There are three main interpretations of John 3:16:
(1) That it speaks of a General Atonement for all mankind (Christ paid for the sins of everyone), such as held by Arminians, Amyraldians, etc.
(2) That it speaks of a Limited Atonement (Christ paid for the sins of the elect alone), as argued by many Calvinists
(3) That it speaks of God’s love for all of mankind in the Sincere, Free Offer of the Gospel, God desiring all who hear the gospel to receive it and be saved.
The third view, that it speaks of God’s love for all mankind in the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel, will be shown to be the proper understanding of this verse.
This was the view of Calvin. From his commentary:
“…so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Savior. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.”
It is also the view of Matthew Henry. From his commentary:
“Though many of the world of mankind perish, yet God’s giving his only-begotten Son was an instance of his love to the whole world, because through him there is a general offer of life and salvation made to all.”
This was also a prominent view of the Reformation and Puritan eras as documented here: Historic Reformed Quotes on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel Interpretation of John 3:16. Let us consider each of the three views:
(1) The General Atonement View
In the Arminian scheme, the offer of the atonement is grounded in the eternal decree of Christ paying for the sins of the whole world (a General Atonement).
While John 3:16 speaks of the atonement as revealed in history as the basis of the offer of salvation to the world (which is compatible with the Sincere Free Offer view), the verse does not speak of (1) any eternal decree, or (2) Christ paying for the sins of any individual.
The Atonement, as spoken of in this text, results not in paying for the sins of the entire world, but in making an offer of salvation to the entire world:
“…He gave His only begotten Son that [for the purpose that] whosoever believes in Him [an offer with a condition] should not perish but have eternal life.”
The text speaks of an offer, but it does not say that Christ paid for the sins of the whole world.
(2) The Limited Atonement View
The scriptures teach a Limited Atonement (that Christ paid only for the sins of the elect), just not in this passage.
Usually those who argue for such a elect-only view of John 3:16 go to other passages and other books of the Bible that teach limited atonement in order to interpret John 3:16. From other passages in the Bible they qualify the universal language and the concept of the “world” in John 3:16. This, however, uses the general context of all of scripture to over-ride the specific context and flow of thought in John 3. Basic principles of interpretation, both from natural knowledge and in special revelation, teach that specific context has a greater priority than the general context.
Does the “world” in John 3:16 mean only the elect? No, for two reasons:
(1) The passage goes on to speak of the “world” as rejecting God and perishing in verses 19 and 20: “light is come into the world, and men loved darkness, rather than the light because their deeds were evil. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light…” How is it that “world” can mean elect in verse 16, and then in the same breath mean reprobate a few verses later, with no contextual clues to say otherwise? Such an interpretation of the passage must assume an equivocation (a difference of meaning) on the word “world” in the same breath.
(2) Verse 17 says that “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” But why would God send His Son into the world to condemn the elect? The thought is inconceivable to the nature and attributes of God. However, it makes perfect sense if the world is humankind generally. God is wrathful to the world and has every right to condemn humankind immediately. But instead He comes not to do that, but to save them.
Further, John 3:16 does not speak of the efficacy of the Atonement (that its secret intended end is effected), but only that it results in an offer. This offer demonstrates God’s love for mankind generally, which love is for the purpose of drawing all men to Himself. This revealed purpose and love of God is often ineffectual:
(1) The world resists the light (the love of God demonstrated in the giving of His Son and the offer of salvation to the world) and perishes, according to verses 19 & 20.
(2) The “world” cannot mean the elect in v.17, and yet the whole world is not saved. God’s revealed purpose (“that the world through Him might be saved”) is ineffectual and resisted by sinners. This is similar to how people break God’s commandments and thus resist God’s revealed will, which His commandments are an expression of.
For these same arguments from a major reformed theologian, see Robert L. Dabney on John 3:16.
For these reasons it is clear that the secret extent of the atonement is not in view in John 3:16, or that the secret extent of the atonement controls the interpretation of the passage.
(3) The Sincere Free Offer View
This view, that God’s revealed will through the cross is that all men should be saved, elect and reprobate alike, is in harmony with Limited Atonement.
The revealed aspect of God’s will is distinct from, though not contradictory to, the secret aspect of His will, that of decree, as the two aspects are true in different senses. These two aspects of the one will of God are ultimately harmonious, both flowing out of the nature and attributes of God. The revealed and secret aspects of God’s will are the many sparkling facets of the diamond of God’s one, multi-faceted, will.
The Sincere Free Offer view of John 3:16 flows naturally from the passage and doesn’t involve any outside or predetermined contortions of the text. This view is, in fact, what John 3:16,17 actually says:
“For God so loved [the cause of the atonement] the world [all humankind sinners], that he gave his only begotten Son [to death in the atonement], that [for the purpose that] whosoever [the offer] believeth in him [the condition] should not perish, but have everlasting life [the promise, resulting from fulfilling the condition].
For [explaining the previous verse] God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world [though that might be expected due to the world’s universal sin]; but that [for the purpose that] the world through Him might [not that it actually would be, but for the intended purpose that it might] be saved.”
God reveals His love for all mankind sinners by putting His Son to death and offering through Him, if they believe, to give them eternal salvation, so that they don’t perish. God sent His Son into the world the first time not to condemn humankind with Judgment Day, but for the purpose of saving them. But due to people loving their sins, they turn not to God, but choose to perish instead (John 3:19,20). Those that do the truth, verse 21, come to the light and thus show that they are “wrought in God,” that is, that it was God’s secret work working in them as evidenced by them coming to Christ through the offer of salvation.
As Samuel Rutherford, a commissioner to the famous Westminster Assembly, said (in paraphrase), Ask not whether you are elect or reprobate, but rather are you a “whomsoever”, an “if any”. Yea, are you a sinner? Then the promises of the Gospel are for you.
For an example of how to sincerely offer the gospel to the lost from John 3:16, see Travis Fentiman’s What is the Gospel?, 7 paragraphs.
This work is licensed under the very sharing-friendly Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, 2014