Many have understood John 3:16 as a universal expression of God’s love because it says, “for God so loved the world.” By saying, “universal expression of God’s love,” I am talking about a type of love that comes from God which extends to all people in all places on planet earth. Those who hold to such a position are right in their stance, because text clearly says “for God so loved the world.” In fact, most people will not at all deny this truth.
But we must exercise caution, for there is a teaching of this text to which many Christians hold—a teaching that we must veer away from if we are to understand John 3:16–21 (and even the entire Bible’s witness to the reality of heaven and hell) correctly. This teaching does not deny God’s universal expression of love, but it does deny different expression of God’s love—a love that I call God’s unique love. This inaccurate teaching denies God’s unique expression of love by defining God’s universal love the wrong way. Let me clarify the difference between these two types of God’s love.
This post is part one of a four-part series through John 3:16–21. The content is a reduction of my personal notes for a sermon I recently preached at a men’s homeless shelter in St. Paul, Minnesota. At a glance, the progression will move as follows: Week 1: 3:16; Week 2: 3:17–18; Week 3: 3:19–20; Week 4: 3:21. Here is the main point of the text: The extraordinary love of God opens the door for salvation to everyone who would love his Son and depend wholly upon him.
God's Universal Expression of Love (v. 16)
First, the God who created the world loves the world that he created. That is what “for God so loved the world” means. He truly loves all people. He loves every community in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Duluth; every state in the United States, South America, Australia; every ethnic-group, every ethno-linguistic group, every culture, every sub-culture; every politician, every president or king, every governor, every judge; every prostitute, every drug addict, every criminal, every outcast—everyone— “for God so loved the world.” Therefore, God’s love has no distinction. It is for all people, everywhere, at all times, until Jesus Christ returns.
What is amazing about God’s universal love is that he loves the world in spite of the world. Martin Luther said in a sermon that he preached in 1532 that “there can also be no more despicable outlaws or a more unworthy adversary on which this great love is bestowed than the world. So these are nothing less than glorious, exalted words of incalculable import.” In other words, since from the depths of God’s own heart he loves a most infinitely undeserving world, our hearts ought to well up with joy at the inexpressible glory that radiates from the words “for God so loved the world.”
God's Unique Expression of Love (v. 16)
But not only that, there is a distinct love of God that runs deeper than his universal love for the world. This love is an exclusive love, meaning that it is reserved only for certain people. Therefore, I call it God’s unique love to distinguish it from God’s universal love. This type of love is denied by some, because the text says “God so loved the world.” How can a God who loves the world have an exclusive love that is reserved for some who are in the world, and not for others who are also in the world?
The answer to this question lies within our text, though we won’t see it in its fullness until verse 21. For now, I will just say God’s unique love is extended exclusively to those who believes in his only Son (v.16). That is, God’s unique expression of love can only be enjoyed by those who believe in the Son of God whom he gave. Among others, I want to state two clear reasons why we can know that those in John 3:16 who believe in the Son experience God’s unique love.
First, John 15:18–19 speaks exclusively of those are not of the world in opposition to those who are of the world. Moreover, Jesus, in John 17: 9, says, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” And lastly, three texts elsewhere in the New Testament attest to the unique, effective, creative, incomprehensible, covenantal, and unbreakable love of God toward a particular people apart from the world.
It is effective because 1 John 4:19 says,
We love because he first loved us.
It is a creative love, since Ephesians 2:4–5 says,
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.
It is an incomprehensible love:
that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge … (Ephesians 3:17–18)
And finally, it is an unbreakable covenantal love, because Paul again says in Romans 8:38–39:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And the reason it is unique is because everyone does not believe in the Son of God! If everyone believed in the Son, then eternal life would be granted to all peoples and therefore God’s unique love would be his universal love! Therefore, the world would know no difference. There would be no distinction between these two types of loves.
Now, what does the text mean by “gave?” What does it mean that God gave his only Son? Without unpacking the glory of the word “only” (μονογενῆ; monogenē), here is what I think it means:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6, 8)
[Christ] who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (Galatians 1:4)
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18–19)
Again, Luther once said regarding the manner of God’s giving of the Son, “For what [God] gives is not reckoned as something merited or because he is under obligation, but as the words read, out of love. Thus he is a giver, who gives from the heart, out of boundless, divine love …” In other words, there was nothing binding God to send his only Son into the world, except his love! The world did nothing to compel God to send his Son. All that the world had done was provoke the anger of God to send forth his wrath. So, it is all the more astounding that God even sent his Son into the world at all.
Therefore, it was only God’s extraordinary love that compelled him to give his only Son to the world so that all might believe in him and receive the pleasures of this unique expression of love. In other words, God loved the world so much that by giving his only Son to world, the offer of salvation was made readily available to all people through faith alone in his only Son alone.
Conclusion to Part 1
Finally, to sum up all that I have said thus far: although God does genuinely love the world (i.e., his universal love), there is a special privilege that he grants to those who believe in his only Son—namely, eternal life (i.e., his unique love).
 Cf. John 3:3–8, where Jesus explains to Nicodemus that those who believe in the Son only believe in the Son because they are spiritually reborn. This is what I think John 3:16–21 finally reveals as a conclusion to their dialogue.
 Though in the immediate context of these words Jesus is speaking about the disciples, eleven verses later in John 17:20, he qualifies all that he prays regarding his disciples by extending it to all of those who will believe in him.