What is the Gospel in John 3:16?

Tolerant Reformed: you say that “The gospel is ‘Jesus died for the sins of those who believe.’” It seems like your formulations are a hybrid of gospel and decree.

mark: Except for the part about “for the sins”, I was simply reading John 3:16. It’s not “my formulation”. John 3:16 does not say that God gave His Son for every sinner. John 3:16 says that God gave His son for the world. Yes, there is an Arminian formulation of “world” which assumes that it means “every sinner”. Is your formulation a hybryd of the Arminian view with something else?

Now, I don’t doubt that you can quote some famous “Reformed” people who agree that “world” means “every sinner” (although I would disagree that Spurgeon and DA Carson are “Reformed”) And I could quote many Reformed who say that “world” in John (not only this one verse) means those who will believe and who will not perish.

But my main point is that it’s not fair for you to call what I said “my formulation”. I didn’t use the “desire” word. You did. That’s your “formulation”. With Calvin, I would argue that God obtains what God desires. God desired and desires that those who won’t perish not perish. So they won’t. God gave His Son as the necessary (and sufficient, it’s enough without additional factors, it causes the means, the other factors) decisive reason that these persons will not perish.

So if you want to argue for the Arminian reading of “world”, put out your own formulation, but don’t pose the question as if I am saying something that other Reformed people don’t say, and as if the “obvious natural reading” has something to say about God loving those who perish or God desiring that those who perish not perish.

God commands all sinners to believe the gospel. But the gospel is not that God loves all sinners. If you think that the gospel must be that in order for God to command all sinners to believe the gospel, then make that argument. All of this is me asking you: what is the gospel? Do sinners have to believe the gospel? Or does God save sinners even when they don’t know or believe the gospel? And is not the “as many as who believe” (compare the original text, but I don’t mind if you say “whosoever”) what we find in John 3:16?

I am not importing “the believers” into the John 3:16 text. Are you importing “and also for those who never believe” into the text?

Tolerant Reformed: But the gospel invitation goes out freely, and hearers are invited to Christ.

mark: And what did I say that denied that? It comes back to “what is the gospel”. Are you agreeing with the Arminians that the gospel has to say that God wants to save everybody before we can preach it to everybody? if so, you will find your theology in that section of Dordt in which the antithesis of the gospel is explained and condemned. Again, not my formulation.

Tolerant Reformed: I don’t recall the preaching in Acts being a proclamation of an atonement theory.

mark: I don’t know why people want to rush to Acts when they can’t first argue for their assumptions about John 3:16. Is the conclusion here that there is no “atonement theory” in the gospel? Again, what is the gospel? Is the Gospel simply that Jesus is God, and risen Lord? Are you assuming a Kantian distinction between fact and theory (value, meaning) in which there is atonement in the gospel but not “atonement theory”?

Are you sure that the apostle Paul who wrote Romans 3-6 did not talk about the atonement in Acts? Are you assuming that the apostle Peter who wrote about the atonement in his letters did not talk about the atonement in Acts? Are you some kind of dispensationalist who thinks there are different gospels even in the New Testament? Or, are you saying that the basic simple gospel (all you need to know) is the one you think is in Acts, which has the “fundamentals” without any discussion of the nature (intent, effect, justice) of the atonement?

Tolerant Reformed: Definite atonement and election are comforting truths but how about “come unto me you weak and heavy laden,” and “Christ died for sinners”?

mark: First, I don’t believe you. You don’t find those truths comforting. or you would not be so uncomfortable with them. If you thought they were good news, then you would not want to restrict the preaching of those truths to conferences and seminars and R.C. Sproul on video Sunday School classes. You would invite all sinners to believe in the good news of election. So I don’t think you are being completely honest with yourself when you stipulate they are comforting.

Second, you are pulling two phrases out of context. Unless you are playing a “shell-game’ with lost people, why put stuff into the fine print (strings attached)? When you yourself are comforted by the idea that “died for sinners” really means ‘died for some sinners, died for elect sinners, died for those sinners who believe the gospel”, and the comfort is not in the idea that some are non-elect but in the fact that this means that the death really accomplishes something, that the death means that they will believe, if you are truly comforted by this, why leave it out of the gospel, when the effect of leaving it out means that lose people will simply go on saying, so what? Sure, Jesus died for everybody, and everybody in america knows that, and I don’t deny it, but what does it matter unless I am a good person and go to church?

Third, I did not even use the “elect” word. I merely wrote “for those sinners who believe”. Is that not what John 3:16 says? Not one less than those who believe. Not one more than those who believe. So where’s the problem? Do you have a “formulation” which insists that ‘world” means “everybody gets a chance” and “nobody is condemned for original sin, or even for any sin, except this one sin of not accepting it”. If that’s not your gospel, why would you object to what I said? Why would you put your “desire and decree” formulation on it.


Matthew 11: 25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

John 6: 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast

Acts 2:39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

As many of you as God calls are elect. As many of your children as God calls are elect. As many of all who are far off as God calls are elect. Not more, not less. Would you not agree that this call is not the external command and invitation of the gospel, but the effectual call which comes only to the elect for whom Christ died?

But this promise about election and calling is something that Peter preaches to everybody in the first “sermon” in the book of Acts.

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13 Comments on “What is the Gospel in John 3:16?”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    When talking to sinners, we cannot avoid the possibility that the gospel might not be good news for them, but only for someone else, because it’s only for as many as believe it.

    Saying you can believe the gospel and not know the promise that all who believe will be saved, this assumes that this promise is not in the gospel

    Romans 4 says that Abraham both believed and was justified by God before the cross. Romans 4: 24 but also for us. It will be credited to US WHO BELIEVE IN HIM who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification…..is the “our” teaching that the elect who do not yet believe the gospel are already justified? No.

    I Corinthians 15: the gospel I proclaimed to you; you RECEIVED IT and have taken your stand on it. 2 You are also saved by it, IF YOU HOLD TO THE MESSAGE I proclaimed to you—unless YOU BELIEVED for no purpose.

    it might be for you
    it’s for some sinners
    it’s for all the sinners who believe

    if you are a sinner who believes the gospel, then it is for you, not because you believed, but you believed because it was for you, even though you didn’t know that when you believed

  2. markmcculley Says:

    The Arminian ppeal to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37 is erroneous. They understand the text as Jesus’ grief over the perishing of citizens of Jerusalem whom Jesus would like to save. This would imply a love of Jesus for all the citizens of Jerusalem at that time, and a desire on the part of Jesus to save them.
    Against this misunderstanding of the text are the following considerations. First, Jesus does not declare that He desired to save all the citizens of Jerusalem. It was His will to gather Jerusalem’s children together, that is, the true, spiritual, elect Israelites in Jerusalem. And Jesus did gather them, regardless of Jerusalem’s opposition. Jerusalem in the text is the officialdom of Jerusalem, scribes, Pharisees, Sanhedrin, and the like. The children of Jerusalem are the spiritual offspring of Jerusalem by divine grace. In spite of Jerusalem’s not wanting Jesus to gather her children, Jesus did gather them, by His redeeming death and then by the gospel of the apostles. The loving will of Jesus the Messiah is not ineffectual, but efficacious. He died redemptively for Jerusalem’s children, and He converted them to Himself by the Spirit of Pentecost.

    Second, Jesus’ grief over the stubborn unbelief of Jerusalem and over Jerusalem’s impending destruction in the wrath of God does not imply a helpless love on Jesus’ part for the reprobate, ungodly leaders of the city and their wicked followers. The lament of verse 37 is in harmony with the anger and threatening of awful judgment in the preceding verses. According to verse 35, the purpose of Jesus’ sending prophets and others to Jerusalem was that upon that city might come all the righteous blood that Jerusalem shed in the past. Jesus purposed the destruction of Jerusalem with its dreadful carnage.

    What about Jesus’ grief over Jerusalem? It was NOT the grief of the Savior, who, in disregard of the predestinating purpose of His Father (and Himself as the second person of the Trinity), desired the salvation of many who would perish everlastingly in Jerusalem’s destruction. Rather, it was the grief of Him who as well as being God the Son was and is genuine man–man of sorrows. That the grand city of Jerusalem with its significance in the history of the kingdom of God should be thus hard and face impending destruction was cause of sorrow to the real man, Jesus, without any implication that He wished anything else for the city than this righteous judgment of God. It was not only the destruction of the city, with all that that portended, that grieved Jesus, but also the unbelief itself especially with regard to the Messiah, David’s great Son. David Engelsma

  3. Phil Margush Says:

    And one thing more:

    The confession / creed churches though calling themselves Reformed have a sticky.

    When they call Faith an instrument they are retaining something from the past.

    If an instrument, than a wielding,

    If a wielding, then a wielder (wieldor).

    Without the wielder’s action there is no Justification.

    [before 900; Middle English welden, Old English wieldan to control, derivative of wealdan to rule, c. Old Saxon, Gothic waldan, Old High German waltan, Old Norse valda; akin to Latin val re to be strong, prevail]

    Then they try to say it’s: By Grace Alone.

    The Presbyterians have this with a bang.

    Those further back, of the pure Swiss, have it with a shuffle.

    I don’t like these people. I either have the door slammed into my face, or have my pocket picked of something valuable.

    Why not just call them Lutherans?

    Or ask: Where’s Reformation in that?

    If you don’t know what Faith is just say so!

    Call it Manna!

    Call it a verb,

    But don’t call it a tool, device, gadget, implement, utensil, appliance.

    Hebrews calls it substance.

    Maybe it’s a substance like wind

    You hear the sound of it, but can’t tell where it comes from or tell where it goes.

    So is everyone born of the Gospel.

    “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”

    Where’s their instrument for that?

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Using Matthew 11:28 as an example, the reward (“rest”) is what will be given to those who come to Christ. If you are weary of sin and come to Christ, He will give you rest. But Jesus never indicates that the promised “rest” has been purchased for everyone. In fact, He does not even offer it to everyone. Jesus specifically limits the scope of His invitation to those “who are weary and heavy-laden.” This is no invitation to the self-righteous. It is a promise of relief to people who see their sin for what it is and are weary of it. And the only people who will ever be truly weary of their sin (that is, with the godly sorrow that leads to repentance and salvation as opposed to the sorrow of the world that produces death—cf. 2 Corinthians 7:10) are those who have been given life and are being drawn by the Holy Spirit to repentance—that is, the elect. And in case you think the doctrine of election is out of character with Jesus’ winsome words of invitation in verse 28, notice that it is strongly confirmed in the previous verse. Just before saying, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, Jesus said, All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matthew 11:27). – See more at: http://www.ccwtoday.org/article/speaking-biblically-about-the-death-of-christ/#sthash.RJR72Knh.dpuf

  5. markmcculley Says:

    If you keep the conditions of the law, then those conditions turn into promises? And the law turns into gospel? And the antithesis between law and gospel disappears? Many confused calvinists seem to think that–but they are wrong.


    Hebrews 2: 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source.That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,12 saying,

    “I will tell of your name to my brothers;
    in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
    13 And again,
    “I will put my trust in him.”
    And again,
    “Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
    14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he would destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he would become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

    1. “man” is not in the original in verse 9

    2. everyone is specified: the sons whom God will lead to glory

    those sanctified

    those whom Christ calls brothers in the ecclesia

    3. NOT for angels, for Abraham’s seed

    4. NOT FOR all children of Abraham, but only for the children of Abraham elected to salvation

    5. those for whom He made propitiation, took away wrath of God by satisfying justice for their sins

  7. Alien Pebble Says:

    16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His [e]only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the [f]only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

    Many people insists “the world” in verse 16-17 means God loves *everybody* and gives Christ to *everybody* and will save *everybody* conditioned on their “faith”. But following that method of interpretation, “the world” in verse 19 then means *everybody* disbelieves and therefore is condemned.

  8. Alien Pebble Says:

    In context, I think the “world” refers to those who will be placed into the new covenant. God so loved this eschatological world, that he gave his only begotten Son as their mediator, so when they are placed into this new covenant and regenerated to believe on their Savior, they are justified and have eternal life.

  9. Alien Pebble Says:

    “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

    It’s not enough to know sovereign regeneration in the present (“earthly things”). We must also believe in the ultimate source and purpose of that – God electing (loving) some sinners and giving his Son to die for them and they are justified by that death when they are in time regenerated to believe (“heavenly things”).

  10. markmcculley Says:

    I certainly agree that we can’t know if a sinner is elect or not before they believe the gospel. A person who has not yet believed the gospel may be elect –if they are elect, they will believe the gospel at some point because Christ by His death has purchased faith for all the elect. But this is not a “problem”. We do not need to tell any person that Christ is “enough for them” in order to preach the truth that Christ was given an elect and that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. It is the nature of the case that nobody can know if they are elect until they believe the gospel, so the “problem” is attempting to tell the truth of the gospel while leaving out the good news of election and of the efficacy of Christ’s death for all the elect.

    Romans 11: 5, “So too at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. But if it by grace, it is no longer by works; otherwise grace would be no more grace.”

    GW–To us they are simply sinners who need a Savior, and we should approach them as such. It is the church’s responsibility to present Christ as the all-sufficient Savior indiscriminantly to all sinners.

    mark–I am all for talking about election to any and every sinner (indiscriminately) . You seem to be the one who wants to hush it up, by telling them that Christ’s death is enough for everybody. God does not love everybody. Why keep that truth a secret? Will the truth keep some of the elect from believing the gospel? Doesn’t the power of the gospel involve the truly good news of election?

    GW; By the term “warrant” I don’t mean “right” (for none of us has the “right” to salvation, which is a gift of grace alone). Rather, I mean something like “basis” or “grounds” for believing the gospel (which, after all, means “good news”)

    Mark–Well, I suppose we can use words any way we want. Sincee “offer” in the Reformed Confession does NOT mean “God loves everybody”, I could use the word “offer” to mean “present the truth of election to everybody”. But since the word has come to mean “sufficient for the non-elect also”, I don’t use the word. There is very little difference between saying that the non-elect have a right to believe the gospel and telling the non-elect that “Christ is dead for you”.

    GW–. But how is the gospel genuine “good news” to a presently-unconverted sinner who may or may not be one of the elect if Christ and His benefits are in not in some sense genuinely “offered” or presented to him?

    mark: First you stipulate what is “genuine” offer—it means telling everybody that God loves them and wants to save them and has enough to save them. Then you tell them it’s not enough. Even though the gospel is not good news to those who never believe it, the gospel is good news to “as many as believe it”, and those who claim to believe the gospel but also claim not to have assurance of being justified have not yet believed the promise of the gospel that those who believe will be saved. It’s not the preacher or the “real presence” in the sacrament which tells a sinner that they are elect or that Christ died for them.

    gw—And why should he believe that the good news applies to him if he can’t know that it applies to him unless he is among the elect, which is something he can’t know until he is first granted the grace of saving faith to begin with?

    mark: And why do you presume that the gospel is good news for every sinner, unless you beg the question? Christ’s death does not apply to the non-elect. The non-elect will never be placed into Christ’s death. But since we don’t know (and can’t know) that any sinner is non-elect, why should that fact keep any sinner from believing the truth of the gospel? Must we change the gospel in order to make it more attractive to people who don’t like the gospel?

  11. markmcculley Says:

    Calvin–The cause of faith itself, however, they would keep buried all the time out of sight, which is this: that the children of God who are chosen to be sons are afterwards blessed with the spirit of adoption. Now, what kind of gratitude is that in me if, being endowed with so pre-eminent a benefit, I consider myself no greater a debtor than he who hath not received one hundredth part of it? Wherefore, if, to praise the goodness of God worthily, it is necessary to bear in mind how much we are indebted to Him, those are malignant towards Him and rob Him of His glory who reject and will not endure the doctrine of eternal election, which being buried out of sight…
    Let those roar at us who will. We will ever brighten forth, with all our power of language, the doctrine which we hold concerning the free election of God, seeing that it is only by it that the faithful can understand how great that goodness of God is which effectually called them to salvation.

    Now, if we are not really ashamed of the Gospel, we must of necessity acknowledge what is therein openly declared: that God by His eternal goodwill (for which there was no other cause than His own purpose), appointed those whom He pleased unto salvation, rejecting all the rest; and that those whom He blessed with this free adoption to be His sons He illumines by His Holy Spirit, in order to receive the life given in Christ; while others, continuing of their own will in unbelief, are left destitute of the light of faith, in total darkness.


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