the favored view critics of Reformed theology, although it is hard to see how non-human persons are the object of God’s love as it occurs in John 3:16. There are Calvinists who accept that “God loves the world” means “God loves every person” (or every human person) in John 3:16.  Mounce, we saw, is one such advocate. He is not alone in this.

Bruce Ware

First, as with every aspect of the Calvinist view of God, Scripture’s teaching must be accepted whether or not our cultural intuitions align with that teaching. Olsen’s view of the universal and equally distributed love of God, while fitting well with our contemporary culture, expresses only one aspect of the Bible’s teaching on the love of God. Yes, there truly and biblically is a sense in which God loves all people in the entire world equally, and Olsen is correct, in my judgment, to cite John 3:16 in support of this notion. (Response by Bruce Ware to Roger Olson in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views, edited by Bruce Ware, 193)

D. A. Carson appears to be a proponent of this view as well. We already saw how he criticizes the view that “world” refers to the elect (c.f. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 75). It is very tempting on that basis alone to infer that Carson accepts that “world” is a reference to every individual. When he lists ways in which the Bible speaks of God’s love, one way is about God’s love for every person and another way is God’s love for the elect (pp. 75-79). Carson wants to say that God died for everyone, and he thinks that John 3:16 supports of this. So it seems he thinks “world” means “every human person.” On Carson’s view, God’s love for the world is universal but effective (by God’s will) only for a few. Carson presents the same line (indeed, the same exact quotes) in “Distorting the Love of God?” in The Love of God, edited by Christopher W. Morgan (Crossway, 2016).

Charles Hodge might belong in this category.

The Scriptures, therefore, in the most explicit terms teach that the external call of the gospel is addressed to all men. The command of Christ to his Church was to preach the gospel to every creature. Not to irrational creatures, and not to fallen angels these two classes are excluded by the nature and design of the gospel. Further than this there is no limitation, so far as the present state of existence is concerned. We are commanded to make the offer of salvation through Jesus to every human being on the face of the earth. We have no right to exclude any man; and no man has any right to exclude himself. God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. The prediction and promise in Joel ii. 32, “Whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered,” is repeatedly renewed in the New Testament, as in Acts ii. 21; Romans x. 13. David says (Psalm lxxxvi. 5), “Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.” (Systematic Theology, vol. 2:642-643)

Hodge is include here because he makes a comment about individuals and then moves on immediately to say God so loved the world. One could hold that God’s love for the world is God’s love for the fallen human race, without having the meaning of “world” include anything like individuals. (No immediate inference from part to whole unless we treat “human race” as a mere collection of particulars.) Maybe that is Hodge’s view instead. Either seems a plausible possible interpretation to me (although I settled to put him in one category even though I am more confident about the disjunction).

John Calvin is difficult as well; there is a long dispute about whether Calvin even endorsed limited atonement. Here is what he says about John 3:16, which I regard as inconclusive but plausibly in this category.

“For God so loved the world.”  Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God. As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Savior.  Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.  And this order ought to be carefully observed; for such is the wicked ambition which belongs to our nature, that when the question relates to the origin of our salvation, we quickly form diabolical imaginations about our own merits.  Accordingly, we imagine that God is reconciled to us, because He has reckoned us worthy that He should look upon us.  But Scripture everywhere extols his pure and unmingled mercy, which sets aside all merits. (Commentary on John, link)

Wolfgang Musculus

The fourth argument of the love of God towards man, is in the death of the only begotten, whereunto he was delivered for the redemption of our kind. “For as much as children,” says the Apostle, “has to do with flesh, and blood, he was also like made partaker of them, to the intent that by his death, he might abolish him, who had the rule of death, that is the Devil,” &c. And whereupon came this? In this says John appeared the love of God towards us, that he sent his Son into the world to be the propitiation for our sins. And the Apostle: “God,” (says he) does set forth his love towards us in that when we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” (Rom. 5.). “If God be fore us, who is against us, who spared not his own Son, but gave him for us all, and how is it possible but that he should give us all things also with him,” &c. “Who shall disseaver [separate] us from the from the love of God?” And the only begotten of God himself says: “So God loved the world,” (says he), “that he gave his only begotten Son, that everyone which believes in him, should not perish, but have life everlasting,” (John. 3.). So that by the world he means all mankind. Wolfgangus Musculus, Common Places of Christian Religion, trans., by Iohn Merton (London: Imprinted by Henry Bynneman, 1578), 962-963. (link)

Ludogivus Crocius

–LUD. CROCIUS 962: “The object of the grace of compassion is the whole human race as wretched and fouled with sin. This is what our Saviour teaches by the word “world” Jn. 3. 16 (God so loved the world. . .). It is certain that here by the word “world” is to be understood not the entire system of heaven and earth with all their denizens divinely produced out of nothing, but only the human race.–963: Nor yet does Christ here understand by the world the elect only, according as they have already been separated from the world, but the entire human race taken all together (universe), according as by nature it lies in sin and according as it is commonly called through the gospel to repentance and faith in Christ” (Sourced from Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1978), 372.) (link)

Robert L. Dabney

The usual explanation, offered by the strict Calvinists, of these tests [e.g. of John 3] is this: that terms seemingly universal often have to be limited to a universality within certain bounds by the context, as in Matt. 3:5; that in New Testament times, especially when the gospel was receiving its grand extension from one little nation to all nations, it is reasonable to expect that strong affirmatives would be used as to its extent, which yet should be strained to mean nothing more than this: that persons of every nation in the world were given to Christ. Hence, “the world,” “all the world,” should be taken to mean no more than people of every nation in the world without distinction, &c. There is a certain amount of justice in these views, and many of these passages, as in 1 Cor. 15:22; John 1:29; 12:32, may be adequately explained by them…. But there are others of these passages, to which I think, the candid mind will admit, this sort of explanation is inapplicable. In John 3:16, make “the world” which Christ love to mean “the elect world;” and we reach the absurdity, that some of the elect may not believe, and perish. (Systematic Theology, 524-25)

God’s Love for the World is God’s Love for the Fallen World

This view treats “world” as an ethical category instead of a quantitative category. This view does not treat the “world” as the elect, or about every human person, but rather about the type of individuals God loves.

Andrew Lincoln

Some argue that the term “world” here simply has negative connotations–the created human world. But the characteristic use of “the world” (ho cosmos) elsewhere in the narrative is with negative overtones–the world in its alienation from and hostility to its Creator’s purposes. It  makes better sense in the soteriological context to see the latter notion as in view. God loves that which has become hostile to God. The force is not, then, that the world is so vast that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it, but rather that the world has become so alienated from God that it takes an exceedingly great love to love it at all. (The Gospel According to St. John, 154)

Obviously the view that “world” has ethical connotations is compatible with the view that God’s love is for every individual. It is compatible with the next view we’ll see. But one might also hold this view and reject it is about individuals or people groups in John 3; what is semantically significant is the quality of the persons, not which or how many persons.

God’s Love for the World is God’s Love for Different People Groups

The next view treats the “world” as a collection of ethnic groups or as a rejection of the tribalism.

Roger Olson, a critics of Reformed theology, describes the view of Calvinists with this interpretation in mind.

Some Calvinist exegetes have tried to say that in John 3:16 (and other passages) where God is said to be love or that he loves the whole world, what is meant is “all kinds of people” or “people from every tribe and nation of the world.” Arminians see this as forced theological interpretation and not true exegesis. (Arminian Theology, 114 n.59)

Arminians believe that the Calvinist account of the scope of the atonement is flawed; it cannot avoid limiting the love of God, which contradicts Scripture passages such as John 3:16, which Calvinists must interpret as referring not to the whole world (that is, all individuals) but to persons out of every tribe and nation. (Arminian Theology, 65)

William Hendriksen

By reason of the context and other passages in which a similar thought is expressed (see note 25, meaning 5), it is probable that also here in 3:16 the term indicates fallen mankind in its international aspect: men from every tribe and nation; not only Jews but also Gentiles. This is in harmony with the thought expressed repeatedly in the Fourth Gospel (including this very chapter) to the effect that physical ancestry has nothing to do with entrance into the kingdom of heaven: 1:12, 13; 3:6; 8:31-39. (New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 140)

Lexicons do not give a complete summary of the uses of the term world in the Gospel of John. The root-meaning (Homer, Plato) is order, whence ornament, as in 1 Peter 3:3. This leads to the following significations, as found in the Fourth Gospel: … (4) ethical sense: mankind alienated from the life of God, sin-laden, exposed to the judgment, in need of salvation, 3:19. (5) the same as (4) with the additional idea that no distinction is made with respect to race or nationality; hence men from every tribe and nation; not only Jews but also Gentiles, 4:42; and probably also 1:29; 3:16, 17; 6:33, 51; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46; 1 John 2:2; 4:14, 15. Such passages should be read in light of 4:42; 11:52; and 12:32. Whereas at least some of these passages meaning (5) is clear, it seems strange that standard lexicons have apparently missed it entirely. This applies even to the excellent article in Th.W.N.T [Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament ed. by Kittel]. (ibid, 79. note 26, highlighting meanings 4 and 5)

Geoffrey Grogan

Some expressions of the New Testament doctrine of the atonement are universal in form, although these require interpretation in their contexts. Such expressions occur in the Johannine tradition in passages like John 3:16 and, particularly, 1 John 2:2… [Concerning 1 John 2:2] the style of 1 John is broad, and it would be consistent with this style if 1 John 2:2 were to be understood as having ethnic or geographical rather than strictly numerical bearing, so that “the whole world” in this case would mean “people of every nation” or “people in every part of the world.” (“A Biblical Theology of the Love of God,” in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer; 62)

William G. T. Shedd

Second, the word world in Scripture frequently denotes a part of the world viewed as a collective whole having a distinctive character, as we sometimes speak of the scientific or the religious world:… (3) Sometimes the term world means all mankind, in distinction from the Jews [Matt. 26:13; 13:38; John 3:16; 1 Cor 1:21; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2]. These texts teach that redemption is intended for all races, classes, and ages of men. (Dogmatic Theology, 3rd edition, ed. Alan Gomes. 748-49)

Louis Berkhof

There are passages which teach that Christ died for the world, John 1:29; 3:16; 6:33, 51; Rom. 11:12, 15; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2. The objection based on these passages proceeds on the unwarranted assumption that the word “world” as used in the means “all the individuals that constitute the human race.” If this were not so, the objection based on them would have no point. But it is perfectly evident from Scripture that the term “world” has a variety of meanings… The blessings of the gospel were extended to all nations, Matt. 24:14; Mark 16:16; Rom. 1:5; 10:18. This is probably the key to the interpretation of the word “world” in such passages as John 1:29; 6:33, 51; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2. Dr. Shedd assumes that the word means “all nations” in such passages as Matt. 26:13; John 3:16;… but holds that in other passages it denotes the world of believers, or the Church, John 6:33, 51. (Systematic Theology, 395-96)


There appears to be a variety of views that Reformed people may take. That is, there is no such thing as the Reformed view. A really good resource that catches more quotes than I have found (and in two cases I pulled) is available here (link). Obviously, I have not even attempted an exhaustive list of Reformed writers on the subject. But I have given enough examples to show a variety of views. Authors who want to stress the particularity of the application of the atonement to individuals can come across as having said “world” means “elect”, even if they did not intend this and they did not say this explicitly. Authors who have in mind the universal call of the gospel (e.g., Dabney and Carson) think the “world” is the human race. Some authors think that the human race is in mind, but it is specifically focused upon its ethnic or national aspect (e.g. Shedd, Hendriksen). Some think it is the human race in respect to its sinfulness (Lincoln). Some authors are not clear what they think (e.g., Pink).

What is apparent as one goes through each of these different authors is how they settle what the right interpretation is. When authors try to settle on the meaning of “world”, one might expect to find an exegetical argument that in the context of that passage, the most likely meaning is <such and such>. Instead what we find are authors who pull from the use of that word in other passages and then indicate that this or that must be the most likely meaning in John 3:16. For example, Mounce thinks 1 Tim. 2:4 is part of the larger context. But why think a thing like that? It is entirely possible that the passage in Timothy is about every individual and John 3 is about nations. If that’s true (although I deny that conjunction is true), then 1 Tim. 2 is not part of the larger context except in the very liberal sense that any passage part of the New Testament is part of the “larger context.”

Another thing that is evident from this survey is that there are not any authors for whom it is beyond reasonable doubt that the author thinks “world” means “elect.” There are authors for whom it is reasonable to attribute this view, but it should be admitted that this attribution is an inference about an author’s view based on some other things the author says. But this view appears to be a minority view. What is less clear about being a minority view is whether “world” refers to the elect. It appears that Calvin thinks the referent of “world” in John 3:16 is in fact every person. This may be one of the more popular views among the Reformed. However, there are also Reformed writers who think “world” means something like different nations and tribes and not individuals; another favorite view. This second view is consistent with the referents being everyone or only some individuals.

Looking Ahead

In a future post, I will provide an argument for my own view about the meaning of “world” in John 3:16. I was happy to learn that my view was anticipated by John Owen.(link) Owen writes,

By the “world,”we understand the elect of God only, though not considered in this place as such, but under such a notion as, being true of them, serves for the farther exaltation of God’s love towards them, which is the end here designed; and this is, as they are poor, miserable, lost creatures in the world, of the world, scattered abroad in all places of the world, not tied to Jews or Greeks, but dispersed in any nation, kindred, and language under heaven.

Owen is not saying that the meaning of “world” is elect, although his statement, “we understand the elect of God only” might mislead one to think he meant that. It is important that he says, “though not considered in this place as such, but under such a notion as … ” which he goes on to say includes being poor, lost creatures in the world scattered abroad. What Owen is saying is that even though the elect are the referent of God’s love in John 3, they are not considered as such – i.e. as elect – in John 3. That is, it is not part of the meaning of “world” that they are the elect.

Why is this important?  Owen anticipates the sense and reference distinction made famous by Frege two hundred years later. Consider the following selection from Owen (from the same source):

SECONDLY, The second thing controverted is the object of this love, pressed by the word “world;” which our adversaries would have to signify all and every man; we, the elect of God scattered abroad in the world, with a tacit opposition to the nation of the Jews, who alone, excluding all other nations (some few proselytes excepted), before the actual exhibition of Christ in the flesh, had all the benefits of the promises appropriated to them, Rom. ix. 4; in which privilege now all nations were to have an equal share. To confirm the exposition of the word as used by the Universalists, nothing of weight, that ever yet I could see, is brought forth, but only the word itself; for neither the love mentioned in the beginning, nor the design pointed at in the end of the verse, will possibly agree with the sense which they impose on that word in the middle. Beside; how weak and infirm an inference from the word world, by reason of its ambiguous and wonderful various acceptations, is, we have at large declared before.

Three poor shifts I find in the great champions of this course, to prove that the word world doth not signify the elect. Justly we might have expected some reasons to prove that it signified or implied all and every man in the world, which was their own assertion; but of this ye have a deep silence, being conscious, no doubt, of their disability for any such performance. Only, as I said, three pretended arguments they bring to disprove that which none went about to prove, — namely, that by the world is meant the elect as such; for though we conceive the persons here designed directly men in and of the world, to be all and only God’s elect, yet we do not say that they are here so considered, but rather under another notion, as men scattered over all the world, in themselves subject to misery and sin.

When Owen wishes to speak about reference, he uses the word “signify”. To signify is to point to or mark something. Put another way, signifying something is referring to something. But notice how Owen adds, “we do not say that they are here so considered [i.e. under the notion of being elect], but rather under another notion…” Owen has to have in mind something like the concept of “sense”, which is here called a “notion”. Owen’s view, which I think is right, is that the meaning of “world” is not “elect”, but instead people dispersed across different tribes or ethnicities; as used in John 3, it incorporates their fallen state. What I hope to provide is an argument that is deeper than importing passages from distant chapters, books, and even different authors, which may or may not be relevant to John 3.

2018-07-06T14:27:10+00:00 June 16th, 2018|6 Comments


  1. Oscar July 16, 2018 at 9:07 pm

    “people dispersed across different tribes or ethnicities”

    Are those dispersed people the ultimately saved? If so, how is it different than being elect?

    Great article! Looking forward to the second part.

  2. James A. Gibson July 16, 2018 at 10:18 pm

    It – the meaning of “world” – is different because it does not include as part of its conceptual content anything about election or elected individuals. To illustrate using an example I’ve used before, what is the meaning of “I”? Does the meaning of “I” change whenever uttered by a different person or does merely the reference change? I hold that the reference changes and the meaning does not. Another example: “POTUS” means the same thing every four or eight years, even though the referent changes. So even if “world” in 3:16 refers to the elect, it doesn’t follow that is what John is saying, that the meaning of “world” is elect. So if “world” does not mean “elect” (and it doesn’t), then we shouldn’t make the inference: “John thinks Jesus came to die for some people, who are the elect. So John 3:16 is making a point about God’s love for the elect. So ‘world’ means elect.” That’s letting systematic theology drive exegesis in a way that I think is unacceptable. It’s also why it is ridiculous to see Arminians run to 1 Tim 2:4 or John 12:32 when trying to tell us how to interpret “world” in John 3.

  3. Oscar K July 17, 2018 at 7:02 am

    I agree with you, conceptually, though I would say that seems to be linguistically intuitive for almost every word out there. You can talk about them in terms of abstractions to designate any referent. Is it your opinion that John could be referring to the elect with the word “world” and yet, at the same time, not be intending to say that? It seems to me like no other Reformed person would disagree with you with the meaning of the word, conceptually speaking, i,e., the earth and all the people and things in it (Merriam Webster). But then the question comes up…. why give it a meaning? “people dispersed accross different tribes or ethnicities”. It shouldn’t designate a specific part, either, for its conceptual content is what it is. It whould instead be, “every person accros every tribe or ethnicity”.

  4. James A. Gibson July 17, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    It’s not my view that “world” refers to the elect and that John said something he did not intend. Two issues about that. (1) Whether “world” refers to elect depends on more than just the meaning of that word. Not everyone is going to agree with me about that. If someone thought, for example, that “world” means “every single person”, like some of the people I quote in the post, then that meaning settles who the referents are. So there is a real substantial dispute between me and other Reformed writers. (2) A word can refer to an object and yet someone who uses that word does not intend *the referent* as part the meaning of that word. Suppose I don’t know who the POTUS is (a dream at this point). But then I say, “The President of the United States signs bills into law.” This statement, used in a certain context, can refer to the person occupying that role; and so now it would refer (unbeknownst to me) to Trump. But I also, by hypothesis, don’t intend that as part of the meaning. This is somewhat standard fare for intentional context. So, for example, it would be true that “I believe that POTUS signs bills into law,” but it would be false that “I believe Trump signs bills into law.” Back to John: John intended to say what he said. But what he said with respect to “world” isn’t the same thing as saying “God so loved the elect”.

  5. Oscar K July 17, 2018 at 10:32 pm

    I see your point. Somehow I still feel there is a minor problem/issue with the example you use. Although totally sound and valid, it doesn’t seem like an analogy that completely lines up to the actual issue. But maybe I need to grapple with the logic a bit more. Either way, you make a strong argument for John’s intention being different than the traditional Reformed assumption. Ultimately how do we answer such a q

  6. Oscar K July 18, 2018 at 6:06 am

    Sorry about the ending there. I meant to finish the comment after “you make a strong argument for…”. Anyway, thanks for the clarification. Cheers.

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