Some argue that Calvinism and John 3:16 are contradictory because John 3:16 teaches that God loves “the world” and that “whoever believes” will be saved. They argue that this contradicts the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. However, John 3:16 is either inconclusive about the topic, or it could actually be teaching the opposite of what Arminians are claiming.
John 3:16 and Calvinism
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that ”’whoever believes”’ in him should not perish but have eternal life.John 3:16
Calvinism’s Answer to John 3:16
The phrase, “the world,” in John 3:16 must be understood in the context of both John 3:16 and the rest of the Bible. Even in John 3:16, we see that only “whoever believes” will receive eternal life. So, it is entirely possible that John equating “the world” with “whoever believes,” in which case John would be saying something along the lines of, “For God so loved people from all over the world who believe in Christ…”
The interpretation that John 3:16 is saying that God loves every individual in the world in such a way that every individual has the freedom to believe in Christ is simply one interpretation that is not explicitly taught by this verse, and indeed is contradicted by Scripture’s clear teaching about the doctrine of election elsewhere.
Another thing to consider is how John uses the term “the world” in John 4:42.
39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”John 4:39-42
In this passage, when the Samaritans say that Jesus is the “Savior of the world,” they are saying that Jesus is the savior of not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles. They are surprised that Jesus would reach out to a Samaritan woman, when Samaritans were looked down upon by the Jews.
It simply makes far more sense to believe that the Samaritans are using the word “world” to refer to not only the Jewish group of people, but also people who were not Jews (for example, the Samaritans), than that they are referring to every individual person in the world.
Then, we can conclude that if John is using the term “the world” in this fashion in John 4:42, it is more likely that he is also using this sense of “the world” (“not just the Jews, but also the Gentiles”, or, people from all groups of people) in other places (for example, in John 3:16) than that he is using it to refer to “every individual person” in other places.
The Meaning of “All” and “World”
The meaning of words such as “all” and “world” is not as simple as Arminians sometimes assert. More often than not, the Bible uses the words “all” and “world” to refer to groups of people, rather than to every single individual person. To read more, see Calvinism and the Meaning of “All” and “World.”