“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.” This verse has often been called such things as “the heart of the gospel.” Is this verse a declaration of the gospel? Is this verse a clarification of the gospel? Although this might be called the heart of the gospel, a heart doth not a full body make. How is I Corinthians 15:1-4 a more complete declaration of the gospel? “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”
John 3:16 is an important and wonderful verse, but very few people have ever spent much time studying it. It tells us something about the love of God, but it’s not what the unthinking think that it says. It tells us something about what the unsaved do at the time of their salvation, but it doesn’t say everything. What essential step is taken by sinners whom the Lord regenerates, which is not mentioned here? Does this verse say that everyone in the world will eventually be given eternal life? Does this verse say that God loves everyone in the world equally?
Let’s think about the infinitude of God’s sovereign love.
The term “world” in John 3:16 gives Bible scholars plenty of things about which to argue. There are three major ways to interpret this word, and there are probably three times as many subdivisions. Some think that the word “world” is speaking about all the people on the earth – past, present and future. Others think that it is refers to all of God’s elect. Others think that “world” refers to this planet and everything on it, including all the people, animals, plants, rivers and oceans and whatever else we might find here. Each of these interpretations is open to serious argument. First, give me a verse which teaches that the “world” should be identified with God’s elect. None? There isn’t a dictionary – English, Greek, or theological – which says that world is a synonym for God’s chosen people. If it did then it would throw dozens of other scriptures into confusion. Matthew 16:26 – “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” John 12:31 – “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” John 8:21-24 – “Then said Jesus again unto them, I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come. Then said the Jews, Will he kill himself? because he saith, Whither I go, ye cannot come. And he said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world. I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.” If the word “world” referred to all the people of the earth, then it would be very hard to explain why all those people aren’t saved. And the Bible very clearly says that there are people whom the Lord does not love. Romans 9:13 – “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Malachi 1:2-3 – “I have loved you, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob, And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.” There are people who try to say that God doesn’t really mean it when He says that He hated Esau. But Jehovah is not like a child who in the heat of the moment only says that he hates someone. If that’s what God says, then that it exactly what it means. In a way which is opposite to God’s love of Jacob, God hated Esau and still does. And then to say that God loves every item on earth equally is just plain silly. First of all, love involves relationships, which involves inclusions and exclusions. If you loved all the children of your neighborhood in just the same way as you do your own children, could it be said that you really love your children at all? They might not say that. If you loved your neighbor’s husband or wife in just the same way that you do yours, you would be guilty of some kind of immorality. Can God love a chunk of granite in the same what He loves His only begotten Son? And if someone wants to be that precise, then what about the poor planets Mars and Venus? Does God love the world, but not Jupiter and Satan? The question is silly.
One of the problems that we have in understanding God’s love involves the limitations of our nature. Everything that we think, see, touch or think about has limitations, except God. And furthermore it is impossible for us to imagine infinity. We can define it. What is infinity? (Having no boundaries or limits.) Other than simplistic descriptions, no one can remotely particularize it. If it were possible to subtract a billion years from eternity, what would be left? If the strongest man in the world held out his hand and you dropped a sesame seed into it, how much of his strength would he loose holding it for five seconds? It is impossible for us visualize the infinity of God. What is the maximum strength that the Lord has? How many PSI? With what can we measure the wrath of God? Is the cross a measure of the wrath of God? Are there areas of the divine nature that are less than infinite? Is God’s love limited? Each one of the explanations that I gave for the word “world” limit God’s love in some fashion or other, but Jehovah is limitless in every way.
There is another way to look at this verse which doesn’t limit God’s love. What if John 3:16 was speaking QUALITATIVELY rather than QUANTITATIVELY? It’s not talking about the size of earth, or the number of inhabitants, or the number of people God saves. What if we look at this verse as describing the absolutely horrible condition of the sin-filled universe. Not only is every human being born sinful, spiritually dead and absolutely rebellious towards God; Not only is man born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward; But creation itself has been cursed by God because of man’s sin. In relation to the infinite holiness and perfection of the Lord, what redeeming traits do sinful men possess? When the holy seraphim cover their faces in the presence of Jehovah, what should sinful men do? This verse says that despite our absolutely horrible sinful condition, God so loved the cosmos, the world, creation, that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should have everlasting life.
Something else, besides eternality, that is very different between God and His creation is His independency. How dependent is a new born baby on his mother or some other adult? How dependent are we on other people? How much of our love for others is somehow dependent upon that other person? How dependent are we on the Lord? In what ways? How much does the Lord need you and me? How dependent is He upon us? Is God’s love in some way based upon who we are or what we have done? If God’s love is not dependent upon the one whom He loves, could we say that it is independent? What are some synonyms for “independent”? (Autonomous, sovereign.) Does that mean that God can do whatever He chooses to do without limit or constraint? What is to stop God from loving someone more than someone else? Could God love someone whom we might think is totally unlovable? Could it be that God might not love someone at all? To say that He could not choose to not love someone, would be to reduce Jehovah to something less than omnipotent and less than God. Would His not loving someone mean that His love was not infinite?
Is there a way to measure God’s love for His Son? What are some reasons that a human father might love his son? Could it be said that fathers’ love their sons because they love themselves? Is there really such a thing among humans as absolute selfless love? Why do we have to be commanded to love others? Over and over again, what is the qualification that the Bible puts on the command to love others? Leviticus 19:18 – “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:34 – “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Galatians 5:14 – “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” James 2:8 – “If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well.” Why is it natural for us to love ourselves? (Because that is something that the Lord does.) If the Lord doesn’t love the world because the world deserves to be loved, why then does He love? God loves sovereignly; without respect to persons or human qualifications. Why does that thought anger so many people? (Could it be from our self-love?)
God’s sacrificial love is at the heart of the gospel.
Why has God chosen to make the sacrifice necessary to save souls? (Because of His love.) There many verses which echo Psalm 79:9 – “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name: and deliver us, and purge away our sins, for thy name’s sake.” Would it be acceptable to substitute “thy love’s sake” in verses like this?
But that divine self-originating love which eventually resulted in our salvation, conflicts with another love. How much does God the Father love his only begotten Son? Those words “only begotten” speak of the infinitely close relationship between the Father and the Son. Is there a human relationship that can be used to adequately illustrate that love? Is there a human son who can say, “I and my father are one”? Is there a human being anywhere who can say, “He that hath seen me hath seen my father”?
God so loved sinful men that for them he gave that perfect Son of His love. He surrendered, he sacrificed, He gave up His only begotten Son in order to save a few of us. I John 4:10 – “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Could God redeem all of humanity and take them to Himself, if He chose to do so? If he did it, wouldn’t He have to force salvation upon them? Since God is love, He has chosen to save by love, not coercion. Could God have sold salvation, and if so what would the price have been? Could God have sold salvation at the maximum price that finite creatures could pay? He could have demanded absolute perfection; perfect obedience, perfect love, perfect hearts. How many people would the Lord save in such a case? Rather than demand perfection or something less than perfection, He chose to save through love – His love.
Does God’s love save all men? Clearly this verse tells us that only those who believe on the Son will have eternal life. This verse is just one of dozens and dozens which talk about the necessity of faith and repentance. Does that mean that God’s love is less than infinite since He doesn’t save everyone? We cannot say that because we do not understand God’s infinite love. Well then why doesn’t God save everyone? Some people say that God saves believers as a revelation of His love, and He damns unbelievers as a manifestation of His justice. Is that true? In part. All unbelievers spurn God’s love. If that love was small it would be a small sin to reject it. If that love was great it would be a great sin. But God’s love is infinite, making it a sin of infinite proportions. Because God’s love is so infinitely great, the unrepenting, unbeliever must suffer eternal punishment.
How is God’s love related to the entire world? How accurate is it to link God’s love to His grace? If we want to equate His love to His grace then the fact that the world hasn’t been consumed by fire, is an indication of God’s love. Again, it’s not because the sinful world deserves continued existence, because it doesn’t. The world is still here because God is love. In that sense God loves the world. But that isn’t what John 3:16 is saying.
Let’s use I John 2:2 to try to explain. Christ Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” This is a perplexing verse to a great many people. Taken the way that most people want to define the word “world” then every person who ever lived either is, or will eventually be, saved. Is that logical? Is that scriptural? What does that do to all those verses which teach us about Hell and the Lake of Fire?
This can only make sense if it is saying that God will be saving people from out of the whole world. When Jesus took the gospel to Samaria there were a number of Samaritan people saved. And they said, “Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.” The Son of God saves not only Jews, but Samaritans. In John 12 a group of Greeks came to Christ seeking salvation and Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” God has bestowed His love upon the world by selectively saving people from every corner of that world.
This is the meaning of I Timothy 2:4 when Paul says that God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” Either God is helpless in saving people, and a failure at saving every individual soul even though He would really like to. Or this verse is saying that it is the Lord’s intention to save individuals from around the world. In heaven there shall be saved souls from every tribe, every tongue, and every nation. It will be because God so loved the world. The Lord has a universal love, an infinite love in a way that only God can love. But it doesn’t imply the salvation of everyone.
The only way that we can ever begin to understand this subject is to empty our minds of what we think that we know about love, especially about God’s love, and then to take all that the Bible says about the subject, and believe it all in the context of everything else that God says. Let God be praised that there is even a single sinful soul saved. And God be thanked eternally and profusely that He has given us confidence of our salvation.