A reader, after digesting the post entitled Is God in Control?, has posed a few questions. Here is the first part:
‘In this blog you mention, “God elected certain men to salvation before the foundation of the world. Christ secured their salvation at the cross, dying for sin.” Some people may ask what John 3:16 means based on what you have said. Why did Jesus say, “For God so loved the world…” if He was only talking to the “elected certain men”? After all, it was “their” salvation He died for, right?’
Let’s first read this famous verse within its immediate context.
Note: This text is all part of a dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. Jesus is explaining to him the concept of being born-again in order to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus compares the work of the Holy Spirit to that of the blowing wind. No one knows where it comes from or where it goes. This speaks of the sovereignty of God in salvation and the shroud of mystery surrounding it.
After Jesus explained these concepts, he continued on with the following words:
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. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (John 3:16-21)
This verse is often used by supporters of a universal atonement. There are two schools of thought associated with this term. The first believes Christ’s death redeemed every person who has ever lived or ever will live. The other system, adhered to by the majority of evangelical Christianity believes Christ’s death made all people savable. Man’s personal acts of repentance and trust in Christ completes the work Jesus began on the cross. It is this view I will address.
John 3:16 actually does not define the scope of Christ’s work. Although it states clearly God’s love for the world, it does not say Jesus died for the redemption of ever single person who has taken a breath in this world. The text demonstrates God’s compassion, and the means by which His mercy is applied to the lost sinner. It is a covenantal promise from God to his people. Believe and inherit eternal life. Do not believe and perish.
Let’s break the verse down.
First, ‘For God so loved the world’ does not in itself say God loves all people in the world in the same way. I will explain in more detail below. Also, the terms ‘all’ and ‘world’ as used in the bible do not always (or even the majority of the time) mean every single person in the world inclusively. I will delve into this aspect in my articles on Particular Redemption.
‘That he gave his only begotten Son’ I believe, refers back to v.14. God giving his Son is reference to him being ‘lifted up’ at the cross. God gave Jesus as the great offering for sin, that through the shedding of his blood, all the trespasses of those he died for would be washed away, never to be remembered.
Lastly, let’s examine ‘That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ This is the key to understanding God’s love for the world. This is the great barrier all men stand against, in the struggle to gain God’s acceptance. All religions in the world seek to please their respective deities by performing a variety of religious duties. In Christianity, God has performed all the righteousness required to please Him through the life and death of Jesus Christ. He walked perfectly in his time here, being tempted with sin but without giving in to its deceitful pleasures. The only requirements God has stipulated to attain the righteousness of Christ through imputation is repentance from sin and belief in Christ as the Savior from our sins. God in His infinite mercy has made the way of salvation very simple. Yet, as Jesus himself said.
Enter in through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad the way that leads to destruction and many enter in thereby. But narrow is the gate and difficult is the way to life and few enter therein. (Mat 7:13-14)
Why is this so? John 3:19-20 gives us some understanding. Men love darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil. Every one that does evil despises the light and won’t come to Christ because he is fearful of having his deeds reproved. This is man’s chief problem and the reason why the gospel is often despised and rejected by men. Our pride demands justification for all our works. The gospel smashes all our deeds into dust. All our righteousness is like filthy rags, a stench in God’s nostrils. Man’s natural pride and arrogance cannot stomach the notion of utter moral failure, it cannot accept the hard truth of the depravity of human nature. An impassable obstacle stands between man and salvation; repentance and belief. If natural man loves darkness, hates the light and refuses to step into its cleansing purity, salvation is an impossible achievement. Humbly repenting of sins against God becomes a stumbling block. During Christ’s earthly ministry he made a powerful statement to the disciples following his conversation with the rich young ruler who turned away from salvation because of his wealth.
‘Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible’. (Mat 19:23-26)
What is impossible for rich men is also impossible for all men. Salvation lies outside of himself. Only the riches of God’s grace makes redemption possible. This is a great demonstration of His love. God does indeed ‘so love the world that He gave his only begotten Son’. God presents Jesus to the entire world as the only means of salvation. No one comes to the Father but by Jesus. This is the universal call God gives to the whole world. God was sincere in telling the Apostles to preach the gospel to every creature. Why? Because the gospel message applies to all people equally. For all have sinned. All are in desperate need of God’s forgiveness. All need the blood of Christ to cleanse them of unrighteousness. However, the stumbling blocks of repentance and belief hinder all people from receiving their salvation. The call to repentance is indeed for all the world to heed. But Jesus said,
‘Many are called few are chosen.’ (Mat 22:14)
The gospel call goes out to every tribe, tongue and nation. This is the outward call, the open proclamation of gospel truths. In Revelation 5:9 the redeemed,
‘sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;’
Those redeemed by the blood receive God’s inward call, they are born-again by the Holy Spirit. They were chosen out of the world to be God’s very own. In this sense, ‘God so loves the world’ refers to those whom are called and to those whom are chosen out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation. God’s elect are a diverse group, representing every classification of people who have ever lived upon the earth. This clearly demonstrates God’s loving kindness and mercy. God was in no way obligated to save a single sinner from the flames of hell. God’s election demonstrates the breadth and depth of his compassion for lost sinners.
In summary, God demonstrates His love through Christ’s death and resurrection. This love is universal. All men everywhere are called to repent and believe the gospel. No one is excluded. However, the natural enmity of men’s hearts toward God prevent them from bowing humbly at the foot of the cross. They have no natural desire to.
God’s love is truly exalted through His election of certain men. This love is particular. It is a focused love, a purposed love, a love for men from every era, every race, every nation and every clan. The blood of Jesus was shed for the express intention of rescuing their souls from everlasting darkness. God knows His beloved by name. He calls them, justifies them, clothes them in robes of righteousness and preserves them through the suffering and trials of this life. In the end God glorifies them, making them kings and priests of His eternal kingdom. God is love.
Here is the next part of the reader’s question:
‘In that same scripture, Jesus also mentions, “…that whoever believes in Him…” Would this indicate an element of choice? It kinda hints at IF you believe in Him. It gives the notion that there is a choice, much like Deuteronomy 30:19 “I call on heaven and earth as witnesses today that I have offered you life or death, blessings or curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants will live.” Is this not God giving us a choice to choose?’
Calvinists do not deny that man has the capacity and liberty to choose. We believe his liberty and choices are constrained by the desires of his heart. The natural heart does not have the capacity to believe in Christ for salvation. A new heart must be given Him, and this only by the will of God and by the work of the Spirit. Man with a new heart will willingly choose to repent of his sins and commit himself to Jesus Christ.
The whole 30th chapter of Deuteronomy, in fact, exhorts Israel to obey God’s statutes. It appears to indicate eternal life can be attained simply by making right choices.
A couple of scriptures in and around those passages reveal that God is indeed the first cause of our love and obedience. Look at Deut 29:2-4.
And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them, Ye have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land; The great temptations which thine eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles: Yet the LORD hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.
Also, check out Deut 30:5-6.
And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.
These verses clearly show God’s supernatural intervention is required in order for people to:
A: Perceive His word
B: See clearly His will
C: Hear correctly His commands
D: Love Him with all their heart
E: Love Him with all their soul
The Lord does this by giving them a new heart. That concept is easy enough to grasp. God replaces our stony hearts and replaces them with hearts of flesh. The term ‘circumcising thine heart’ is connected with the concept of covenant. God required Israel to circumcise male children as an outward or fleshly sign of the covenant. God circumcising the heart is the inward or spiritual sign of the covenant. Many Israelites under the old covenant perished though they were God’s chosen people. They had the outward sign of the covenant, circumcision, but were not circumcised in their hearts. Only the elect of God were given the inner sign of God’s covenant, sealing forever their eternal salvation.
In conclusion, I’d just like to add this thought. In John 3:21, Jesus sums up the theology of ‘whosoever believes’.
‘But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.’
Whosoever believes in Christ is manifesting a work that begins, endures and ends with and in God. Amen!