This article, with minor changes, was originally posted at From Law to Grace. You can also find From Law to Grace on Twitter and Facebook.
Sitting at the Baptist Convention of New Mexico’s Evangelism Conference in Albuquerque last week, I was reminded yet again why I describe myself as an “Calvinist Traditionalist,” someone who agrees with Reformed Theology (i.e., the Doctrines of Grace, TULIP, etc.), but who does not always strictly preach or practice in conformity with said doctrines and theology.
Perhaps the clearest example of my own Calvinistic Traditionalism manifests itself when I preach or teach on the very first Bible verse that I learned as a child. I learned it in the King James Version and still recite this particular verse in KJV language to this day, even though I am now an ESV (the Mark of the Reformed) guy. Of course, the passage of Scripture I am talking about is John 3:16, “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.”
As one of the conference speakers mentioned, John 3:16 was probably the first verse that most Christians of a certain age learned in Sunday School or RA’s and GA’s (oops, I’m dating myself and also letting my Traditionalist side peek out). John 3:16 continues to be a popular choice for signs at sporting events (although I doubt most Americans today really understand the meaning behind the numbers). In Southern Baptist life, John 3:16 is not just a verse, but has also become its own conference. That’s what you call staying power.
Unfortunately, many Southern Baptists (and others to be sure) are confused both as to the meaning of the verse and the power of the verse. Because of its simplicity, too many people become easily confused when it comes to John 3:16. That confusion sometimes leads to disagreements (even though we should be able to disagree agreeably). Those disagreements can sometimes lead to arguments. Those arguments can sometimes lead to fights. Those fights can sometimes lead to splits. However, regardless of what John 3:16 really means, it cannot (and must not) lead to fights among Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. If it does, then the ones doing the fighting — be they Calvinists or Traditionalists — don’t have a clue as to the true meaning behind John 3:16!
As an inconsistent Calvinist with a Traditionalist bent, I admit that I am one of the many who can be easily confused when it comes to John 3:16. Not when I preach it, but when I hear others preach it. Listening to a message on this passage at the BCNM Evangelism Conference, I began to overthink the meaning of John 3:16. My mind began to wonder, “Does God love the world — all people — or only the elect?” “Can world be both/and — all people in general, but only the elect in particular?”
Maybe you have never thought of these questions. Or, perhaps you have thought of other questions. As my mind wondered (yes, even pastors can daydream in the midst of others’ sermons), I began to think of the simplicity of John 3:16. That the Creator of the Universe loves sinners so much that He sent His one and only Son to demonstrate His great love, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us on the Cross! What a love, what a Savior!
Will every person who has ever lived or will ever live trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord? Obviously not. Will everyone in your family or in your community be a “whosoever?” Unfortunately not. Could I parse the words of John 3:16 or Romans 5:8 to limit God’s love only to the elect? If pressed, I’m sure I could, but I really don’t want to.
I suppose as a Calvinistic Traditionalist, I will sometimes struggle with how to handle John 3:16. There will be times when I am uncomfortable with how someone else preaches that verse. However, when it comes to my own preaching, I shall continue to see the simplicity and beauty of John 3:16. And, I shall preach it the way I learned it. After all, tradition isn’t a bad thing, especially when it’s Biblical 🙂