Q: Did Jesus Die for All Men, or the Elect Only?, Pt. 1: The Meaning of “World” (John 3:16)
A: This is a question that you may have heard before from theologians and Bible scholars. You may have never even believed in a group of people known as the elect, but the term is not without biblical support. After all, Jesus speaks of “the elect” in Matthew 24:22, 24, and 31:
“Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved” (Matthew 24:22, New American Standard Bible).
“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Mt. 24:24).
“And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (Mt. 24:31).
It is also present in the Gospels of Mark (Mk. 13:22, 27) and Luke (18:7). One of the more famous passages in which the Greek word eklektos, or eklektoi (Greek plural of “elect”) is used is Romans 8:33:
“Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies;” (Rom. 8:33a)
These passages alone do justice to the concept of “the elect.” But exactly who are the elect? Depending on the Bible scholar or Pastor and his or her underlying beliefs, you will find two different answers: either 1) a special group chosen by God or 2) a group of individuals who choose to believe in Christ.
The two choices above have been written in distinction to make a point. Those who support the first definition believe that one must repent and believe the gospel. Where they will differ from those who support the second definition is that supporters of definition #1 believe that The Lord chose each believer from eternity; He decided to save a special group of humans while abandoning the rest of humanity (those who are called unbelievers).
One of the top passages used by those who support the Special Group idea (known as Calvinists, after theologian John Calvin who also endorsed the same view) is Ephesians 1:4-6, where phrases such as “He chose us in Him” (Eph. 1:4) and “in love He predestined us to adoption as sons” (1:5) are used. Calvinists (adherents to John Calvin’s theology) will say, ” The text says that ‘He chose’ and ‘He predestined,’ so what need is there for any other proof that the special group idea is right?” For the Calvinist, “chosen” implies election, and “predestined” means “chosen before time.”
While predestined does mean, by definition, “before the event happens,” and election does mean “choice,” to read the text as “chosen without regard to faith” is to misread what Paul (and John) will go on to say about Christ and salvation.
The truth of the matter is that Calvinists read the first part of the phrases above and miss the end of the phrases. When Ephesians 1:4 says that “He chose us in Him,” the phrase in Him is just as significant as He chose us. What does it mean to be “in Him”? It means to be “in Christ” (Eph. 1:1, 3, 5, 12, 13). What does it mean to be “in Christ”? It means to experience conversion, to believe in the gospel message. As Paul writes in the same chapter (Eph. 1:13):
“In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation — having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13).
There are three things to notice here about this verse. First, notice that it begins with “in Him,” a phrase that is used some five times in the first chapter of Ephesians (1:4, 7, 9, 10-11, 13). The phrase “in Christ” (Christ is the Him to which the possessive pronoun, Him, refers) is also used in the same passage (Eph. 1:1, 3, 10, 12, 20). Since it is “in Him” that the Ephesian Christians (and all Christians today) believe, then Paul states here that salvation comes by hearing the gospel message (“listening to the message of truth”) and believing in the message (“having also believed”).
What we can gather from Ephesians 1 is that believers come to Christ by way of the gospel message. They must first hear the message and then believe the message in order to be saved. Also, notice something else: Paul says, “having believed, you were sealed” — meaning that the Christians to whom Paul writes mentions the responsibility of humans to believe in the gospel message.
He refers to the gospel as “the gospel of your salvation,” showing that the gospel is central to the salvation of the Christians in Ephesus (and Christians today, see Romans 10:9, John 3:16).
Now, let us return to the question above: “Did Jesus die for all men, or the elect?” To answer this question, you must know who elect are. Who are they? The elect are those who hear the message and believe God is who He says He is and that He gives eternal life to those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). The individuals who come to God, however, must have faith, for “without faith it is impossible (is not possible) to please” God (Heb. 11:6).
All God asks that we give to Him is belief, trust. In the final analysis, the elect are not some special group who are first chosen prior to demonstrating any faith in Christ. It is only after a person confesses that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9) that he or she is sealed with the Holy Spirit and designated as God’s own (Eph. 1:13). Paul also says that “those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5:17) are counted as God’s elect.
Once you understand who the elect are, you can then understand the meaning of “the world” throughout the text of Scripture. But before we cover the meaning of “the world,” we must first address a critique made by the group we call Calvinists: that is, those who say individuals must believe before salvation have made faith a work — work being that of which no man can boast or brag (Eph. 2:8-9).
Is Faith A Work?
Ephesians 2:8-9, as I mentioned previously, is used by Calvinists to say that those who believe in human responsibility in faith are those who advocate “works salvation.” Ephesians 2:8-9, which will guide this discussion, reads as follows:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The Calvinist (the one who believes that God picks certain people for salvation and abandons others to eternal damnation) says that, if you believe that the Bible teaches faith as human responsibility, you are implying that faith is a work — and the Bible says we are not saved “as a result of works.” How then, shall the biblically faithful Christian respond to this argument?
First, keep in mind that “grace through faith” (God-given salvation) is “not as a result of works,” so any attempts to merge faith and works in this way is to contradict biblical teaching. If faith is “not of works,” then faith cannot be a work.
“But isn’t faith an action? And doesn’t the word “work” imply action? So, if the Bible says that we are not saved through works, then doesn’t this mean that we are not saved through faith?” This cannot be correct, since Ephesians 2:8 says we have been saved “through faith.” Belief, then, is an integral part of the salvation experience.
If the Bible says that faith is a work, and we are saved through faith, then the Bible would, in effect, be saying that “you are saved through works,” while saying “you are not saved through works.” These two positions, however are opposites. Therefore, we believe the Bible message is consistent throughout and does not contradict in any part.
What explains the attempt here to make faith a work? Those who believe along these lines (Calvinists and others) are those who confuse the term “work” as it is discussed in the Bible. Calvinists say faith is a work, but what they really mean here is that faith is an action. The word “work” does imply action: to mow the grass or lawn is an action.
At the same time, you must remember that the Bible never says that we are saved without any action required on our part; rather, when the Bible speaks of work, the Bible is using work to refer to “circumcision” and “the keeping of the Law.” In Romans 3:19, Paul says that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (NASB).
In the next verse, Rom. 3:20, Paul says that justification has come “apart from the Law,” reminding us that the Law itself has nothing to do with the salvation of a human soul. The apostle says the same thing to the Galatians:
- “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus…since by the works of the law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
- “So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:5-9)
Verses 6-9 discuss Abraham and states that “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the believer” (v.9).
Romans 4 is one of those “slam dunks” against this mindset. Abraham is lifted up as the example, and Paul says that,
“if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say?
‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness'” (Rom. 4: 2-3).
This is where we see the faulty reasoning and unbiblical nature of Calvinism: in the fact that Abraham’s faith in God is not the same as “justified by works.” When Paul writes the phrase “but not before God,” he is saying that works such as circumcision (which he goes on to discuss a few verses later in Romans 4) does not save.
He just said in Rom. 3:19 that the works of the Law will not save. Circumcision is a work of the law (and was required by Law), so there is no way the Law could save an individual before God. Romans 4 goes on to discuss circumcision and its relation to faith:
“How then was it [righteousness] credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:10).
If Abraham believed God prior to circumcision, then his faith is not counted as a work (it is placed in contrast to the biblical definition of works). As Paul goes on to say, “he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised” (Rom. 4:11).
What then, was circumcision for Abraham? It was a sign of his faith in God, a result of his belief in God. When individuals say, “I believe” (they confess The Lord Jesus, Rom. 10:9), join a church, sing in the choir, attend Bible Study, and so on, they are not doing these things in order to be saved; rather, they are doing these things as a result of their salvation. Because they believed God (as did Abraham), they are showing “signs” of their circumcised hearts.
Thus, to believe God and to exercise faith in Christ is a “work,” only if by “work” you mean action. Unfortunately, the biblical term of work is the opposite of the English definition of work as action. As you can see, those who hold to this view that God chooses some and not others is one of the most dangerous heresies of our day. Let’s draw individuals back to the Word of God in our discussions.
The Meaning of “The World” in John 3:16
Earlier I discussed the ideas of election and predestination, that believers are chosen “in Christ” or “in Him” before time began (“before the foundation of the world,” Eph. 1:4). If believers are chosen in Christ, then they can only experience election because of faith in the gospel message.
According to the Scriptures, election is tied to Christ because the Father has placed His seal of approval on the Son (John 6:27), who is Jesus Christ; if believers are chosen for salvation, however, they are chosen by union with Christ through faith. As Paul Himself writes,
“God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, NASB).
Faith, believing in the truth (that is, the Gospel) is the process by which believers experience the election to salvation. Calvinists have translated “chosen in Him” in Ephesians 1 as “chosen to be in Christ,” but this is a major mistranslation that does huge damage to the text. If believers are chosen “by faith in the truth,” that is, through the gospel message, then any person who has believed the gospel can be deemed “the elect.”
The meaning of “elect” has been determined as referring to believers. In order to answer the question, “Did Jesus die for all, or the elect?”, one must now understand the meaning of “the world” in John 3:16. In order to do this, we will examine the meaning of “the world” in John’s Gospel and his epistles. What did “the world” mean in John’s work?
There are many times in John’s writings where the meaning of “the world” cannot be determined through the context. This is why John 3:16, among many other passages, has been used by Calvinists (adherents to John Calvin’s theology) to say that Jesus only died for “the elect,” believers, not for every person in the world.
There are other times, however, when “the world” can be determined from the context. Take John 7:7, for example:
“The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil” (Jn. 7:7).
Here we see that “the world” excludes the disciples (referred to as “you”). The world here refers to those who are not disciples of Christ (unbelieving Jews and Gentiles).
What about John 12, after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead?
“So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are not doing any good; look, the world has gone after Him” (John 12:19).
When the Pharisees use “the world” here, what do they mean?
“The world” refers to “the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead” (Jn. 12:17).
In other words, the world only refers to a small group of people — those who observed the resurrection of Lazarus. Further in the chapter of John 12, Jesus says that “now judgment is upon this world.” Who is under judgment? Who is the “all men” in John 12:32? The world is under judgment, which is the reason why Jesus says in John 3 that “he who believes is not condemned” (Jn. 3:18). If the entire world, every person, is under judgment, then it makes sense that every person can believe in Jesus and avoid God’s judgment.
Jesus connects those who do not believe with the world, as demonstrated in John 12:47:
“If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (Jn. 12:47). Notice that the unbelieving person is included in “the world,” according to Jesus. Then, The Lord turns around and says that He came to “save the world.” Did The Lord come to save the unbelieving individual? Yes.
a. The Lord came to save the world.
b. Unbelieving individuals are part of the world.
c. Thus, The Lord came to save unbelieving individuals.
This text does not seem to agree with the Calvinist notion of “the world” as meaning “the elect in the world.”
John 15:18 excludes the disciples from the meaning of “the world” again:
“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (Jn. 15:18).
When we turn to 1 John, the first of John’s epistles, we gather more about the meaning of “the world.” 1 John 2, for example:
“Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15).
What does “the world” refer to here? It refers to the societal order, material possessions, the mindset of the current society in which we live, and so on.
If you look back to the beginning of 1 John 2, however, you will notice that John distinguishes believers from unbelievers:
“and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2).
Here, John gathers both believers (“our sins”) and unbelievers (“those of the whole world”) into one collective group. When John says, “the whole world,” he refers to both believers and unbelievers. In the immediate context of 1 John 2, John is referring to believers: “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” a statement that refers to believers. Only believers have an advocate in Christ, since they have believed.
While unbelievers do not have an advocate in Christ, they do have an atoning sacrifice (propitiation) in Christ, since He died for unbelievers as well as believers.
There is an easy way to demonstrate this; let’s examine Jesus’ words to the Jews back in John’s Gospel:
“But the testimony which I receive is not from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved” (John 5:34).
When Jesus speaks these words, He is talking to the Jews who were criticizing Jesus for healing the man at the pool of Bethesda who had been lying there for 38 years. And yet, despite their words against Christ and their unbelieving hearts, Jesus could still say “I say these things so that you may be saved.”
In other words, there was still a chance for them to believe. These words are not just for the unbelieving Jews, but all of the world — both believers and unbelievers. In other words, John’s writings and use of “the world” seems to refer more to the unbelievers than it does the believers. At the very least, the text must include unbelievers. This refutes the Calvinist view of “limited atonement” and argues that Jesus died for each human being.
Did Jesus die for all individuals, or only the elect? He died for each and every human being. As usual, the Calvinist interpretation has no basis in John’s Gospel. And, since the Bible coheres in every part, other references to “the world” agree with John’s analysis. As Jesus says in John, “whoever believes in Him” will have eternal life — and this promise is for all who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that the Father raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 10:9).