John 3:16

In our short series of sermons on this famous verse we have so far said that it belongs to a large class of texts that cast the saving intention of the Father and Son in universalist terms. “God so loved the world…” Here we don’t read that Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, or that Christ came to save his people from their sins, but that God so loved the world. However we defenders of divine election and definite atonement may emphasize texts that qualify the objects of God’s saving love and Christ’s atonement, we must do equal justice to another class of texts of which John 3:16 is a famous exemplar. There is a wideness to God’s mercy and John 3:16 is meant to emphasize that fact. As P.T. Forsyth, the twentieth century English Congregationalist, once wrote:

“We were created by God [and, we would add, recreated by him] not out of his poverty and his need of company, but out of his overflowing wealth of love and his passion to multiply joy.” [This Live and the Next, 13]

That was our first point. Then, last time, we considered the theological presuppositions that lie, often unrecognized, beneath John 3:16, a statement that is too often read without regard for the complex theology that it contains. We noticed that we have here a statement of the nature of God (in particular his love and justice), of his triple personality (the Father sent the Son), of the incarnation (the Father gave or sent the Son), of the nature of faith in the economy of grace (whoever believes in him), and of the alternative destinies of hell or heaven (perish or have everlasting life), there being no other possibility.

Now, I want us to consider this evening the great statement: “God so loved the world.” The Bible has much to say about the love of God, to be sure. We are even told in 1 John that God is love. But perhaps nowhere else in the Bible is there as much to be learned about the nature and quality of the love of God as here in John 3:16.

We have already considered the importance of the fact that God loved the world in our first sermon on this text. We return to this point in the last, but in order to say much more about this divine love that brought the Savior into the world. We have noted already that the statement that God so loved the world emphasizes the breadth of God’s love. But there is more to say about the importance of this word “world” in John 3:16. That God loved the world tells us more than simply that God has a very great love because it was pitched upon the whole world and not only on a single race or people. We Calvinists need to pay special attention to this emphasis, as I said. We who believe in a discriminating, electing love of God must never allow that discrimination to interfere with our sense of the immensity of God’s love. If you add Calvinist soteriology with its doctrine of sovereign grace to the Lord’s statements about the narrow gate and the narrow road that leads to life and the few who are found on it or that many are called but few are chosen, there is a very real danger that we will come to think of the  redeemed as a community comparatively so small as to be scarcely worth saving, and, embarrassing as it is to admit, there have been Calvinists and others through the ages who have spoken about God’s love in such a way. There is even a doctrine that one can find in some presentations of the faith that bears the Latin name paucitas salvandorum, that is, the doctrine of the fewness of the saved.

In one of his typically magisterial articles, this one entitled “Are They Few That Be Saved,” the great Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield begins by demonstrating that highly influential Christian theologians have taught this doctrine. John Gerhard, perhaps the greatest of Lutheran systematic theologians, writing in the eighteenth century, lists the characteristics of those he refers to as “the object of eternal life,’ and observes that “they are first of all ‘few.’” Gerhard admits that the number of elect, taken by itself, is large; but comparatively, that is in comparison with those who are lost, the number is small. Andrew Quenstedt, Gerhard’s nephew and another immensely influential Lutheran theologian of the scholastic period, in his large systematic theology enumerated the “attributes” of the elect and the reprobate, the saved and the lost. The first attribute mentioned in each case were “fewness” in respect to the saved and “multitudinous” in respect to the lost. [Biblical and Theological Studies, 334-335] But it isn’t just the Lutherans.

Warfield quotes Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Reformed theologian, who wrote,

“The human race is thus to be compared to a tree which has been pruned and now again shoots up in a smaller size. The ruin of the genus humanum is not restored in its entirety; it becomes in its reconstitution an organism of smaller proportions.” [337]

Almost invariably such conclusions are based on the statements of the Lord Jesus in the Gospels that many are called but few are chosen and that the road to everlasting life is narrow and there are few who can be found walking on it.

But, says Warfield, these vivid and memorable statements cannot be made to support the tremendous conclusion that is built upon them. They were uttered at a particular time and place when the kingdom was very small indeed and they were intended as an argument to persuade people to be serious about their own salvation, the very thing that so many people then were not. He was warning them against a false presumption, a spiritual failing common to his contemporaries and to a great many in the church in ages since. Such statements were not at the time and are not now in the Bible a statement of the final number of the saved in comparison with the lost or of what must be true at all times and in all places. Warfield wisely observes that there is no more reason to take those statements of the Lord to teach that the number of those saved will be much smaller than the number of those lost than to take the Lord’s parable of the ten virgins, five who were wise and five who were foolish, to teach that the number of the lost and the saved will be precisely the same or to take the parable of the wheat and the tares to teach that the lost shall be a much smaller number than the saved. [342-343] His point is that these famous statements of the Lord were pastoral in nature, not theological assertions, and cannot be proved to have been intended to sum up the whole history of redemption. [344]

I have, for example, collected through the years a number of citations from great preachers and writers who ring the changes on these dominical utterances concerning the narrow way or that many are called but few that are chosen. But whether it is Calvin or Rutherford or Bunyan they are all making the same point. “Take care of your salvation. Don’t presume; make sure.  Take whatever steps may be required.” Here is Rutherford:

“A cause is not good because it is followed by many. Men come to Zion in ones and twos out of a whole tribe, but they go to hell in their thousands. The way to heaven is overgrown with grass; there are the traces of but few feet on that way, only you may see here and there on it the footprints of Christ’s bloody feet to let you know that you are not gone wrong but are still on the right way.” [Cited in Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, 116]

Now that is a quintessential Rutherford paragraph! And, no doubt, that is usually true. It was certainly true in Rutherford’s 17th century Scotland.It was still more true in first century Palestine. But that is hardly the same thing as saying that it will always be the case and that the prospect of a great age of salvation in the future might not dramatically alter the relative size of the saved and the lost. After all, usually the Bible describes the company of the saved as a host as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.

Warfield concluded his article by reminding his readers how many theologians there have been who have explicitly repudiated the doctrine of paucitas salvandorum and taught instead that the number of the saved will far exceed the number of the lost. Among the American Presbyterians this was the view of Charles Hodge, Robert Dabney, and W.G.T. Shedd. In that article and in others he wrote on similar themes, including a famous sermon on John 3:16, Warfield developed a doctrine that has been called “Calvinistic universalism.”  In view of John 3:16 and a host of other texts, especially those that describe the company of the saved as an impossibly great host — ten thousand times ten thousand, a symbolic use of numbers that conveys immeasurable size (Rev. 5:11) — or those that say such things as that the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the water covers the sea or that all the nations of the world will stream into Jerusalem, Warfield argued that it was inconceivable that Jesus Christ should be the Savior of the world, as John says he is in 4:42 or when he says in 12:32 that Christ will draw all people to himself, I say Warfield argued that it is inconceivable that Jesus should be the Savior of the world and yet not save a majority of the world’s people. [Paul Helm, “Are They Few That Be Saved,” Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, 266-267]

“In Warfield’s view God’s saving purposes widen through history, rather as a ripple in a pool. By a process of development, first Israel and then the Christian church…enlarge the circle of God’s saving grace until it embraces the vast majority of men and women, ‘the world’. The lost are ‘the prunings’ [not the tree].” [267]

“To argue whether ‘the world’ in John 3:16 means ‘all men’ or ‘some men’…and whether, if it means some men, it means ‘few men,’ completely misses John’s meaning. For John is emphasizing, in using that expression, the quality or degree of God’s love.” 268]

“In other words, Christ saved the world, even though there are individual people who are not saved.” [Helm, 268] I do think there is much to be said for the conclusion that the number of the saved will be at the end of human history not only be immense in absolute terms but much larger than the number of the lost. Here is the point made in Charles Spurgeon’s inimitable style.

“Some narrow minded bigots think that heaven will be a very small place, where there will be a very few people, who went to their chapel or their church. I confess, I have no wish for a very small heaven, and love to read in the Scriptures that there are many mansions in my Father’s house. How often do I hear people say, ‘Ah! Strait is the gate and narrow is the way, and few there be that find it. There will be very few in heaven; there will be most lost.’ My friend I differ from you. Do you think that Christ will let the devil beat him? That he will let the devil have more in hell than there will be in heaven? No; it is impossible. For then Satan would laugh at Christ. There will be more in heaven than there are among the lost. There will be a host beyond all count who will get into heaven. What glad tidings for you and for me! For if there are so many to be saved why should not I be saved? Why should not you? …if there were but half-a-dozen saved, I might fear that I should not be one; but since many are come, why should not I also be saved?” [NPSP, vol. 1, 303]

Now I mention all of that to emphasize the fact that by saying that “God so loved the world…” John was manifestly not limiting or minimizing the love of God, but exalting it. It takes a great deal of love to love the world as opposed to some people here or there; to love a great host of men and women, boys and girls, than to love a comparatively few individuals.

And if, as the Bible definitely teaches, the love of God is personal and particular, if God loves not humanity en masse but individual human beings — as Paul reminds us, Christ loved me and gave himself for me — then he must have an impossibly great capacity for love to love so many individuals in that personal and particular way. Think of your own love. You love, really love, a very few individuals, don’t you? Someone like Tolstoy might profess a great love for mankind, but like many others who imagine themselves great lovers of people, he didn’t love any particular person very much. I believe that most of you have a great and genuine love for some people, a love you not only feel but practice, but the people you love are those who are closely connected to you either by blood or by circumstance. If you are a serious Christian it probably bothers you, as it does me, that we really love so few people. But it is very hard, if not impossible, for us really to love — ardently, constantly, and sacrificially — very many people. We simply don’t have the capacity. But God does! He loves a great host of individual people, a larger number than any of us here can contemplate, really loves them, passionately loves them.

That is the first thought. That God loves the world indicates the breadth and the greatness of God’s love. His is not like ours, limited to a small number. His heart is capable of loving vast multitudes but loving each one as an individual, as one whom he will make a beloved son or daughter.

But there is another dimension to this word “world” that we find in John 3:16, and this dimension also serves to reveal the quality and the power and the depth of God’s love. It is, by the way, characteristic of John, as almost all modern commentaries on John’s writings point out, that he uses terms with multiple meanings, intending to emphasize several things at the same time. The word “world” is used in different ways in the Bible and in the Gospel of John. Kosmos is, of course, a Greek word. Jesus himself typically used the OT expression “heaven and earth” when referring to the cosmos. But kosmos is a particularly important term in John’s writings. In fact, more than half of the uses of the word in the New Testament are found in the writings of John: his Gospel, his three letters, and Revelation. Kosmos occurs 78 times in the Gospel alone.

For example, kosmos can mean the entire created order. John has used the word in that sense in 1:10 in which he says that Christ made the world. In that and other uses the cosmos clearly is both the heavens and the earth, the universe we would say. In 21:24-25, using the term in this way, John says that the world is very large. Remember he said there that if everything Jesus said and did were written down the whole world wouldn’t be large enough to contain the books that would have to be written. There the word “world” conveys the size and greatness of the creation.

More often than not, however, kosmos means the world as the dwelling place of men, as the theater of human history. That is, the term refers to the inhabited world, the human community, or simply “humanity.” [TDNT, iii, 888] Jesus, you remember, said that he would not return and the end of the age would not appear until the gospel had been proclaimed throughout the whole world (Matt. 24:14), which is to say, to all the nations, all the peoples of the world. This use of the term is especially important in the NT precisely because most Jews in the time of the New Testament did not think in terms of God’s salvation embracing the Gentile nations. As I said in the first of these sermons on John 3:16, no statement has been found in the Jewish materials of the period to the effect that God loves the world.

But, as often in John, kosmos or “world” means “fallen humanity and its ways, apart from and alienated from God and his truth.” [Wells, God in the Wasteland, 37] It has that meaning also frequently in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul contrasts, as you remember, the spirit of the world with the Spirit of God, the wisdom of this world with the foolishness of God, worldly sorrow and godly sorrow, and so on. In all such uses Paul means by “world” humanity in rebellion against God. And so in John and especially in the Gospel of John. The “world” is the community of men and nations insofar as they are living in unbelief and disobedience. “The world hates me…” the Lord Jesus says in John 7:7. The world cannot accept the Lord because it does not see him or know him. [14:17] The Devil is the prince of this world. [14:30] His disciples do not belong to the world. [15:19] The Lord said in his great prayer in John 17:9, “I pray for [my disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” And many other texts like that! As J.I. Packer puts it, “[world] is simply a synonym for bad men everywhere.” [God’s Words, 65]

One of our very best commentators on the Gospel of John, summing up the many uses of the term for unbelieving and rebellious humanity, concludes this way:

“Therefore when John tells us that God loves the world (3:16), far from being an endorsement of the world, it is a testimony to the character of God. God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big but because the world is so bad.” [Carson, 123]

The great Benjamin Warfield said the same thing in his more magisterial manner.

“The world is just the synonym of all that is evil and noisome and disgusting. There is nothing in it that can attract God’s love… the point of [the word’s] employment [in John 3:16] is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for it.” [Biblical Studies, 514ff.]

Well, I don’t think it is an “either-or” situation. I think the use of “world” in John 3:16 emphasizes both the breadth of God’s love and the depth and power of it; both how many there are whom God loves and how greatly he must love to love people like that. But that latter sense is certainly part of the sense of “For God so loved the world…” John will later enumerate the enemies of our souls as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” How jarring would it be for us to hear that that God so loved the flesh or so loved the devil! But then stop and think. Have you ever pondered how God feels about the devil? Don’t you think that there is in God’s heart some of the sadness of disappointed love toward the devil, one of God’s own creatures, an angel upon whom he lavished great gifts, whom he must once have rejoiced in, and who began so magnificently, but then fell so terribly? It startles us and was meant to startle us that God loved the world, given what that world is like. And God didn’t simply love this sinful world, this impure world, this disgustingly selfish and cruel world, this world that is so indifferent to him even though he made it; he loved the world so much that he gave his only son to die for its salvation.

You see, in John, the “world” used in this sense, its primary sense in John, contains no believers. Those who come to believe in Jesus, the Lord himself will say later, are no longer of the world, they have been chosen “out of the world” (15:19). If Jesus is the Savior of the world, well, then obviously the world needs to be saved. And that is the explicit teaching of the next verse. Apart from faith in Jesus Christ, the world is condemned. And that point is confirmed in the verses that follow. The world that God loved and sent his Son to save is rotten. To say that God loved “the world” in John 3:16, is akin to saying what Paul says in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us;” and akin to what he says in 5:10: “When we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son.” But John’s use of the term “world” makes the point even more powerfully.

Indeed, the world is so wicked, so much God’s enemy, so contrary to God and to what is pleasing to God, that John elsewhere forbids Christians to love the world or anything in the world (1 John 2:15-17). There is no contradiction here. God loves the world with a selfless, sacrificial, love. He loves the world in order to redeem it, to save it, to transform it, to make it good. When Christians are forbidden to love the world, they are forbidden to love it in the sense of accepting it as it is, participating in its way of life, wanting to part of it. We are not forbidden from loving the world in the sense of hoping for and working for its salvation.

So God can love what is wicked, what is otherwise condemned. Think of the judgment that God pronounces on Moab in Jeremiah 48: 26ff. “Let Moab wallow in her own vomit; let her be an object of ridicule… In Moab I will put an end to those who make offerings on high places and burn incense to their gods…. Moab will be destroyed as a nation because she defied the Lord.” But, in the same text a few verses later we read the Lord saying, “Therefore I wail over Moab, for all Moab I cry out…. So my heart laments for Moab like a flute…”

Well, so here in John 3:16. God so loved the world…that community of men and nations in rebellion against him, living in every manner of way that offends his holiness and his goodness. He so loved that world that he gave his only son to deliver the world from itself and to restore it to him!

In the most recent edition of Christianity Today, in the “Open Question” columna recurring feature of the magazine where various people are asked to answer the same question — this question was posed: “Would Jesus Hang Out in a Strip Club?” [CT July/August 2014, 30-31] You will immediately get the provocative interest that lies behind the posing of that question. How are we to reconcile the Lord’s demand for purity — “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” — with his willingness to associate with sinners, those others considered the moral dregs of society, and with the great compassion he had for people the immoral woman in Luke 7? And what about his parable about searching for the lost sheep, or his statement about going into the highways and byways to find guests to invite to the banquet. Predictably, there were answers that appealed to one emphasis or the other: two respondents said that Jesus would hang out in a strip club to reach the lost sinners who could be found there — though one seemed to envisage only women having such a ministry (which completely changes the equation) — another respondent reminded us that “There is no place in Scripture where Jesus was uncritically present when sin was occurring or when an action that mocked God was taking place.” Jesus ate with sinners, true enough, but he didn’t hang out in brothels to find them. And, of course, there were brothels in Israel in Jesus’ day.

For myself I can well imagine the Lord Jesus striding into a strip club with a whip in order to rescue some benighted young woman from that degradation. He was certainly not afraid of being in the company of a prostitute. And no man ever had more compassion for those whose lives had become enmeshed in the less polite and more publicly degrading forms of sin. On the other hand, he certainly would not have hung out at a strip club with his disciples, sipping a cocktail while waiting for an opportunity to start a conversation with a stripper. Hanging out in a strip club for the purpose of evangelism does not strike me as a likely way to to flee youthful lusts. After all, you could meet the strippers and the customers as they came out onto the street!

But it is this sort of issue, this kind of ethical question that sharpens for us the meaning of the opening statement of John 3:16. For the fact that God so loved the world teaches us the radical nature of God’s love and the startling character of it, the utterly unexpected thing that he did to save the world he loved because nothing else would have been enough. That is the sense of that little word “so” in John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave his only son… The point is precisely that God’s love is to be measured by the sacrifice he made on its behalf and his willingness to do anything, however costly, to secure the world’s salvation. Do you remember Rudyard Kipling’s testament to a mother’s love?

If I were hanged on the highest hill,

I know whose love would follow me still.

If I were drowned in the deepest sea,

I know whose tears would come down to me.

If I were damned of body and soul,

I know whose prayers would make me whole.

There is something past wonderful, isn’t there, in a mother’s love, tenacious and indefectible as it is? I’m sure many of you parents have felt such love for your children; I know I have. I have thought from time to time, even somewhat to my own surprise, that were God to offer me the holiness and happiness of my children or even one of my children in exchange for my life, I would take that offer in a heartbeat, and I know many of you would as well. But the mother in Kipling’s poem and myself in the imagination of my heart would both be loving our own children, who, as the Puritan John Flavel memorably put it, are “pieces of ourselves wrapped up in another skin.” We would not be loving some bitter enemy, someone who had done us or our loved ones great harm, someone who stood against and worked against everything we held precious, and who had a sneering disregard for our point of view and our deepest convictions.

Put the question to yourself another way. Would you parents who love your children so powerfully, more than life itself indeed, would you parents whose own happiness is so completely wrapped up in the happiness of your children so that you can’t be happy if they’re not happy, I say would you give up one of your children for the life of someone else. I’m not asking if you would die yourself for someone else — unlikely as that may be in most cases — but if you would give your son or daughter for someone else’s life. As I search my own heart I find that is an entirely different thing. And it is still more impossible to contemplate if that someone else for whom I must give up the life of one of my children is my implacable enemy whose unworthy life deserves my contempt as well as my pity.

And, take note of this: our love for our children, however strong we know it to be, is a pale imitation of the love of Father and Son and Holy Spirit in the life of the Triune God. Love is the best and most beautiful thing about human life; I think we all agree about that, most all human beings agree about that, whether it’s romantic love, or familial, or the love of friends, and the purer and the greater the love the more we admire it and long for it ourselves. And all of that comes from and is an imitation, pale as it may be, of the love that exists and has always existed in the heart of God. The reason love is such a big deal in human life, the theme of almost every song, every movie, every great story; the reason love is such a big deal in human life is because we have been created in the image of a God who is love itself. All human love is the effulgence, the overflow, of God’s heart of love. But no human being has ever loved as God loves; not in the finitude of our human life and certainly not in the sinfulness and selfishness of our human life. No human being really has any grasp of how powerful God’s love is. We know almost nothing of this divine love however much we may know a great many things about love in our own experience of human life. We know nothing of the power of love compared to the power of his love, the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for one another.

So when it is said that God gave his only Son out of love for the world, we are to understand that God gave up something so precious to him that we can scarcely begin to grasp how precious. He made that sacrifice, and the Son made his sacrifice for people who were utterly unworthy of such love and whom God knew would scorn his love and consider it a small thing most of the time. You and I can say the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” but we have to work and work even to realize how little we really grasp what has been said or what a universe of love and of pain is revealed to have been in the heart of God himself.

This is the first and greatest message of this most famous verse in the Bible: the greatness, the immeasurable greatness of the love of God. It is proved by the fact that he loved the world, so many people and all of them so defiantly unworthy of his almighty love and is proved by the fact that for the sake of that love he made the greatest conceivable sacrifice to secure the world’s salvation.

Now let me make a confession to you all. I have and I know I have utterly failed to move you as you ought to be moved by this truth. And you have utterly failed to be moved by it as you ought to be moved by it. This verse is meant to make you think exceedingly high thoughts of God. We are meant to contemplate the majesty and the infinity and the power of such love as fills God’s heart. God has no need of us. He lived for infinite time without us and yet he loves such an immense number of us so passionately that he made a sacrifice on our behalf greater and more terrible than we can begin to comprehend. Perfect love for us required him to, as it were, betray his infinitely perfect love for his son. It was not actually betrayal only because the Son, being God as well, was as willing to come as the Father was willing to send him. God is not merely the subject of this famous sentence. He is the great and wonderful mystery of it, the power and effect of it, and wittingly or unwittingly this is the reason this sentence has resounded again and again in uncounted numbers of human hearts.

We must never forget that we worship an impossibly great and wonderful God, whose heart is infinitely large, whose compassion for sinners is boundless, and who made a sacrifice for our sakes that not one of us can comprehend. As little as we grasp the wrath of God, so little do we grasp the depth and power of his love!

But the fact of that love is the greatest fact in all the world. It is really the only fact that matters. Accept the verdict that you, by nature, loved darkness rather than light; that you were a part of that world that has nothing but contempt for the God who made it. And, then, accept that God loved the world and sent his son to save it, and you will find your fingers closing around the key that unlocks the secret of life.