Jeremiah develops the idea of prophets who are deluded [23:25-32], contrasting the power of the genuine with with the worthlessness of the counterfeit. He finishes with an attack on the cheapening of the Lord’s word, where it is everywhere sought but only to be tamed, and where everyone’s claim to have it makes it impossible to hear a true word when it comes. –Gordon McConville (New Bible Commentary, 691)
Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over…
I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. . . . And perhaps, by God’s grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys. . .
Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over–I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.
— C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
Well, well, well. Since the last post it seems an SBC poohbah has demonstrated just how much we need this piddly series. But I digress. [You can’t digress on your opening sentence, you dolt! —Shive]
In part 1 we said that Jn 3:16 needs to be read as part of the larger new birth discourse recorded in 3:1-21 so that we interpret 3:16 in its context and not in isolation. So this post will consider 3:16 in light of the discourse conclusion in vv 18-21. I’ll make two observations from the passage followed by an explanation of their importance in the debate over 3:16.
THE SPAGHETTI JUNCTION OF FAITH
First, verses 18-19 establish a connection between what one believes and what one loves. We start with a contrasting parallel between ‘the judged’ and the ‘not judged’ which turns on whether or not they believe. We even get a little repetition thrown in with the parallelism as a way to emphasize believe:
BELIEVE → not JUDGED
doesn’t BELIEVE → JUDGED already → hasn’t BELIEVED
The repetition of v18 leaves the reader expecting to hear something more about believe in v19 since the verse alternates back to judgment. Maybe something like This is the judgment that the Light has come into the world and men [believed/trusted/entrusted themselves to] darkness rather than light… What we get instead is a statement about what a man loves which is all the more significant because it breaks the established pattern:
What are we to make of this? On the one hand, believing and loving are distinct acts/conditions; on the other hand, the interchange between the two prevents us from considering them in isolation. People believe what they love and love what they believe.
Second, God‘s work is the difference between those who love/come to the Light and those who don’t. In verses 20-21 we have another contrasting parallel built on the relationship between a man’s work and his approach to the Light. Those who hate the Light do so because their deeds are evil and because the Light exposes them as such. The one who practices the truth, however, has nothing to fear from the Light. In fact, he comes to the Light in order that his works may be shown to have been worked in God. It’s precisely at this last phrase that the parallel breaks down for while the Light-hater’s work is attributed to himself the Light-lover’s work is attributed to God. Consequently, the ultimate difference between the two turns on the fact that one works on his own while the other is worked on by God.
The point in all of this is that much more is at work in 3:16’s whoever believes than what is generally assumed which brings us back to the problem of leveraging the verse against Calvinism. In my experience, whenever 3:16 is treated like Calvinist kryptonite the verse is divorced from its context and belief is reduced to a simple, rational choice that turns on an act of the will.
But when we take the verse in context we have to explain how belief and love work in concert with each other. I suppose we could claim that “love is a choice” but a moment’s reflection shows that that just won’t do because: (a) it can’t be supported by Scripture and (b) it fails the test of practical experience (would any rational person choose to love the Patriots?).
No, 3:16-21 would have us understand that (un)belief is bound to what a man loves and what he does. Unfortunately, this three-dimensional symbiosis is rarely observed or considered in 3:16 which perpetuates the treatment of belief as a single gear that needs to turn in a new direction even as the entire passage depicts belief, love, and deeds as interlocking gears that turn on and with each other. You can’t service the faith gear apart from rebuilding the engine and that kind of work involves more than a choice.
We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.
In the previous post I suggested that we ought to consider Jn 3:16 along the lines of what a Pharisee like Nicodemus would have understood when Jesus said “God so loved the world.” For a guy like Nic that kind of statement would have signified God’s love for all nations since a devout Jew would have had two functional categories–Israel and the nations. Rather than blessing Israel and judging the rest, God was offering life in his kingdom to the world on the basis of a new, spiritual birthright through faith. In short, Nic would understand Jn 3:16within a broadly corporate framework–people groups rather than individual people.
But our vantage point is weak on corporate identity and big on individualism so that we understand Jn 3:16 in the spirit of democratic equality–God loves every single person. Nic interprets the world as a collective term for the nations while we interpret the world as a collective term for individual people. Whose interpretation is correct?
Neither. It’s a trick question. [Oh, you’re smooth. -Shive]
As every husband has learned after receiving messages from his wife, the correct interpretation isn’t what you think the author means but what the author intended the message to mean. So when we read ‘God so loved the world’ what we really need to know is John’s intended meaning for the world.
THE MEANING of WORLD in JOHN
For John, the world almost always refers to a domain rather than a physical place or population. It’s “the place of human rebellion against God in contrast to God’s kingdom” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology) and although people are certainly part of this domain, John’s use of the term is too broad and abstract to limit it to something like a divine census. Even a casual review of the word in John’s gospel makes it clear that world means more than people. Consider just a few examples:
John 12:25 “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.
John 15:19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world because of this the world hates you.
John 17:14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
Obviously, the world can’t mean all people in these verses and must be signifying something more than global population. But once we acknowledge this we’re almost forced to reconsider the intended meaning of world in Jn 3:16, too. Let me interject here that our reticence to refine our understanding of ‘God so loved the world‘ is understandable especially when we suspect that ‘refining’ is a nefarious attempt to restrict God’s love. And yet I think that by aligning our interpretation with John’s intended meaning we don’t minimize God’s love, we magnify it. Carson’s explanation is very helpful on this point when he says “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: that is the customary connotation of kosmos (‘world’).” We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.
CUT TO THE CHASE
If you’re still with me at this juncture you’re probably saying the same thing I say to my kids when they tell me they want a cell phone: So what’s your point?
The point is that Jn 3:16 just doesn’t work as a defeater verse for Calvinism, particularly in regard to unconditional election. Using the verse to that end depends on at least two related assumptions: (1) world means every single person (2) since God loves every single person, he must love them in exactly the same way. Both of these assumptions are taken to undermine the Calvinistic understanding of God’s elect. In fairness, those assumptions may be discovered and defended from other passages, just not from Jn 3:16.
Assumption #1 has already been shown to miss the broader meaning of world in John’s gospel which means that assumption #2 is moot. But for the sake of a full hearing it’s worth noting that #2 also fails in light of two other statements concerning the world that we find in John:
John 9:39 And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”
John 17:9 I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given me; for they are Yours.
So the Father sent the Son into the world so that the world might be saved (3:17) and Jesus came into the world for judgment (9:39). God loved the world and Jesus did not pray for the world. Unless we are to define the Father’s love for the world differently than Jesus’ love for the world I think it’s safe to say that the Father’s love for the world is far more complex than a one-size-fits-all kind of affection.
Based on John’s meaning and use of world an objective interpreter would be hard-pressed to turn Jn 3:16 into a rebuttal of Calvinism. But since there are zealots on both the right and the left of this issue let me say a quick word to other side, too. While 3:16 isn’t a defeater verse for Calvinism it isn’t a support for it either. If world doesn’t exactly mean ‘every single person’ it certainly doesn’t signify ‘the elect.’ As I see it, the verse is theologically neutral on this matter.
The reasons for this piddly mini-series can be found in the prologue here.
There are unplumbed depths in the limpid clarity of this writing. What at first appears obvious is presently seen to pose problems.
–Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John
So long as we discuss soteriology we will discuss the meaning and implications of Jn 3:16 and for good reason. Few verses so succinctly capture such massive themes in redemption–God’s unmerited love for rebels, the giving of the incarnate Son as a sacrifice for sin, and the promise of eternal life for all who place their trust in him. But all that’s succinct is not always simple.
TALKING ‘NEW BIRTH’ WITH A PHARISEE
Too many times we invoke Jn 3:16 without appreciating the role of the surrounding context in determining its meaning. Before we get to some of the particulars in 3:16 itself we need to say a few things about the broader context.
First, 3:16 is part of the “new birth discourse” found in 3:1-21 which means that the verse can’t be interpreted on its own. Too often 3:16 is tossed around without any consideration of its place in the overall discourse.
Second, since we’re told that this new birth discourse is delivered to a Pharisees/Jewish ruler, we should ask what Jesus said and what Nicodemus would have heard. For example, what would a Jewish religious leader have understood Jesus to mean when he said “God so loved the world“? Expanding the scope of our question, how would 3:16 have been understood in conjunction with Jesus’ prior claim that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3)?
In Nic’s mind natural birth was all that was necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom since your physical birth determined who was in (Israel) and who was out (anyone not Israel). But even if Nic were to have grasped what it meant to be “born again” he still would have assumed that that sort of thing was reserved for those who were “in” Israel. It’s not until 3:16 that Jesus clarifies that the offer of life to “whoever believes” (3:15) is an offer that extends to the world. The takeaway is that God’s love is not limited to Israel as the kingdom is inherited by spiritual birthright available to people of every nation (i.e. the world). So whereas we interpret 3:16 as God so loved [every single person], Nic would interpret it as God so loved [all people]. Both statements are true, but the latter is a truer fit for the context. Think of the different interpretations as an approach to a pointillist panting–you can focus on the individual spots but you’d be missing the artist’s larger point (no pun intended).
Third, when we recognize the implicit relationship between new birth and God’s love for the world, we’re not surprised to find that this connection is established as early as Jn 1:12-13 where the right to become children of God is granted to those who believe in His name, who were born . . . of God. Interestingly, belief (1:12) is not said to be the condition for the new birth (1:13)–those who received Him (v 12a) are those who believe in His name (v 12c) are those who are born of God (v 13).
This lack of distinction between new birth and belief in 1:12-13 has interesting implications for 3:16 which stresses the necessity of belief for eternal life. If belief and (new) birth are both attributed to God’s work in 1:12-13 and if born again is attributed to the mysterious work of the Spirit in 3:6-8, should we then attribute believe in 3:16 to the will of man? Doubtful. We’d do better to follow the pattern laid out in 1:12-13 and to understand both born again and believe as a mysterious work of God by his Spirit.
But even if we were to discount the role of 1:12-13 in interpreting 3:16, I don’t think the verse stands up as a proof text for free will. To say that that whoever believes will not die simply means that . . . whoever believes will not die. The promise makes no claim concerning the ability or likelihood of enjoying the promise. Those issues can only be brought into 3:16 by inference or from other verses.
Jn 3:16–succinct but not necessarily simple.
Stay tuned for pt 2.
Some discussions emanate from perennial issues that are sure to be revisited in the not-too-distant future and when those discussions happen on the Google machine it seems prudent to save your work. Such is the reason for this piddly mini-series on the interpretation of John 3:16.
The genesis of the subsequent posts was a friendly back and forth over the work of salvation as it’s popularly understood by Calvinists. [When will the mavericks be given a platform for their hybrid theologies?!? –Shive]. At some point–and such was the case here–the non-Calvinist invokes John 3:16 to make three related points: (1) God doesn’t love the elect in a special way because “God so loved the world” (2) everyone is a potential believer because the verse says “whoever believes” and (3) only by hermeneutical jujitsu can a Calvinist ever hope to neutralize this defeater verse (e.g. God so loved the world [of the elect]).
But I hope to show that Jn 3:16 is far more substantive than the straw men we construct when we ignore the larger context. On its own the verse is neither an anti-Calvinist trump card nor is it stealth support for unconditional election.
I say all this as a simple attempt to provide some context for the posts to come. Names will be withheld to protect the innocent and the content lightly edited so as to keep the profanity-laced tirades and ad hominem attacks to a minimum.
If God is unable to sin, is He truly free?
If in our future glorification we will be unable to sin, will we be truly free?
The ship was safe when Christ was in her, though He was really asleep. At present I can tell you good news, though you know it: He is wide awake, and his eyes are in every place. You and I, if we could be pounded together, might perhaps make two tolerable ones. You are too anxious, and I am too easy in some respects. Indeed I cannot be too easy, when I have a right thought that all is safe in his hands; but if your anxiety makes you pray, and my composure makes me careless, you have certainly the best of it. However, the ark is fixed upon an immovable foundation; and if we think we see it totter, it is owing to swimming in our heads. Seriously, the times look dark and stormy, and call for much circumspection and prayer; but let us not forget that we have an infallible Pilot, and that the power, and wisdom, and honor of God, are embarked with us.
–John Newton, “To the Rev. John Ryland.” Letter I. 31 July 1773. Letters of John Newton
If I were a Protestant Pope, I would issue a papal decree requiring all the faithful to read Pilgrim’s Progress.
And as [Christian and Hopeful] were thinking about the way, behold, a man black of flesh, but covered with a very light robe, came to them, and asked them why they stood there. They answered, they were going to the Celestial City, but knew not which of these two ways to take.
FLATTERER: Follow me; I am going there.
So they followed him in the way that but now came into the road, which by degrees turned and turned them so from the city that they desired to go to, that in a little time their faces were turned away from it, yet they followed him. But by and by, before they were aware, he led them both within the compass of a net in which they were both so entangled that they knew not what to do; and with that the white robe fell off the black man’s back. Then they saw where they were. Wherefore there they lay crying some time for they could not get themselves out.
CHRISTIAN: Now do I see myself in an error. Did not the Shepherds bid us beware of the Flatterer? As is the saying of the wise man, so we have found it this day: “A man that flatters his neighbor, spreads a net for his feet” (Prov 29:5).
HOPEFUL: They also gave us a note of directions about the way, for our more sure finding thereof; but therein we have also forgotten to read, and not kept ourselves from the path of the destroyer. Here David was wiser than we, for, “Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips, I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer” (Psalm 17:4).
A few takeaways:
- Flattery is a danger to all of us. We’re not told what Flatterer said to mislead the pilgrims so maybe the point isn’t the content of the flattery but its results; not so much how they were deceived but that they were deceived. Flattery doesn’t work from a fixed script. It’s revised and edited for the man and his times. We’re always susceptible.
- Flatterer has the form of godliness. He appears to be a fellow traveler: he meets the pilgrims on the path to the King’s City, he’s dressed in Christian garb, and he professes to share the same destination. The most dangerous flattery comes from the one who professes to be one of us.
- Flatterer works at the fork in the road. He appears as the pilgrims are trying to decide which path to take and their indecision is his opportunity to lure them off the path. Reject the smooth talk; read (and trust) your directions.
- Flattery leads us astray “by degrees.” Turning our faces away from the King and his City rarely, if ever, happens in one step but through a series of smaller steps–a misinterpretation here, a deluded sentiment there–until we find ourselves caught in the net.
- Only one path leads home. In a subtle but profound line Bunyan says the pilgrims followed Flatterer “in the way that but now came into the road.” Two things are worth noting here: (i) the errant path was a late addition (ii) the errant path came into the road from the outside. Beware the novel ideas and reinventions that worm their way into the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
- The flatterer’s net is avoidable. Read, read, read–Scripture, of course.
For several weeks now I’ve been unable to continue my reading in Rutledge’s The Crucifixion and when I picked it up today I came across these lines:
Even as he is the Judge, he is first and last “for us.” He was for us before he was against us, and for us even as he was against us — pro nobis first, last, and always. (515)
At the risk of having my house pounded with a box of Grade-A’s from Arminian Farms, an unequivocal statement like that seems to require far more than our free will or else universalism.
What am I missing?