[2.] Inconsistency and absurdity are introduced into the statements of the sacred writers by the very means intended to explain and harmonize them. The proposed supplement, in some cases, produces neither more nor less than sheer nonsense. And yet I have heard such texts cited with the supplement, with all the tones of devout orthodoxy, without the least apparent consciousness of the insult thus put upon the Spirit of truth. To give you an example or two. I have heard the words quoted:–"God so loved an elect world," etc.1 Now surely by no one possessing even ordinary understanding will it be questioned that in the sentence the word "whosoever " (pas ho, every one who) has less extent of meaning than the more comprehensive word "the world" which precedes it. It restricts and limits the comprehensive term, signifying evidently "whosoever of the world." Suppose, then, the supplement admitted, and the world to mean the world of the elect, or, more briefly and simply, "the elect," see what kind of statement we have got: "God so loved the elect, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever" (of the elect) "believes on Him," etc. This is absurdity.
The same may be said of another passage:2"I pray not for the world," etc.; yet, in the latter, Arminians allege He does pray for the world: "That they all may be one," etc.; "that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." Now, without taking up at present the object of the Arminians in this, I wish it to be considered what some Calvinists have said in reply. They have actually understood "the world," in this last occurrence of it, as meaning the elect, God’s chosen people of all nations; and the petition as a prayer that they might all of them, in successive generations, be brought to the knowledge and faith of His name! In this way, it is alleged, the two verses are at once reconciled. And so, it must be admitted, they are. But the reconciliation is effected even still more than in the preceding case, at the expense of all fair and sound criticism, by making the same term express first one thing, repeatedly and in direct and specific distinction from another; and then, all at once, and without warning, to mean the very thing from which it had been distinguished, and that not only in remote parts of the prayer, but in the very same sentence! "The world" is used in express discrimination from the people of God;3 and in the very verse in question the distinction is marked: "That they also may be one in us, that the world may believe," etc. And that "they all" does not mean the proportion of the elect then, or at any time, existing, as the means, by their union, of bringing the remainder in succession to the belief of the truth, is evident from the preceding verse, where the Redeemer expresses the comprehensiveness of His petition as including all His people prospectively to the end of time:–"Neither pray I for these alone," etc. Thus the world is clearly distinguished from them all. So that this extraordinary principle of interpretation makes those whose union was to be the means of conviction, and the world who were to be convinced by it, one and the same.
But there is not the least occasion for having recourse to a process so anomalous. The principle of interpretation is simple. In the explanation just given, and others of a similar character, it is assumed that the phrase, "that the world may believe," can have no other sense than that every individual in the world should be brought, in actual result, to true and saving faith. But the meaning seems sufficiently simple. The prayer is for the unity of His disciples. Things are spoken of according to their proper tendencies. And this unity is sought, as an evidence to the world of His divine mission. That is all. The tendency of all evidence is to produce conviction. And in all cases, the general design of every person by whom evidence is presented, must be the same; corresponding with the tendency. It must be to convince. Such is the tendency, and such we are warranted to consider as the design, of all the evidence of the Gospel, or of the divine mission of Jesus and the truth of His doctrines. The petition under consideration is framed, in the expression of it, upon this simple principle; signifying no more than that in the union and mutual love of His disciples, the world might have evidence of the truth, such as, whether the effect actually resulted or not, should tend to the production of faith, that is, to the conviction of His having come from God. And there are other cases in which the application of the same simple principle is necessary, as the key of interpretation.4 No one ever imagines that in these words an absolute purpose is expressed, that by what He was then saying all who heard Him should be brought to actual salvation. He only expresses the proper tendency, and the general design of the various descriptions of evidence, to which, in the context, He makes His appeal.5 The same principle must be applied to John i. 7. The words express the tendency and design of the Baptist’s commission and testimony. Who ever fancied that "all," or "all men," here means the elect?
Ralph Wardlaw, Systematic Theology, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1857), 2:462-464. [Some spelling modernized, footnote values modified and reformatted; and underlining mine.]
1John iii. 16. Happening to turn up Cruden for texts in which the word ‘ world’ is used for the mass of mankind, in distinction from the people of God, I found the following:–After citing John xv. 18 correctly, as an instance in which the word is used for "the wicked in the world, unregenerated, unrenewed persons," we have two passages cited in proof of its being also used for "God’s chosen people, whether Jews or Gentiles." Of these, the second is this very text: "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son to die in their stead, and give satisfaction for their sins. Believers are called the world, both because they are taken from among Jews and Gentiles, and do participate in the corruption of the world." Strange! As if the army should be called the nation, because the soldiers have been taken from among the nation; or the general’s body guard the army, because chosen from the ranks. Nay, still more incongruous, as if those who "come out from the world and are separate," and by their very separation have a distinctive character, "not touching the unclean thing," should be called the world still, as a designation of distinction from the world!
2John xvii. 9, 21.
3John xvii. 9, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25.
4John v. 34.