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How Does Reformation Theology Interpet John 3:16?

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(Exposing the Straw Man)

by John Hendryx


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


As some of you may know, author Dave Hunt's unwillingness to acknowledge plain historical and theological errors presented in his book entitled "What Love Is This?," prompted Multnomah Press to cancel the second edition. A large number of booksellers also boycotted Hunt's divisive book having been surprised by his stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge impropriety. Specifically many claim the book engaged in historical revisionism with regard to the teachings of well-known five-point Calvinist preacher C.H. Spurgeon. It further made consistently inaccurate incriminations about Calvinist beliefs in order to skew the evidence to his favor. The bunk scholarship has managed to cause a rift in the Christian community, not over doctrinal differences so much as the the straw man he sets up against Calvinism. Unfortunately, this is no isolated incident. In my previous short essay about a defender of Hunt's eisegesis named Malcolm Lavender, I also explained this curious propensity to charge Calvinist's with beliefs they do not hold in order to poison the unfamiliar against the Christ-centered biblical Christianity that was recovered during the Reformation.


While these dark ad hominem descriptions of Calvinism as heresy will likely arouse cheers among their followers, they are really downright misleading in their characterization. The movement against Reformed Theology turns out to be a kind of an irrational moral suppression of one of the most robustly God-honoring theological traditions in existence today. Even when faced with insurmountable biblical evidence, many out there like Hunt, Lahaye and Geisler grind their teeth at the biblical revelation which points to God's sovereignty in the salvation of men. There is a desperation about this anti-Calvinist movement which clings to one or two favorite verses without taking into consideration either context or what the rest of the Scriptures say. I mention this because there is something askew with the spirit of contention of those who attack in this way. But it is the Scriptures, and not modernist tradition, that should be our guiding light.


In the following essay I want to point out some more examples of these spurious and illegitimate claims made by Lavender in his essay against James White. Furthermore I want to show why John 3:16, when understood plainly and in context, is really the basis for a robust biblical Calvinism. At the very beginning of his essay Lavender says,


"Here the imagination is strained, utterly, as the Calvinistic gospel tells multiplied millions and billions of Adam's fallen race: "You have no hope because God has abandoned you." This is the gospel? This is good news?"


Next Lavender takes it upon himself to explain what Calvinists mean when they interpret John 3:16:


John 3:16-17 is interpreted according to their canon:


"16For God so loved the world of the elect that He gave His only Son, for the purpose that every one of the elect who believes in Him irresistibly cannot perish, but has eternal life unconditionally. 17For God did not send the Son to the elect to judge the elect, but that the elect be unconditionally saved through Him." (Lavender)


"The issue before us is whether God extends to all the sons and daughters of Adam's fallen race the opportunity to be saved, or whether His love is for the elect only, and so limited. The issue is supreme; the argument is vital! Here then the outcome is truth at its highest level or apostasy from the lowest hell. Accordingly, the Five Point system stands or falls at John 3:16. The Truth stands as an objective fact and it is our purpose to pursue the path that leads to that fact." (Lavender)


Lets take these sweeping and far-reaching accusations one by one.


"Here the imagination is strained, utterly, as the Calvinistic gospel tells multiplied millions and billions of Adam's fallen race: "You have no hope because God has abandoned you." This is the gospel? This is good news?" (Lavender)


Mr. Lavender appears he would like his disciples to believe that Calvinists actually proclaim to members of Adam's fallen race that they have no hope and God has abandoned them. Why is there the need to misrepresent our beliefs in such a way? There is really no need to produce these fabrications against what is actually being taught. Lavender knows he is not quoting anyone here, so why is there this desperate and continual compulsion to bring down his opponents with straw men and ad hominem arguments? What Calvinist has ever had such a thought even cross his mind when presenting the gospel to unbelievers? The statement made by Lavender is dishonest, irresponsible and patently false.


Next Lavender re-writes John 3:16 as the average Calvinist allegedly interprets it:


John 3:16-17 is interpreted according to their canon:


"For God so loved the world of the elect that He gave His only Son, for the purpose that every one of the elect who believes in Him irresistibly cannot perish, but has eternal life unconditionally. For God did not send the Son to the elect to judge the elect, but that the elect be unconditionally saved through Him." (Lavender)


Lavender is here basing the entirety of his argument upon the false assumption that all Calvinists are forced to interpret the text "world" in John 3:16 to mean "elect". Most mainstream Calvinists today, however, would probably not draw this conclusion from this text. While I understand that, historically, there have been a number of Calvinists who may have been seen to exegete it this way, I would argue that this is a strained translation of the the text, intended to fit a particular system.


Lavender then goes on to say,


…"The issue before us is whether God extends to all the sons and daughters of Adam's fallen race the opportunity to be saved, or whether His love is for the elect only, and so limited. The issue is supreme; the argument is vital! Here then the outcome is truth at its highest level or apostasy from the lowest hell. Accordingly, the Five Point system stands or falls at John 3:16. The Truth stands as an objective fact and it is our purpose to pursue the path that leads to that fact." (Lavender)


Wow, Lavender is creating a pretty tall order for himself. He claims that Calvinism stands or falls upon its interpretation of this one verse thus making it the supreme test of orthodoxy. I also have some isolated texts to challenge him with. But this is not how biblical interpretation is done. In other words, Lavender appears to be saying, "never mind what the rest of the Scripture or even the immediate context says. Everything about your system depends on this one verse " I would place before you that if we were to commonly interpret the Bible this way there is a verse in Romans which says that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." If we were to fixate on this one verse then we would be forced to include Jesus in that number, but we know better because the Bible is an organic unity. The Bible interprets itself. We know Jesus is an exception to this blanket statement because it tells us so in other parts of Scripture and could even be implied from the context.


What is the Best Way To Understand John 3:16?


But what of the points Lavender makes? Given that some Calvinists have perhaps erroneously translated 'world' in this way, I want to present what I think to be a more biblical way. Everyone at least deserves to know what most of us really believe. So how do most Calvinists interpret this verse? Scholar D.A. Carson is fairly representative of how most would understand this text:


"…God so loved the world that he gave his Son (John 3:16). I know that some try to take kosmos ("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. In John's vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God. In John 3:16 God's love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such wicked people. 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 same lesson is learned from many passages and themes in Scripture. However much God stands in judgment over the world, he also presents himself as the God who invites and commands all human beings to repent. He orders his people to carry the Gospel to the farthest corner of the world, proclaiming it to men and women everywhere. To rebels the sovereign Lord calls out, As surely as I live ... I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? - Ezek. 33:11


Most Calvinists, I would argue, believe as I do that Jesus was of a winning and gaining disposition to all; including His conduct to His enemies. He did not call for fire from heaven to destroy them but shed many tears for those who shed His blood. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matt.23.37), and upon the cross he uttered, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). In the cross, God overpowered his enemies, not by annihilating them, but by stretching out his crucified hands in love, he overpowered them with hands extended in mercy and forgiveness. The gospel is for all without distinction.


No Calvinist of any stripe ever says, "You have no hope because God has abandoned you", as Lavender claims. So what is it then that we believe about the gospel?


Calvinists believe that (1) repentance and faith are the free acts of men. Every person who so responds to the gospel call does so because he truly desires to do so. God does not repent or believe for anyone. We must personally and willingly trust in the person and work of Christ in order to be saved. (2) All persons must repent and believe the gospel in order to be saved. The Bible from cover to cover teaches that no one can be saved without this. (3) Every person who repents and believes the gospel will be saved. In other words, whosoever responds to the gospel command will be received by the Father. It is our belief that the gospel requires us to declare to ALL HUMANITY that Jesus laid down his life for the forgiveness of sins to ALL who would believe.


This is what the Bible teaches and that is why we believe it. But many may be astonished since an Arminian would likely agree with everything that I stated above. We affirm that anyone who denies these facts is rejecting the clear message of the Bible. However, the Arminian gospel seems to end there, while Calvinism keeps going with a gospel that takes into account the whole counsel of Scripture. A few scattered favorite verses will not do. A full-orbed presentation of the unity of Scripture demands a more complete understanding and presentation ofthe gospel.. This is why Calvinists also do not fail to also mention that (4) because men love darkness they are unwilling to repent and believe. You see, while Mr. Lavender was fixated on Verse 16 it seems he may have overlooked other important things Jesus said in his gospel discussion with Nicodemus in the verses that followed John 3:16. Just after Jesus said "whosoever believes" he said "but men loved darkness instead of light… and will not come into the light …" (John 3:19, 20). I scratch my head as to how people miss these things. Remember, our gospel presentations should try to emulate Jesus and the apostles, not the modernist gospel presentations skewed by church tradition. Jesus does indeed tell Nicodemus that God loves this fallen world and sent His only Son that whosoever believes has eternal life, but he also affirms the equal emphasis that man's affections are bent toward darkness and they are hostile to God, thus man is unwilling to come. Then he says something hopeful ... that some do come into the light, those whose "deeds … are wrought in God."(vs.21) "Wrought in God" means worked by God. This points back to Jesus' earlier discussion in the same chapter regarding the new birth. He is openly pointing out that man cannot see until he first is born again. (John 3:3). It is the Spirit alone who can give birth to spirit. Flesh can only give birth to flesh. What more clarity could one want? Furthermore the text says this is ultimately determined by the sovereign quickening of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8). John chapter six drives this point home when Jesus declares salvation to the Jews (John 6:37, 39, 44, 63-65).


Jesus is willing to receive anyone, if they will come, even willing to forgive the worst possible sin against Himself, but men loved darkness instead of light, and will not come to Jesus (John 3:19-20). The rebellion is in their affections (they love darkness). Jesus said, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Matt 7:16-18). In other words, a person produces fruit in accord with his or her nature. There inability to come, therefore, isn't like a physical handicap which we could not hold them responsible for but, rather, a moral bent, a disposition of the affections which is naturally hostile to God, a willful hostility. Therefore they are responsible and culpable for their rebellion - and even more culpable now since Jesus extended forgiveness to all who would believe through His self-sacrifice. This leaves people with no excuse for their rebellion. Thus the Reformed understanding of the gift of eternal life to all who would believe is nothing less than genuine.


I also believe it is important to point out that a myopic view of God's attributes (perfections) is one of the main reasons for this poor teaching on the topic, as I will explain. In teaching from the Scriptures, it is critical that we do not overemphasize one attribute to the expense of another. But those critical of the Reformed conception of God seem to do this by painting a sentimental type of love to trump all other remaining attributes. It is absolutely true that God, coming in the person of Jesus Christ, extends His great love to all by obeying the requirements of the law for us and then enduring the wrath of God that we justly deserve. The forgiveness of sins is declared to all who would believe. We won't. But God does not thereby turn His wrath toward us. No. He is patient and merciful and, in spite of our continued rebellion against His love, He still sets apart a favored people for Himself and restores our spiritual faculty that we might, in new affection for Him, turn and believe the gospel. As evangelists, we are to called to preach the gospel indiscriminately to all. The gospel acts as a seed to which the Holy Spirit germinates, so to speak, and raises to life those to whom He has chosen from eternity (Eph 1:5, 11). Jesus explained this through the same apostle just two chapters later when He said, "For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes (John 5:21). What great love and mercy! But God is under no obligation to save us all since He is not merely a God of love, but also of justice, holiness, and righteousness. Jesus has lived a great life of suffering and shown great love for us extending His forgiveness to all who would believe. But since the very people who He holds out His hands in love to also reject Him, then His judgment is just when He justly passes over them. There are no more excuses.


There are many non-redemptive benefits that even unbelievers receive from the work of Christ, such as the patience of God, the withholding of His wrath, the earnest and loving offer of the gospel to unbelievers, etc.... If they do not repent and trust in Christ it is because of their willful unbelief, not because anyone is holding them back. Those who refuse to come could come to Jesus if they wanted to. God does not ultimately restrain people from wanting to come, it is by their own will that they refuse Him. Furthermore, Calvinists freely preach the gospel to all because we believe that when spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit, the word of God has the power to graciously open people's eyes, unplug their uncircumcised ears, change the disposition of their hearts, and draw them to faith, and save them (James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23, 25). It is because the Spirit of God accompanies it that the word carries in it the germ of life. The life is in God, yet it is communicated to us through the word. So (5) people will not desire Christ and thus understand the gospel until they first are given a new nature. (I Cor. 2:14; John 1:13; John 6:39, 44, 63-65;1 Pet 1:3).


The outward call of the gospel is genuinely directed toward all men. Jesus desire is that everyone place their faith in Him. But God's revealed desires are part of his preceptive will. For example, it is the will of God that we do not steal; that we love our enemies; that we repent; that we be holy. One thing is clear, unlike our inability to thwart His decretive will, God has given us the power and ability to thwart His preceptive will, though we never the right to do so. His permission to sin gives us the power, but not the right to sin. In this way, He has extended his love to mankind in such a way that any who are willing may embrace the Savior and have eternal life. This is clearly God's revealed will and desire for all. Therefore man has no excuse for sinning or rejecting Him. So God's disposition is that He has no delight in the death of the wicked. He is displeased when we refuse Him. Displeased with disobedience and only pleased with obedience. But since men will not obey the gospel on God's terms they need to be born again.


Those who protest at this would do well to look at 1 Peter 1:1-3 as he speaks of those …


"…who are chosen … BY the sanctifying work of the Spirit, TO obey Jesus Christ … who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again TO a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." - 1 Pet 1:1-3 (emphasis mine)


To restate, we are chosen by the Spirit unto obedience to Christ. God has, through Christ's resurrection [His finished work], caused us to be born again UNTO a living hope. Our living hope in Christ is, therefore, the result of our new birth, not the cause of it. The Spirit quickens our fallen spirit, giving rise to new affections that are willing to take hold of Christ in faith. (Also see John 1:13, 6:63-65). So it is true that Jesus was a propitiation, not for all men, but for all who would believe. The verse John 3:16 itself clearly indicates that only those who would believe receive redemptive benefits.


I would ask you to please take the time to consider before God why you would pray for unbelievers if you did not really believe God could do something for them. Either He saves them or they draw upon some innate capacity within themselves to have affection for and thereby choose God. No, when you pray it is because you believe God is the one who saves people.


Anyone who doesn't like the biblical teaching of regeneration must honestly answer this challenge: why does one person believe the gospel of Christ and not another? Any answer to this question, aside from grace alone, is a reliance on something besides Christ for our salvation. All spiritual blessings have their root in the cross of Christ. We must not only glorify God for Jesus but for the Holy Spirit and for the ability to turn in faith to Christ. Otherwise, if faith is solely derived from our own capacities, then we could not thank God for it.


I await your reply to the challenge.


Note: I do not claim to represent all Calvinists in my interpretation of John 3:16 but my viewpoint would probably be a fairly good representative indication of what the average Joe-Calvinist believes about it. D.A. Carson is a fine scholar and I strongly believe his exegesis is the correct one. Please take the time to read his whole article on Distorting the Love of God

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