Donald A. Carson on John 3:16-17

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in John 3:16


16. As the new birth, the acquisition of eternal life, has been grounded in the ‘lifting up’ of the Son (w. 14-15), so also that ‘lifting up, the climax of the Son’s mission, is itself grounded in the love of God. The mission of the Son and its consequences is the theme of this paragraph, but John begins by insisting that the Son’s mission was itself the consequence of God’s love. The Greek construction behind so loved that he gave his one and only Son (houtos plus hoste plus the indicative instead of the infinitive) emphasizes the intensity of the love, and insists that the envisaged consequence really did ensue;’ the words ‘his one and only Son’ (cf. notes on 1:14) stress the greatness of the gift. The Father gave his best, his unique and beloved Son (cf. Rom. 8:32).

Both the verb ‘to love’ (agapao) and the noun ‘love’ (agape) occur much more frequently in chs. 13 – 17 than anywhere else in the Fourth Gospel, reflecting the fact that John devotes special attention to the love relationships amongst the Father, the Son and the disciples. The Father loves the Son (3:35; 10:17; 15:9-10; 17:2.%24, 26; using another verb, 5:20), the Son loves the Father (14:31); Jesus loves his own, his true disciples (11:5; 13:1, 33, 34; 14:21; 15:9-10, 12; 21:7, 20), and they must love him (14:15, 21, 23f., 28; 21:15-26). They must also love one another (13:34-35; 15:12-13, 17; 17:26). Sometimes John speaks of the Father’s love for the disciples (14:21, 23; 17:23), but more frequently the Father’s love for the disciples is mediated through his Son. The world, fallen and rebellious human beings in general, does not and cannot love God (3:19; 5:42; 8:42).

From this pattern of relationships it is clear that there is nothing in the words agapao and agape themselves to suggest that the love of which John speaks is invariably spontaneous, self-generated, without reference to the loved one. John ‘uses the same words both for God’s spontaneous, gracious, love for men, and also for the responsive relation of the disciple to God, to which man is moved not by free unmerited favour to God (which would be impossible), but by a sense of God’s favour to him,’ (Barrett, p. 215). This does not mean that for John there is no such thing as spontaneous, self-generated love, only that it is not tied to a single word-group. More than any New Testament writer, John develops a theology of the love relations between the Father and the Son, and makes it clear that, as applied to human beings, the love of God is not the consequence of their loveliness but of the sublime truth that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn. 4:16).

From this survey it is clear that it is atypical for John to speak of God’s love for the world, but this truth is therefore made to stand out as all the more wonderful. Jews were familiar with the truth that God loved the children of Israel; here God’s love is not restricted by race. Even so, 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’; cf. notes on 1:9). The world is so wicked that John elsewhere forbids Christians to love it or anything in it (1 Jn. 2:15-17). There is no contradiction between this prohibition and the fact that God does love it. Christians are not to love the world with the selfish love of participation; God loves the world with the self-less, costly love of redemption.

Many scholars find it impossible to reconcile this verse with the more restrictive circle of love (the Father, the Son and the disciples) that dominates the rest of the book, and with the persistent threat of judgment that stands over the world (e.g. 3:36). They therefore postulate an interpolation or the influence of some other source not properly assimilated into the book. Segovia (pp. 166-170) attempts a reconciliation by postulating that the narrower circle of love represents the postresurrection status, when the Christians are set over against ‘the Jews’ and ‘the world’, which by definition is under condemnation and cannot be loved. The statement that God ‘loved the world’ belongs to the pre-resurrection period when the radical polarization had not yet taken place. This analysis misunderstands John at several points; worse, it overlooks a dominant theme of many of the biblical books. All believers have been chosen out of the world (15:19); they are not something other than ‘world’ when the gospel first comes to them. They would not have become true disciples apart from the love of God for the world. Even after the circle of believers is formed and the resurrection has taken place, these Christians are mandated to continue their witness, aided by the Spirit, in hopes of winning others from the world (15:26-27; 20:21). In other words, God maintains the same stance toward the world after the resurrection that he had before: he pronounces terrifying condemnation on the grounds of the world’s sin, while still loving the world so much that the gift he gave to the world, the gift of his Son, remains the world’s only hope.

This dual stance of God is a commonplace of biblical theology. The holy God finds wicked actions to be detestable things (Ezk. 18:10-13), but that does not prevent him from crying out, ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’ (Ezk. 18:23). The same dual track is found in God’s stance to other nations. Moab, for instance, is so wicked that God’s decree has gone forth: ‘Make her drunk, for she has defied the LORD. Let Moab wallow in her vomit; let her be an object of ridicule. . . In Moab I will put an end to those who make offerings on the high places and bum incense to their gods. . . . I have broken Moab like a jar that no-one wants. . .  Moab will be destroyed as a nation because she defied the LORD’ (Jer. 48:26, 35, 38, 42). At the same time, the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked declares, ‘Therefore I wail over Moab, for all Moab I cry out. . . . So my heart laments for Moab like a flute; it laments like a flute for the  men of Kir Hareseth‘ (Je. 48:31, 36).

Similarly in the New Testament: if it is true that the ‘wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom. 1:18), and if ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23), it is also true, wonderfully true, that ‘the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 6:23). Christians were not born Christians; they ‘were by nature objects of wrath’ (Eph. 2:3). Despite this desperate status, they were made alive with Christ because of God’s great love for them, this God ‘who is rich in mercy’ (Eph. 2:45). Examples of this paired stance of God could be multiplied. Apart from God’s love for the world, the very world that stands under his wrath, no-one would be saved; where there is a redeemed community, it stands in a different and richer relationship of love with God than does the world, but that distinction cannot legitimately be made to call in question the love of God for a world under his judgment.

Because John 3:16 is sandwiched between w. 14-15 and v. 17, the fact that God gave his one and only Son is tied both to the Son’s incarnation (v. 17) and to his death (w. 14-15). That is the immediate result of the love of God for the world: the mission of the Son. His ultimate purpose is the salvation of those in the world who believe in him (eis auton, not en auto as in v. 15). Whoever believes in him experiences new birth (3:3, 5)’ has eternal life (3:15, 16), is saved (3:17); the alternative is to perish (cf. also 10:28), to lose one’s life (12:25), to be doomed to destruction (17:12, cognate with ‘to perish’). There is no third option.

17. The theme of the mission of the Son is common enough in the Synoptics (e.g. Mt. 9:13; 15:24; Mk. 1:38; Lk. 4:18, 43). Here John aims to make a simple point, a clarification of the purpose of that mission, already articulated in v. 16. God’s purpose in sending his Son into the world (a phrase that distinguishes the sending of Jesus from the sending of John the Baptist, 1:6) was not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (cf. 12:47). The verb rendered ‘to condemn’, krino, can mean simply ‘to judge’; but in this and many other passages in John, the judgment is clearly adverse (since it stands over against ‘to save’), hence ‘to condemn’. Thus the believer is not condemned (krino, 3:18) and will not be condemned (5:24, lit. ‘does not come into judgment’ [krisis]). Some find it difficult to reconcile this verse with 9:39, where Jesus declares. ‘For judgment (krisis) I have come into this world. . . .’; indeed,

John insists that God has given Jesus ‘authority to judge (krino) because he is the Son of Man’ (5:27). Two factors alleviate the difficulty. First, in these two passages the meaning of krino/krisis is neutral. Anyone familiar with Daniel 7:1,14 would not be surprised to learn that the Son of Man has authority to pronounce judgment, and that he came for that purpose. That is rather different from saying he came to pronounce condemnation. Second, and more important, the Son of Man came into an already lost and condemned world. He did not come into a neutral world in order to save some and condemn others; he came into a lost world (for that is the nature of the ‘world’, 1:9) in order to save some. That not all of the world will be saved is made perfectly clear by the next verses (w. 18-21); but God’s purpose in the mission of Jesus was to bring salvation to it. That is why Jesus is later called ‘the Saviour of the world’ (4:42; cf. 1 Jn. 4:14).

D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: IVP, 1991), 204-207. [Italics Carson’s, underlining mine.]

[Note: No Calvinist needs to be afraid of taking world as world.]

This entry was posted on Thursday, December 11th, 2008 at 8:56 am and is filed under John 3:16. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 comments so far


“No Calvinist needs to be afraid of taking world as world.”

Amen to that!

Thanks for posting this selection from Dr. Carson.

December 11th, 2008 at 12:23 pm

Your name was dropped in James White program, you have become notorious mate!


December 12th, 2008 at 7:09 am

Hey Michael,

Thanks for dropping by. What’s unhelpful is when ‘calvinists’ portray Calvinism as having uniformly taught that for the world of 3:16, it must be the elect (or some cognate idea) and that it cannot mean humanity in general, lost and apostate.

Sometimes the impression is given that any view that takes world as humanity in general (non-elect inclusive) one is being sub-Calvinistic.

Thanks again,

December 12th, 2008 at 9:30 am

G’day LP.

I listened to the piece, and didn’t find anything that helped. I am going back and forth in my mind on whether or not I should or want to reply. I saw nothing that contradicted anything I have posted here; or anywhere. All the comments from Edwards and C Hodge were totally compatible with the thesis outlined in his site. I even agree theologically with the sentiments contained in the material they quoted from Edwards and C Hodge. As to AA Hodge, we never argue our case from him, and so citing him was just irrelevant to our project. Not a single quotation from Charles Hodge we have sited here was even addressed. The Edwards citation has already been explained and I saw no response to that explanation.

I stand by what has been posted at this site. The evidence is self-attesting. I rather think it best to ignore the “interview” because of its irrelevancy: it misses the point almost entirely.

And as a sort of PS, I don’t find the argument from the alleged correlation between the expiation and intercession to be convincing at all. On this see: The Atonement and Intercession of Christ: An Argument for Limited Atonement..

Thanks and take care,

December 12th, 2008 at 9:36 am

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