“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3.16).
Modern Calvinist and nonCalvinist Southern Baptists tussle over John 3:16. Who exactly owns the deed to this hallowed ground? NonCalvinists insist the “whosoever will” is an impossible hurdle for Calvinists to jump. Calvinists insist “whosoever will” implies “whosoever can” which demands the sovereignly granted ability to believe.
I wonder if we’ve missed the forest for the trees. Have we isolated v16 so much that it has lost its place in the context?
Despite the red letters in most English Bibles, Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus probably ends at v15. John’s commentary probably begins in v16. And the verse might well hinge a couple of words: the one little Greek word houtos (“so”) and the meaning of “the world” (ton cosmon).
1. Houtos (“so”). A world of interpretation rests on that little word. For some, “so” speaks to the measure of God’s love, it’s width and breadth (“For God soooooooo loved the world”). That is, God loved so many people in so many places that he granted them the freedom and ability to believe in Jesus. In this case, “so” (houtos) qualifies the “whoever” that believes. “So” necessitates the ability of “whoever” to believe.
We must affirm and proclaim God’s exhausting love for sinners whoever and wherever they are. But I’m not sure the focus of John 3:16 is on how much of the world God loves, but on the way in which God loves it.
The word houtos (“so”) always refers to “in like manner” or “in this way.” (Ironically, this is captured by the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the Southern Baptists’ newly-favored translation!) For example, I might teach my son to throw a baseball by throwing one myself and then say, “Son, you do like so.” That is, “You throw it the way I threw it.”
We need only back up a couple of verses to see John is doing the same thing. John 3.14-15 read, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so [houtos] must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” That is, in the way Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (Num 21.9) the Son of Man will be lifted up. And that for the purpose of securing eternal life for all who believe.
Verse 16 mirrors vv14-15. God “so” loved the world means “this is the way or manner by/in which God has loved the world.” He loved the world by giving his only Son for salvation. Verse 16b echoes v15: the purpose for God lifting up the Son like Moses did the serpent is for the eternal life for all who believe. As God loved Israel by giving them the bronze serpent, he loves the world by giving it his Son.
Consider John 3.8 where Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so (houtos) is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” God effects regeneration by the Holy Spirit in the same way the wind blows: mysteriously, but demonstrably. The Spirit causes new birth in the manner that the unseen wind blows.
The focus of John 3:16 is not on how many people God loves (though that be many, deep and wide). The focus is on how God loves and what exactly he loves. John is not so much interested in how many will believe and by what ability, but on God’s great love for a hostile, rebellious world that he would send His only Son to save it. John exalts Jesus as the sole means of salvation for any and all who believe (however many that is and by whatever ability they do so). John’s interest is the same as Jesus’ interest: the Son of Man.
2. “World”. Further, it is indeed “the world” (ton cosmon) God loved. Again, many take “world” to refer to the extent of God’s love. The “world” means every single person in every single place. But John does not intend it to be taken so (pun intended). “World” is not a quantitative word, but a qualitative one. God loved the world not because of how big it is, but how bad it is (D.A. Carson). That is to say, God loved the realm of wholesale cosmic rebellion in this way: he sent his Only Son to save rebels. The emphasis is on the remarkable nature of God that he would send his most treasured Possession to save his most offensive enemies.
In no way do I mean to explain away the breadth of God’s love. But we do well to recover the main thrust of John 3:16. Jesus and John would not have us exalt the unrestrained ability of men everywhere to believe (that case might be made elsewhere). They would have us exalt the inestimable and unrestrained love God has for such a rebellious universe that he would send his Son to save it. We are to rejoice that God loved this kind of place (the “world”) in this kind of way (sending Jesus). Who but God would or could do such a thing? In the end, neither Jesus nor John leave us comforted by the ability of anyone to believe but on impulse of God to eternally save us through his Son. John 3:16 is hopeful not because of man’s ability (such as it is) but on God’s liberality; not on what man is able to do but on what God has done.