One of the most surprising twists of John 3:16 is that we are told God loves the world. We might be tempted to think that there is much about the world for God to love. After all, what’s not to admire about cityscapes and farmlands, fine cuisine and backyard barbecues, classical symphonies and folk ballads, Renaissance paintings and kindergarten squiggles? The world we know is filled with texture, intrigue, opportunity, and cheer. The problem is that for all that is good and interesting and beautiful about the world, it is overrun with sinners. Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, the world has become a wasteland. No matter how wonderful the world may appear, it is not worthy of God’s redeeming love.
Understanding how undeserving the world is of God’s love is the key to John 3:16. Only then will we appreciate the unexpected gift that God gives. This point was well made many years ago by the esteemed theologian Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. In his sermon “God’s Immeasurable Love,” Warfield probes the meaning of the term “world” (Greek kosmos) in John 3:16 in order to plumb the depths of God’s love.
What is the meaning of “world” in this passage? Drawing from the insights of Warfield, there are four possible answers.
In the first place, many people believe that “world” means all people without exception. In other words, when John 3:16 says that God loves the world, it means that He loves every person, head for head, equally. The logic goes something like this: God loves every person; Christ died for every person; therefore, salvation is possible for every person. However, this view seems to suggest that God’s love is impotent and Christ’s death is ineffectual. Otherwise, the natural conclusion of this position would be that every person is actually saved rather than just potentially saved. If God loves every person, and Christ died for every person, and God’s love is not impotent, and Christ’s death is not ineffectual, then the only conclusion one can draw is that salvation has been secured for every person. Yet this viewpoint contradicts the Bible’s teaching on God’s judgment as is evidenced by the immediate context in John 3:17–21.
Second, others argue that “world” means all people without distinction. This option emphasizes that God loves more than one type of person or ethnic group. The death of Christ on the cross was not only for Jews but also for Gentiles. The love of God is not confined to national boundaries but extends to all kinds of nations, tribes, cultures, tongues, and peoples. To this, all God’s people––Arminian and Calvinist alike––say a hearty “Amen.” While this view has the benefit of being undoubtedly right and fits within the larger context of John’s gospel concerning the global identity of the “children of God” (e.g., John 1:9–13; 4:42), it doesn’t quite capture the jolting contrast between “God so loved” and “the world” that John 3:16 deliberately draws.
Third, a popular nuance of the previous option among Reformed theologians is to argue that “world” in John 3:16 refers to the elect. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus emphasizes the particularity of His grace. “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (6:37). “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me….I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:14–18). “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” (15:9). “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (17:9). And so on. The point is that God’s people are chosen from an unbelieving world. Again, this view strikes an important note by underscoring the biblical doctrine of election, but the focus of the term “world” in John 3:16 is not so much on the identity of God’s people but on the nature of God’s love.
This leads us to the final option. A solid case can be made for believing that “world” refers to the quality of God’s love. Warfield convincingly states:
[World] is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for it.
The world represents sinful humanity and is not worthy of God’s saving love. Apart from the love of God, the world stands under God’s condemnation. But in Christ, believers experience God’s surprising, redeeming, and never-ending love. John 3:16 is not about the greatness of the world but about the greatness of God.