What About John 3:16?
Perhaps the biggest weapon the Arminian attempt to use in their arsenal against Calvinists is John 3:16, especially the word "whosoever" when matched up with the word "world". But when we take a little closer look at the passage we discover they must read into it some assumptions that simply are not there. Let's take a look.
The word "whosoever" in John 3:16 translates from the Greek phrase "πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων" (pas ho pisteuōn). Let's break this down:
πᾶς (pas): This is a pronoun commonly translated as "all" or "every." It often implies the idea of totality or completeness.
ὁ (ho): This is the definite article in Greek, often translated as "the." It is used here to specify or define the group being referred to.
πιστεύων (pisteuōn): This is the present participle form of the verb "πιστεύω" (pisteuō), meaning "to believe" or "to have faith." In the participle form, it functions as a verbal adjective and can be translated as "believing."
When combined, "πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων" can be literally translated as "all the believing ones" or "everyone who believes." This phrase is not indiscriminately saying "everyone" but specifically referring to the entire group of those who are believing or who have faith.
It is crucial to note that both Calvinists and Arminians concur on two fundamental points: first, that anyone who embraces the gospel will be saved, and second, that the gospel's invitation extends to all. That is not where we differ. The divergence in interpretation arises from the Arminian emphasis on human ability and free will when they encounter the term "whosoever." In contrast, Calvinists, while acknowledging that the gospel call reaches all and that individuals are accountable to respond, assert based on scriptural passages like John 3:19 that none are naturally inclined to accept the message. Calvinists, reading the immediate and broader context, emphasize that when the gospel is preached indiscriminately, the rejection of its message is not due to God holding anyone back or coercion into disbelief. Rather, it is a consequence of fallen human nature, as individuals willingly and voluntarily spurn the gospel, hostile to its message and incapable of grasping spiritual truths (John 3:19, 1 Cor 1:23, 2:14, Rom. 3:10-17, 8:7). Therefore, although Calvinists, like Arminians, advocate for the universal proclamation of the gospel, they maintain—guided by scriptural evidence—that no one inherently seeks the light or approaches it without the intervention of God's grace and mercy.
Arminians interpret the term "whosoever" in John 3:16 as an indication that the gospel is not only universally accessible but also implies that some individuals possess the natural capacity and willingness to respond. They argue that while some individuals make use of prevenient grace, others do not. But why the difference? The difference in the way people respond is not grace, because, according to Arminians, both had prevenient grace. So what makes them to differ? Obviously something other than grace that is within the soul. This viewpoint suggests that God discerns a vestige of goodwill in certain individuals, leading to their salvation, whereas those who persist in obstinance are not saved. According to this perspective, intrinsic characteristics such as wisdom, humility, or a predisposition towards goodwill set some apart from others who lack these traits.
In the context of John 3:16, the phrase is emphasizing the inclusivity within the group of believers—anyone who believes, without distinction of ethnicity, social status, or background, but it does not imply that everyone will believe or even has the capacity to believe. (That idea is being read into the text by Amrinians). It underscores the universality of the offer of salvation to all who believe, while inherently acknowledging the condition of belief for salvation. That's all the text conveys. Nothing more.
The use of John 3:16 as an objection to the doctrine of divine election, particularly by Arminians, brings to light the importance of contextual and holistic scriptural interpretation. Here's a critical examination of this objection and a defense of divine election considering the broader context of John 3:
Understanding John 3:16 in Context:
- John 3:16 states, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." This verse is often cited to argue against divine election, suggesting a universal potential for salvation. However, this interpretation overlooks the underlying implications regarding human ability and the context of the broader narrative.
- John 3:16 declares the duty of man—to believe in Christ for salvation. Yet, it doesn't address the natural ability of fallen man to fulfill this duty.
- The Necessity of Being Born Again (John 3:3-8):
- The discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 highlights the necessity of being 'born again' or 'born from above' for entering the Kingdom of God. Jesus emphasizes that this new birth is a work of the Spirit, not of human will or effort (John 3:5-8).
- The analogy of the wind blowing wherever it wills, likened to the work of the Spirit in regeneration, points to the sovereign and mysterious work of God in salvation. It implies that the initiative and enabling power for someone to believe comes from the Spirit, not from human capacity.
- The Reality of Human Resistance to Light (John 3:19-20):
- John 3:19-20 further clarifies the natural condition of humanity: "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil." This passage depicts the inherent inclination of fallen humans to resist the truth and love darkness.
- These verses underscore the natural inability of humans to come to the light (Christ) on their own. The tendency to resist the light contradicts the assumption that humans can freely choose to believe without divine intervention.
- Harmony between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility:
- The narrative of John 3 harmoniously integrates divine sovereignty in salvation with human responsibility. While it calls for belief in Christ, it simultaneously acknowledges the necessity of divine action (being born of the Spirit) for this belief to materialize.
- The Reformed perspective interprets John 3:16 in harmony with the whole counsel of Scripture, acknowledging both the genuine offer of salvation to all and the sovereign work of God in overcoming human resistance and effectually drawing the elect to Christ.
A careful, contextually informed reading of John 3 reveals that while salvation is universally offered, the natural human condition is one of resistance to the truth. The necessity of being born of the Spirit, a sovereign act of God, is paramount for belief. This understanding preserves the integrity of divine election, recognizing that while the call to believe is universal, the ability to respond positively to that call is a result of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, aligning perfectly with the doctrines of grace.
The translation of "whosoever" in John 3:16 rather than "all the believing ones" has become a focal point in theological debates, particularly between advocates of free will salvation (often aligned with Arminian theology) and proponents of particular redemption (aligned with Calvinist or Reformed theology). The interpretation and application of this term have significant theological implications:
Advocates argue that "whosoever" signifies the universal availability of salvation to every individual, implying that anyone has the potential to choose salvation of their own free will. From this viewpoint, "whosoever" is seen as supporting the idea that God's grace enables but does not ensure the individual's decision to believe, thereby upholding human autonomy in the matter of salvation.
Proponents of particular redemption (or Limited Atonement) argue that while the offer of the gospel is universal (presented to all), the actual application of redemption is particular, intended for the elect. From this perspective, "whosoever" is understood within the broader doctrinal framework where God's sovereign election and irresistible grace ensure that those who are predestined to salvation will indeed believe. The term is seen as inclusive of all who are ordained to eternal life and will come to faith through God's effectual calling.
The translation and interpretation of "whosoever" reveal the broader tension between human responsibility and divine sovereignty in salvation. This tension underscores the need for careful biblical exegesis, considering the whole counsel of Scripture rather than isolating individual verses. Understanding "whosoever" within the broader biblical narrative helps balance the universality of the gospel call with the particularity of divine election.
The theological weight given to "whosoever" also reflects historical and cultural influences on theological development. Different Christian traditions have emphasized various aspects of salvation doctrine, often in response to the theological and cultural challenges of their times. The emphasis on "whosoever" in Arminian circles is partly a historical product of these theological dialogues and controversies.
In conclusion, while the term "whosoever" in John 3:16 carries significant theological implications, it's crucial to interpret it its local context, in the context of the entire biblical narrative and in dialogue with the broader theological framework. Balancing the universality of the gospel invitation with the particularity of God's saving grace remains a profound and nuanced task, demanding a humble, prayerful, and comprehensive approach to Scripture.