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Ralph Wardlaw (1779-1853) on John 3:16

August 26, 2009

Wardlaw:

§ 12. In inquiring, then, after this principle of harmony I must begin with avowing, that, ever since I was able to think at all upon such subjects, I have felt myself far from satisfied with a common way of interpreting tome of those text which express the extent of the atonement in universal terms, by, means of a convenient supplement. According to this method of explanation, the world is, in such occurrences of it, made to signify the elect world, the word elect being inserted, as a supplement, conceived to be necessary for the consistency of scripture. An elect world, indeed, has become a phrase in common use with a particular class of commentators and divines, and, from them, among private Christians of the same caste; being employed with much matter-of-course freedom as if it had actually had the sanction of ordinary usage in the Sacred Volume. But it is not to be found there. It belongs to human systems merely. Any system, however, that requires each means to save its credit, must be considered as in straits. The supplement is too arbitrary; and while it solves one difficulty, or rather conveniently cuts a knot which it is felt hard to loose, it involves us in other difficulties, equal, if not greater, in regard both to doctrine and to principles of interpretation. I object to it on two grounds, besides its apparent arbitrariness. It is in itself forced and unnatural, and it makes the sacred penmen, in some instances, write inconsistently and absurdly.

In the first place, it is in itself forced and unnatural. I mean by this, that it is, a priori, most unlikely, that the term world should ever be used to designate the elect. It sometimes denotes the habitable globe, the residence of mankind:–sometimes mankind at large, the inhabitants of the globe:–these are senses of the word about which there is no dispute, and no room for any. There is a third application of it which is peculiar to scripture phraseology, but so frequent and so marked there as to be equally out of the range of debate:–it signifies the great mass of mankind, as distinguished from the of God. For example: “The world cannot hate you, but me it hates, because I testify of it that the works thereof are evil:”–“If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but Because ye are not of the World, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you: “We know that whomever is born of God sins not; but he that is born of God keeps himself, and that wicked one touches him not. And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the wicked one.”1 The occurrence of the word in this sense, indeed, considering how small the proportion was then, and ever has been, which the children of God have borne to the mass of mankind, is quite natural. But on this very account, I cannot but consider it as in a high degree unnatural and improbable, that it should at the same time signify the very opposite of this:–that the same term, which is so currently used to signify the great majority of mankind in distinction from the elect number or small minority, should at the same time, by the same writers, be used as a designation of the smaller number, of a character directly contrary, in distinction from the majority or the mass! The unreasonableness of this in itself has ever appeared to me to constitute a strong ground of previous unlikelihood that it should be so.–The previous improbability is strengthened to certainty, when I consider, in the second place, how inconsistently and absurdly this supposed acceptation of the term makes the sacred writers express themselves.–I must give an instance or two of what I mean.–In John iii. 16, our Savior says–“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”’ It surely will not be questioned by, my one pretending, I do not say to critical knowledge, but even to common understanding, that in this sentence the word “whosoever” (or every one who–pas ó) has less extent of meaning than the more comprehensive word “the world” which precedes it. It restricts and limits this comprehensive term. It signifies–whosoever of the world. Suppose, then, the world to mean the elect world, or more shortly, for it is the same thing, the elect, what kind of statement will this produce?–“God so loved the elect world, or the elect, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever of the elect–namely–believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life!This is sheer absurdity. Yet I do not see what else can be made of the verse, if ”the world” really signifies the world of’ the elect.

Ralph Wardlaw, Two Essays: I. On The Assurance of Faith: II. On The Extent of the Atonement, And Universal Pardon (Glasgow: Printed at the University Press, for Archibald Fullarton & Co., 1831), 277-280. [Some spelling modernized; italics original; and underlining mine.]

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1John .vii. 7; xv. 18. I John v. 18, 19.

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