My interlocutor is a dear brother in Christ, whose friendship and brotherhood I have long treasured. (I'll call him Jerry.) Jerry kindly responded to my email concerning John 3:16, probably suspecting that what I was trying to get at had something to do with a Calvinist vs. Arminian understanding of the passage. While that wasn't what I was getting at, I thought that the exchange we had would be particularly beneficial to share.
The following is my most recent response to him. I've reproduced only select portions of his original email to (1) narrow the scope of this post, and (2) to shorten this post to a semi-reasonable length.
So again, let me tell you that it was a joy to read through what you wrote. At so many of the points you made I found myself just saying, "Amen," and rejoicing and praising God. I particularly enjoyed considering Jesus as the serpent of Numbers 21 and the Son of Man of the book of Daniel, and how you said one image depicts His bringing salvation and the other depicts His deity. Wasn't anything new, but it's always nice to have Christ presented to you by your brothers. So, hear that.
But there were also some things that you presented that I disagree with, and would love the opportunity to present what I think is the Biblical position on some of the topics you brought up. I'll start here. You said:
I know some respected theologians believes that God offers salvation only to the elect… however I believe the context points toward God loving those that accept and those that reject Him.
I actually agree with you here, too, even though I'm a Calvinist. Some folks say that "the world" refers only to the elect. Some say that "the world" just means that it's in contrast to what Nicodemus would have thought (that is, that salvation would only be offered to Israel). So proponents of that view would say that "world" is contrasted with "just Israel" (as I believe it is in 1 John 2:2). But here, I believe that Jesus is saying that God has loved (note the past tense, denoting that this 'loving' is an action that took place at a particular time) the totality of fallen humanity in a particular way: by sending His Son to die for sinners. This would be contrasted with the angels, who were not loved like that to even have a Savior presented/offered to them, but were damned without mercy (2Pet 2:4).
That the gift of Christ’s atonement has the potential to pay the sin debt of every man ever created, however with all gifts of God (Romans 6:23) it is not forced upon us. We are responsible before God to accept the gift of salvation.Here, though, I perceive some inaccuracies in the way of speaking about the atonement. First, let me state further some agreement with what you say. Neither of us believe in universalism, that is, that everyone in history will be saved. But for a second, let's imagine that they did. I don't believe that Christ would have had to suffer any more than He did to pay for the sins of every single person. That is, I believe the atonement to be sufficient to pay for the sins of every human being ever born.
However, I do not believe that that was the design of it, simply because not everyone will be saved. More on this to follow.
I do have a question about what you said. How do you support the point that none of God's gifts are forced upon us?
Also, you say that "we are responsible to accept the gift of salvation." I have to tell you, brother, I never find that kind of language in Scripture. We are never exhorted to accept a gift. We are exhorted to believe, and so be saved. I would say that it is more Biblical to say that we are responsible before God to believe in Christ, or to obey the Son / obey the Gospel command to believe (John 3:36; cf. 2Th 1:8, 1Pet 4:17).
That whoever shall believe in Him...Romans 10:9, Romans 10:13 – again it implies that anyone can get saved.
I disagree here. I think that these verses simply teach that anyone who believes (or, calls on the name of the Lord, Rom 10:13) will be saved. These verses simply teach the conditions that must be met for salvation. They do not say a word about whether or not all are able to meet these conditions. I don't think that you can accurately say that the statement of the conditions of salvation implies that anyone can meet the conditions. There's a jump there that the text doesn't make.
So the question becomes: who will meet this condition of faith for salvation? The answer is actually given at the end of the verse that Paul quotes in Romans 10:13. He's quoting Joel 2:32, but only the first half. Here's the whole verse: "And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD will be delivered; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as the LORD has said, even among the survivors whom the LORD calls."
The ones who call on the Lord's name for deliverance, the ones who escape unto salvation, the survivors are those whom the Lord calls. The ones who call on Him are only the ones that He first calls. The reason is because, apart from being given new life, eyes to see, and ears to hear, everyone without exception will remain under God's wrath (John 3:36), in their spiritual death (Eph 2:1-3), in their blindness (John 3:3), in their deafness (John 8:43, 47). It's important to see that John says that God's wrath remains on the unbeliever / the disobedient, because it means that it was already there by default. We were by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3).
So unless something happens to us outside of ourselves, we will never believe, we will never obey, we will never choose God. Indeed, the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so (Rom 8:7).
And so in John 3:16, salvation by faith alone is offered to every single person in the world. That is love. It is the love of the offer of life. The great tragedy is that no one wants it, and everyone prefers to die in their sins. Our wills are too enslaved to our sin (John 8:34; Rom 6:6, 16-20) and hostile to God (Rom 8:7) to want anything else.
So, in what the Bible calls great love (Eph 2:4), which is a love greater than the general love of John 3:16, God elects, or chooses, a people for Himself (Eph 1:4-5; Titus 2:14), and makes them alive (Eph 2:5), even when they were dead and wanted nothing to do with Him. According to His great mercy (a mercy greater than the mercy of John 3:16), He caused us to be born again (1Pet 1:3). In the exercise of His will, He brought us forth by the word of truth (James 1:18). Indeed, those who received Jesus, who believed in His name, they were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).
The love of John 3:16 is a wonderful love. But it is not the greatest love that the Bible speaks about. I say that because it is a kind of love that can still let us go to hell. I can be loved by the love in John 3:16 and still die in my sins. But I cannot be loved by the great love in Ephesians 2:4 and still die in my sins. No, by that love I have been made alive! By that love I have been born again! It is by His will that I was brought forth, and was given to His Son (John 10:29), and no one can snatch me out of the hand of the Son (John 10:28) or out of the hand of the Father (John 10:29)! Indeed, the only way we come to Jesus is if the Father draws us (John 6:44), and no one can come unless the Father grants it (John 6:65).
By this great love, Jerry, God has overcome my hostile, enslaved will, even when I was refusing Him (Rom 1:18). By this love He has given me the grace to see the glory of Christ when I was once blind to it (John 3:3), and so having seen the beauty and delightfulness of that glory, I could never choose anything but Him. That's what I mean by what folks call irresistible grace; not that people never resist Jesus / the Holy Spirit, but that in this great love with this grace He overcomes my resistance, and shows me something irresistible: the glory of God in the face of Christ (2Cor 4:6)!
So I believe that the Bible presents that it is incorrect to talk about the atonement as if it only made salvation possible. If that's the case, Jesus' death didn't actually atone for anything. It just made atonement possible. That would mean, then, as well, that what does atone is the sinner's choice. The difference between the believer and the non-believer is not God's grace, but that the believer chose to 'activate' the atonement and the non-believer didn't. I think that's foreign to Scripture, and thus a dangerous position to hold.
I think the Scripture presents Jesus' atonement as having actually atoned, having actually purchased redemption for a people that God would call to Himself, and not for others.
- In John 10:11, Jesus says He lays down His life for the sheep. He does not lay down His life for the goats.
- In Acts 20:28, Paul says that God (Jesus) purchased the Church with His own blood. He did not purchase the whole world.
- In Ephesians 5:25ff, Paul talks about Christ loving the Church by giving Himself up for her. He talks about sanctifying her and washing her so that He might present her to Himself. This is a particular people.
- In Titus 2:14, Paul says that Jesus gave Himself to purify for Himself a people for His own possession. This is a particular people.
- That's confirmed when this same phrase is used in 1Pet 2:9: That we are a people for God's own possession. There, that particularity is even connected to His sovereign choice, or a election, in that He calls us a chosen race.
- In John 17:9 in the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus declares to the Father that He's praying for His people, and not the world. And the reasoning He Himself uses for doing this is because the Father gave only His people to Jesus, and not the whole world.
Christ could not have paid for the sins of everyone ever. If He did, all would be saved. But the Bible clearly teaches this isn't the case. You couldn't have Jesus paying for the sins of non-elect Jim, fully propitiating the Father's wrath against Jim's sin, and then because Jim doesn't believe have him be punished for eternity, under the Father's wrath. For those for whom the wrath of God has been propitiated (the elect), there is no wrath of God left (Rom 8:1). By definition, Christ has satisfied, or fully extinguished the wrath of God towards those for whom He died. So if Christ paid the penalty for the sins of every single person everywhere, no one would be in hell unless Christ's sacrifice was not acceptable to the Father. But of course we know and believe that it was (Hebrews 9-10).
Alright... that's about enough, wouldn't you say? I welcome your response, even if it's in pieces! I hope that I've presented to you to the Word of God. It's out of a great desire for you to know Christ as He's revealed Himself, so that you can enjoy Him for all that He is in all His wonderful contours, and so that He can get the glory for being rightly seen and worshiped. I commend this teaching to you in love. I pray that it's a benefit to you, brother.