This article considers what John 3:16 means, especially the word "world" (kosmos), and how does this relate to the doctrine of election.

Source: The Banner of Truth (NRC), 1987. 4 pages.

God So Loved the World

A Need for Clarification🔗

How very well known these words are! There is perhaps no passage in Scripture which is quoted more often throughout the world than the words of John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." The reason is obvious, as in these words the Lord Jesus Himself gives us a precise summary of the gospel of His grace, and yet it would not surprise me if the reading of this text, which proceeded from the very lips of the Son of God, creates a certain uneasiness in you, as you hear so many conflicting explanations of it. Since I have met many young people who have given expression to this uneasiness, and since this precious text is abused by so many, thus adding to the confusion, I will seek to direct you to Scripture itself in order to gain a proper understanding of the word "world" as it is used in this text. Only when we examine a text of Scripture within the context of the entire Word of God, will it please the Holy Spirit to shed light upon the very Word He has inspired, as it is therefore in prayerful dependence upon His guidance that I wish to proceed.God So Loved the World

The abuse of this text with which we all are familiar is the interpretation of those who adhere to the Arminian or "free-will" interpretation of God's Word. They use this text to promote the God-dishonoring error of universal atonement, by insisting that every human being without distinction is the object of God's love, and all man needs to do is accept Jesus to become the beneficiary of this love. Such an interpretation obviously violates such scriptures which plainly state that by nature we are children of wrath, as well as that Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Since such an explanation would create a contradiction within the Word of God, it obviously does not convey the Holy Spirit's intent. However, to counter this erroneous interpretation, others have gone so far as to say that the word "world" only refers to God's elect, as they only truly become the recipients of the love of God in Christ Jesus. This appears to be an explanation which is consistent with the Reformed interpretation of Scripture, but a careful examination of the original Greek text will reveal that such an explanation creates a contradiction within the text itself. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament in the Greek language, we must therefore carefully examine the original text in order to come to a proper understanding of this passage.

First of all, the word "whosoever" even in our own language is a word that rules out all exception, which means that John 3:16 does convey that any sinner, no matter who he is, which truly believes in the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved. This is consistent with the nature of the gospel which does not exclude any sinner, prompting Paul to proclaim to the jailor in response to his anxious cry, "What must I do to be saved?", "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:30, 31)! If, however, the word "world" would mean "the elect," then the first part of John 3:16 would exclude sinners whereas the second part would include sinners. This is not the Holy Spirit's intent.

The meaning of the Greek word "Kosmos"🔗

Perhaps your response is, "Now what? How then must we establish a harmonious relationship between the all-inclusive gospel declaration of John 3:16 and the crucial scriptural doctrine of election?" I wish to demonstrate that the solution to this apparent dilemma can be found in the meaning of the Greek word kosmos, which in our Bible is translated as "world." The undisputed literal meaning of this Greek word is "the universe," which in one word describes God's creative work. That this word under no circumstances can refer to the elect only can simply be concluded from the fact that the word-use of the Holy Spirit is always very exact and precisely suited for the truth He wishes to convey in a given text. The Greek words which we translate as elect, elected, and election are well-defined, and if it had been the Holy Spirit's desire to instruct us concerning the doctrine of election here, He would have used one of these words (eklektos or ekloge), to guarantee unmistakable clarity of intent. This is clearly not the case. To prove that this is so, let us compare Scripture with Scripture.

The relationship between John 3:16 and John 17:9🔗

In John 17:9 we read in Christ's High Priestly prayer, "I pray not for the world, but for them which Thou hast given Me." These words also proceed from the mouth of Christ Himself, and once again He uses the Greek word kosmos. There can be no question that Christ, who is the living Word, never used the wrong word in the wrong place. If we were to maintain, however, that the word "world" in John 3:16 refers to the elect, than it would mean that the word kosmos, which Christ here uses again, also in this instance would have to mean the elect. God So Loved the WorldSuch an interpretation would also result in a text which would contradict itself, for then John 17:9 would read, "I pray not for the elect, but for them which Thou hast given Me (which are the elect!)." From this comparison of two key declarations of Christ Himself, it must be clear that the word kosmos or "world" cannot refer to the elect only, even though they are certainly included in it as we will see later on. If, however, we substitute the literal Greek meaning, which is "universe" or "creation" for the word "world" in both texts, then the harmony between both passages suddenly becomes evident. Then we will observe that in John 3:16 we have an uncondi­tional gospel declaration to the fallen inhabitants of God's creation, whereas in John 17:9, Christ in particular prays for those whom God has chosen out of the fallen inhabitants of His creation. In other words, in John 3:16 we have the general proclamation of the gospel to every fallen sinner within the realm of God's universe, whereas in John 17:9, we observe the particular application of this gospel to the elect, given to Christ out of the world (v. 6), as a fruit of His unfailing intercession. How beau­tiful is the harmony of the Word of God, due to the incomparable exactness of the Holy Spirit's use of vocabulary!

How evident it is from the comparison of these texts that we must always surrender our views to the infallible Word of God, rather than make an attempt to bring God's Word into conformity with our theological views!

The word "world" as it relates to God's redemptive purpose🔗

However, not only does a proper translation of the word "world" harmo­nize the afore-mentioned passages, but it also gives us a clear insight into God's ultimate goal which He has with His wondrous redemptive work. In Genesis 1:31 we read, "And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold it was very good." This clearly means that God was not merely pleased with the creation of His image-bearer, but that He was well-pleased with everything He made, that is, the entire universe. God created the entire universe for the glory of His magnificent Name, as it is stated in Proverbs 16:4, "The LORD hath made all things for Himself." How well David understood this when he penned Psalm 8:1, "O LORD our Lord, how excellent is Thy Name in all the earth! Who hast set Thy glory above the heavens," as well as Psalm 19:1, "The heavens declare the glory of God." However, what is true of the entire universe in general was true in a very special sense of God's image-bearer, man! Being created in God's image, man, in distinction from all other creatures upon earth, was able to respond consciously to God and His wondrous attributes. Adam, therefore, with full consciousness and unspeakable joy gave glory to God and His attributes. It should be obvious that this conscious response of His image-bearer gave God more glory than any other element of His creative work. This is why we read in Isaiah 43:7, "For I have created him (man) for my glory!" For this reason man is rightly called the crown-jewel of God's creation, as in and by means of His image-bearer, man, God was supremely glorified.

Satan also understood this very well, and he perceived that there was no better way to rob God of His glory than to cause His image-bearer to fall. Tragically, he succeeded in seducing our first parents, who by falling away from God also lost the image of God. However, their fall not only affected them, but the disharmony between God and man resulted in disharmony throughout the entire realm of God's creation, so that according to Romans 8:22, "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." Therefore, due to the fall of man, who was the crowning piece of God's creative work, damage was done to God's creation in its entirety. How Satan rejoiced, for now God's creation would no longer answer to its original purpose, and God would be robbed of the glory due to His Name. In his blind hatred, however, Satan lost sight of the fact that God is unchangeable and that, therefore, He cannot be thwarted in the accomplishment of His eternal purpose. Therefore, Isaiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote in chapter 45:18, "For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God Himself that formed the earth and made it; He hath established it, He created it not in vain, He formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD!," that is, I am Jehovah, the unchangeable I AM THAT I AM!

God So Loved the WorldThis is precisely the wondrous message of John 3:16. In John 3:16 Christ unveils His Father's eternal purpose. Here God reveals that He so loves His creation, the work of His hands and the manifestation of His attributes, that in spite of man's deep fall, He will restore His creative work to its original and glorious purpose. The restoration of God's creation can only be complete, however, if man, who was the crown-jewel of God's creation, is fully restored as God's image-bearer. This is precisely the reason why God has eternally chosen a people unto Himself, who through the wondrous grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, would again bear His image and eternally give glory to His magnificent attributes: How clearly this is stated in Isaiah 43:21, "This people have I formed for Myself they shall show forth My praise!" The salvation of an innumerable number of elect sinners is therefore in the first place to God's benefit. In saving His elect God restores the human race to the original purpose for which He created it, namely to "show forth His praise," that is, to give glory to His attributes! This is why God so strictly commands His church to proclaim His gospel throughout the entire world, for His elect will come from every segment and genera­tion of human society. Already in the Old Testament it is stated at least forty-seven times that Jehovah's salvation shall be to the very ends of the earth, and that "all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God" (Isaiah 52:10). How clearly Christ emphasizes this Himself in the following passages: "And the gospel must first be published among all nations" (Mark 13:10); "This gospel shall be preached throughout the entire world" (Mark 14:9); "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15).

The beautiful harmony between the decree of election and the word "world"🔗

What will the fruit of all this be? Christ tells us that on the Day of Judgment, "He shall send His angels, and shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth, to the uttermost part of heaven" (Mark 13:27). Once the angels will complete this task, what a magnificent view will then unfold itself! John received a glimpse of this on Patmos which is recorded in Revelation 7:9, "After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could num­ber, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes." Do you observe that the entire multitude of God's elect will form a perfect representation of the human race? Then the promise God made to Abraham will be perfectly fulfilled, for in Abraham's great Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, all families of the earth shall truly be blessed (Gen. 12:3)! This innumerable multitude of elect human beings, fully restored as God's image-bearers in Christ Jesus, who from the stillness of eternity was made unto them wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification (or holiness), will then become the inhabitants of a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13). Then the harmony between God and man, and His entire creation, wretchedly disturbed by our fall, will be fully restored. Why? "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life." God So Loved the WorldOh, what a marvellous declaration of God's eternal good pleasure! God so loved His creation that He eternally decreed the restoration of rebels, who were guilty of defacing His beautiful handiwork, and this multitude of redeemed rebels will once jubilate forever, "For Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created" (Rev. 4:11).

Is it any wonder that it pleases God that Jesus Christ should have the pre­eminence, and that He has received a Name above every other name? God not only created the universe by Him, but He also restores His creation by Him. (Read Eph 1:9-11.) Is it any wonder then, when we read about the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:23, that it states, "For the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof"? As the Tree of Life, He will be in the midst of the Paradise of God, "and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (Rev. 2:7; 22:2).

How beautiful is the harmony between John 3:16 and God's eternal purpose, a harmony established by His very own Spirit, expressed by the Son of God, who with divine and unmistakable clarity used the word kosmos or "world" to reveal the eternal purpose of a triune God. Therefore rather than feeling uncomfortable with this text, rather than distorting its original meaning in order that it may suit our doctrinal views, this text should cause us to fall prostrate before the God of John 3:16, there to exclaim in holy amazement, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgements, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His counselor? Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed to Him again? For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen" (Romans 11:33-36).

The rich gospel truth conveyed by the word "world"🔗

Oh, my dear young friend, how exceedingly rich is therefore the gospel message of John 3:16, also for you. You are also a citizen of this world, and since God has unconditionally chosen sinners from every nation and generation of this world, you also can be saved and be restored as a bearer of God's image. Perhaps you are a young person burdened with your sin and sinnership, convinced that the whole world can be saved except you. Take courage, for here we have God's very own declaration to sinners anywhere in the world, that no sinner in this world is excluded from His gospel proclamation! Sinners who must exclude themselves before God are here included by God Himself, who with the sincerity of His whole Being states that, "whosoever believeth in Him (His Son) should not perish, but have everlasting life." Therefore, you, whose heart pants after God as a hart pants after the waterbrooks, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world" (John 1:29)!

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