Reading the Bible with Dead Guys: John Calvin on John 3:16

This article is part of the Reading the Bible with Dead Guys series.

Reading the Bible With Dead Guys is a weekly blog series giving you the chance to read God’s Word alongside some great theologians from church history. With content adapted from the Crossway Classic Commentaries series, these posts feature reflections on Scripture by giants of the faith like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, and more.

Today we’ll hear from John Calvin (1509–1564) on 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.” - John 3:16

For God so loved the world. Christ reveals the first cause and, as it were, the source of our salvation in a way that leaves no room for uncertainty, for our minds cannot find rest until we embrace God’s unmerited love. Just as the entire basis of our salvation must not be looked for anywhere other than in Christ, so we must see where Christ came from and why he was offered to be our Saviour. Both these points are distinctly stated here. For faith in Christ brings life to everyone; and
Christ brought life because the Heavenly Father loves the human race and wishes that they should not perish.

For faith in Christ brings life to everyone; and Christ brought life because the Heavenly Father loves the human race and wishes that they should not perish.

This order should be noted carefully, for our nature is so wickedly ambitious that when the question about the origin of our salvation arises, we quickly imagine diabolical things about our own merits. So we imagine that God is reconciled to us because he has thought that we are worthy to be looked on by him. But everywhere in Scripture God’s pure and simple mercy is extolled, which
sets to one side all merits.

Christ’s words mean nothing else when he declares God’s love to be the basis for our salvation. If we want to go any higher, the Spirit stops us through Paul’s writing when he tells us that this love was founded “in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5). Indeed, it is clear that Christ spoke like this in order to stop people from thinking about themselves, in favor of looking to God’s mercy alone. The evangelist does not say that God was moved to deliver us because he saw something
in us which deserved such an excellent blessing; rather, he ascribes the glory of our deliverance entirely to his love.

This is even clearer from what follows; for he adds that God gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. So it follows that until Christ set about rescuing the lost, everyone was destined for eternal destruction. Paul also declares this by pointing out the order in which the events happened: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8; see also Romans 5:10). For where sin reigns, we find nothing other than God’s wrath, which brings death in its train.

Therefore, it is mercy that reconciles us to God, so that he may also restore us to life.


John Calvin

This Crossway Classic Commentary encapsulates the basics of the faith, including Christ's nature and the profound meaning of his presence and work on earth.

This way of speaking, however, may seem to be different from many passages of Scripture which attribute to Christ the first foundation of God’s love for us and show that outside Christ we are detested by God.

But we ought to remember, as I have already said, that the Heavenly Father’s secret love which embraced us is the first love given to us. However, the grace which he desires us to know, and through which we are stirred up to know the hope of our salvation, begins with the reconciliation which was won through Christ. Since Christ must hate sin, how can we believe that we are loved by him until atonement has been made for those sins which rightly cause offense in Christ’s sight? So Christ’s love must intervene in order to reconcile us to God before we can experience God’s fatherly kindness. Just as we are told, first of all, that God gave his Son to die for us because he loved us, so it is immediately added that our faith should, strictly speaking, look on Christ alone.

This article was adapted from John Calvin’s commentary on John, part of the Crossway Classic Commentaries series edited by Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer.

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