Limited Atonement and John 3:16 - Answering Objections

Does John 3:16 contradict the doctrine of limited atonement, since it says that God gave His son because He loved "the world"? Learn the solution.
Calvinism
Limited Atonement
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Quick Answer

The phrase "the world" does not mean every single person in the world. Here are two possibilities for what "the world" could mean:

  1. Fallen humanity (John 3:19, 13:1, 15:19, 17:13-18, 1 John 2:15-17)
  2. All nations, not just the Jewish nation (John 4:42, Revelation 5:9, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Titus 2:11)

The phrase "whoever believes" actually supports the doctrine of limited atonement, because it shows that God "gave his only son" for those who believe, not for every single person in the world.

The Argument

Some argue that John 3:16 demonstrates that the doctrine of limited atonement is unbiblical because it says that God gave His son for "the world" and that "whoever believes" will be saved. The verse says this:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

The Answer

What does "the world" mean?

John rarely, if ever, uses the term "the world" to refer to every single person in the world. Rather, there are two other possibilities for what "the world" might mean in the context of John 3:16.

  1. "The world" could refer generally to fallen humanity, in which case the emphasis would not be upon the vastness of the world, but rather upon how bad the world is. In this case, the verse could be rephrased to say, "For God so loved sinners that he gave his only son..."
  2. "The world" could refer to all nations, not just the Jewish nation. In this case, the verse could be rephrased to say, "For God so loved both Jews and Gentiles that he gave his son..."

1. Passages in John that support "the world" meaning "fallen humanity"

In the passages below, we see support for interpreting the phrase "the world" to mean "fallen humanity." John often uses "the world" to contrast believers with unbelievers, and to emphasize the evil of humanity.

John 3:19 - And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

Here, "the world" is contrasted with "the light," emphasizing its fallen nature and darkness.

John 13:1 - Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Here, "his own," or believers, are contrasted with "the world," which has a negative connotation.

John 15:19 - If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

Here, "the world" refers to wicked non-believers who "hate" Christians.

John 17:13-18 - 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

Here, "the world" again refers to wicked non-believers who "hate" Christians.

1 John 2:15-17 - 15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Here, "the world" refers to sinful temptations.

2. Passages that support "the world," or "all" not meaning every single person in the world

There are numerous passages in the Bible in which "the world" does not refer to every single person in the world, but rather to people from all nations, or to not just the Jews, but also the Gentiles. Here are some of them.

John 4:39-42 - 39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

Here, Jesus is "the Savior of the world" in that He is the savior of both Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans had thought that Jesus came exclusively for the Jews, but they learned that Jesus came for "the world"—or, not just for the Jews.

Revelation 5:9 - And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,

This verse tells us that Jesus came to save people from all over the world, people "from every tribe and language and people and nation," not every single person in the world.

1 Corinthians 15:22 - For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

Here, "all" clearly does not mean every single person, since Scripture is clear that not every person will be "made alive." The word "all" here is used in a parallel structure. Adam represented all humanity, so in Adam all die, and Christ represents His people, so in Christ "all" (everyone who Jesus came to save) will be made alive.

Titus 2:11 - For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people

Here, "all people" does not refer to every single person in the world, but rather to people of all types and classes. Earlier in TItus 2, Paul refers to types and classes of people such as "older men," "younger women," "young women," "younger men," and "bondservants" (TItus 2:1-10).

What does "whoever believes" mean?

Some argue that the phrase, "whoever believes," is an argument against limited atonement because the phrase teaches that "whoever" means that everyone is included regarding who God gave His son for.

However, the phrase "whoever believes" actually supports the doctrine of limited atonement because it conveys the idea that God gave His son for a specific group of people, namely, those who believe, which does not include every person in the world. So, contrary to being an argument against limited atonement, John 3:16 is actually an argument for limited atonement.

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