Robert Dabney (1820-1898) on John 3:16

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in John 3:16


1) But there are others of these passages, to which I think, the candid mind will admit, this sort of explanation is inapplicable. In John 3:16, make “the world” which Christ loved, to mean “the elect world,” and we reach the absurdity that some of the elect may not believe, and perish. In 2 Cor. 5:15, if we make the all for whom Christ died, mean only the all who live unto Him—i. e., the elect it would seem to be implied that of those elect for whom Christ died, only a part will live to Christ. In 1 John 2:2, it is at least doubtful whether the express phrase, “whole world,” can be restrained to the world of elect as including other than Jews. For it is indisputable, that the Apostle extends the propitiation of Christ beyond those whom he speaks of as “we,” in verse first. The interpretation described obviously proceeds on the assumption that these are only Jewish believers. Can this be substantiated? Is this catholic epistle addressed only to Jews? This is more than doubtful. It would seem then, that the Apostle’s scope is to console and encourage sinning believers with the thought that since Christ made expiation for every man, there is no danger that He will not be found a propitiation for them who, having already believed, now sincerely turn to him from recent sins. Dabney, Lectures, 525.

2) There is, perhaps, no Scripture which gives so thorough and comprehensive an explanation of the design and results of Christ’s sacrifice, as John 3:16–19. It may receive important illustration from Matt. 22:4. In this last parable, the king sends this message to invited guests who, he foresees, would reject and never partake the feast. “My oxen and my fatlings are killed, come, for all things are now ready.” They alone were unready. I have already stated one ground for rejecting that interpretation of John 3:16, which makes “the world” which God so loved, the elect world, I would now, in conclusion, simply indicate, in the form of a free paraphrase, the line of thought developed by our Redeemer, trusting that the ideas already expounded will suffice, with the coherency and consistency of the exposition to prove its correctness.

Verse 16. Christ’s mission to make expiation for sin is a manifestation of unspeakable benevolence to the whole world, to man as man and a sinner, yet designed specifically to result in the actual salvation of believers. Does not this imply that this very mission, rejected by others, will become the occasion (not cause) of perishing even more surely to them? It does. Yet, (verse 17) it is denied that this vindicatory result was the primary design of Christ’s mission, and the initial assertion is again repeated, that this primary design was to manifest God, in Christ’s sacrifice, as compassionate to all. How then is the seeming paradox to be reconciled? Not by retracting either statement. The solution, (verse 18) is in the fact, that men, in the exercise of their free agency, give opposite receptions to this mission. To those who accept it as it is offered, it brings life. To those who choose to reject it, it is the occasion (not cause) of condemnation. For, (verse 19) the true cause of this perverted result is the evil choice of the unbelievers, who reject the provision offered in the divine benevolence, from a wicked motive; unwillingness to confess and forsake their sins. The sum of the matter is then. That Christ’s mission is, to the whole race, a manifestation of God’s mercy. To believers it is means of salvation by reason of that effectual calling which Christ had expounded in the previous verses. To unbelievers it becomes a subsequent and secondary occasion of aggravated doom. This melancholy perversion, while embraced in God’s permissive decree, is caused by their own contumacy. The efficient in the happy result is effectual calling; the efficient in the unhappy result is man’s own evil will. Yet God’s benevolence is cleared, in both results. Both were, of course, foreseen by Him, and included in His purpose. Dabney, Lectures, 535.

3) We may best exemplify the manner in which the correct view applies by that most important and decisive passage, John 3:16-19. Here is the most plausible exposition of it which can be presented on the supralapsarian side. When “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,” “the world” must mean only the “body of the elect”: 1, Because there is no greater gift that could evince any greater love to the elect; 2, Because this chief gift must include all the rest, according to Rom. 8:32; 3, Because “the world “of the whole passage is that which God sent his Son (verse 17) not to condemn but to save; 4, The foreseen preterition of many to whom the Gospel is offered expresses nothing but divine hatred, such as is incompatible with any love at all.

But now, per contra, if “the world” in verse 16 means “the body of the elect,” then, 1, We have a clear implication, that some of that body may fail to believe and perish; 2, We are required to carry the same sense throughout the passage, for the phrase, “the world”—which is correct; but in verse 19, “the world,” into which the light has come, working with some the alternative result of deeper condemnation, must be taken in the wider sense; 3, A fair logical connection between verse 17 and verse 18 shows that “the world” of verse 17 is inclusive of “him that believeth,” and “him that believeth not,” of verse 18; 4, It is hard to see how, if the tender of Christ’s sacrifice is in no sense a true manifestation of divine benevolence to that part of “the world “which “believeth not,” their choosing to slight it is the just ground of a deeper condemnation, as is expressly stated in verse 19. Are gospel-rejectors finally condemned for this, that they were so unfortunately perspicacious as not to be affected by a fictitious or unreal manifestation? It is noticeable that Calvin is too sagacious an expositor to commit himself to the extreme exegesis.

How shall we escape from this dilemma? Looking at the first and second points of the stricter exposition, we see that if it were question of that efficient decree of salvation, from which every logical mind is compelled to draw the doctrine of particular redemption, the argument would be impregnable. Yet it would make the Savior contradict his own exposition of his statement. The solution, then, must be in this direction, that the words, “so loved the world” were not designed to mean the gracious decree of election (though other Scriptures abundantly teach there is such a decree), but a propension of benevolence not matured into the volition to redeem, of which Christ’s mission is a sincere manifestation to all sinners. But our Savior adverts to the implication which is contained even in the very statement of this delightful truth, that those who will not believe will perish notwithstanding. He foresees the cavil: “If so, this mission will be as much a curse as a blessing; how is it, then, a manifestation of infinite pity?” And the remaining verses give the solution of that cavil. It is not the tendency or primary design of that mission to curse, but to bless; not to condemn, but to save. When it becomes the occasion (not cause) of deeper condemnation to some, it is only because these (verse 19) voluntarily pervert, against themselves, and acting (verse 20) from a wicked motive, the beneficent provision. God has a permissive decree to allow some thus to wrest the Gospel provision. But inasmuch as this result is of their own free and wicked choice, it does not contravene the blessed truth that Christ’s mission is in its own nature only beneficent, and a true disclosure of God’s benevolence to every sinner on earth to whom it is published. Robert Dabney, “Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” in Discussions, 1:312-313.

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 30th, 2007 at 7:27 pm 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.

3 comments so far


Dabney on John 3:16 has been updated.

November 13th, 2007 at 3:56 am

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

November 13th, 2007 at 11:18 pm

Yes what Reid?



November 14th, 2007 at 1:35 am

Leave a reply

Name (*)
Mail (will not be published) (*)