Addressing Texts that “Contradict” Romans 9, I. John 3:16

Some people do not have a problem with saying that the Scriptures contain contradictions. Some others believe in the traditional doctrines that they have been taught so much that they simply ignore or radically alter the meanings of texts that do not fit their particular beliefs. I, however, do not have the benefit of such convictions or their lack. I believe that every word, letter, and accent that was originally penned by the prophets and apostles are the very words of God and, being that God does not change and there are no contradictions in him, that which he inspires must possess his same attributes. Therefore, when I encounter a teacher who believes that contradictions exist in Scripture or one who values his traditions over the clear testimonies of Scripture, I react a little like Jesus did toward the Pharisees and Sadducees who did the very same things.

And being that it has been brought up (as it inevitably does) that the doctrines of Romans 9 “contradict” other doctrines in Scripture or that we who “interpret” Romans 9 interpret the text incorrectly (though the Apostle leaves little room for any interpretation in the chapter), I thought that it would be profitable to take a look at some of the texts that supposedly contradict the teachings of Romans 9.

1. John 3:16

For God thus loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

This text is a common starting point of those who object to the “vessels of mercy / vessels of wrath” statement that is made in Romans 9. They argue, “If God loved the world so much that he gave his Son for them, why then would he create some just so that he would destroy them for his glory?” This concern might be a valid one in this present understanding of John 3:16, but there are several underlying presuppositions that shape this understanding of this verse that are in fact contrary to the context.

First, is the idea that the term “world” means every single person who has ever lived since the Creation. If this is true, this is a very unique passage indeed for there is no other text in Scripture that refers to the world as such. We find elsewhere, especially in the Prophets, that God did indeed have a plan that was global, but the term was commonly “nations” instead of “world.” Perhaps the one that parallels Christ’s statement in John 3 the most is the prophetic statement by the psalmist: “The Lord said to me, ‘ You are my Son, today I have begotten you; ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession’” (Ps. 2:7, 8). We see the world with respect to Christ in this Psalm, but it has a very different meaning than “every person who has ever lived.”

To understand the use of the term “world” in John 3:16, we must also understand the context in which it is spoken. At the beginning of the chapter, we find that Christ is speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and therefore obviously a Jew. When Christ declares to Nicodemus, “God thus loved the world,” he was saying something quite extraordinary. First, contrary to popular Jewish belief, Yahweh is not merely the God of the Jews, but he is the God of the Nations. Therefore, the Messiah, who many believed was to conquer the Romans and establish Israel as a world power, was actually the Messiah of the world. Second, this statement places Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant to Abraham: “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). For it is through Christ and the Gospel that God has ordained that the Nations would come to him and be blessed.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, there is this same agreement in the use of the term “world” or “kosmos” as parallel or synonymous to the “nations,” “gentiles,” or “ethnos.” The apostle Paul, in quite poetic fashion, writes in Romans 11 concerning the rejection of Israel:

Now if their trespass means riches for the world,
and if their failure means riches for the nations,
     how much more will their full inclusion mean! (Rm. 11:12).

Here in this passage where Paul demonstrates his inclination toward Hebrew poesy, he creates in the Greek language what is often seen in Psalms and the Prophets, namely Semitic poetic parallelism. In this particular instance, Paul shows that in the least that it was not uncommon to equate the term “kosmos” with “ethnos,” i.e. the term “world” with “nations.” Therefore, given this testimony by the apostle Paul in the Greek, and the allusion of Christ in John 3 to Psalm 2, it is therefore most likely and sound to say that New Testament authors are reiterating the declarations of the Old Testament, namely that God is the God of the Nations and has ordained that the Christ of Abraham’s lineage would be bring the blessing of Righteousness to the Gentiles, just as the apostle testifies in Romans 3, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles (or nations) also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (vv. 3:28, 29).

Second, the phrasing, “So whoever believes in him shall not perish,” has been taken to mean that God through Christ has made it so that every person who has ever lived has an opportunity to consider the case of Jesus Christ and then believe or not believe. This, as well, is clearly not true in the context. At the beginning of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, we find that Jesus tells Nicodemus (without his asking, mind you) that a person cannot see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again. Perplexed, Nicodemus asks in response the questions that has had him knocked about in Sunday School classes for centuries: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

We have laughed at Nicodemus for his ridiculous response, but are we any less ridiculous with our responses? Clearly the picture of birth that Christ gives is to demonstrate that something outside of ourselves and without respect to our wills must happen in order for us to be born again, but we in our stubbornness choose not to see that. We say instead, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and then you will be born again.” But is that really how our salvation happens? No, it is not, and we are no different than Nicodemus who looks to see what work he must do to be born again. We, like Nicodemus, in our folly try to make the new birth something that we cause, but in reality we do not cause it, for Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is not, “Accept me as your Savior,” nor is it do this and do that, but it is, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Therefore, in the context, he who believes in Christ in v. 3:16 is he who has been born again by the will of the Spirit in v. 3:8. It is in this same thought that Peter writes, “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1Pet. 1:3) and that the Evangelist writes later in his Gospel, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Seeing this, we see that not only is the Apostle Paul in Romans 9 is in accord with Jesus Christ in John 3:16, but he is in accord with the Apostles John and Peter thereby defeating the misperceived contradiction in John 3:16.

Next: Addressing Texts that “Contradict” Romans 9, II. 2 Peter 3:9

Categories: Fridy Night Bible Study

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4 replies

  1. Wouldn't doing a word study of kosmos ("world") in the Johannine corpus be a more methodologically sound way of proving your first point? That is, examining the immediate and the larger context of Scripture (not to mention the OT and other Greek texts contemporary with the NT). As I'm sure you are well aware, kosmos is almost always a negative term referring to the fallen and sin-laden world. This negative nuance certainly sheds light on what it means that God loved the world.

    Blessings. Seth.


  2. Perhaps. I do believe word studies are helpful and might be a better method in this particular context, but on the other hand I do not think that we necessarily need to apply the word's perhaps more usual negative connotation in this particular instance since the immediate context does not demand it. "Kosmos" is a very broad word, and it might lead to misinterpretation to restrict it in this way. Just a thought.

    Thank you for your input. Grace and Peace.



  1. » Addressing Texts that “Contradict” Romans 9, III. 1 Timothy 2:4
  2. | Go Hard, or Go Home. » Why I Refuse to Labor beside an Arminian in the Great Commission

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