Calvin on John 3:16

Craig L. Adams —  December 13, 2010

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” — John 3:16 (NRSV).


“’That whosoever believeth on him may not perish.’ It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term world, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.”

Um Okay. I think I’m with you there, brother John.


“Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. Here, too, is displayed a wonderful effect of faith; for by it we receive Christ such as he is given to us by the Father — that is, as having freed us from the condemnation of eternal death, and made us heirs of eternal life, because, by the sacrifice of his death, he has atoned for our sins, that nothing may prevent God from acknowledging us as his sons. Since, therefore, faith embraces Christ, with the efficacy of his death and the fruit of his resurrection, we need not wonder if by it we obtain likewise the life of Christ.”


Whoa! What do you mean “on the other hand”? Umm… Now you seem to be dodging out of it all by appealing to a theology that is rooted in something else, brother John.

Here you are clearly leaving exegesis behind and trying to reconcile the verse with a preconceived theology. How can ‘life’ be promised to those incapable of receiving it? It can’t. How can God ‘invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers’ (as you say) if God is choosing to withhold the ability to believe from some?

You can’t have it both ways. I mean, I know you’re a logical guy, John. Isn’t it possible that Augustine was wrong in the Enchiridion — where this same logical inconsistency can be found?


“Still it is not yet very evident why and how faith bestows life upon us. Is it because Christ renews us by his Spirit, that the righteousness of God may live and be vigorous in us; or is it because, having been cleansed by his blood, we are accounted righteous before God by a free pardon? It is indeed certain, that these two things are always joined together; but as the certainty of salvation is the subject now in hand, we ought chiefly to hold by this reason, that we live, because God loves us freely by not imputing to us our sins. For this reason sacrifice is expressly mentioned, by which, together with sins, the curse and death are destroyed. I have already explained the object of these two clauses, which is, to inform us that in Christ we regain the possession of life, of which we are destitute in ourselves; for in this wretched condition of mankind, redemption, in the order of time, goes before salvation.”

What! Now you seem to be having problems with your earlier statement that [faith] ‘frees us from everlasting destruction.’ Do you mean that ‘faith bestows life upon us’ (as you said earlier) or ‘life’ (through grace) bestows faith upon us?

Now you are saying that redemption precedes salvation, because the ability to believe is itself the result of that salvation. If the ability to believe is wholly the decision of God, then it is God who has determined the issues of life and death. It is your theology that has dictated that “redemption, in the order of time, goes before salvation” not the text itself.

I agree that part of the message of this verse is ‘that in Christ we regain the possession of life, of which we are destitute in ourselves’ but it is also a universal offer of eternal life (thus, it says: “whoever”) — a possibility your theology does not seem to allow for! In my opinion, making sense of this verse requires a concept of Prevenient Grace, which allows fallen humans to respond with faith to the offer of life.

Otherwise, from your point of view, the verse should read either:

“For God so loved the elect that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who belongs to the elect and, thus, has faith, may therefore believe in him unto eternal life.”

or, more simply:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has eternal life may believe in him.”

But, surely you see, don’t you, it doesn’t say either of those things. You’ve turned it around backwards. This is no longer the Scripture with which you began.


(Start gathering the wood again, boys, I think there’s another heretic in town.)

[Cross posted from here: Commonplace Holiness.]

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Craig L. Adams


I used to be a United Methodist pastor. I served several small United Methodist churches from 1975 to 2010. My interests include Bible, Wesleyan Theology, science, jazz, mystery novels and Mac computers. You can find out more about me at my web site:
  • Aaron

    Interesting – Thanks for sharing that

  • John

    Thank you for posting this! You’ve pretty much demonstrated that Calvin read his theology into the text rather than hearing God’s Word speak for itself and then amending his theology to match the Biblical witness.

  • Brian MacArevey

    Hello Craig,

    Thanks for this post. I agree with you that Calvin is dead wrong on John 3:16. You are correct to say that his views on election completely distort this text. However, I’m not sure that I want to go as far as you do at the end of your post. I do think that the scriptures teach that regeneration precedes faith, and here is why.

    The regeneration should be marked as something that begins with the the life, death, and ressurection of Christ. He has procured for mankind this “new genesis”, and He precedes all others as the firstborn of the new creation. It is the grace of God in Christ and the work of the Spirit whom He sent that enlightens peole and enables faith, so that individuals can become participants in this “regeneration”.

    In my view that does not mean that this is only possible for a select few, or that people are unable to reject the Spirit’s work in the world. My point is that the work of Christ and the Spirit had to occur before anyone could believe it. I think Calvin’s point then, is accurate, but it is perverted by His presupositions about election.

    Overall though, great post. I have had great trouble with Calvinists who do these things with numerous texts. For instance, Matthew 5, when Jesus says to love your enemies so that you can be like your Father in heaven, who loved his enemies (that is, of course, the elect!). This is another perversion and only serves to cause confusion.

    In Christ,

  • Craig L. Adams

    Thanks for the comments, Brian. I appreciate your insight. I have a strong tendency to use theological terms in traditional Wesleyan ways. It comes from years of reading books on the Theology of John Wesley, etc. Sometimes I even know better, and do it anyway (like with the term “sanctification”). I appreciate being reminded that that’s not the only way to look at it — or even necessarily the most Biblical way. Thanks.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Brian, I must admit, that is the first time I have ever heard it put that way before. I have always heard “Regeneration” (born again) used in the context of individuals. Thus – being the good Arminian that I am, I reject the term. Calvinist’ use it to say that people need to be “regenerated” (saved, born again) before they can have faith (or so that they can have faith) so that they can be regenerated (saved, born again). I have never heard of anyone use the term “regeneration” to apply to Christ, nor have I thought of it as participating in Christ’ regeneration. I’ll have to give this some thought.


  • Craig L. Adams

    The reason I am appreciative of Brian’s comments is because I’ve always suspected that using traditional Order of Salvation language may put too individualistic “spin” on our relationship with God. But, I would also like it if he would say a little more about his concept of “regeneration” and where he has found support for such a re-conceptualization of the idea.

  • Brian MacArevey

    Thanks for the encouragement brothers :)

    Now, how can I reform the protestant view of regeneration in a few short paragraphs? :)

    1) The word, if I remember correctly, appears only twice in the NT. In Matthew 19:28, Jesus speaks of “the regeneration”, when the 12 would sit upon thrones judging Israel. This has no reference to the typical individual, internal, spiritual change that is so often associated with the term. The concept is much broader.

    2) The other passage is Titus 3:5, which again, is in reference to something much broader. It is actually corporate in nature. It is clearly something that Jesus has done by the Spirit, though it has an effect on the recipients of the letter.

    3) Pallegenesia (as you can see by the word itself) refers to the “new Genesis”. It fits quite well with Paul’s Adam Christology in this sense I think. The life, death, resurection, and enthronement of Jesus, then, is the beginning of this new creation.

    4) It seems to me that people can participate in the regeneration, which began with Christ, but the primary reference is to something that Christ brings about. Therefore, since the work of Christ precedes anyone coming to faith in Him, I think it would be true to say that regeneration precedes faith.

    I can think of more things to say, but I’m not sure how you would like me to proceed. I hope this is enough to begin a conversation. I am also thinking through these things, and could use some help sharpening my position. Any questions that arise, or insights that you gain would be appreciated.

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  • Craig L. Adams

    Thanks, Brian, that’s very helpful. It’s just a guess, but I’m thinking that the traditional Protestant usage of “regeneration” may be not derived from παλιγγενεσία but the “born again” (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) terminology in John 3. Born Again = Re-generated. Then the theologian tries to figure out where this “Regeneration” thing fits in an Order of Salvation. Thanks for trying to help us all renew / reform our theology from the Scriptures.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Hey Brian and Craig… good thoughts definately worth exploring! Craig, I think you are right. “Theological Terminology” is not always the same as “Biblical Terminology”. For example, by “imputation”, the theological term refers to an external transfer whilest the biblical terminology is a reference to a declaration. Educated Calvinists usually acknowledge this distinction and justifiy belief in the theological understanding “imputation” by saying that the “concept” is in the bible, even if the word usage of it in the scriptures is not the same.

    I suspect this is the same with “regeneration”. The theological terminology and the biblical usaging are not the same. But I’m with Brian, a part of being theologically biblical is to keep our theological terms in line with the biblical usages. Maybe, as I think out Brians thesis (which I’ll do after I have completed my exams), it is time to rescue the term “regeneration” from a theological abstract concept, and root it once again in scripture.

  • Brian MacArevey

    Thanks guys.


    I agree that typical protestant theology treats regeneration and born again as synonyms. I think that the new birth language needs to be re-examined as well, but I need to think on it a little more myself. It may have more of an individualistic focus, but there are similarities I think. I’m still not sure that the new birth language will fit very cleanly within an ordo salutis.

    @ Derek

    Yes, this is the case with this word, but as usual, theologians have co-opted the term for their own usage and we tend to read the theological usage back in to the text, which skews its meaning. I would love to participate with you as you think through this issue. It would be intersting to re-examine the new birth, and even the new heart (Ezekiel 36?), since they are all typically thought to be speaking of the same thing.