Every so often, I hear someone say something like:
“I’m a John 3:16 Christian.”
I’ve never known exactly what they mean when they say this, but knowing what John 3:16 means, I can confidently join them in being a “John 3:16 Christian.” My feeling though, is that many people who say this don’t actually understand John 3:16. And who can blame them? For those who have spent years in the church, John 3:16 is the most used and abused verse in the Bible. This is sad, because it is also one of the sweetest verses in the Bible and if we understand it rightly, it transforms our view of God and the salvation that He gives us through Christ.
First, let’s look at the verse:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
For the rest of this post, I want to explain some places that I think are too easily misunderstood.
For God SO loved the world
When we read “For God so loved the world that…” we normally think “God loved the world so much that…” And while it is true that God loves the world very much, this word “so” means something a little different. We would be better served if these words had been translated to say, “For God loved the world in this way…” When we read it like this, we will read the rest of the verse differently. John 3:16 is a description of HOW God loved the world, not WHY He loved the world.
He Gave His Only Son
How did God love the world?
By offering up His Son to die in payment for the sins of man. He loved the world by giving up that which was most precious to Him. He loved the world by sending His Son on a mission to rescue His people by standing in the way of their destruction. IN short, He loved the world by sending His Son to die so that we could live.
Whoever believes in Him
This one is a toughie. First, it implies that not every one will be saved. Only those who believe in Him. There’s no way around that. God loved the world by sending His Son to die so that those who believe will be saved. Some will not believe. They will not be saved. But, many will! Many will be saved by believing in Jesus.
But that raises another question: What does it mean to believe? To answer this, all we need is to look further down the page to John 3:36:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Believing equals obeying. If we believe, we have life, if we do not believe, we do not have life. This means that our belief cannot remain intellectual or emotional. We cannot simply think that Jesus is who He says He is, nor can we just feel it. We must act accordingly on those thoughts and feelings. We must see those thoughts and emotions overflow into heartfelt obedience to the commands of Christ.
This does not mean that doing good gets us saved, it means that doing means WE ARE ALREADY saved. Doing the commands of God is a sure sign that our lives have been changed. And here’s the important part, we are not saved by our belief. If obedience and belief are equal, then the belief in Christ comes from being already saved. John 3:16 does not say, “believing makes you saved.” Verse 18 makes this clear. It says this:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Whoever believes does so because they are not condemned, in other words, they are saved, therefore they believe. God saves us out of death so that we can believe and obey. He sent His Son to save us, and then we believe that He has saved us. It’s the way that God loves us. His love is not based on our merits or status, it’s based on His grace in sending Jesus into the world. He showed His love to us by saving us while we didn’t believe so that we would believe and obey.
Should not perish
Should is another difficult word. It would probably be more helpful if it said “will.” For the truth of our salvation is sure. We will be saved if we believe because belief is the sign that we are no longer condemned. The work of Christ is complete. It is finished! His rescue mission was a success. He stood condemned in our place and we stand justified before God. We will not perish. We will have eternal life. We will be with God forever.
Lastly, the word eternal also means “abundant”. Abundant life means a life that is absolutely full. Full of what? Full of God. God fills us with His life. But the word eternal also means “eternal”, as in “never ending.” So this life is full of God forever. He fills us with His fullness, therefore, we life full forever.
God loved the world in this way: He sent His only Son, so that those who believe will be saved from death and live in His fullness forever!