“Many, in reaction to those who espouse an Arminian reading of John 3:16, have suggested that John only has the elect in view. The logic runs thus: If Jesus only died for the elect, then it is only the elect God loves. Therefore, since John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son…” then we must conclude that the world is shorthand for the elect.”
Legion have been the proposed explanations of John 3:16–what we may nostalgically call, “the end-zone verse.” It is safe to conclude that the better part of professing Christians in the Western world have consciously or unconsciously aligned themselves with the Arminian camp–insisting that this much beloved verse teaches us that God loves each and every individual; and, that, therefore, the Father sent the Son to die for each and every one. Yet, even within the Reformed tradition theologians have offered a variety of explanations concerning the meaning of the word “world” in our Lord’s statement.
B.B. Warfield, the great Princetonian theologian of a previous generation, explained what he saw as a large part of the hang up for so many who have adopted this view when he wrote:
“Strange as it may sound, it is true, that many—perhaps the majority—of those who feed their souls on this great declaration, seem to have trained themselves to think, when it falls upon their ears, in the first instance at least, not so much of how great—how immeasurably great—God’s love is, but rather of how great the world is.”
The Arminian position has, of course, has been solidly refuted by the Reformed. John Owen, in his prodigious work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, explained the biblical rationale for what theologians have called particular redemption or limited atonement (i.e. the teaching that the Son of God only laid down his life for the elect). He wrote:
“It was his ‘church’ which he ‘redeemed with his own blood,’ Acts 20:28; his ‘church’ that ‘he loved and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church,’ Eph. 5:25–27. They were his ‘sheep’ he ‘laid down his life for,’ John 10:15; and ‘appears in heaven for us,’ Heb. 9:24. Not one word of mediating for any other in the Scripture. Look upon his incarnation. It was ‘because the children were partakers of flesh and blood,’ chap. 2:14; not because all the world were so…’For their sakes,’ saith he, (‘those whom You have given me,’) ‘do I sanctify myself,’ John 17:19; that is, to be an oblation, which was the work he had then in hand. Look upon his resurrection: ‘He was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification,’ Rom. 4:25. Look upon his ascension: ‘I go,’ saith he, ‘to my Father and your Father, and that to prepare a place for you,’ John 14:2. Look upon his perpetuated intercession. Is it not to ‘save to the uttermost them that come unto God by him?’ Heb. 7:25. Not one word of this general mediation for all…he denies in plain terms to mediate for all: ‘I pray not,” saith he, “for the world, but for them which thou hast given me,’ John 17:9.”1
Jesus summarized this idea when he stated in no uncertain terms that he came to give his life “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) and that his body and blood were given “for many” for the remission of sin. Add to this, the fact that the OT prophets and the Apostles clearly teach that God has appointed some to eternal perdition (Prov. 16:4; Romans 9:22; 1 Peter 2:8). It is unthinkable that the Apostle John would then mean that God savingly loves each and every person who has every lived or who will ever live.