Does John 3:16 Refute Calvinism?

 In Arminianism, Blog, Calvinism, Limited Atonement, Reformation, Regeneration, Salvation, Soteriology

John 3:16 is probably the most famous verse in the Bible—and it’s the most searched Bible verse too. It also happens to include, as we’ll see together in this blog, one of the greatest promises that we have ever received from God. It’s a glorious verse.

However, it’s also grossly misunderstood. I’ll show you why.

The King James Bible renders this verse as: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

God is promising to rescue all those that believe in him! As I stated above, this is glorious! However, the promise in this verse is often overlooked, and instead, the focus ends up in one phrase in this verse: “whosoever believeth.”

If you’ve been around theological debates at all, then you’ve probably heard/seen this verse used as the “trump card” in one particular type of theological debate: Calvinism versus Arminianism. The claim is that John 3:16 refutes Calvinism, but does it?

(Side Note: I actually prefer to talk about this debate in terms of ‘Monergism’ and ‘Synergism’ but the terms ‘Calvinism’ and ‘Arminianism’ are the most well-known terms, so I’ll just go with that in this blog.)

Here’s how this usually goes down…

There’s someone discussing or defending Calvinism. They’re probably using some of the typical passages (Rom. 9, Act. 13:48, Ephesians 1 & 2, etc.). Then someone comes along and jumps into the conversation and says, “But the Bible says ‘whosoever’ doesn’t it?”

The person cites John 3:16 as if it’s an open-and-shut case against Calvinism, and they just keep quoting John 3:16 as if nothing else matters.

I have encountered this dozens and dozens of times over the last decade of my life; and in almost every case the person quoting John 3:16 is acting as if the Calvinist person must not have ever even heard of John 3:16. They allude to John 3:16 as if they’re ‘dropping the mic.’ Like the debate is now over. But is it?

Let’s examine.

 

What Does the Calvinist Believe?

Before we dive into John 3:16 itself, I think it may be helpful to take a moment and consider what Calvinism actually asserts. The term ‘Calvinism’ is simply a nickname for a set of beliefs. The nickname comes from the 16th century pastor and theologian John Calvin.

In my opinion, it’s a bad nickname because this particular set of beliefs was around way before Calvin was ever born, but that’s a topic for a different blog post. The beliefs of Calvinism are also often called ‘the doctrines of grace’ or ‘Reformed soteriology’ or ‘Monergism.’

Calvinism teaches that a human being is born sinful, and we happen to be so sinful, and so deeply corrupted, and so profoundly impacted by sin, that we would never choose God of our own volition. No one would ever freely choose God.

Calvinism does not necessarily deny the existence of ‘free will’ as some may claim. Calvinism simply asserts that human beings are so corrupted by sin that no human being would ever want to use their free will to choose God, even when given the chance.

Yes, humans have a will and inclinations and freedom to choose, but our will is so desperately poisoned by sin, that we are hostile toward God. Sin causes us to want nothing to do with him. That’s the default position of every human from birth. If left to our own free will, all of us would choose to reject God and we would seal our own fate.

So, if God did nothing… if he left it up to our free will… we would all choose to reject God and we would all be rightly damned to hell.

However, because God’s loves us so much, he made a way for us to be saved. He made a way for humans to be reconciled. Jesus Christ came to earth. He walked among us, he lived a perfect life, and he died a brutal death that he did not deserve. And the death of Jesus Christ can be an atonement for our sin.

All humans deserve to die and to be condemned, however, anyone who believes in Jesus will have the death of Christ be substituted for them. Jesus’ death gets credited to their spiritual ledger, as the payment for their sins. Through belief in Jesus, a person can have their spiritual record wiped clean.

This is the promise of John 3:16… that whoever believes in Jesus will not perish!

However, there’s just one big potential problem here. Even though God has made a way for humans to choose to be saved, through faith in Jesus, humans are still so stinkin’ sinful that none of us would ever want to choose God. Left to their own will and inclinations, all humans would still reject Jesus, even though he loves them and died in their place.

So, how did God handle this?

Simple, God chose to give to some humans the desire to want to believe in Jesus. We call this the ‘doctrine of election.’ God does a supernatural (and mysterious) work in the hearts of certain human beings and changes them, so that they will then want to choose God.

Yes, any person could chose to believe in God if they wanted to… yes… of course… the invitation is open to all persons… but not one person would ever want to choose him, unless God first gives the desire.es that God chose first.

That’s Calvinism in a nutshell.

There’s a lot more to it, to be honest, but that’s the basics. The famous 18th century preacher Charles Spurgeon explained these beliefs in this way:

“Man cannot come to Christ, because his nature is so corrupt that he has neither the will nor the power to come to Christ unless drawn by the Spirit…. The question is this: Are men ever found naturally willing to submit to the humbling terms of the gospel of Christ? We declare, upon scriptural authority, that the human will is so desperately set on mischief, so depraved, so inclined to everything that is evil, and so disinclined to everything that is good, that without the powerful, supernatural, and irresistible influence of the Holy Spirit, no human will can ever be constrained toward Christ.” [1]

(Side Note: There’s plenty of passages of the Bible that support this set of beliefs but I don’t have the time to deal with all of them in this post, so maybe that’ll have to be a topic for a future post, God willing.)

 

The Objections

So, there’s plenty of objections to Calvinism from various Christians. One major question that comes up: “Well, why wouldn’t God give everyone the desire to choose him? If God loves all, why doesn’t he choose all?”

That’s a great question… and to be honest, I don’t think the Bible gives us a clear answer to that question. The Apostle Paul does address this question in Romans 9, but he doesn’t seem to give an answer that’s as clear as some would like.

I can only say that I trust God and I know that he is good. All that he does is good, even if I don’t get it.

But this is where many people reject Calvinism. Instead of genuinely and objectively looking at the Scriptures, they simply quit here because they don’t like the answers.

Honestly, I do not know why God does what he does, or why he elects whom he chooses to elect, or why he does not elect some. I honestly do not know and I probably will never understand those things on this side of eternity. But I still trust God. This is one of the primary sentiments we see there in Romans 9.

Another main objection is the phrase “whosoever.” Some Christians assert that Jesus said, “whosoever believes…” which they take to mean, “whoever wants to come can come.” This supposedly dismantles the Calvinist position.

So, what does John 3:16 actually say?

 

What Does John 3:16 Teach?

First, we must remember, the Bible was not written in English. The New Testament was written in the first-century common version of Greek (known as Koine Greek).

When we examine the Greek text, we realize that many of our English translations of John 3:16 are actually off-base. World-renowned evangelical Greek scholar Bill Mounce has two articles dealing with this subject: “What’s the Proper Way to Translate John 3:16?” and “Does John 3:16 Say “Whoever”?

Let’s look at the original Greek of John 3:16:

τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται

If we literally translate these Greek words, they literally translate as:

 

Greek English
Οὕτως
Houtōs
Thus
γὰρ
gar
for
ἠγάπησεν
ēgapēsen
loved

ho
Θεὸς
Theos
God
τὸν
ton
the
κόσμον,
kosmon
world,
ὥστε
hōste
that
τὸν
ton
the
Υἱὸν
Huion
Son,
τὸν
ton
the
μονογενῆ
monogenē
only begotten,
ἔδωκεν,
edōken
He gave,
ἵνα
hina
so that
πᾶς
pas
everyone

ho
πιστεύων
pisteuōn
believing
εἰς
eis
in
αὐτὸν
auton
Him
μὴ
not
ἀπόληται
apolētai
should perish,
ἀλλ’
all’
but
ἔχῃ
echē
should have
ζωὴν
zōēn
life
αἰώνιον.
aiōnion
eternal.

 

If you want, feel to pop each word into Google translate yourself and see what you get.

The key phrase is in the passage is:

πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων

The most literal translation of this phrase is “everyone the believing.”

It can also be translated “all the believing.”

The term πιστεύων refers to “believing peoples” or “believing persons” or the “believing ones.”

Also, the term πᾶς literally means everyone or “the whole” but it’s not a standalone word, it’s connected to the term πιστεύων so, the term in John 3:16 πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων should be translated:

“all the believing ones” or

“everyone believing” or

“the whole of the believing ones” or

“all of the believing ones”

So John 3:16 should ideally read:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only (or begotten) Son, that ‘everyone believing’ in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

or

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only (or begotten) Son, that ‘all the believing ones’ in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Last note, the Greek term ὁ which is in this verse is often used as a connector between Greek words, so in this case it connects πᾶς to the term πιστεύων so it does not necessarily need to be translated.

This is why instead of the translation “everyone the believing” we use the term “everyone believing.”

The “everyone” is the main subject of the phrase. The term “believing” is the adjective describing the “everyone.” The sentiment is that this is about everyone who believes or all the believing ones.

This is why the CSB translates this verse:

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Notice the term “whosoever” does not appear in the CSB, because, quite frankly, the term “whosoever” is not actually the best translation of the original Greek words, as I’ve shown above.

God gave us his one and only Son so that “everyone who believes” would be saved. So that all the “believing ones” would definitely have eternal life.

 

Let’s Talk Pronouns

The second most important thing to consider: The term “whosoever” is a pronoun. Even if we want to stick with the term whosoever, as the King James renders it, the verse still does not teach what the anti-Calvinist crowd claims.

The word “whosoever” is the formal form of whoever, which is a pronoun. Pronouns always refers to a particular noun in its context. The term whosoever does mean whatever we want it to mean, it must mean what the context demands.

When we see any pronoun in a statement, like the terms whosoever or whoever, we must look for the subject of that statement to determine who the pronoun is referring to.

For example, if I were to say, “Whosoever has a ticket to the game will be able to attend the game.”

Well, who can attend the game? Whoever happens to have a ticket.

The term “whoever” in my statement is pointing to a particular group, which in this case, are those who have a ticket. That’s how pronouns work.

This statement says nothing about if the people will even want to buy a ticket, and it certainly does not say anything about whether everyone will have the ability to even buy a ticket.

Now, if I had said, “Whoever wants to buy a ticket, I will guarantee that they will have the opportunity to buy a ticket.” That means something very different than the first statement. Something much more universal is being implied.

Statement 1: “Whosoever has a ticket to the game will be able to attend the game.”

Statement 2: “Whoever wants to buy a ticket, I will guarantee that they will have the opportunity to buy a ticket.”

Statement 1 and Statement 2 are very different statements. They mean two totally different things.

The anti-Calvinist person seems to misread John 3:16.

They often seem to act as if it says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that each and every person in the world will definitely have the opportunity to choose to believe.”

But that’s not what the text actually says.

We ought to ask, “Who is the ‘whosoever’ speaking of?” The answer: Those that believe.

This statement in John 3:16 is actually excluding a large chunk of people, that is, all of those who do not believe. It’s an exclusive statement, meaning it intentionally excludes people. Which people? Those that do not believe. Which people will not be given eternal life? All those who did not believe. Plain and simple.

All evangelicals agree, all those that do not believe in Jesus will be excluded from eternal life. Yes, the Calvinist agrees. There is not conflict between what the verse says and what Calvinism asserts.

The anti-Calvinist seeks to interpret this verse in a manner that the grammar simply does not allow.

Again, the term “whosoever” is actually a bad translation (as I outlined in the previous section of this blog post). But even if we leave it in, the verse still does not imply what the anti-Calvinist crowd asserts.

 

What Do We Not Learn From John 3:16?

What we do indeed learn from this verses is that God loves the world so much, that he did something to demonstrate that love. And this verse tells us why he did this… Jesus came to earth so that “all the believing” would be saved.

But do you notice what this verse is noting talking about? It does not say anything about who will desire to believe (we’ll deal with that later in this blog). This verse, John 3:16, simply says, that whoever happens to believe, those are the ones that will be saved.

Well, on this point the Calvinist agrees. When the Calvinist hears this proclaims, she’ll give a hearty, “Amen!” All Calvinists believe that all who believe will be saved. Whichever persons happen to be the ones that believe in Jesus, those are the ones that will be rescued.

The way many people throw around the phrase “whosoever” is misleading because there is no word like that in the Greek; and there’s absolutely nothing in the Greek vocabulary that implies each and every person will have the desire.

I recently was having a conversation with a friend about this passage. I said, “You see, this verse does not negate Calvinsim at all.”

He responded, “Yes, but it doesn’t prove Calvinism either, right? This doesn’t point to election, does it?”

I said, “Yes, I agree. You’re right. This verse does not necessarily point to election, but I’m not saying that it does. I’m making no such claim. That’s not my point. I’m not using John 3:16 to prove my understanding of election.”

And that’s my point herein… John 3:16 may not point to the doctrine of election, but it does not point away from it either.

Therefore, the person who asserts the “whosoever” phrase amid a Calvinism discussion or debate is asserting an argument that simply does not hold water. At best, it’s a red herring or non sequitur.

John 3:16 does not push me toward or away from Calvinism… the verse teaches a concept that all genuine evangelicals agree with. Neither side can honesty use John 3:16 in a debate over Calvinism.

John 3:16 says that all those that believe in Jesus will be saved; and on this point the Monergists and Synergists can agree.

John 3:16 teaches us that all of the persons that happen to believe in Jesus will all be saved. All of them, the whole group of them. Each and every one of the believers will be saved. Praise be to God!

If you believe in Jesus, you do not have to worry that he’ll leave you out. This is a glorious promise.

None of the believers will be left out of the family of God, because of God’s love.

John 3:16 teaches us that God’s love for the world motivated him to give Jesus—and that Jesus was specifically given to ensure that the whole group of the believers would be saved. That all who believe would not perish.

That’s it. That’s what John 3:16 teaches. Nothing less, nothing more.

 

So What About Desire?

So, as previously outlined, the Calvinists believes that humans do not have the desire to choose God unless he gives it to them.

Why do Calvinist believe this?

Well, there are dozens of passages that allude to this. But for this blog, let’s stay in the Gospel of John.

In chapter 6 of John, Jesus is having a large-group conversation with a group of people that are being relatively hostile with him. They are asking questions, but they don’t seem to really care about Jesus’ answers or exhortations.

Many of these people had been present when he did the miracle of feeding the 5,000+ crowd (cf. Mt. 14:13-21; Mk. 6:30-44; Lk. 9:10-17; Jn. 6:1-15), and many of them just want him to do that again.

Jesus responds to them, “I am the bread of life… No one who comes to me will ever be hungry” (vv. 34-35 CSB). Jesus accuses them of not really wanting to come to him (cf. v. 36) and then he makes this glorious promise, “…the one who comes to me I will never cast out” (v. 37 CSB).

This reiterates the promise of John 3:16 that we’ve already discussed, that all the ones that come to Jesus, all the believing ones, will definitely be saved!

Jesus continues by explaining that he did not come to earth to do “his own will” but instead came to earth to do “the will of him who sent me” (v. 38 CSB). And who sent Jesus? The Father! Jesus did not come to earth to do his own thing, but for a specific purpose, to fulfill the mission that the Father wants him to fulfill.

And what is this mission? The next verse tells us. Jesus said, “This is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose none of those he has given me” (v. 39 CSB). Notice, Jesus says something quite poignant here. Jesus says, “I’m not here to do what I want to do” (my paraphrase), but to do what the Father had sent him to do, which was to specifically ensure the salvation of those that the Father had given to Jesus. Again, Jesus said he came to ensure that he does not lose “none he has given me.”

And who are the ones the Father had given Jesus. The next verse tells us. “…everyone who sees the Son and believes in him” (v. 40 CSB). This is the same language from John 3:16. Who did the Father give to Jesus, “all the believing ones.”

The crowd grumbles. They don’t like Jesus’ answers. They do not want to believe in him and trust in him. They just want food to fill their bellies. They want to see a miracle, but they don’t really love Jesus, they don’t appreciate him for who he is.

Jesus then says to them, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (v. 44 CSB). The reason they did not have the desire to trust in Jesus is because the Father had not drawn them.

Later in the chapter, Jesus continues the discourse, explaining that the work of God is a spiritual thing. “The Spirit is the one who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all” (v. 63 CSB). The flesh–the natural state of man–cannot help in this spiritual process at all.

Then Jesus acknowledges that “there are some among you who don’t believe” (v. 64 CSB); and Jesus then reminds them of his earlier sentiment, which explains why they had not yet believed, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father” (v. 65 CSB).

As I read through John 6, here are my takeaways:

1) Jesus came to save a specific group, the believing ones.

2) Jesus will not lose any of those that the Father has given him.

3) Not everyone wants to believe, and that is primarily reason is because the Father has not drawn them.

 

The Rest of the New Testament Testifies

Now, let’s couple these sentiments with what we see elsewhere in the New Testament.

Jesus describes his disciples as sheep and describes himself as the shepherd, “…the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought all his own outside, he goes ahead of them. The sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will never follow a stranger; instead they will run away from him, because they don’t know the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:3-5 CSB)

Jesus continues, with confidence he says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not from this sheep pen; I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (vv. 10:14-16 CSB).

As we read these verses in John 10, we get certainly get the sense that Jesus definitely knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. They will never follow another voice, and they will definitely follow Jesus.

Later in this chapter he’s corresponding with another hostile group. They question Jesus and he reminds them that he had already given them ample reasons to believe that he is who he claims to be, but they continue to deny it and reject him (cf. Jn. 10:25).

Then, in the next verse, Jesus clearly tells them why they are refusing to believe in him, “You don’t believe because you are not of my sheep” (v. 26 CSB).

Notice, the verse does NOT say, “You are not my sheep because you don’t believe.” No, that’s not what it says. It clearly says, that the reason they refuse to believe is because they are not his sheep.

As noted above, there are some people that are not his sheep, and that’s why they do not listen to his voice. But the true sheep will definitely listen to his voice and follow Jesus and will not follow another voice (Jn. 10:1-5; cf. Jn. 3:29; 14:2-3; 1 Jn. 4:5-6).

The conversation in John 10 between the crowd and Jesus continues. He again describes his sheep: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:27-28 CSB).

Who are the ones that will not perish? The sheep that follow Jesus!

And then Jesus makes a statements that clearly equates the sheep (here in chapter 10) with the group “given” to Jesus by the Father. The next verse says, “My Father… has given them to me…” (v. 29 CSB). The group of people given to Jesus are the sheep, the true followers. The sheep are the ones given to Jesus, the believing ones. And no one will ever be able to “snatch them from his hand” (v. 30 CSB).

Jesus prayed for those the Father had given him, “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given to Me [as Your gift to Me], may be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, because You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24 Amplified).

Jesus prayed for us! And no one can snatch us from him! Jesus will hold us and guard us (cf. Jd. 24; 2 Thess. 3:3; Heb. 6:19).

God will complete the work in us that he started (cf. Phil. 1:6).

He started it when he gave the desire, and he’ll finish it, by his power and grace.

The simple (and hard) truth is that some people do not believe and do not listen to God’s voice because they simply are not in that group that the Father gave to Jesus. They are not a part of the sheep. If they were sheep, then they would have listened to the good shepherd.

There are many persons that have not believed in Jesus because they have not been ordained to believe (cf. Act. 13:48).

There are many who do not believe because they have not been given the gift of repentance (cf. 2 Tim. 2:24-25).

There are many who currently do not believe because they were not predestined to believe (cf. Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:4-11).

In order for any person to want to choose to believe, God must first give that person the desire. God must act first. That’s how it works. We may not understand it, and we may not even like it, but that does not change it.

Instead of being frustrated with the things we cannot control or things we do not understand, let us focus instead of the glorious truths we see in Scripture, like the amazing promise we see in John 3:16:

The reality that all the believing ones will definitely be saved! God will not arbitrarily or randomly leave out some of the believers. None will slip through his hands. He will ensure that all the believers are saved—that not one will perish. John 3:16 is our assurance. It is our promise, our guarantee.

God loved the world so much, that he demonstrated it in making sure that he took actions to ensure that all the believing ones would be rescued.

If you believe, then you will definitely be invited into God’s family, you will definitely not perish. To that we say, Praise be to God!

 


[1] Charles Spurgeon. Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon. Daniel Partner (ed.) (Uhrichsville: Barbour, 2009), 986-987.