"My heart I give Thee, Lord, eagerly and earnestly." - John Calvin
Monday, July 22, 2013
Does John 3:16 Imply a Universal Atonement?
“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 doctrine of particular atonement, also known as definite or limited atonement, is one of the five doctrines of salvation commonly called the five points of Calvinism. It is probably the most controversial of the five, which is why you'll even find those who call themselves "four-point Calvinists," as if the five doctrines don't stand or fall together. Arminians are most shrill in attacking the Calvinist understanding of the atonement. In essence, the Calvinist says that God the Father gave a number of particular individuals to God the Son to be redeemed and to be regenerated by God the Spirit. This group is explicitly named, not just any unspecified number. Refer to John 10:29 and 17:2.
In contrast, the Arminian (and the semi-Pelagian of any type) holds that Jesus died for every person in the world, without distinction. In every discussion on the issue I can remember, the Arminian participant always threw out the verse above, arrogantly, as if it ended the debate. They act like a man who steps on an ant; he doesn't pause to see whether not the ant is dead.
I, however, suggest that John 3:16 tells us nothing about the extent of the atonement. Let us consider what it actually says: "God so loved the world." Even if the Bible didn't explicitly state this, would it not be obvious? The world is His creation. He devoted great wisdom to its form and orderly operation. Of course He loves it! But let us consider an analogy. If I tell you that 70% of Americans are white, what race is John Smith (just to pick a name hypothetically)? You would have to say that you don't know, because what is true of the aggregate implies absolutely nothing about the particular.
In the same way, to say that God loves His creation in aggregate, in no way conflicts with, for example, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated," (Malachi 1:2-3 and Romans 9:13). The particular takes precedence over the general.
There are plenty of more-technical reasons to demonstrate that John 3:16 doesn't mean what the Arminian claims it means. However, this simple logical argument seems to me the most-straightforward way to deal with it. So, whatever you might think of the doctrine of particular atonement, I deny that you have the option of simply throwing out this verse as if it trumps every other consideration. If you want to see other arguments, simply click on the tag below, and you will see what else I have written on the issue.
My name is Chris Cole. I have lived in the Charlotte, NC, area for over thirty years, and have been an active Presbyterian during most of that time. I love the Westminster Confession of Faith as a beautiful expression of my own personal beliefs.
You can email me at email@example.com.
I prefer the English Standard Version of the Bible, and all quotations are from the ESV, unless otherwise stated.
I have a number of reviews of Reformed books on Amazon. There is a link to them in the Reformed links below.
"Seeing [that] the Lord of lords, the Lord Jesus, is so ready (never was there king so ready to hear a subject as Jesus is), [even] if thou wert the vilest body that goes, a thief, a harlot, etc., yet if thou wilt say this, 'Lord, remember on me, and give me a part of thy kingdom'; - if thou prayest to him from a penitent heart, with confidence and assurance, I promise unto thee, heaven and earth shall go [fall] together ere thou wantest [lack] thine asking. Seeing [that] our Lord Jesus is so liberal [free-giving], then seek more than enough, more than a kingdom, and thou shalt get more. The only cause why we want [lack] is in us: we have no hearts to seek it." - Rev. Robert Rollock, Scottish Presbyterian minister, about 1590, in a commentary on Luke 23:42-43