John 3:16, Calvinistic Traditionalists & Evangelism Conferences

Sitting at the Baptist Convention of New Mexico’s Evangelism Conference in Albuquerque this week, I was reminded yet again why I describe myself as an “Calvinist Traditionalist,” someone who agrees with Reformed Theology (i.e., the Doctrines of Grace, TULIP, etc.), but who does not always strictly preach or practice in conformity with said doctrines and theology.

Perhaps the clearest example of my own Calvinistic Traditionalism manifests itself when I preach or teach on the very first Bible verse that I learned as a child. I learned it in the King James Version and still recite this particular verse in KJV language to this day, even though I am now an ESV (the Mark of the Beast Reformed) guy. Of course, the passage of Scripture I am talking about is John 3:16, “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.”

As one of the conference speakers mentioned, John 3:16 was probably the first verse that most Christians of a certain age learned in Sunday School or RA’s and GA’s (oops, I’m dating myself and also letting my Traditionalist side peek out). John 3:16 continues to be a popular choice for signs at sporting events (although I doubt most Americans today really understand the meaning behind the numbers). In Southern Baptist life, John 3:16 is not just a verse, but has also become its own conference. That’s what you call staying power.

Unfortunately, many Southern Baptists (and others to be sure) are confused both as to the meaning of the verse and the power of the verse. Because of its simplicity, too many people become easily confused when it comes to John 3:16. That confusion sometimes leads to disagreements (even though we should be able to disagree agreeably). Those disagreements can sometimes lead to arguments. Those arguments can sometimes lead to fights. Those fights can sometimes lead to splits. However, regardless of what John 3:16 really means, it cannot (and must not) lead to fights among Christian brothers and sisters. If it does, then the ones doing the fighting — be they Calvinists or Traditionalists — don’t have a clue as to the true meaning behind John 3:16!

As an inconsistent Calvinist with a Traditionalist bent, I admit that I am one of the many who can be easily confused when it comes to John 3:16. Not when I preach it, but when I hear others preach it. Listening to a message on this passage at the BCNM Evangelism Conference, I began to overthink the meaning of John 3:16. My mind began to wonder, “Does God love the world — all people — with an unconditional love?” “Does world really mean world or does it mean only the elect?” “Can world be both/and — all people in general, but only the elect in particular?”

Maybe you have never thought of any of these questions. Or, perhaps you have thought of other questions. As my mind wonders, I then began to think of the simplicity of John 3:16. That the Creator of the Universe loves sinners so much that He sent His one and only Son to demonstrate His great love, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us on the Cross! What a love, what a Savior!

Will every person who has ever lived or will ever live trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord? Obviously not. Will everyone in your family or in your community be a “whosoever?” Unfortunately not. Could I parse the words of John 3:16 or Romans 5:8 to limit God’s love only to the elect? If pressed, I’m sure I could, but I really don’t want to.

I suppose as a Calvinistic Traditionalist, I will sometimes struggle with how to handle John 3:16. There will be times when I am uncomfortable with how someone else preaches that verse. However, when it comes to my own preaching, I shall continue to see the simplicity and beauty of John 3:16. And, I shall preach it the way I learned it. After all, tradition isn’t a bad thing, especially when it’s Biblical 🙂

12 comments for “John 3:16, Calvinistic Traditionalists & Evangelism Conferences

  1. Barb Silva
    March 6, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    My favorite Bible verse and one of the first I learned also. Its power is in its simplicity and your answer is in the word “whosoever”. All inclusive with one requirement. “Whosoever believeth in Him will have everlasting life.” God’s love is perfect and constant but all men and women must choose to believe to receive that awesome gift of eternal life. It is simple and straightforward. Just keep preaching it like we are all 6 years old! Have a great time at the conference.

  2. March 6, 2013 at 4:45 PM

    If I said “whoseover runs a 8.5 100 meter dash shall be on the Olympic team”, that would not in any way imply that anyone and everyone could do that. So in and of itself, John 3:16 doesn’t say everybody can believe in Him.

    That seems simple enough to me.

    • March 7, 2013 at 10:30 AM


      I agree that John 3:16 doesn’t say that everyone will believe. I suppose the difficult question is whether everyone is a potential “whosoever?” But, even beyond that is the first part of the verse, “For God so loved the world . . .” Can I preach to a mixed congregation (believers and non-believers) — without qualification — that “God loves you?” Can we sing “Jesus loves the little children, ALL the children of the world” without qualification? I think that there would be some that could not do this. That’s okay. But, I’m not willing to go there. Hope all is well with you. Thanks for stopping by and God bless,


      • March 14, 2013 at 11:58 AM

        It’s in the nature of man to want to know it all. But we don’t get to do that with God. We don’t want to “waste our breath” witnessing to people who will not ever believe. But I don’t think God sees it was wasted breath. He sees it as obedience.

        • March 14, 2013 at 2:05 PM


          I suppose it comes down to whether or not we believe that everyone is a potential “whosoever.” We understand that not everyone will be an actual “whosoever,” but I am not at a point where I want to start trying to determine who will and who will not believe. That’s why, despite my struggles with John 3:16, I preach it as simply as I possibly can. If I am wrong about the extent of God’s love (not the conditions of salvation), I would rather err on the side of an extravagant love toward sinners without limiting sinners to only the elect. Thanks and God bless,


  3. March 7, 2013 at 5:59 AM

    Nice post. Your position sounds like general atonement to me, Howell. I hope you keep preaching it the way you learned it as a child. I also hope to see you in Houston, Lord willing.

    • March 7, 2013 at 10:36 AM


      Thanks. In practice, I probably tend toward preaching a more “general atonement.” I think everyone — Calvinist and Traditionalists — believes that the atonement has to be applied when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we would believe in universalism. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that “Jesus is the Savior of all mankind, especially of those who believe.” As I shared with Bob, I am simply not comfortable — both from a Biblical perspective and a personal perspective — in qualifying God’s love when preaching to sinners. On its face, John 3:16 — both the love and the “whosoever believes” — seems to be quite clear. As to Houston, plane and hotel reservations were made yesterday. Lord willing, look forward to see you in Houston! Have a great day and God bless,


  4. Job
    March 7, 2013 at 8:30 AM

    Pastor Scott:

    “Could I parse the words of John 3:16 or Romans 5:8 to limit God’s love only to the elect? If pressed, I’m sure I could, but I really don’t want to.”

    Well pastor, C.S. Lewis and other believers of pluralism and universalism use 1 Timothy 4:10 – and many other scriptures I might add – to justify it. “For to this end we labour and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe.”

    Is it “parsing” to say that they are wrong? Of course not. Because 1 Timothy 4:10 is not the only thing that the Bible says about salvation. The same is true of John 3:16. While that text is extremely popular, very well known and much beloved, that is no reason to make it the primary text on the issue of salvation through which all other texts must be judged, held subject to and viewed in light of. That is interpreting scripture according to human opinion and emotion – our tendency to grab hold upon and emphasize the things that please and comfort us while putting less emphasis on the things that disturb and challenge us – instead of letting scripture speak for itself.

    It is all well and good to love John 3:16. But we cannot use John 3:16 to pretend that Proverb 16:4 “The LORD hath made all [things] for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.” isn’t in the Bible, especially since Romans 9:13-23 clearly uses Proverb 16:4 in order to explain the nature and purpose of God’s election as it applies to the Jews and the Gentiles? Now that is what requires the parsing. And texts like that – and not worship of 16th century state church reformers or dedication to a man made rationalistic philosophical system – are the reason why you are a 5 point Calvinist.

    If you want an exercise in parsing, go read Elmer Towns’ explanation that predestinate in Romans 8:29-30 doesn’t mean, well, predestinate, or the many others who claim that it really means “foreknowledge”, and who do the same with Ephesians 1:3-12, and with the many “Calvinistic” texts that appear in, well, the Gospel of John.

    So, using John 6:37 to interpret John 3:16 is not parsing. Instead, claiming that John 6:37 is based on God’s foreknowledge – and doing so in the complete absence of textual evidence to support it and when so many texts like Romans 9:13-23 contradict it – is when the parsing is being done.

    Now, dealing with your question: ““Does God love the world — all people — with an unconditional love?”

    That begs the question of whether unconditional love as our modern humanistic Enlightenment-driven society defines it is a Biblical concept to begin with. If it were, then that would necessarily mean universalism.

    “Does world really mean world or does it mean only the elect?” “Can world be both/and — all people in general, but only the elect in particular?”

    It means the world. But God is perfectly capable of loving the world and saving only the elect. Again, making the case that God’s loving everyone obligates Him to save everyone can only lead to universalism. The non-Calvinist viewpoint deals with this by saying that God TRIED to save everyone but failed. If you limit this “failure” to those who made a free will decision to reject Jesus Christ then that “solves” the failure issue, but it does not and cannot be a sufficient answer for the fact that the overwhelming supermajority of humanity has never heard the name Jesus Christ, and moreover before His advent had never encountered Judaism or the pre-Judaic Yahwism. Truthfully, the pluralism of types like C.S. Lewis and the Roman Catholics (purgatory) and contemporary religious moderates do a much better job of explaining this problem, which is so real and vast that it has been a source of great heartache for missionaries like Hudson Taylor, who knew that he could not possibly reach every person in the vastness of China with the gospel of Jesus Christ and fell victim to the slough of despond and the giant despair (Pilgrim’s Progress references) as a result before God rescued him from them with the instructions for Taylor to be satisfied with going to the people that that God sent Taylor to (and incidentally Taylor was not a Calvinist).

    And that is the real irony. Even if you do not believe in limited atonement, the requirement of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation serves as a practical limitation anyway. Again, the only way to avoid that practical limitation is to be a universalist or pluralist. How “general” is the atonement to the person who lives his entire life as a sincere, upstanding, devoted, honest moral adherent to the Hindu religion because he spent his entire life in India in the 1500s and Hinduism is all he ever knew? The only relevance of general atonement to that person is that even though that person had absolutely no possibility of ever being saved, Jesus Christ still died for him so that “proves” that God loved him. Christ’s death on the cross made this person’s salvation hypothetically, theoretically possible in the spiritual realm even though it was still impossible in the natural one. Which means that the true purpose of general atonement that it provides a comfortable, reassuring view of God to the people who hold it. The doctrine is of no use to the sinner whatsoever. Whether you hear the gospel and do not respond with faith and repentance or never hear the gospel at all, from the sinner’s perspective the extent of the atonement doesn’t matter because the fate of the sinner is still the same. The issue is all about whether serving a God who limits the atonement or serving a God who doesn’t IN THEORY but does IN PRACTICE “feels better.” And Pastor Scott, that is not parsing, but rather dealing honestly with the issue.

    • March 7, 2013 at 10:51 AM


      Good to hear from you. Hope all is well with you. There is much that I agree with you about in your comment. Maybe I wasn’t as clear as I could have been in my OP, but my struggle is not with the atonement, but with whether or not we can say that, in some way, “God loves the world.” Unless one believes in universalism — which I don’t — then the atonement will always be limited or particular in some sense, whether on the front end or on the back end. Unless one repents and places their faith and trust in Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross, then His atonement will not be applied to that person’s life. Therefore, it is particular to believers.

      It’s interesting that you quoted 1 Timothy 4:10. When I look at that verse, I don’t see universalism, but I do see that Christ’s atonement has an effect on both believers and non-believers. Likewise, although the Bible contains Proverbs 16:4, it also says that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11). When I talked of “parsing,” I wasn’t talking about it in the sense of salvation, but in the sense of whether I can say to a mixed congregation (both believers and non-believers) that “God loves you” without qualifying it with statements that limit God’s love to the elect. That’s where my struggle as an inconsistent Calvinist comes in. Hope that gives more clarity to what I was trying to say. Thanks again for stopping by and have a bless day,


  5. Job
    March 7, 2013 at 12:04 PM

    Hello Pastor Scott;

    “1 Timothy 4:10. When I look at that verse, I don’t see universalism, but I do see that Christ’s atonement has an effect on both believers and non-believers.”

    Yes. But C. S. Lewis looked at it and saw a justification for the religious pluralism doctrines taught by the Roman Catholic Church – and Lewis fellowshipped with a lot of Catholics, including his friend J.R.R. Tolkien – and embraced by virtually all moderate (meaning neither evangelical or liberal) Christians and an increasing number of evangelicals like Rob Bell.

    Yes, the Bible does not say that God takes pleasure in the destruction of the wicked, but texts like Proverb 16:4 and Romans 9:21 are used as the basis for supralapsarianism, which even goes beyond 5 point Calvinism.

    As to the “how can I say that God loves you” … again that goes back to the fundamental question of whether God can love someone without electing them to salvation. And you answered that question yourself!!! You said “Christ’s atonement has an effect on both believers and non-believers” and “God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked.” So you already know the answer, you just have to “claim it” (before becoming Baptist, I was a “name it and claim it” Pentecostal). The answer to whether God loves those that are not elect is most clearly given in Matthew 5:45 … “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” John MacArthur dealt with this topic (and I first encountered this teaching of his when I was still Pentecostal, meaning definitely non-Calvinist!) here:

    You can certainly tell mixed company that God loves them. You can also open an invitation to salvation to mixed company based on that, because God said that many are called (in that they hear the gospel … note that it does not say that ALL are called because all do not hear the gospel) but few are chosen (meaning that of those who hear the gospel, few will be saved). And this truth was illustrated by several of Christ’s parables, such as the parable of the sower and the wedding parable of Matthew 22:1-14. And you can tell them that everyone who believes – whosoever believeth – will be saved. The key is to stop right there and not add anything to it. Don’t say “Jesus Christ died for all of you so that means all of you can be saved if all of you believe.” Why not? Because the Bible doesn’t say so. General atonement is nowhere in the Bible. If it were, I would believe it and so would you. So whether in mixed company, hostile company (all unbelievers like Paul at Mars Hill) or all believers like Jesus Christ at His high priestly prayer or the disciples in the upper room awaiting Pentecost, limiting yourself to what the Bible actually says is all that is necessary, sufficient and justifiable. There is no need to “be inconsistent” because you fail to include the “innovations” of our general atonement friends, or because you are operating in an American evangelical context where general atonement presuppositions dominate.

    So just say “Christ died so that all who believe will be saved.” And that is the true meaning of the text. Without it, there was no promise, assurance or guarantee that everyone who believed would be saved. We presuppose that and take it for granted because we have always known it. But keep in mind that the apostle John was writing that gospel not to people with 2000 years of Christian tradition behind them, but to pagans with a very different view of salvation than we have, and also to Jews who believed in justification by the works of the law in addition to faith. So for both the Gentile pagans and even the Jews, it was very possible to believe in God (or gods for the pagans) and still not be saved, because for the Jew one could believe and still be condemned if you did not keep the law, and the pagan gods were arbitrary, conferring their favor on people at a whimsy for inconsistent reasons. So the true purpose of John 3:16 is not to talk about the extent of the atonement, but to teach the doctrine of justification by faith alone, sola fide, to the Yahwist Jews first and then the pagan Gentiles. And if you look at the entire context of John 3, which begins with the rabbi going to Jesus Christ and Christ teaching him about being born again, it is crystal clear. The context of Christ’s discussion with the rabbi wasn’t who could be saved, but how people are saved. John 3:3 – by being born again. John 3:5-8 – by a work of the Holy Spirit, not of man. John 3:11-17 – Christ stating that it is by and through Him that this salvation will be achieved because of His divine sonship. John 3:18-21 – the fate of those who do not believe, with 3:18 being the inverse of 3:16. It never says that God gave Christ so that all can be saved, but that God gave Christ so that all who believed would be saved, and that all who did not believe would not be saved. It was totally counter to the religious mindset of Jews and pagans of that time and place but that is besides the point. The point is that it is all the Bible says, so it is all that we should say. Anything more is adding to scripture, which should not be done, chiefly because it is a sin, but also because there is no reason to. The sinner needs no more information than that, and the only reason to add more information than that is for the benefit of the evangelist sharing the message. It reassures the evangelist and makes his job superficially (by that I mean according to the flesh) easier, but the Bible makes it clear that our jobs are not going to be easy or flesh-driven to begin with.

    The core of the matter is that our general atonement brothers and sisters do indeed have a different view of God and a different view of love than we do. That is a gap that can’t be bridged. While that is a shame, it should not cause a struggle.

    And thanks for your kind comments as always.

  6. Milton
    March 7, 2013 at 8:10 PM

    You’ve stopped preaching and went to meddling I see!

    But seriously, glad the blog is back!

    In your post you posed the question, ““Does God love the world — all people — with an unconditional love?”

    I would say, “No.” Honestly, when people say that God loves people unconditionally, it concerns me (please don’t misunderstand–I’m not trying to suggest that is what you’re saying) because we’re left with the impression that there are no conditions, that all God needs to do is merely dispense His love and people are saved.

    On the contrary, there is a condition. In John 3:16, for instance, we read that the good news is good for “whosoever believes.” Later, we read in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is the power of God for salvation “to everyone who believes.” So, the condition is that a person must believe or place their faith in the perfect life and atonement of Christ to be saved.

    That’s my $0.02!

    • March 7, 2013 at 9:10 PM


      Glad to be back blogging! And, you should know by know that I specialize meddling 🙂 As I shared with Job and Bob, my struggle is not with the condition of salvation found in John 3:16, “whosoever believeth.” In most SBC cirlces, I’m not sure you would get much argument about that. If salvation was not conditioned on “belief,” then all would be saved (universalism), which is a heretical position to hold. Therefore, I would agree with your last paragraph about the conditions of salvation.

      My struggle — more so in practice than in doctrine — is whether the first part of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world,” must be qualified. In other words, can one say to a non-believer, “God loves you and sent His one and only Son to die on the cross for your sins,” or must we qualify God’s love in the sense that “world” really doesn’t mean “world?” You answered “no” to my original question about God’s unconditional love? In light of your response, do you believe that God loves (perhaps not the unconditional kind) all people, even non-believers who will never choose to accept Christ? Can I preach to a mixed group (the saved and the lost) at Bethel and tell them that “God loves them” in any sense without limiting God’s love while still limiting salvation to those who “especially believe” (1 Timothy 4:10)?

      You and I have both run across folks who would not be comfortable singing “Jesus loves the little children, ALL the children of the world . . .” because they simply do not believe that God loves those who are non-elect. That’s a road that I cannot go down, even though I fully believe that God’s salvation in Christ is limited (or particular) to those who repent and believe the Gospel. Whether or not that atonement gets limited on the front end or on the back end, the result is still the same. Otherwise, it’s universalism, not merely General Atonement. Thanks for the $0.02. Next time, feel free to splurge and give me $0.04 😉 Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. God bless,


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