John 3:16 and Limited Atonement

Josh Buice

This week I am writing on the subject of Limited Atonement – the “L” in the acronym of TULIP.  As you may already know, the acronym is a basic overview of the teachings of Calvinism.  The subject of limited atonement is quite controversial and is often debated with a great deal of passion and emotional mudslinging from both sides of the sovereign grace fence.  It is not my desire to create another place for such a debate, but it is my desire to look at this subject from the popular myths that exist today regarding limited atonement.

The flow of this series this week is as follows:

Myth #3 – The claim that Jesus’ death was not for the entire world denies John 3:16

Perhaps the most famous verse in all of the Bible is John 3:16.  William Hendrickson calls John 3:16 – “The golden text.”  As we look at the text, it’s quite clear as to why it is the most well known verse in the history of the world.  In John 3:16, we see the profound love of God in contrast to the promised judgment of God all packaged up in one verse.  It’s a powerful verse indeed.  Often when Bible translators start a work of translation, they will begin with John 3:16 as a starting point in their mission work.  Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the gospel in miniature.”  John 3:16 is also a very popular verse that people cling to in their opposition to limited atonement.

For instance, the longtime Southern Baptist leader Adrian Rogers once said, “There are some people who will tell you that Jesus only died for the elect. But that’s not what the Gospel of John says. It says that the only reason men are not saved is not because Jesus did not die for them, but because they didn’t believe in Him” (Faith: What it is and how to have it: Romans 10:17-21).  In the Arminian circles of the evangelical world, it’s a common thing to see people holding on to “whoever” or as the King James translates it, “whosoever” in John 3:16 as their proof that Jesus died for the whole wide world.  What exactly did John intend us to know as he wrote John 3:16?

John 3:16 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

First, we must note that this text is taken from a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Jesus was instructing a gifted teacher who had come to him after nightfall to ask Jesus about His teachings.  It was at that moment that Jesus spoke those very famous words, “You must be born again.”  Jesus went on to talk about the wind blowing where it wishes and He then relates it to the Spirit of God’s involvement in salvation.  It becomes clear at that point that Jesus is speaking of the sovereignty of God in the workings of grace.

As Jesus continued to teach and explain, He made the statement that we know as John 3:16.  As we read it, we should be encouraged to see that God has loved the world.  We should be humbled to see that God loved the world by giving His Son.  The manner in which He gave His Son is quite humbling indeed.  We should be fearful as we read about unbelievers perishing.  The wrath of God is a terrifying reality.  As the verse ends, it leaves us with this faithful promise of eternal life for those who believe.  In short, John 3:16 is one of the most power packed verses in the Bible.  But, for the purpose of this discussion, does it teach “unlimited” or a “limited” atonement?

Look at the breakdown of the verse:

  • Love:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
  • Purpose:  that whoever believes in him should not perish…
  • End Result:  but have eternal life.

Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as follows, “The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569).  It seems clear that those who believe (whoever) had been covered by Jesus’ blood.  Those who perish are those who do not believe.  The fact that they perish denotes the reality that they have not been covered by the atonement of Jesus’ death.  If they had, they would not have perished.  Likewise, if they had been covered by the atoning death of Jesus, they would have believed the gospel and been numbered among the “whoever” believes mentioned in John 3:16.

The use of the word “world” in this text does not force the improper meaning that Jesus actually gave His atoning death so that the whole of humanity would have their sins atoned for.  This is not only incorrect, it’s impossible!  When you stop and consider the reality that not one single person in hell today has had their sins atoned for, it should bring you to the realization that John 3:16 must have a different meaning than a universal atonement.  The atonement is limited to believers only.

God did love the world.  Just as the context implies, as in the days when a plague of serpents had been sent to the complaining rebellious Israelites, Moses prayed and then raised up a brazen serpent on a pole.  Everyone who looked upon that serpent would live.  Jesus said, in like manner must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  Not so that everyone may have eternal life.  Everyone who believes is the key.  Eternal life is limited to believers only.  Jesus’ atonement is limited to believes only.

Do you recall the day when you first looked upon Jesus as your Savior – slain on a cruel cross for your sin?  The great Charles Spurgeon was saved at 16 after wandering into a small Methodist chapel where approximately 15 people sat to hear an untrained layperson preach the gospel from Isaiah 45:22 one snowy Sunday morning.  Spurgeon recalls:

I saw at once the way of salvation . . . Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, Look! what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun.

God is love and He has demonstrated His love to the entire world by sending His Son to die on Calvary’s cross.  There is no mistaking His love.  However, we must be careful not to apply Jesus’ atonement to the entire world in a universal sense.  We must avoid universalism.  We must teach a biblical gospel that saves sinners – all sinners who repent and believe.  Who are the elect of God who will believe in my city?  I have no idea!  However, I know that Jesus has died for them and I must go and lift up Christ and call all people to repent and believe the good news.  You must do the same thing in your town.  We must labor together and trust that as we plant and water, it will be God who gives the increase.  Whosoever will – let him come to Christ!  As he comes in faith, Jesus’ blood will be sufficient to save.

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Helpful Resources:

Ligonier – Various Resources

Tim Challies – The “L” in TULIP

John MacArthur – Q&A 2010 Shepherds’ Conference

John Piper – What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism

Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology

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Author John 3:16 and Limited Atonement

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.