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Chosen by God – Passages About All, the World, and Whosoever

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As noted in the previous post, there are many passages in the Old and New Testaments that speak about the idea of God choosing to save some individuals out of fallen humanity — not based on what they have done or will do, but rather, is based on God’s goodness and for the praise of His glory. How do these passages and the idea of election cohere with a number of passages that point to a call and opportunity to all to be saved? Let’s look at some of these passages more closely as we seek to pay attention to the whole of Scripture as we construct our theological views and beliefs.

Whoever and the World
The first passage people often turn to in these discussions is also the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This verse points to the fact that Jesus’s ministry came as a result of God’s love for the “world” (as opposed to a portion of the world) and that “whoever” believes has eternal life – seemingly pointing to the idea that anyone and everyone (not just a certain group) can believe.

These ideas about the ministry of Jesus for the world and a call for all people to believe can be found in a number of other passages. Here are some of other key passages (all translations ESV):

Isaiah 55:1 Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

John 1:29 (also 36): The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 6:33 (also 51): For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

John 12:32: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

Acts 17:30: The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

1 Timothy 2:3-6: This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

1 Timothy 4:10: For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

Titus 2:11: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,

1 John 2:2: He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

What Does The “World” and “All” Mean?
Our first thought when we read the phrase “the world” may be about each and every single person in the world. This makes sense in a global, inclusive age. However, that was not the world in which the writings of Scripture first appeared, and the term itself has many different meanings…even with the writings of the New Testament. Thus, the idea of “the world” in these passages was the controversial statement that God’s plan was not just for one particular nation of the world, but rather for people from all nations and all lands! The Bible affirms that people will be saved from every nation (Revelation 5:9; 7:9), so the idea is not exclusive of all individuals but rather exclusive of all groups in the world. Alongside of various passages that speak about Jesus dying for the world are those that focus more particularly on him dying for the church (John 10:11, 15 Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25). For example, a group that includes sheep that Jesus said were “not of this fold” (John 10:16) as he ministered among the Jewish people of his time and includes “many” (Matthew 20:28; 26:28; also see Isaiah 53:12; Hebrews 9:28), and thus outside a particular group. Jesus’s statements about not losing any that the Father has given and drawing all these sheep to himself (John 6:37; 10:16) also points to a more narrow definition of the world than all people; if all people means all peoples, then it would seem that some for whom Christ died and calls do not come to be saved.

That helps explain the term “world,”, but what about the “all”? These are passages (especially 2 Peter 3:9) that I have struggled with a bit more, as “all” would not seem to have the same flexibility as “world” just discussed. However, we need to remember that it very well might have a broader meaning. For example, was every single person in Jerusalem troubled at the news of Jesus’s birth (Matthew 2:3) and every single person from Judea and the region around Jordan going out to see John the Baptist (Matthew 3:5)? Thus, “all” can refer to a more narrow group – all of a certain people. Something else to keep in mind is that a key principle of biblical interpretation is that we need to read passages in light of their literary context (the overall book in which they appear) and historical context (the customs and circumstances in which they appear). Looking at the whole Book of 2 Peter may shift our understanding of what is meant by “all” in 2 Peter 3:9 as the statement may be less about God’s overarching plan and more of a word of comfort to this church, telling them what God is patient for their benefit. Before saying that God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” it says that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you” and does so in the context of the second coming of  Christ. The passage thus speaks about God’s patience towards His people as they await Christ’s return. Rather than speaking about God’s plan for the world or desire to save it, the passage may be saying that God works in a way that brings all of His people to Himself. We know that the end will not come before the gospel has gone to all places (Matthew 24:14), with people from all nations coming to the knowledge of God. Thus, rather than speaking about God wanting all to be saved in general, it is a word of comfort that the end will not come before God calls His people to Himself. We also need to continue pushing forward in evangelism while also being patient as we wait for Christ’s return. 

Examination of the context also helps to understand 1 Timothy 2:3-6 that speaks about God’s desires for all to be saved and Jesus giving himself as a ransom for all. These references occur in the context in which Paul is encouraging God’s people to pray for all people, particularly kings and those in authority. The context does not seem to be all people in particular, but all kinds and types of people – pagan rulers are not to be excluded from our prayers! God’s plan includes people from all classes and walks coming to faith and we should pray and act accordingly.

What About “Whosoever”?
John 3:16 notes that all those who believe will not perish but have everlasting life. This statement does not undercut or undermine the idea that God has chosen to save people – with those being saved are the ones who have faith. The focus is less on an open invite and more on the certainty that those who have faith will not perish but have everlasting life. This is made more clear in the modern translations that say “whoever believes” rather than the old King James Version of “whosoever.” (While technically they mean the same thing, “whosoever” is a more archaic way of saying it; it seems that many think the “so” stresses an ability for anyone or everyone to fall into this idea, but that is not inherent in the word). It does not speak about how one is able to muster this faith, which is actually the best starting point in the discussions of election as we need to remember that all have fallen into sin (Romans 3:23) and deserve death, and that as a result of sin, we are dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:4-5). When we look back at various statements by Jesus in the Gospel of John – the same Gospel that speaks this “whosoever” – he says that no one can come unless drawn by the Father (John 6:44, 65). The issue is not whether all those who have faith will be saved, but rather how fallen sinners come to believe, with other passages (not John 3:16) discussing that idea.

Conclusion on These Passages and Election
The idea that God has chosen to save some from fallen humanity, drawing them to faith, does not go against John 3:16 and God’s love of the world or statement that whoever believes will be saved. All those who believe will be saved – and thankfully, by God’s grace, He works in hearts so that these individuals will exercise faith when He could have left all humanity condemned in their sins. In addition, God’s plan was not to save only a particular nation or group in the world – he starts and works through the people of Israel, but with the plan to reach people from all nations – so His plan truly is for the whole world. 

Having handled some of the passages commonly used to object to the doctrine of election, we’ll next turn to an idea more tied to logic — that such a doctrine goes against people having responsibility for their choices and thus makes us robots. So stay tuned (or subscribed) for thoughts on that topic.

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