Doctrine of the Atonement

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Chapter 16
Examination of John 3:16 & 17


the Baptist had preached that the kingdom of God was at hand; and this was confirmed by the preaching of Jesus. Nicodemus, convinced by the Lord’s miracles that he was a teacher come from God, desired information respecting this kingdom, and was told, that those only were its subjects who had been born again. This appeared strange to one who, in common with this countrymen, considered it a matter of course, that Israel, so long distinguished as God’s peculiar people, should enjoy the privileges of the kingdom of which their prophets had spoken during a period of fifteen hundred years. In opposition to the warning given by John, not to trust in their relation to Abraham, (Matthew 3:9) he imagined that the blessings of Messiah’s reign would be confined to Israel, and that, under his victorious banner, they should go forth to execute vengeance on the heathen who knew not God, and by whom Israel had been so long oppressed (Ps. 149:6, 7; Isa. 41:15, 16).

The Lord, having described himself as the Son of man who came down from heaven, proceeded to inform Nicodemus that, in correspondence with the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness, he was to be lifted up, that whosoever believed in him might not perish, but have eternal life; adding, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved," (John 3:16, 17).

Here the Lord gives the explanation of whosoever, which the Jewish ruler would undoubtedly have understood to refer to Israel, but he was taught that it included men of all nations. Dr. Wardlaw tells us, that God’s love "to mankind —to the race, ought not to be questioned by any who believed that in these words Jesus spoke truth." I shall not stop to comment upon the irreverence of this remark. I leave it as it stands, although, considering the different senses in which the general term world is employed, it might well have been spared. "Do not," he says again, "contradict the Saviour himself by denying that he loved the world." Dr. Wardlaw surely knows that the whole is often used in Scripture for a part; —thus, all Judea is said to be baptized of John (Matthew 3:5,6) and yet Christ made and baptized more disciples than John (John 4:1).

We have already examined the statement that God’s love extends to the world, and have shown that it is not only destitute of any solid foundation, but that its fallacy is practically demonstrated by the history of God’s dealings with the human race from the beginning down to the present time. It is passing strange that any one should, at the same time, hold this sentiment and the doctrine of personal election. Dr. Wardlaw admits that, had it not been for personal election, none would have been saved. Of what avail, then, is God’s love to the non-elect? He says, there is a "special love to his people;" but what kind of love is that, the objects of which are "children of wrath," —alienated from God, under the curse of the law, and who are permitted to perish in their sins either without once hearing the way of escape, and consequently dying in unbelief (Rom. 10:14); or having their condemnation aggravated by their rejection of the Gospel through their love of darkness and hatred of light!

The question is—What is the meaning of the term world, in this passage? If it necessarily means the whole human race, doubtless Dr. Wardlaw’s assertion of God’s universal love to mankind is clearly established; but he well knows such is not necessarily the meaning of the word. Sometimes it denotes the wicked, in contrast with God’s people. "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you," (John 15:18, see also John 14:17-19). It is used for the Gentiles exclusively. "I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Now, if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fullness? For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them. For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?" (Rom. 11:11-15). It is used also for men of all nations, whether Jews or Gentiles: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them," (2 Cor. 5:19; That the world here means the redeemed of all nations, "the children of God who are scattered abroad," is plain, for to them alone God does not impute their trespasses.) The use of the term world, in the passage under consideration, cannot then be a proof of God’s universal love to mankind, —a sentiment opposed to the whole tenor of scripture, and to the fact that the gate which leads to life is strait, and few there be that find it. Dr. Wardlaw may indeed reply, —I keep to the word here made use of; Jesus says, God so loved the world; but you tell us it is only a part of the world. Various passages have been adduced, to which more shall afterwards be added, in which the same word is used, which all must admit that it is not to be taken in a universal sense. The Apostle tells us, the whole world lieth in wickedness; hence we might argue, that none shall escape; and if any should observe that this interpretation contradicts the former clause of the verse, —"we know that we are of God," —we might reply, we adhere to the Apostle’s words, he tells us the whole world lieth in wickedness.

The best comment on our Lord’s words, —"God so loved the world," —is the song of the redeemed: "And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and has redeemed us to God by thy blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation," (Rev. 5:9). And, again, the Apostle, after enumerating the tribes of Israel, of which twelve thousand of each tribe were sealed, adds, "After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God, which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9, 10). Here is the world which God so loved as to give his only begotten Son, "men of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues." Again, we are informed that on the day of Pentecost there were dwelling at Jerusalem devout men "out of every nation under heaven." This is at least as strong an expression as "the world," and yet no one supposes it is to be understood as necessarily including men from Britain and China. So that the principle of interpretation for which our author contends, must be abandoned.

Dr. Wardlaw alleges, that the limiting statement, —"that whosoever believeth should not perish, but have everlasting life, —establishes the universality of the phraseology used in the beginning of the verse, —"God so loved the world." But this by no means follows; the limitation is equally necessary whether "the world" be understood in a limited or universal sense. Supposing the world to mean either the Gentiles or men of all nations, —in both which senses it occurs in the word of God, —the limitation is as necessary as if the world had denoted the whole race of mankind. It points out the only way of salvation by faith in the Son of God.

In the passage under consideration, while the term world includes men of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, it particularly refers to the latter. The Jews connected the privileges which they expected under Messiah’s reign with the judgments of God upon the Gentiles; but the Lord informed Nicodemus that the Son of God had come, not for the condemnation, but for the salvation, of men of all nations, whether Jews or Gentiles. The middle wall of partition was to be broken down, and peace to be proclaimed to them that were afar off, as well as to them that were nigh.

Thus it is apparent that in his discourse with Nicodemus, the Lord intimated that the peculiar privileges of Israel were about to cease, —that there was to be under the new dispensation no respect of persons, —that God was no longer to be the God of the Jews only, but "of the Gentiles also: seeing it is one God which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith," (Rom. 3:30); for whosoever—Jew or Greek—believed in the Son of man, who was about to be lifted up, should not perish, but have eternal life. This was a rude shock to the prejudices of the Jewish ruler, and therefore the Lord proceeds to illustrate what he had said, by adding, "for God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved." The world here obviously means men of all nations. For two thousand years, the knowledge of God had been confined to Israel; during that period preparations had been going forward for the manifestation of the Son of God. The day was now about to break, and the shadows to flee away; the kingdom of God was to be preached, and "every man" was to press into it. "All flesh was to see the salvation of God." Jesus was to be lifted up, and was to "draw all men unto him." God’s love to the world is evidently in contrast with the love with which he had loved Israel (Deut. 33:3). He was now to show the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, whom he had afore prepared unto glory, even those whom he should call, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles (Rom. 9:23, 24).

If in John 3:16, we are to understand by the world all mankind, how different is the language of other passages, —"I never knew you." Were those whom he never knew, and to whom he will say, depart from me, the objects of God’s love?

In proportion as men depart from just views of the Atonement, they approximate to those who, perverting the declaration that God is love, which is manifested by sending his Son into the world that his people might live through him, —represent this love as embracing all mankind, and issuing in universal salvation; which indeed is the necessary result of God’s universal love. The world which God loved, is the world which shall be saved through faith in his Son, —the world to which he will not impute their trespasses, —a countless multitude of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.

Dr. Wardlaw dwells on the absurdity of understanding by the world, in this passage, "the elect in the world," because it is added, that whosoever "believeth in him should not perish; that being a position which would imply that some of the elect might not believe, and might thus incur perdition." We answer, First, No such thing would be implied. Faith is the manifestation of election; the two are inseparably connected. We can only know our election by our calling (2 Pet. 1:10). If by the world we were to understand the elect, the following clause would show how their election was to be ascertained. Secondly, We understand the world in this passage, to mean men of all nations, with an especial reference to the Gentiles, whom the Jews considered to be accursed, and who are here put upon the same footing with Israel, as being equally the objects of the Divine love.

Although the various parts of the plan of salvation may be distinguished, they form one connected whole. We may speak of the incarnation, sufferings, and death of Jesus, his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God, his being invested with all power in heaven and in earth; but these are all constituent parts of the same stupendous plan, —they cannot be separated, —they mutually depend on each other. Having expiated the sins of his people, in other words, having purchased the Church —to be gathered out of all nations, —with his own blood, Christ is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, to give them repentance, by manifesting himself to them in their successive generations, in a way he doth not to the world. Dr. Wardlaw explains God granting repentance unto life (Acts 11:18), as evidently meaning, "in the spirit of the words, the granting of the means, as revealed in the Gospel, of restoration to God, to holiness, and to happiness," (p. 227). But the disciples were speaking of Cornelius and his friends, to whom God had not only granted the means, but the blessing of repentance; and it is abundantly evident that the same thing is implied in the words of the Apostle, when he proclaims Christ’s exaltation as a Prince and Saviour, to give repentance and forgiveness of sins, for it is limited to Israel, the people of God, (Acts 5:31).

The principle upon which Dr. Wardlaw interprets "granting repentance unto life," as merely granting the means of restoration to God, would neutralize, or at least dilute, many of the most precious promises of the word of God. "I give unto them (my sheep) eternal life," must, on this principle, be understood, "I grant them the means, as revealed in the Gospel, of restoration to God, to holiness, and to happiness."

We are told that the servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men—in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance, to the acknowledging of the truth (2 Tim. 2:24, 25). Here, as elsewhere, giving repentance does not mean, "in the spirit of the words," the granting of the means of restoration, for that they already enjoyed while opposing the servant of the Lord; it means turning men form darkness unto light; taking away the heart of stone, and giving them an heart of flesh. Again: unto you it is given, in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe, "but to suffer for his sake," must, "in the spirit of the words," means, Unto you is granted, in the behalf of Christ, "the means, as revealed in the Gospel," not only of believing, but of suffering for his sake. The sufferings, however, of the Philippians were real; and so was the faith bestowed on them.

But how does it comport with Dr. Wardlaw’s idea of God’s universal love to mankind, that he did not give the means of repentance and forgiveness to the Gentiles till so late a period, but left them in ignorance and darkness for two thousand years since the call of Abraham, and that to this day so small a part of the world enjoys the means of repentance and forgiveness?

On the whole, this passage, which Dr. Wardlaw deems so conclusive in favor of the universality of the Atonement, simply teaches us, that the blessings of salvation were to be extended to all nations, —that no man was to be known after the flesh, —that henceforth there was to be neither Jew nor Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; that, through faith, the objects of the Divine love should come from the east and the west, the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. And this is the uniform doctrine of the New Testament.