I don’t know about you, but when I get into a discussion with someone who holds to an Arminian theology, they will always bring up the same few verses: John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4, Matthew 23:37, and 2 Peter 3:9. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that they are thrown out there as a sort of trump card with the assumption that whatever they understand about Calvinism does not match with what they understand about these verses. It’s just as easy to throw out verses from the other side, but this sort of thing doesn’t help anyone.
If anyone has a disagreement about verses in the Bible, what you need to do is exegete the passage in question. In other words, you can’t just assume that a text means what you think it means. You need to prove that from the text itself by showing how it has that meaning, in context. So what I’m going to do is to attempt to give my best understanding of how an Arminian would interpret these texts, and then show how I would respond to that, exegetically.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
As this is likely the most widely known Bible verse in existence, it’s easy to assume meaning from tradition here. The Arminian interpretation of this verse hinges on the word “whoever”. The idea is that this word implies that everyone has the chance of obtaining salvation (prevenient grace, if you’re familiar with the term), if they would simply chose to believe in the free gift of salvation offered to them. They will support this, in part, based on sections of the next couple verses. “that the world might be saved through him” from verse 17, and “whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned” from verse 18.
There are a couple interesting things about this interpretation that I would like to point out, before showing how I exegete the passage. By stressing the universality of words like “whoever” and “world” in this section, you run into a weird problem with verse 16 seeming to say that anyone can be saved, verse 17 seeming to say that the entire world being saved, and verse 18 back to the idea of salvation being dependent on choice. “For God so loved every person in the world in the same way that He sent His Son to die for only those who would chose to believe in Him” would be the summary of the Arminian interpretation of this text I find that to be confusing, but not nearly as problematic as trying to hold to that position, while also trying to understand the high priestly prayer of Jesus a few chapters later in John 17.
So how do I interpret the passage? In terms of “Arminian” passages and “Calvinist” passages, I would say that this text is actually neither, or that it’s a “neutral” passage, as it relates to this argument. James White makes an argument from the Greek that the literal meaning is that all the believing ones will not perish, but have everlasting life. Both Calvinists and Arminians can agree that anyone who believes in Christ will have eternal life, but that’s step 2, when the contention actually comes at step 1. Step 1 would be to ask the question “does everyone have the natural ability, in themselves, to believe?”. Arminians would answer “yes”, and Calvinists would answer “no”. Without getting too deep into that particular issue, the question still remains of how I interpret the word “world” in verse 17.
I think it’s important to realize that John (or any of the inspired writers) wasn’t writing in such a way that would be deliberately confusing, with one meaning in one chapter and another meaning in another chapter. This is especially true of Jesus, who is speaking in this passage. The reason why I bring this up is that the same Jesus says something very similar a few chapters later. Compare John 3:16 with John 6:35. You’ll see that the verses both use the “whoever” language, and even though the latter passage refers to hunger and thirst, it’s obviously referring to salvation. Now what is interesting is that a couple verses later in verse 37-40, we read the following:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
This is a fascinating passage, especially when taken in conjunction with the high priestly prayer in John 17, particularly verses 6-10.
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.
If you’re an Arminian, I think the best you can do here (and I’m happy to be corrected) is say that Jesus must only be referring to Christians in a general sense. Anyone who freely chooses to accept Jesus. If you’re a Calvinist, however, I think all the passages listed gives us the big picture view of how to understand things. I would suggest that “all” or “world” refers to the fact that there are no type restrictions to those who can be saved. In other words, salvation isn’t bound by time or country (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). All the ones whom the Father has given to the Son are from all people groups in all time, and Jesus says that all the ones whom the Father gives Him will come to Him. They (elsewhere called the elect) are the ones who have the ability to come. They are the whosoever. When Jesus prays for them, His prayers do not fail.
This likely doesn’t answer every question, but it’s not supposed to. However, that is how I would go about exegeting the text. It seems to make sense of the relevant passages. If you disagree, I would love to talk about it!