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Ralph Wardlaw on the “world” of John 17:21 in Relation to the “world” of John 17:9: He has a point

August 28, 2009

John 17:21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.
John 17:22 “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one;
John 17:23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.


Again:-In John xvii. 9, Jesus says, in addressing hie Father–“I pray for them; I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me.” But in the 2lst verse, it has been alleged by Arminians he does pray for the world:–in expressing his desire for the union of his people, he says–“that they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us,–that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” Now, without considering at present the design of Arminians in this, I wish the reader to observe, what some Calvinists have said in reply. They have actually understood “the world ” in this last occurrence of it to mean the elect–God’s chosen people scattered throughout all nations, and the prayer as a petition that they might, all of them, in successive generations, be brought to the knowledge and faith of his name. In this way, it is alleged, the two verses are at once reconciled. And so, undoubtedly, they are; but the reconciliation, as it appears to me, is effected at the expense of every principle of fair and rational criticism; by making the same term signify, first one thing, repeatedly, and in direct and specified discrimination from another,–and then, all at once, and without warning, the very thing from which it had been distinguished; and that, not only in remote parts of the same prayer, but in the, very same sentence. In verses 9, 14, 16, 18, 21,23, 25, the world is used in express distinction from the chosen people of God; and the distinction is absolutely marked in the very verse in which it is supposed to signify that chosen people–”that thy also may be one in us that the world may believe that thou has sent me.” So that this extraordinary principle of interpretation makes those whose union was to be the means of conviction, and the world who were to be convinced by it, one and the same! This will never do. Nor is them the least occasion for having recourse to any process so anomalous. The principle of interpretation is simple. In the explanation just given, it is assumed that the phrase “that the world may believe” can mean nothing lees than that those signified by “the world,” whosoever they were, should all individually be brought to true and saving faith. But the prayer is for the unity of his disciples: and, things being spoken of according to their proper tendencies, this unity is sought, as an evidence to the world of his divine mission. This is all. The tendency of all evidence is to produce conviction. And in all cases, the general design of every one by whom evidence is presented, must be the same. It must correspond with the tendency. It must be to convince. Such is the tendency, and such we are warranted to consider the design, of all the evidence of this gospel, or of the mission of Christ, and the truth of his doctrines. The petition under consideration is framed, in its expression, upon this simple principle; meaning no more than that in the love and union of his disciples the world might have evidence of the truth, such a should tend, like all evidence, whether the effect actually resulted or not, to the production of faith–to the conviction of his having come from God.–And this is not the only text, to the explanation of which this simple principle, of things being spoken of according to their general tendency, is the key.    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), 280-283.

Wardlaw has spotted a critical point here. In the Beza-Gill exegetical trajectory, one must violate the normal rules of exegesis and suddenly make “world,” the elect, contrary to its consistent use in this chapter to the contrary. On the other hand, the exegetical trajectory set out by Calvin also contains a problematic of a different kind. Calvin, while rejecting the thought that suddenly John uses kosmos equivocally, deflects the implication by saying that it is a conviction for their condemnation and judgment:


That the world may believe. Some explain the word world to mean the elect, who, at that time, were still dispersed; but since the word world, throughout the whole of this chapter, denotes the reprobate, I am more inclined to adopt a different opinion. It happens that, immediately afterwards, he draws a distinction between all his people and the same world which he now mentions.

The verb, to believe, has been inaccurately used by the Evangelist for the verb, to know; that is, when unbelievers, convinced by their own experience, perceive the heavenly and Divine glory of Christ. The consequence is, that, believing, they do not believe, because this conviction does not penetrate into the inward feeling of the heart. And it is a just vengeance of God, that the splendor of Divine glory dazzles the eyes of the reprobate because they do not deserve to have a clear and pure view of it. He afterwards uses the verb, to know in the same sense. John Calvin, John, 17:21.

This interpretation therefore adopts a different strategy by taking “to believe” equivocally. But in terms of usage and context, “believe” signifies what Calvin denies at this point.

John 17:8: for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me.
John 17:20: I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word

I think, therefore, both options are unacceptable, but that Wardlaw was heading in the right direction. Though I personally would take it further. The sense of “believing” is by far much more positive in this chapter, it signifies to believe to salvation.  All that we do before the world, is so that they should believe in Christ as sent from the Father to the world [Cf., Calvin on John 3;16, 12:47-48].


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