What does the word "world" mean in Calvinism?

What does the word "world" mean in light of Calvinism?  Often times when answering objections from those who don't agree with reformed theology, the issue of what the word "world" means is raised - in such verses as...

  • John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
  • 1 John 2:2, "and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."

Usually, this topic comes up when dealing with the issue of Limited Atonement (that Jesus only bore the sins of the elect). Did Jesus only bear the sins of those chosen of God, or of every individual who ever lived? In light of this, many will say that Jesus died for the world - with which Calvinists agree.  However, what does the word "world" mean when it says Jesus died for the world?  Is it speaking of every individual who ever lived or is it referring to all the nations? Please consider the following:

  • 1 Sam. 3:14, "And therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eliís house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.
  • Matt. 15:24, "But He answered and said, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

We see in first Samuel and God declares that Eli's iniquity will not be atoned for by sacrifice, forever. This would certainly seem to include the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. So, if Jesus bore the sin of everyone who ever lived, how does 1 Samuel 3:14 fit into that idea?  In addition, we see in Matthew 15:24 that Jesus said he was sent only to Israel, not to all the nations of the world.  Therefore, covenantally we would understand that Jesus was sent only to Israel but because Israel rejected the Messiah, the Gentiles were then grafted in (Romans 11:17-24). It would then make more sense to say that the word "world" in 1 John 2:2 is referring to all the nations and not each and every individual.

Nevertheless, the following is a representative chart of how the word "world" is used in the New American Standard Bible. As you will see, the word means several different things depending on context. And that's the rule we should take away from here. Words mean what they mean in context. Let's take a look.

Verse Text All
People Physical Realm Secular
Psalm 97:4 His lightnings lit up the world; The earth saw and trembled.   x
Psalm 98:6 Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it.       x  
Psalm 98:9 Before the Lord; for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. x
Isaiah 26:18 We could not accomplish deliverance for the earth nor were inhabitants of the world born.   x
Lam. 4:12 The kings of the earth did not believe, nor did any of the inhabitants of the world, x
Matt. 13:22 And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.         x
Matt. 13:35 so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world. x
Matt. 24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come. x        
Mark 8:36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? x x
Mark 14:9 And truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of in memory of her. x  
Mark 16:15 And He said to them, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation." x        
John 1:10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him       x  
John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. x   x    
John 4:42 and they were saying to the woman, It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world. x   x    
John 12:25  He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal.       x x
John 14:17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you. x
Verse Text All
People Physical Realm Secular
Acts 24:5 For we have found this man a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.   x      
Rom. 1:8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.   x      
Rom. 1:20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse       x  
Rom. 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. x
1 Cor. 1:20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? x
1 Tim. 1:15 It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. x
Heb. 1:2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.       x  
2 Pet. 3:6 through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water.       x  
1 John 3:13 Do not marvel, brethren, if the world hates you.         x
Rev. 12:9 And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world;         x

There are, of course, many more verses than these which show how the word world is used in different senses. So, to reiterate, words mean what they mean in context and we should always look at the immediate context of the word to derive its meaning and not import the meaning of a word from a different context in order to make a verse say will be wanted to say.


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Copyright by Matthew J. Slick, B.A., M. Div., 2013
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