The world represents sinful humanity and is not worthy of God’s saving love. Apart from the love of God, the world stands under God’s condemnation. But in Christ, believers experience God’s surprising, redeeming, and never-ending love.
One of the most surprising twists of John 3:16 is that we are told God loves the world. We might be tempted to think that there is much about the world for God to love. After all, what’s not to admire about cityscapes and farmlands, fine cuisine and backyard barbecues, classical symphonies and folk ballads, Renaissance paintings and kindergarten squiggles? The world we know is filled with texture, intrigue, opportunity, and cheer. The problem is that for all that is good and interesting and beautiful about the world, it is overrun with sinners. Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, the world has become a wasteland. No matter how wonderful the world may appear, it is not worthy of God’s redeeming love.
Understanding how undeserving the world is of God’s love is the key to John 3:16. Only then will we appreciate the unexpected gift that God gives. This point was well made many years ago by the esteemed theologian Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. In his sermon “God’s Immeasurable Love,” Warfield probes the meaning of the term “world” (Greek kosmos) in John 3:16 in order to plumb the depths of God’s love.
What is the meaning of “world” in this passage? Drawing from the insights of Warfield, there are four possible answers.
In the first place, many people believe that “world” means all people without exception. In other words, when John 3:16 says that God loves the world, it means that He loves every person, head for head, equally. The logic goes something like this: God loves every person; Christ died for every person; therefore, salvation is possible for every person. However, this view seems to suggest that God’s love is impotent and Christ’s death is ineffectual. Otherwise, the natural conclusion of this position would be that every person is actually saved rather than just potentially saved. If God loves every person, and Christ died for every person, and God’s love is not impotent, and Christ’s death is not ineffectual, then the only conclusion one can draw is that salvation has been secured for every person. Yet this viewpoint contradicts the Bible’s teaching on God’s judgment as is evidenced by the immediate context in John 3:17–21.