Many inkwells have been spilt when it comes to writing commentaries on the passage of John 3:16. To put four theologians in a room together and discuss the exegetical and theological analysis on this passage alone, one would conclude seven different responses. It seems, when evaluated thoroughly, there are two basic theological circles, which ultimately seek to hermeneutically respond to this passage of scripture. Largely because of their exegetical predecessors, these theological circles have shaped the minds of many individuals and build supporters that will build upon the doctrines that have been ingrained in them. The individuals spoken of here, in this context, are Charles G. Finney and B.B. Warfield. These two great theological minds are divided on how this passage should be interpreted. This paper will compare Charles Finney’s “God’s Love for a Sinning World” and B.B. Warfield’s “God’s Immeasurable Love.” Secondly, this paper will respond biblically and critically with each in respects to its translation from the Greek New Testament. Finally, this paper would conclude with a formative response to the position best fitting the text and makes the most logical analysis of the passage respectively.
God’s Love for a Sinning World:
‘The Oberlin Evangelist’ was the official publication of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio and published bi-weekly between the years of 1839-1862. Charles Finny, as the President of Oberlin College, made it a point to write his lectures, sermons, letters and articles in this publication to intrigue the minds of his student body. “God’s Love for a Sinning World” was written in ‘The Oberlin Evangelist’ on June 22, 1853.
Finney asserts in his opening statement, “Sin is the most expensive thing in the universe… Pardoned or unpardoned… Pardoned, the cost falls chiefly on the great atoning substitute; unpardoned, it must fall on the head of the guilty sinner.” Finney wastes no time in getting to the focal point of the issue and asserts the violation of sin in respects to the law of YHWH. Laying this significant foundation, Finney then states the resulting factor of the necessary vicar, Jesus Christ, who makes Himself a voluntary offering. Finney drives this point asserting, “It began with the Infinite Father. He made the first great donation… and having given him first, He freely gives all else that the exigencies of the case can require.” His declaration is a bold indication that it was of God’s predestinate foreknowledge and authority that unashamedly and freely gave His Son into the hands of flesh and sin and through this act of God’s willingness, freely gives all people an ability reverse the sentence of damnation and eternal hell and have the capability to be reinstated fully into the presence of God. Finney continues building upon this notion stating the “short method” of excommunicating humanity as God had done to certain angels who have “kept not their first estate” but “changed his course” as so to allow humanity to be brought “back to obedience and heaven.” Therefore, as Finney write, “God so love the world.”
Switching his focus, Finney then deals with “the elect.” He allegorically asserts a parable of a man and a will from God to “the elect.” Finney states, “No living man can claim under such a will, and none the better though these elect.” He further states, “If the atone were made in this way, no living man would have any valid reason for believing himself one of the elect, prior to his reception of the gospel. Hence he would have no authority to believe and receive its blessings by faith. In fact the atonement must be wholly void—on this supposition—unless a special revelation is made to the persons for whom it is intended.” Finney sees the elect as a group of people, chosen to receive an abundance of riches given to an heir or descendent of a deceased relative who, written on a will, is given ownership of possessions left behind or invested. The only problem with this, which is expressed by Finney himself, is that the term “elect” does not expressively name a people group, which, Finney says, would make the will null and void. Limited atonement is not seen in Finney’s theology and responds that since humanity stems from Adam, therefore humanity is entitled to receive God’s will as members of “the world.” In this, Finney states, “Beyond a question it was love and regard for the highest good of the universe that lead him to sacrifice his own beloved Son.”
Changing the focus from the elect to the nature of God’s love, which Finney states is “so wonderful and so peculiar in its character,” he states, in nine points, the reason God did not save all the world by this nature but allow His son to be executed. The basics of these nine points are centered on the love of God the Father and the “intended meaning” of this love the Father shows. Stating clearly that this love is not just an emotional feeling, some kind of anthropomorphic feeling alone rather it includes “a blend the deepest compassion.” Finney also states from the perspective of Christ, “He is not ashamed to call them brethren.” In this, Christ died for the brethren; an interesting thought that assumes Christ had to make a decision to die and chose his execution. Not because God had a foreknowledge of salvation history which ultimately, the Bible teaches and asserts throughout its pages. Finney continues saying that the love of God is zealous, a most self-denying one, universal and a patient one. Being that “God never frets- is never impatient. His love is so deep and so great that he is always patient.” Finding this to be such an interesting statement solely because it almost takes away the fear of the Lord from the people of God. It is the fear of the Lord that is required for our salvation to be sure (Philippians 2:12). It is with this fear and trembling Paul speaks of, one is able to have confidence in their salvation. That is, if one takes such statements from Paul seriously, which seems to be the underlining reason why many “Christians” fall away from the faith. Finney’s final statement within these nine points is that God has a jealous love. This love, unlike humanity’s understanding of jealously, is rooted in a desire to “promote each other’s true interests.”
Finney then moves to a few remarks, which give insight to the above points made. He states, “The Bible teaches that sinners may forfeit their birthright and put themselves beyond the reach of mercy;” stating the Jews killed Jesus of Nazareth. To entertain such a bombastic statement would to be to forget crucifixion was a Roman practice and only allowed to be preformed by the Roman Guard of the Courts. Putting Finney’s statement aside, he asserts the possibility of not accepting grace from God.
Finney ends is positional sermon stating that, “So the door of salvation is opened always—fastened open, and no man can shut it—not the Pope, even, nor the devil, nor any angel from heaven or from hell. There it stands, all swung back and the passage wide open for every sinner of our race to enter if he will.” He continues saying, “Finally God wants volunteers to help on this great work. God has given himself, and given his Son, and send his Spirit; — but more laborers still are needed; and what will you give?” Finney ends fully supporting the view of unlimited atonement and believes that any one person is able to “volunteer” for the ministry of God or, has the ability to throw away his/her birthright and allow someone else to take his or her place. Finney is not the only one who holds such beliefs as many have come after him to pick up the baton and run further, creating other doctrines and theology from Finney’s and other’s like him.
God’s Immeasurable Love:
Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1851. Unlike his younger brothers, who memorize the Shorter Catechism at the age of six, B.B. Warfield’s interests were in the area of science. After graduating with high honors from the College of New Jersey, B.B. Warfield wrote to his parents, that he was to enter into ministry training at Princeton University. After three years of study, he furthered his study at Leipzig. After this time, he became a professor of New Testament at Western Seminary in Pennsylvania. His last 33 years, he continued to teach as the professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Princeton until the date of his death in February 1921.
His writings included a variety of areas of Theology, which have been published in journals and used to this day as cited works in a variety of higher educational thesis. One of his thesis, “God’s Immeasurable Love,” is a positional essay on the interpretation of John 3:16. As one will quickly see within the contextual authorship of Warfield’s paper, it greatly contrasts the writing of Charles Finney; almost a 360 direction.
Warfield’s assertion truly starts with the statement, “but the ‘world’ that he love enough, after giving his Son for it, powerfully to move upon with his quickening Spirit and graciously to lead into the offered salvation. This is the “world” of God’s elect. It was these whom God loved before the foundation of the world with a love beyond all expression…” The “elect” would then be essentially a remnant of the world population, which God the Father calls, the elect. The elect here also does not mean solely on the Jewish population. The Gentile population (from every tongue, tribe and nation) would have a remnant that would be included into the “world.” Warfield rewrites John 3:16 then to read this way, “And the declaration that God so loved the world—not Israel exclusively, but the world-that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever-from every nation, not from the Jews merely-should believe on him should have eternal life.” This is a profound statement, asserting that the world does not include every living person on the world rather, a remnant not solely from a Jewish heritage, are chosen by God to receive eternal life. It brings thoughts of worry and concern to those who are “saved” if they are apart of this election of God’s saving grace. This is where the verse from Philippians 2:12 is able to make restitution to the worry that is set in. It is God who gives a Spirit of fear and trembling to those whom God has drawn into His presence. Salvation is made sure through the atoning work of Christ.
Warfield then breaks down the John 3:16 Text. Picking three of the most important words from this Scripture, Warfield chooses “God,” “loved,” “the world.” He states that it is this God that loves. Though this statement at first does not strike a spark of amazement, Warfield states, “It is enough for us that a God without emotional life would be a God without all that lends its highest dignity to personal spirit whose very being is movement, and that is as much as to say no God at all. And it is more than enough for us that our text assures us that God loves, nay, that he is Love.” Warfield takes his understanding of 1 Corinthians 13 and applies that “love” within the text of John 3:16. It is that “love” that is spoken here in this passage and that love that saves.
Warfield fights with the statement that God loved the world due to the fact, as he asserts, “There is nothing in it that can attract God’s love-nay, that can justify the love of any good man.” Being that there is so much evil within the world and God calls us to not love the world because we are not of the world; that we are set apart from the world and set above the world to enjoy the Kingdom of God for eternity. God then sent his Son to do either one of two things. Either Christ was sent to this earth to judge the world, and the sin, which filled the earth or, he desired to save the world. Warfield writes in his sermon, “You will perceive that what we have here then is, in effect, but John’s way of saying what Paul says when he tells us that “God commended his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).” For the same reason God, in His righteousness chose Israel over any other nation, it was because God loved them because He, Himself is love. There is nothing about us, either fleshly or spiritually, God loves outside of his own Spirit that dwells in us. Rather it is because he loves us because He is love. It shoots down the pride and ego of the world and humbles humanity to realize God loves because He is love; that if He did not love, He would not be God because God is love. Love is the agent that He uses to draw those whom He has “elected” to Himself.
Continuing his argument within the context of this love God shows, Warfield states, “It would be possible to believer that such a love as this terminates equally and with the same intent upon each and every man who is in “the world,” only if we may at the same time believe that it works out its end completely and with full effect on each and every man.” Warfield brings up a great point that needs to be evaluated seriously. Taking just a moment to consider this point, it can be asserted that Warfield states that God loves everything that he created. Throughout Scripture, God hated mankind and wondered why He had even created them in the first place. He brought about a flood that destroyed every living creature in the sea and on the earth except eight people who were kept safe in the protection of the Lord Almighty in an ark that would float for forty days and nights. He also stated that He loved Jacob and hated Esau. God hates sin and he hates Satan who is determined to destroy what He had made “very good” and pervert it into evil. To say that God loves the “whole world” equally, would assume God loves these things as much as He loves those whom He has chosen to be His children and heirs of His eternal Kingdom.
Finally Warfield builds his argument of “the world.” He states, “… They are themselves “the world”—not the world as it is in its sin, lying in the evil one, but the world in its promise and potency of renewed life.” God is saving the world by a process, which involves recreating humanity. Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. It also says that humanity will be newly clothed in white and given new bodies. The Hebrew word, barah, refers simply to making something out of nothing. It is this word here that the Scriptures use in reference to what it is; the Holy Spirit does through humanity when it dwells within a member of the body of Christ. It is God that writes the names of those whom He has chosen in the Lamb’s book of life and ushers the remnant of His people into the glory of eternity.
The Exegetical Conclusion:
Could it be possible that the original language of the New Testament could give any form of credit to either Charles Finney’s positional sermon or B.B. Warfield’s? The Greek text does in fact seem to push the position of B.B. Warfield in favor over the sermon of Finney. When searching the Greek for any exegetical insight, The Greek word “ινα,” which normally refers to the English phrase “so that,” refers more to the English phrase “in order that.” This significantly changes the translation of John 3:16 to, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.” It is a little thing in respects to the passage but nonetheless is important for understanding the meaning of the text and how one should assess the passage. Another thought is the word “believes.” This word is placed in the present tense form not only in the English but also in the Greek. From a Greek foundational study, a present tense word, such as “believes,” also carries with it, a continual feel; a continuous action of belief. This note of interest slides the balance in favor of B.B. Warfield who provides clear and distinctive assertion to an on-going focus of believing.
The main issue lays within the context of the passage and the meaning of what the author of the verse, who seems to be aimed more at John writing than Jesus speaking, desired its meaning to assert. It is quite hard for one to truly grasp either one without studying the word and within the context of the passage, separate what the passage says and what humanity reads into the passage. Within in all humanity there lays presuppositions to every theological and exegetical thought under the sun. The position that best fits the passage of John 3:16 the best would be B.B. Warfield. He expresses many underlining issues and exegetes the text fully and concise, giving thorough explanation in the respects of context and Scriptural continuity. It is within this sermon; B.B. Warfield seems to give hope to those who are of God. He also shifts the glory from humanity back to God who, in all circumstances, deserves to receive the glory and honor and praise He is due for bringing about salvation for the world. The world, which has been predetermined from the beginning of time and is given the greatest blessing of God the Father in its fullness; eternal forgiveness and acceptance into God’s eternal presence. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.