Owen on John 3:16 – Introduction

Possibly the most well-known and oft-quoted verse in all of scripture, John 3:16 has even been referred to as “the gospel in a nutshell”. Regarding that label, it would be improper to limit ourselves to the contents of one nutshell when we should feast on the entirely of God’s revealed word. Nevertheless, for the truth contained therein, as with all of scripture, this verse is certainly precious, particularly when taken in context with all of John chapter 3, and indeed with the Bible as a whole.

 The third division of The Works of John Owen, delineated the “Controversial” division, begins with Volume 10. Here, following the excellent “A Display of Arminianism”, is found one of his most famous works, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”, a thorough analysis of the intent and accomplishment of Christ’s atonement. The latter part of Book 4, Chapter 2 of “The Death of Death” deals specifically with John 3:16.

 Owen brings out this verse as the first of several which those asserting universal redemption [Christ dying for each and every person] put forth. As he states,

 “This place, I say, the Universalists exceedingly boast in; for which we are persuaded they have so little cause, that we doubt not but, with the Lord’s assistance, to demonstrate that it is destructive to their whole defense.”

 Since this verse is mishandled today as in Owen’s day, and even served as the title of last year’s anti-Calvinist “John 3:16 Conference”, it is appropriate to give a synopsis of this theologian’s analysis of the verse, which for many may prove to be rather different from that which they are used to hearing. Not that Owen teaches here some new and strange thing, but in fact that which is faithful to the text and consistent with the whole of scripture. The reader may come to appreciate that some of what is often professed about John 3:16 in Baptist and other circles is indeed rather that which might be called strange. Of course, this tidbit of Owen’s defense is a minimal representation of the many detailed and solid arguments against universal redemption which he sets out in his works.

 Regarding that conference which shamefully associated itself with this scripture, Timmy Brister had an excellent short post about a year ago HERE , which gives some context within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and also provides helpful background to this blog, SBF. I highly recommend Timmy’s post to any readers who have not yet seen it.

This introduction will conclude with Owen’s overall comparison of the universalist’s interpretation of John 3:16 with his own, via paraphrase. Following posts will specifically address the three key areas from where the difference stems, and that is, the understanding of:

     (1) the love of God, which is the cause of sending Christ,

     (2) the object of this love, called here the world, and

     (3) the intention of God in sending his Son, said here to be that believers might be saved.

 “I will give you, in brief, a double paraphrase of the words, the first containing their sense, the latter ours. Thus, then, our adversaries explain these words:

 “ ‘God so loved,’ – had such a natural inclination, velleity [wish], and propensity [tendency] to the good of

 ‘the world,’ – Adam, with all and every one of his posterity, of all ages, times, and conditions (whereof some were in heaven, some in hell long before),

 ‘that he gave his only-begotten Son,’ – causing him to be incarnate in the fullness of time, to die, not with a purpose and resolution to save any, but

 ‘that whosoever,’ – whatever persons of those which he had propensity unto,

 ‘believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,’ – should have this fruit and issue, that he should escape death and hell, and live eternally.”

 Owen a little later gives the interpretation which he embraces:

 “Now, look a little, in the second place, at what we conceive to be the mind of God in those words; whose aim we take to be the advancement and setting forth of the free love of God to lost sinners, in sending Christ to procure for them eternal redemption, as may appear in this following paraphrase:

 “ ‘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, which he peculiarly loved,

 ‘that,’ intending their salvation, as in the last words, for the praise of his glorious grace, ‘he gave,’ he prepared a way to prevent their everlasting destruction, by appointing and sending ‘his only-begotten Son’ to be an all-sufficient Saviour to all that look up unto him,

 ‘that whosoever believeth in him,’ – all believers whatsoever, and only they,

 ‘should not perish, but have everlasting life,’ – and so effectually be brought to the obtaining of those glorious things through him which the Lord in his free love had designed for them.”

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9 Comments on “Owen on John 3:16 – Introduction”


  1. You are right about the importance of the context of John 3:16. So many people, even relatively conservative theologians, talk rightly about context being king with regard to hermeneutical principle, but rarely have I heard the context appropriately applied to John 3:16. To follow the flow of Jesus’ reasoning in his response to Nicodemus, this verse certainly alludes to the gospel, but the import of the passage is a response to Nicodemus from verse 2 where Jesus answers him on the method of teaching truth as one who was sent from heaven. Why? Because Nicodemus admits that the Pharisees can discern that he came from heaven, but they cannot understand his teaching. The implication of verse 16 is that people cannot believe unto eternal life unless they understand the truth on at least a basic level. Cf vv 10 and 19.

    • thomastwitchell Says:

      That’s a good point Jim.

      Darrin- One thing that I have done is to universalize kosmos beyond what Owen says here and beyond humanity. Owen’s delimitter is “which he peculiarly loved.”

      I agree with that and it fits well the meaning in 1 John 2:2, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” However, I think in this passage world has to apply also to those who will not believe and means creation in general. That is, “God loved the world this way: that he sent his Son that…those who are not believing are condemned already…” In this sense, God’s love for his creation is purposive, not just for the salvation of those who will believe, but that all things are reconciled in the Son including the disposition of those in verse, “but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” The statement is made that the world will be saved by this means, and I can see why some might think it only applies to those “particularly” loved, as Owen’s puts it. But the propitiation was not without the rewards to the Son, and that not merely of sons, but such that, through all the things accomplished by Christ’s obediences he assumes his three-fold ministry as Priest, King, and Intercessor. It is the second that I think applies here. As King he is the Judge of the kosmos, adjudicating and prosecuting according to righteousness so that justice is met and in that some are condemned and by that the kosmos, all of creation, is saved. John’s other view of Christ is as Judge,(John 5) but this passage admits that the world is not judged. There are the two possibilities: 1. that world means the “particularly” loved ones, or 2. it means the creation, all those loved, all those not, as well as all the angels sealed and those fallen, and the whole of creation which groans under sin in expectation of the manifestation of the sons of God. The first is harder to prove, the second is confirmed by the fact that the eschatological end is a saved creation (kosmos).

      The result being that God reconciles all things in the Son and by that loves his creation to its perfected consummation.

      Just a thought.

  2. Darrin Says:

    Jim, thanks – this verse certainly is very often taken out of context. In fact, sometimes even a single word, like “whosoever”, is taken out of the context of the sentence! As if a whole body of theology can be developed from that word alone.

    Good point about the need to understand truth which Jesus explains in this chapter. And since man cannot understand spiritual truth in his natural state, it takes a work of God to grant that understanding, which He grants to whomever He wills.

  3. Darrin Says:

    Thomas,

    Interesting discussion – thanks.

    In following posts I’ll write more about Owen’s discussion of the meanings here of “love” and “world”, which I think are consistent with the text and other scripture.

    I do agree that it is important to see that God is glorified by both the salvific grace given to some as well as His righteous condemnation of others. It is important to see that He has an active role in the destiny of all of His creation, as you have shown here.

  4. David Says:

    Hey there Darin,

    If I may,

    If we look at your summation of Owen’s claims as something like premises, I would like to ask, how do we know that the love in John 3:16, has these characteristics: “peculiar, transcendent love, being an unchangeable purpose and act of his will concerning their salvation…”

    As I read that, the claim is that the love in 3:16 electing love (or something akin to that) How exactly did Owen know that? How would he prove that?

    Make sense?

    Thanks for your time,
    David

  5. Darrin Says:

    David, thanks for visiting.

    Owen is actually comparing the interpretations of this verse according to two very different soteriologies.

    Regarding his doctrine, when you ask how would Owen “know that” or “prove that”, I suppose to properly answer I would need to quote his entire treatise. But he is basing it upon his understanding of the nature of God and His dealings with man as revealed in scripture.

    More specifics on the love of God should appear in the next post in a few days. But if God’s love for sinners here is indeed understood by Arminians and Wesleyans to be a natural inclination to want the best for them, but by Calvinists to be an act of His will to effectively bring about their salvation, having loved His own “with an everlasting love”, then Owen’s distinction is valid.

  6. David Says:

    Hey Darrin,

    Thanks for the kind reply.

    Ive been interested in the claim that the love of God mentioned in John 3:16 has to be the electing or predestinating love of God for some time. Ive seen the claim made a few times, but never seen a substantive attempt to demonstrate that is so.

    And after all, many many Reformed have held that the love of John 3:16 is a general love of God to all man.

    You say: “but by Calvinists to be an act of His will to effectively bring about their salvation, having loved His own ‘with an everlasting love’, then Owen’s distinction is valid.”

    David: That’s the interesting thing tho, many Calvinists said it was indeed a love which was other than God’s effectual electing love. Calvin calls it the first degree of love, which is General. Manton calls it a general love; and so on. In this way, it is an unfulfilled disiderative affection (velleity even?), technically speaking, but such that does not negate effectual electing love.

    It may help you to keep in mind, at this point in Owen’s theological life, he was an strong and ardent voluntarist. Basically, and this is a rough definition, its the idea that something is right simply because God wills it. Carl Truman has a reasonable article on Owen’s shift out of voluntarism. I can email you a pdf of Truman’s article if you wish. What this means is that in early Owen, God is never said to be moved by an external agent to love or pity that external agent (DoD p., 115ff). And God only wills to love the pitiable. Love in God, for Owen, is not what the Reformed called a ‘natural affection.’ However, in mainstream Reformed theology, love was always seen as a natural affection. Ive recently posted some Manton and Bates on this. But a’ Brakel is also helpful. Charnock is another good one too.

    Other voluntarists (Calvin et al), however, were still able to say that love is natural to God.

    You can see some of this voluntarism, I believe, behind Owen’s early exegesis of the Ezekiel passages, 18:23 etc. For the same voluntarism, Owen rejects any sense of an unfulfilled wish within God.

    In short, it is more than probable that this volutuntarism lies at the back of Owen’s reading of God’s love and as that love exhibited in Scripture, specifically in 3:16.

    Again, thanks for your patience, and sorry for the long comment. I look forward to your future posts on this.

    Take care,
    David

  7. Darrin Says:

    David,

    Thanks for mentioning Manton, Calvin and even Trueman. I have benefited much from those men. I hear Charnock is excellent also.

    Please feel free to send me the Trueman article. Email me anytime.

    I don’t doubt that the Reformed speak of the general love of God. Certainly there is a universal, non-salvific grace. The issue at hand is that many pastors and laymen take God’s love for His elect to be the *same* as that for all mankind. This would either greatly mitigate the extent of love which He holds for His bride, or suggest an intimacy with and effectual work (or impotency) for the reprobate which is unbiblical and illogical.

    It appears that Owen’s aim in this work is to show how strong and marvelous is God’s electing love, contrary to the logical outcome of universal redemption.


  8. [...] John Owen on John 3.16 (intro) by Strange Baptist Fire Read it Here [...]


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