Heidelcast 5: What Does “World” Mean in John 3:16?

Without a doubt, one of the Reformed doctrines which evangelical and fundamentalist Christians find most scandalous is the doctrine of definite, personal or limited atonement. This rejection happens, in part, because the Reformed teaching is not always well understood. Sometimes the misunderstandings have been our fault for not explaining and presenting this teaching well.

Episode 5 of the Heidelcast tries to address some of these objections and to explain why one would want to say that Jesus died for his people rather than for everyone who ever lived:

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  1. The “world” is qualified in v. 17. Jesus came “into” the world to save it and deliver it from condemnation. This world is Christ’s redeemed Bride. For only they have no more condemnation (Rom 8:1). Only liberty and grace.

    The Last Adam has personally come “into” his New Creation by the indwelling presence of his Spirit! (2 Cor 5:16-17, 2 Cor 3:3, Gal 4:6)

    Therefore, the blood-bought, Spirit-indwelled saints are the only “world” Jesus came to save.

    And, by the Spirit, they now keep his commandments – namely, belief in the Son (John 6:28-29, 1 John 3:23-24).

  2. The world means everybody. Christ dies for the sins of the whole world. God desires that all would come to a living faith in Him. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Why would a God who predetermines people to hell weep over them?

    I just cannot get my head around the notion of going up to someone and telling them that “Christ may have died for you”.

    “Father forgive them (all of them) for they know not what they do.”

    Thanks for letting this Lutheran vent on this “world” stuff.

    • Correct Steve. I once told a friend of mine that because of his doctrine he had no right to tell someone that God loves them because true to his beliefs he may not! I love to approach people on the street and after speaking with them showing them John 3:16 and telling them that it you. If you would repent and come to the offer of salvation you can be saved.

  3. Steve, I’m wondering if you listened to Dr. Clark’s presentation, because he very adequately addressed the flaws in what you just state as self-evident. If he is wrong in the interpretation he puts forth, wherein is his exegesis faulty? I’m not saying that the dear Dr. can’t be wrong. 😉 Only that the onus is on you to explain the weakness of his argument.

    Christ died for every person? Question: If Christ bore the wrath of God for the sins of someone (i.e. He fully atoned for that person), is God then just to allow that forgiven one to go to eternal damnation? For if his sins are forgiven, then it follows that he doesn’t deserve to pay for his sins because Jesus has already paid his penalty. Thus if someone for whom Christ died ends up in hell, how is this a just act on the part of God?

    cheers, brother…

  4. No. You guys are right. I did not listen. I haven’t had much time lately.

    If Dr. Clark stated as much, then I am certainly sorry for plowing old ground.

    I just thought I’d put in my 2 cents on the matter, as well.


    Yes, Christ did die for every person.

    If we come to faith in Christ, God gets all the credit. If we do not, then we get all the blame. That is biblical, and it preserves the goodness of God and does not make Him into a monster that predestines people for hell. He does not.

    Thanks, friends.

    • Steve, it’s not simply about who gets credit or blame. The question has to do with God’s justice and character. Is God just to condemn to hell a sinner for whom Christ has already paid the full price of his salvation?. In the accounting book of God, that sinner would have no debits. It is more than a two dimensonal issue.

    • Steve,

      It might be true that Christ died for everyone who ever lived but the question is “what does Scripture say?” To know before (a priori one has actually asked and answered that question thoughtfully and carefully is rationalism. I was driven to my view on the basis of the teaching of Scripture. It is clear that “world” does not always mean “everyone who ever lived.” Indeed, it rarely means that in Scripture.

  5. The Scripture says, quite clearly and in many places and many different ways that Jesus loved and forgave and died for all.

    Not all will hear (the gospel) and come to a living faith. Many will go to hell. But we do not say that God desires it or predestines it.

    My earlier is true and cannot be contradicted by Scripture.

    God gets all the credit for saving us, and we get all the blame for being lost. This may not seem rational to some, but it is biblical and it preserves a just and good God.

    When I tell someone that Christ Jesus loves them, forgives them their sin, and died for them, I don’t have to say it with my fingers crossed.

  6. Steve,

    Scripture is clear that Jesus came to save the elect. He saves by dying on the Cross. Therefore, he died only for the elect. His Name is Jesus because He shall save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21); I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:15), contrast that with the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.

    There is a strong case to be made that Luther actually held to limited atonement and of course double predestination not just in the Bondage of the Will but also exegetical works (commentaries). The difference between Luther and Reformed is simply the distinction between the (systematic) theology and proclamation. The logic of proclamation is the logic of *proclamation* not analogy/ inference. Thus, one cannot infer that just because God desires the salvation of the hearer in the living present, in time and space, in the here and now, that God desires the salvation of all indiscriminately or without exception. Forde affirms as much in the Preached God.

  7. Jason,

    My pastor was a student of Forde. He (my pastor) says that there is no way that Forde believed in limited atonement. Only because the Bible does not go there.

    Many just have a hard time with this because it doesn’t seem rational. They cannot resolve the tension here, because God’s loving and forgiving all, and not having everyone come to faith.

    No one can answer that question but God. When we get there maybe He’ll let us in on it.


    Do you guys feel comfortable telling people that God may have died for them?

    And then there is the whole issue of assurance and the lack of it that this errant doctrine foists upon people. It sets them on the navel-gazing project and drives so many to despair from this inward exercise. Or worse yet, some become quite prideful. They look at themselves and actually believe that they are of the elect because of what they do, say, feel, or think.

    No thanks. We Lutherans don’t have to feel saved, to know that we are saved.

  8. Steve,

    Yes, I did not say that Forde affirmed limited atonement. But Forde did affirmed the distinction between theology ( election) and proclamation (“I forgive you”). Please don’t take my word for it. It’s there in the Preached God (if I’m not mistaken the first chapter itself).

    The Bible is *clear* on the “extent” of the atonement. Christ died only for the elect – on exegetical and theological grounds. This is why Jesus is Saviour (God saves).

    • Jason,

      Christ did die for the elect. But he also died for everyone.

      “Father forgive only the elect, for you know what they will do.”


      “Father forgive them…all of them…every stinking last one of them, including my murderers here, and actually, the whole world had a hand in my murder.”

      That’s more like it.

  9. “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them” (John 17:9-10).

    Jesus as the Elect One came for His elect, and *His* elect alone. This is contrary to human logic since if God is love, then He would love *all* and die for *all*.

    But as Forde says, the point is not to tamper with God’s omnipotence – the One Who does all in all, the Hidden God who “neither deplores or takes away death” but works life and death in all, God Who is unbound and free above all … but to simply proclaim the unconditional promise of the forgiveness of sins to all who hear as the electing will of God …

  10. Gotta go to bed. I’m going to ask my pastor about this tomorrow, and my next comment will probably be better than my previous ones regarding this issue.

    Thanks. G’nite.

  11. Steve,

    Yes, the Father forgave the centurions, some of whom confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. But the Father did not send Jesus to die for all. That much is clear.

    • I heartily disagree, Jason.

      “I would gather them as a hen gathers her chicks, but they would not.”

      Why in the world would Jesus bother with a statement like that?

      Anyway, I really do have to retire. Thanks Jason.

      I’ll get back to you tomorrow, friend.


  12. I’m sure it’ll be, but Scripture is clear, and I’m afraid Luther is clear too. It’s quite depressing that there’re very very few Lutherans out there who are true heirs of Luther. Thankfully it’s not a matter of life and death.

  13. As Luther says, everything happens by “necessity” … by the “immutable, unchangeable, irresistible” will of God … EVERYTHING … thus let God be God.

    And let the Reformed who wants to confess God’s sovereignty confess God as God.

  14. Luther said a lot of great things. But I don’t know any Lutheran who would agree with every word that he uttered.

    (the above quote is right on, though)

  15. “I would gather them as a hen gathers her chicks, but they would not.”

    Why in the world would Jesus bother with a statement like that?”

    In that context, Jesus expressed His desire to gather Jerusalem’s *children.*

    The text says: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy *children* together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and *ye* would not!”

    The distinction is made between the children (elect) and Jerusalem (as represented by the religious leaders – scribes, Pharisees, etc.). The imagery or analogy of the hen gathering heck chicks is a powerful one … one can certainly imagine the hen dying in the course of gathering her chicks in a situation of real and present danger … which precisely fits with limited atonement …

  16. I know the idea of limited atonement is hard to grasp, but I think there is a clear biblical example. The Old Testament. In the Old Testament salvation was limited to Israel alone (or those brought into Israel). For most of human history God has limited the atonement. It makes perfect sense for the world in John 3:16 to mean all nations. God has expanded the extent of the atonement through Jesus Christ to all nations and people groups rather than just Israel. If it makes God into a moral monster for Him to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell (for which we are justly condemned) in the New Testament era, we need to go back and look at what kind of God the Old Testament teaches. We find in the New Testament that is not just Israel (in the national sense) that God sets His love on anymore; it is all the world.

  17. Dr Clark,

    As it is, I disagree that Luther held to the free offer of the gospel and the ectypal theology.

    Luther’s proclamation is sacramental, i.e. “I forgive you” — & therefore personalistic (primacy of person rather than nature or class). That is, 1st order theology/ speech acts. The Incarnate God’s “desire to save” is hence limited to proclamation which cannot be turned into 2nd order theology, i.e. systematic reflection *about* God — a theological principle (abstracted and universalised). May I please recommend the late Dr Gerhard O. Forde’s Preached God (Lutheran Quarterly Books) as well as Steven D Paulson’s Lutheran Theology. Proclamation is not a word about God but *from* God. IOW, a performative word which does what it says and says what it does.

    Re ectypal theology, Luther’s approach is different vis-a-vis the Hidden and Revealed God. It’s not about different knowledge about God but different existential encounter *with* God. The Hidden God is *beyond* understanding/ comprehension. The Revealed God has bound Himself to the Word and Sacraments. Truth for Luther is an encounter of Law and Gospel not propositional logic. Thus, Luther’s paradoxes are not those of the FoG (Murray, Berkhof, etc.) but a personal situation of life and death or rather death and life.

    But I remained a fan of your writings, nonetheless. Thank you.

  18. Luther’s concern is to protect the unconditional, efficacious, etc. character of the gospel promise. Flattening out the distinction between systematic theology and proclamation endangers or imperils the latter, i.e. proclamation/ preaching which aim is actually to do the election itself, and of course pastoral theology.

    The Hidden God is not a concept whereby one discerns the different types of the divine will but a encounter whereby the sinner flees from (i.e. away) to the Revealed God. The Hidden God is wrath, terror, sheer abstraction, alienation, etc. But once the Hidden God is *aligned* “behind” the Revealed God, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation …

  19. Thus, the Hidden God does not desire to save sinners precisely because He is not bound to anything but FREE above all in all …

  20. I realised recently that there is a clear text in Scripture where ‘all’ does not mean all. Peter, quoting Joel, reminds his hearers that God promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and said that the promise was taking place at Pentecost. But clearly not every individual was given the gift of the Spirit: so ‘all’ did not mean, and continues not to mean, each individual.

    Of course, this isn’t in any way a big step towards definite atonement, but it’s useful to bear in mind next time someone squats on the ‘all’ passages and declares that it must mean ‘each and every’.

    • God does pour out His Spirit on all flesh. “All things are consigned to sin”.

      No one is a free agent.

      The law rightly condemns us all. And at the Cross all are forgiven. That all will not hear this and come to a living faith is the problem.

      But don’t try and pin that one on God. God is good and desires no man be lost.

      So there. 😀

    • Steve, how would you answer Jack’s question above in light of what you said? “And at the Cross all are forgiven.”

      Jack: “Question: If Christ bore the wrath of God for the sins of someone (i.e. He fully atoned for that person), is God then just to allow that forgiven one to go to eternal damnation? For if his sins are forgiven, then it follows that he doesn’t deserve to pay for his sins because Jesus has already paid his penalty. Thus if someone for whom Christ died ends up in hell, how is this a just act on the part of God? “

  21. All sins are forgiven at the Cross. But not all will come to faith.

    Who comes to faith? Those whom the Holy Spirit wills.

    So…God is in charge. Christ died for all. We don’t have any idea who the elect are.

    Why get exercised over this? Yes, God does it all. I do backtrack a bit from earlier statements. He does have mercy upon whom He will have mercy.

    But we just keep proclaiming Christ’s death for sinners and let the chips fall where they may.

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