When we think of the world, we think of great landscapes, planes, wonderful foods, and beautiful sights. We think of fun and games, and we probably think mostly of those that we love dearly. We think of our friends, our mothers, fathers, our children and our spouses. So when we read John 3:16 we tend to think of these things and feel as though it is right that God loves us. We imagine that the world that Jesus is speaking of is the same world that we envision in our own minds. However the truth of the world is far different than what we tend to think of. The world is in fact, a wasteland. It is marred with, and torn by sin, and completely unworthy of the love of God.
At the moment that Adam and Eve sinned they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, they became dead in their sin in both soul and in body. Their guilt of sin was imputed to all mankind from then, until now (1 Corinthians 15:21-22), and thus all men from then on were born unrighteous and without communion with God.
The key to understanding John 3:16 is having a sound understanding of just how undeserving the world is of God’s love. First we have to admit that John 3:16 says nothing about mans ability to choose Christ. Referring to this R.C. Sproul says
“What the text teaches is that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved. Whoever does A (believes) will receive B (everlasting life). The text says nothing, absolutely nothing, about who will ever believe. It says nothing about fallen man’s natural moral ability. Reformed people and non-Reformed people both heartily agree that all who believe will be saved. They heartily disagree about who has the ability to believe.”
This understanding is crucial because in the very same chapter, when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about salvation he describes it as a “birth.” Re-birth, just as our original birth, is not in our control (John 3:8). In this we see the interpretive gymnastics that must be done to go from salvation being completely out of our control in v8, and 8 versus later salvation suddenly becomes something that we can choose. However this is only a portion of understanding John 3:16.
By the “world” our Lord means one of two things. World means either: 1) all people without exception, or 2) all people without distinction. If the meaning is all people without exception then God loves all people and Christ died for all people and he made salvation possible to every person. However, this view makes Gods love powerless and inadequate, and it makes Jesus’ atonement ineffectual. However, we know that God’s love is not inadequate and Jesus’ atonement was not ineffectual, so we deny universalism, because if Christ death did atone for all men, and God does love all men, then all men would, undeniably be saved. We deny universalism, however, because of clear teachings on judgement, even in the same chapter (John 3:19-21)
But, if by “world” our Lord means all people without distinction, then this means that Gods love breaks through every type of ethnic group (both Jews and Gentiles), and it is for people all over the world regardless of their tongues, nations, tribes, etc. This is a correct view that both the reformed and non-reformed will most likely agree with, but as reformed Christians we see the “world” as referring to God’s elect, which would then explain Gods true and undeserved love and the uniqueness of his grace in a better light (John 6:36-39; John 15:9; John 17:2,9).
Ultimately we must see two things when we read John 3:16. We see the sinfulness of humanity and how unworthy it is for God’s redemptive love. The world stands condemned, and prepared for God’s wrath, but this then becomes the joy of the Christian. Knowing and understanding and loving the amazing grace of our God whose Son bore within himself the wrath that we rightly deserve. He has given us never ending love, forgiveness of our sin, grace, mercy, and faithfulness in Jesus Christ. An eternal and specific love from God to us is what John 3:16 is all about, not about our ability to choose him, if we’d like.