John 3:16 has got to be the most well known Bible verse among Christians. In fact, it’s probably the most well known Bible verse among non-Christians too. Without a doubt, it is used constantly by those who try to make a case for the “free will” of men. Let’s take a brief look at John 3:16,
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16 [NASB]
Normally, those who seek to defend the idea of free will immediately point out the “whosoever” in the verse, or in this case, the “whoever.” John 3:16 is seen as a silver bullet to those who believe that humanity is enslaved to sin. They maintain that the “whoever” implies the ability on the part of each and every man to freely accept or reject the gospel. But does John 3:16 really say this? No. In Greek, the term “whoever believes” simply means “the believing ones.” So, John 3:16 could literally be read,
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that the believing ones in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16 [NASB]
But, you certainly don’t need to know Greek in order to see this. Let’s take it apart:
“For God so loved the world”
This verse opens up by saying, “For God so loved…” In other words, it is about to explain in what way God loved the world. The term world here is assumed to mean every single individual. But this isn’t the case. Of course, that’s easy to assert, but let’s back it up. First of all, the term “world” doesn’t always mean “every single inhabitant of the earth.” In fact, instead of looking at the way it is used throughout the Bible, let’s just look at ways John uses it elsewhere.
“If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” [John 15:19]
“They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” [John 17:16]
In both cases, John is referring to world as the wicked system wrought in the hearts of naturally sinful humanity. Obviously we ARE “of the world” if we simply apply the meaning of “every individual.” But, we are not of the “world system.” I don’t believe that Jesus means that God so loved the “world system,” because God hates sin. But, we can certainyl see that the term “world” doesn’t ALWAYS mean every single individual.
Secondly, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Pharisees were Jews who strictly upheld the law of Moses. Jesus quite often pointed out their hypocrisy in believing they themselves could do the requirements of Moses’ law perfectly. They believed they were righteous. Anyhow, Pharisees were Jews. So, Nicodemus would understand what Jesus meant by “the world.” The world would have meant anyone outside of the Jews – known as Gentiles. They certainly knew that a Messiah would come for them, because God had told them thousands of years before that a Messiah would come. And now He had. Jesus said He came for the lost sheep of Israel, and that He had “other sheep” – Gentiles.
The term world should be understood as meaning every nation, tribe, tongue, race, etc – but not every individual.
“that He gave His only begotten Son”
The way He loved was displayed in the sacrifice of His own Son, Jesus Christ, on a cross in the place of wicked men to satisfy the wrath of God that is due wicked men.
“that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Whoever has faith will not have their sins held against them and endure punishment. They will have eternal life. No where does this verse imply some sort of freedom on the part of mankind to believe or reject the gospel. That is simply forced into the text by anyone who claims it.
John 3:16 makes the very basic claim that God sent Jesus to die on the cross, and whoever believes will be saved. Whenever a defense is made for the “free will” of men, verses like these are appealed to… where “truths” are assumed and not explicitly taught.