Some may not think I’m a Calvinist when it comes to John 3:16. Actually, I’m a John Calvinist when I interpret this verse (double entendre intended). I don’t think the verse (and its larger context) is simply designed to teach people biblical doctrines or facts, such as “God loves sinners” or “believers go to heaven.” It has a larger aim. Namely, God through the apostle John wants to solicit a faith-response on the part of the reader.
When a Little Greek Is Not Enough
Some Calvinists with a little Greek under their belt are quick to tell us that the reading of the AV, “whosoever believeth in him,” is mistaken. The Greek features a participle in the nominative case (ο πιστευων) modified by the adjective “all” (πας). Hence, they argue, John is simply stating a fact: “all believers [i.e., the elect] go to heaven.”
Unfortunately, this is a case where knowing a little Greek vocabulary, grammar, and syntax is not enough. One must grasp the larger picture of how language works, that is, the science of linguistics. Language is much more flexible than many realize, and it doesn’t take an imperative or cohorative to express a command, directive, or entreaty. Consequently, it’s not enough to parse verbs correctly and arrive at a “literal” rendering of the text. The interpreter must look for the rhetorical strategy behind the text. This is certainly the case with so famous a verse as John 3:16.
Let me explain my reasoning.
Daddy Bought Some Ice-cream
We all know that indicatives or interrogatives can be used as “directives.” “Honey, I don’t have any blue socks” is a spousal plea for help. “Where are the napkins?” is an indirect request for table service (at least in my home). “Boys, your room is a mess” isn’t simply the conveyance of information (which they probably already know); it’s an implied command, viz., “Clean up your room!”
Allow me to use an example more apropros of our text.
When I inform my five children at the dinner table, “Children, Daddy bought a gallon of “Moose Tracks” ice-cream so that all those who finish their supper might enjoy a tasty dessert,” I’m not simply stating a fact or describing a (potential) state of affairs. Actually, my remark is rhetorical. There’s an illocutionary1 intent behind it designed to solicit their compliance and to promote their happiness. My announcement at the dinner table would be semantically equivalent to the following: “Children, I want you to finish your dinner and in order to motivate you to do so I’ve purchased a gallon of your favorite ice-cream as a reward for those who comply with my wish.”
Look & Live!
John 3:16 probably begins an explanatory remark the apostle John appended to Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus (3:1-15). The conjunction “for” (Greek: γαρ) makes the connection obvious.
Jesus had told the Jewish religious teacher, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14-15). The Lord is alluding to an incident in Israel’s wilderness wanderings. The Israelites grumbled against Yahweh and Moses (Num 21:5). So God afflicted the murmurers with poisonous snakes resulting in the death of many (21:6). When the people acknowledged their sin and asked Moses to intercede (21:7), Yahweh responded to Moses with the following instructions:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num 21:8).
It’s unlikely that God’s words were intended for Moses’ ears alone. He wasn’t merely preparing Moses for what would happen as dying Israelites happened (by chance) to gaze on the bronze serpent. It’s more likely that what God communicated to Moses, Moses, in turn, communicated to the Israelites. And that bare statement of fact, i.e., “anyone bitten shall live when he looks at it,” was designed to solicit a response from the dying Israelites. Rhetorically, it functioned as a directive: “Look and live.”
“So so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” says Jesus (3:15), and the gospel hymnwriter doesn’t miss the link:
“Look and live,” my brother, live,
Look to Jesus now, and live;
‘Tis recorded in His word, Hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”
Believe & Live!
Expanding on Jesus’ words, the apostle renders the redemptive-historical portrait in full-technicolor. Just as Yahweh showed unexpected grace to that ungodly lot of unworthy Israelites, so God surprisingly loves the fallen human race (κοσμος)2 to such an extent (ουτως)3 that he sends His Only Son.
It’s the utter sinfulness of the human race that renders God’s love so surprising and extravagant. The effect is, Wow! how could God love a race of such evil people! As Donald Carson remarks, “God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad.”4
But why does the apostle underscore the greatness of God’s love? Is it simply to assure the elect that God loves them and that they’re going to heaven? I think not.
Just as Moses lifted the serpent to solicit a remedial look, so the apostle John with illocutionary intent shows God the Father raising up the Son as a standard in order to solicit a saving look from “whosoever” desires not to perish but to live forever. In other words, God has provided the all-sufficient remedy. Therefore, anyone and everyone who would not perish but live should believe. So John 3:16 isn’t primarily a commentary on God’s special love for the elect as it is an invitation based on God’s gracious love toward Adam’s fallen race to the end that they might “believe and live!” Such a reading agrees with John’s primary purpose for writing the Gospel:
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (emphasis added; John 20:31).
Good Ol’ John Calvin
Unlike some Calvinists who restrict John 3:16 to a simple affirmation of God’s effectual redeeming love for the “elect-world,”5 John Calvin, I think, appreciated the rhetorical nature of John 3:16. “It is true that Saint John says generally, that he loved the world,” Calvin observes. “And why?” Calvin queries. His answer: “For Jesus Christ offers himself generally to all men without exception to be their redeemer” (emphasis added).6 In other words, the divine love of John 3:16 “extends to all men” in Calvin’s view. More importantly, Calvin ascertained the illocutionary force of the words:
For men are not easily convinced that God loves them; and so, to remove all doubt, He has expressly stated that we are so dear to God that for our sakes He did not spare even His only begotten son…. and He has used a general term, both to invite indiscriminately all to share in life and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the significance of the term ‘world’ which He had used before. For although there is nothing in the world deserving of God’s favour, He nevertheless shows He is favourable [Latin, propitium: propitious, merciful, favourable] to the whole world when He calls all without exception to the faith of Christ, which is indeed an entry into life.7
Preach It! Brother
Just because you’re a Calvinist doesn’t mean you’ve got to reserve John 3:16 for the saints. It’s designed for sinners too. It has an evangelistic aim. Therefore, don’t just preach the facts of God’s benevolent love and Jesus’ incarnation. Don’t just tell your congregation that believers go to heaven. Use the text as a gospel invitation. Entreat all and every sinner to “look and live.” And if someone questions whether you’re truly a Calvinist, you can reply, “I’m a ‘John (3:16) Calvinist.”
1 Illocutionary: “pertaining to a linguistic act performed by a speaker in producing an utterance, as suggesting, warning, promising, or requesting.” From the Random House Dictionary 2010, s.v.
2 Here, the term κοσμος carries ethical overtones and refers to “mankind as alienated from God, unredeemed and hostile to him” (Friberg, s.v.). This usage is pervasive in Johannine literature: John 1:10; 3:17, 19; 7:7; 8:12, 23, 26; 9:5; 12:31, 46-47; 14:17, 19, 30-31; 15:18-19; 16:8, 11, 20; 17:6, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25; 1 John 2:2; 3:1, 13; 4:5, 14; 5:19; Rev 12:9.
3 The Greek ουτως (houtôs) can refer either to the intensity or extent of a verbal idea, i.e., “so much,” or to the manner of a verbal idea, i.e., “in this way.” It should be noted that the construction here features the adverb ουτως followed by the conjunction ωστε (hôste). Where this construction occurs elsewhere in the NT, the emphasis seems to be on the quality of the verbal idea: “they spoke so effectively (ουτως) that (ωστε) a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed” (Act 14:1 NIV). Accordingly, I’m inclined toward the idea of the quality or extent of God’s love, i.e., God loved the world so much that ….” In a similar vein, D. A. Carson notes, “The Greek construction behind so loved that he gave his one and only Son (houtôs plus hôste plus the indicative instead of the infinitive) emphasizes the intensity of love” (emphasis added). The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 204. Cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 229; William Hendrickson, Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1953), 139.
4 Ibid., 205.
5 For instance, in his treatise The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen paraphrases John 3:16 as follows: “‘God’ the Father ‘so loved,’ had such a peculiar, transcendent love, being an unchangeable purpose and act of his will concerning their salvation, towards ‘the world,’ miserable, sinful, lost men of all sorts, not only Jews but Gentiles also, which he peculiarly loved, ‘that,’ intending their salvation, as in the last words, for the praise of his glorious grace, ‘he gave,’ he prepared a way to prevent their everlasting destruction, by appointing and sending ‘his only-begotten Son’ to be an all-sufficient Saviour to all that look up unto him, ‘that whosoever believeth in Him,’ all believers whatsoever, and only they, ‘should not perish, but have everlasting life,’ and so effectually be brought to the obtaining of those glorious things through him which the Lord in his free love had designed for them” (emphasis his). The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 10:320. So for Owen, “the world” refers to elect Jews and Gentiles, the objects of God’s “peculiar” love. However, there are problems with this approach. First, even if one grants that “world” may here be a reference to “all sorts of people” in an ethnic sense, i.e., both Jews and Gentiles, there’s nothing in the context that constrains a further limitation to elect Jews and Gentiles. One would have to assume that the divine love here envisioned is God’s electing love, rather than his benevolent love toward the fallen race at large. But the wider context suggests the focus is on sinners in need of redemption and not simply the elect in need of redemption. Indeed, interpreting “world” as “world-of-the-elect” makes the following verse (3:17) into a superfluous truism. Why does the reader need assurance that God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the elect? Second, the subsequent context (vv. 18-21) makes believers a subset of “the world,” which also includes unbelievers. See also John 1:10-13, where “as many as receive” Christ (v. 12), who are born of God (v. 13), are not coterminous with “the world” (v. 10) or the Jews (v. 11), that is, “all sorts of people,” but are a subset.
6 Sermons on Deuteronomy: Facsimile of the 1583 Edition (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 167. [Note: the archaic spellings in the facsimile edition have been updated for readability.]
7 Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 74.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.