“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
We come today to what has to be one of the most well-known verses, if not the most well-known verse, in all of Scripture. When the camera pans across the crowd at a football game, we can often see someone holding up a poster with the citation John 3:16 written on it. Even many non-Christians can tell us what John 3:16 says because they have heard it quoted so often. The verse seems to be everywhere.
At the same time, there is perhaps no verse more misunderstood than this one. Many people stop at “For God so loved the world,” assuming that this love means everything is all right and that our Creator makes no demand on us. However, the verse actually assumes that everything is not OK. Because Christ is presented as the only way to avoid perishing, the verse assumes that all will perish apart from Him. When the Son of God comes, He comes to a world wherein everyone is perishing in sin.
This makes the teaching of God’s love for the world remarkable. If the world system was good and people always did what was praiseworthy, God’s love would not be all that incredible. After all, it is easy to love what is good. God’s love is unfathomable because He loves the world even though it is corrupt and sinful. Paul makes this same point in Romans 5:6–8 when He says that the love of God is seen in that Christ died for people while they were yet sinners. Moreover, because of the great love of God, we cannot ascribe any part of salvation to our merit or worthiness. Salvation in both its initiation and completion is the work of our Creator alone. John Calvin comments that Jesus does not say that “God was moved to deliver us, because he perceived in us something that was worthy of so excellent a blessing, but ascribes the glory of our deliverance entirely to his love.”
Note also what John 3:16 does not say, namely, that God loves everyone in the world in precisely the same way. This verse speaks of our Lord’s general love for creation, a love that moved Him to act so that it would not be entirely lost. This love does not necessarily entail that all will be saved, and in fact, a condition for salvation is given—belief in the Son of God. This love also does not necessarily mean that the Lord loves everyone unto salvation or that everyone is equally able to believe in Christ. Such topics simply are not the concern of this verse, which tells us only that anyone will be saved if he believes in Jesus alone for salvation.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Our culture tends to think that it is a given that God loves the world. However, we know that nothing compels God to love creation. In fact, it would be right for the Lord to have nothing but hatred for the world given the reality of sin. The love of God is not a given, so we should be grateful for it and be careful never to speak of His love as something that we are owed or that He must show.