The Extent of the Atonement

Can “World” mean “Elect” In John’s Theology?

Examining the Context of John 3:16

Of the several places in Scripture where Jesus is said to die for the sins of the world, John’s writings offer the most occurrences. Those who defend definite atonement have a challenge in explaining the meaning of this as something other than all sinners. The claim of the definite atonement position is that Jesus did not die for the sins of all, but only for those who will ultimately be saved. The advocate of unlimited atonement does not face this difficulty, for Jesus’ death extends to all those who are sinners, but it is only applied to those who believe.

In John Owen, many find an unassailable argument in favor of definite atonement; it is therefore important to examine his thinking on the use of “world.” Owen notes that the word is polysemic, it can have many meanings, and we must consider the context to discern the meaning. I think none would argue with this. Owen has a catalog of the uses, some of which include “the habitable earth” John 1:9… “Indefinitely for men, without restriction or enlargement… John 7:4”… “Thirdly, Exegetically, for many, which is the most usual acceptation of the word, Matt. 18:7; John 4: 42, 12:19, 16:8…”[1] There are several other shades of meaning Owen attaches to the word, mostly outside of John, but for the question at hand, the most significant is this: “For the good, God’s people, either in designation or on possession, Ps. 22:27; John 3:16”[2]

This last category is important in Owen’s logic, because he bases his exegesis of John 3:16 on this distinction. That is, that when the evangelist records “God so loved the world” it refers only to a portion of mankind—the elect, those who will one day be saved—and not to all mankind indiscriminately.  Why is this a valid category? Because on Owen’s reasoning, Jesus cannot have died for any who will not ultimately be saved. All will not ultimately be saved hence Jesus did not die for all the world. Owen’s paraphrase of what John says accords with this view.

“ ‘God’ the Father ‘so loved,’ had such a peculiar, transcendent love, being an unchangeable purpose and act of his will concerning their salvation, towards ‘the world,’ miserable, sinful, lost men of all sorts, not only Jews but Gentiles also.”[3]

Can the word in that context refer to only some of mankind, to the elect?  D.A. Carson who himself holds to definite atonement, nevertheless says of John 3:16 “I know that some try to take κόσμος (“world”) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s Gospel is against the suggestion. True, world in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness. In John’s vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God.”[4]

This view Carson counters is a hallmark throughout Owen’s presentation. When Scripture speaks of the “world” or “all,” it means men of all sorts, that is, it is a rejection of Jewish exclusivity. But the context of the verses do not bear this out. Elsewhere Owen engages in this same disregard for context. In 1 John 2:15-17, he takes world to mean “universal corruption which is in all things in it.”[5] Yet shortly before this when John says the blood of Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, he believes it means “not only Jews.” Why does he take verses 15-17 to refer to the world in rebellion, but 2:2 to mean the elect? Because he is certain Jesus died only for the sins of some of mankind.

Carson highlights a key point that Owen overlooks. The world is not viewed quantitatively in John so much as qualitatively. When John speaks of the world, it is the quality of rebellion against God, sinful humanity writ large. To make it refer to a particular number of people is foreign to John’s use of the word. Perhaps the most thorough examination done of Owen’s logic in the Death of Death is by Neil Andrew Chambers, in his unpublished dissertation at Reformed Theological Seminary. Chambers examines every use of κόσμος in John’s gospel and space will not permit a full review of his conclusions. However, on the question of whether “world” can mean elect in John 3:16, Chambers’ observations are important.

“This is not possible in John where the elect are defined against the world—they are those given to Jesus by the Father “out of the world” (17: 6), that is, ‘elect’ is a concept in John which is in opposition to ‘world’, defined over against it. Owen’s substitution would lead 3.16 to read ‘God so loved those He chose out of the world’, which alters the sense of the verse significantly, in effect denying what the verse affirms, a love of the world. World is a description of a qualitative state of rebellion against God.”[6]

While no single verse encompasses everything that Scripture has to say about the extent of the atonement, there are individual verses that speak plainly to it. John 3:16 is such a verse. In no way can it be taken to say that Jesus died only for the elect. John Owen’s insistence notwithstanding, John the beloved disciple has stated that God loves the world, those in opposition to him, those who are separated from him. It is an unlimited designation because the world as a whole is in rebellion against God.

[1] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Banner of Truth, 1967), 192-193.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Owen, 208.

[4] D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, Crossway, 1999), 17.

[5] Owen, 193.

[6] Neil Chambers, “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,’” (ThM thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998), 151-152.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *