Getting the Gospel Right

One of the most well-known and well-loved verses in Scripture is John 3:16. This passage is shared and appealed to by so many, and rightly so. It is an amazing passage about God’s love and his desires for the salvation of mankind. However, it is simply one text which is part of a greater and quite necessary context.

The verse itself says this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” To read it without also taking into account the previous and following verses is to in fact do it a degree of injustice.

One ends up with a rather skewed understanding of just what is being said here without keeping the full context in view. In many ways the third chapter of John is a complete unit, so all 36 verses must be read to properly ascertain the true meaning of verse 16.

John 3 begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night to question him. Verses 1-21 provide the full context here, with his three questions answered in depth by Jesus. Jesus begins his answers by telling Nicodemus that he must be born again. While that phrase may sound like something specific to evangelicals – and it certainly is a key phrase for them – it is of course just plain biblical, and should be on the lips of all true Christians.

We all should be telling our unsaved friends that they need to be born again. This is not just an evangelical cliché but a fundamental truth of the gospel. While we are all born into this world in the flesh, we must have a spiritual rebirth to get right with God and have eternal life with him.

The two verses immediately following v. 16 must always be read together with it. There we see the full gospel message on display. Those two verses say this: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

These passages are very important because they explain why we are in need of being born again. They explain why we need to be saved. The biblical truth is simple: we are all under the just condemnation of God, because we are all sinners.

That is our natural condition because of the first birth, and cannot be rectified without the second birth. God’s rightful wrath lies upon all of us, and until we own up to our sin, confess it and repent of it, and receive his spiritual rebirth, we will remain in this condition of condemnation.

Of course these are not very palatable truths to most folks. They like to think they are pretty good actually, and are doing quite alright in God’s books. The idea that they are actually under his just condemnation seems just too incredible and far-fetched.

As James Montgomery Boice writes, “Most men and women do not like this teaching. Yet it is a fact that sin has consequences and that one of these is alienation from God and God’s judgment. . . . We have gone our own way. We have already committed the crime. Therefore, every one of us already stands under God’s judgment.”

As Craig Keener comments, “Salvation is a central aspect of Jesus’ mission. . . . But judgment is a central motif in this gospel. . . . Judgment occurs in the context of Jesus’ ministry as people’s hearts are exposed by how they respond to him and his message (9:39; cf. 12:31).”

Verses 22-36 are concerned with the testimony of John the Baptist about Jesus. There we find John offering us the exact same truths: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (v. 36). The wrath of God remains on sinners, unless they repent and turn to Christ. That is our condition and that is what we need deliverance from.

J. Ramsey Michaels’ comments are worth quoting here at length: “As in verse 18, the point is not that the disobedient are now suddenly condemned by a vengeful God, but, on the contrary, that their spiritual condition and the relation to God remains unchanged. In verse 18, the unbeliever was said to be ‘already condemned,’ while here ‘the wrath of God remains on him.’

“This last echo of John’s testimony of the Spirit’s descent on Jesus (1:32-34) is ironic: just as the Spirit came down and ‘remained on him’ (1:32-33), so God’s wrath ‘remains on’ the unbeliever. . . . [D]ivine wrath is merely a future threat but a present reality as well. Human beings are already under ‘the wrath of God,’ just as they are already in ‘darkness’ (compare 1:5; 3:19).

“Those who remain unchanged by the coming of the Light ‘remain in the darkness’ (compare 12:46), and the wrath of God ‘remains’ on them. The grim verdict of this verse is that for some hearers and readers nothing has changed. As Jesus will put it later to some of the Pharisees, ‘Your sin remains’ (9:41). The joint testimony of Jesus and John is that a person gains eternal life only by ‘coming to the Light’ (vv. 20-21), or ‘believing in the Son’ (v. 36).”

This ‘bad news’ of the gospel must always accompany the ‘good news’ of the gospel. Indeed, without these hard truths about our being under the wrath of God and already condemned, the good news of forgiveness in Christ will make no sense and offer no solace.

It is terrific indeed to proclaim the love of God, and his desire to see the whole world removed from condemnation. But condemned we are, and until we face up to the holiness of God and the wrath of God, the love of God will make little sense.

Sure, it will take on the form of worldly sentimental notions of love, but it will not be biblical love. Only by letting God’s word speak in its fullness can we see what the genuine gospel message is all about. And that means faithfully proclaiming the context of every text.

God most certainly does love the whole world. But at the moment the whole world lies in condemnation and under his wrath. That is the fuller background to the message of Jesus and the cross. That is what Christ came to deliver us from. May we all choose wisely here, and experience what Jesus told Nicodemus about: the second birth.

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12 Replies to “Getting the Gospel Right”

  1. It is worth noting that in the Greek there weren’t quotation marks so translators use some judgment as to where they put the quotation marks in.

    A strong case can be made for Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus ending at the end of verse 15, with John (with the inspiration from the Holy Spirit) expounding on what Jesus said from there. This point might sound quite trivial and unimportant, but it actually is quite important. For whether or not Jesus spoke of God’s love explicitly to an unbeliever hinges on whether he spoke this word to Nicodemus or not.

    The word for love in John 3:16 is in the aorist tense which clearly indicates that it is referring to a one-off complete action in the past. Whereas the word for believe is in the continuous present.

    One should also note that the word agape refers to addressing a need, a love of action. In the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, the Samaritan may well have disliked the man who was in need but he helped him anyway.

    When you consider the use of the continuous present tense and the absence of any mention of repentance or sin, the verse appears to be more of a warning to believers that they can lose their salvation and need to continue in the faith rather than a summary of the gospel message.

    Ignoring further questionable aspects of the translation one could translate the verse “For God so loved the world on an occasion that whoever goes on believing in him…” Yet how many have switched the tenses around and think it means: “For God so loves the world that whoever believed in him…”?

    John was written so that we might go on believing. By this time heresies had already developed, and concerned with what was happening John provided clear teaching to strengthen the believers and encourage them to continue in the faith.

    Even considering the passage in the context of the chapter (I don’t believe the chapter divisions are inspired) it is still missing important aspects of the gospel.

    God’s love is undoubtably vital to understand but it is important to remember that explicit references are few. About 30 references, roughly one in every thousand verses, and no mention in a number of books including Acts (where we learn about how evangelism was practiced in the New Testament church).

    There are of course a number of additional references where God’s love may be implied when we read about the love we are to have for other people and the love we are to have for God, veiled references in parables etc.

    You might well be interested in a series of talks “What about John 3:16” – http://davidpawson.org/resources/series/what-about-john-316
    http://davidpawson.com.edgesuite.net/Pawson/Notes/John%20316%20Explained.pdf

    Or if you prefer a book on the subject: http://davidpawson.org/books/is-john-316-the-gospel/

    Matt Vinay

  2. Another good reminder thank you Bill. Speaking about sin is so unpopular today I wonder if we have abandoned the Holy Spirit who came to give not only living water but also the power from heaven enabling us to share God’s love. Where is that Spirit of boldness today enabling Christians to speak the truth in love? Isn’t it inside each believer waiting for us to call upon Him?

    Keith Lewis

  3. Bill Thanks for another balanced piece on a biblical truth which is so often distorted. I’m sure you are probably well aware of Pastor Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins’ and its theological stance? I think that Dr Jon Zen’s response to this in his ‘Christ Minimized’ is excellent in which he (Zens) poses the question: ‘Is it only about love?’ – and quoting the first sentence of Bell’s ‘Love Wins’ as follows:

    “First I believe that the Jesus story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us”.

    Zens replies: “If what he says is true is it not potentially very odd that the Jesus story was told repeatedly to numerous people groups in the Book of Acts, and the word “love” is not used one time? I do not say this to discount the presence of God’s love in the Gospel, but just to point out that perhaps today’s conception of the Gospel has swung to an isolated emphasis that was unknown in the first decade in the 1st century”

    Graham Wood

  4. Yes Matt Vinay, thanks so much for your comments on John 3: 16; David Pawson has also noted that this particular verse is the most ‘misinterpreted and misunderstood’ verse in the Bible and a more correct interpretation of John 3: 16, using the aorist and present continuous tenses you mention above, would be, “Even so (i.e. in the same way – referring back to the preceding verses, especially 14 and 15) God ‘once’ loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever ‘goes on believing’ in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”. The correct translation should not be “God ‘soooooooo’ loved the world” as the ‘so’ is positioned
    in the wrong place in our Bibles.

    We believe you are correct in saying ‘it is more of a warning to believers that they can lose their salvation and need to continue in the faith rather than a summary of the gospel message’.

    A little difficult to explain it all here; we too recommend to readers a perusal of the links you itemise above and would add one especially good teaching message by David entitled “The Goodness and Severity of God” – probably a favourite of ours, especially in relation to John 3: 16. This message is catalogue No. DM07-08 and can be obtained from http://www.davidpawson.com.au/ – David Pawson Ministries Australia.

    Shalom Bill and good listening to all.

    Ron and Barbara Pirie

  5. John 3:16 has been the most quoted Bible verse for many years. However, this is being quickly overtaken by the verse ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged.’ (Matthew 7:1 NIV), which is also not correctly understood and is used quash any objection to sinful behaviour.

    Sid Avery

  6. The connection between “goes on believing” and “go on having” is very important. John is deeply concerned that believers should not lose what they already have.

    Whilst it might not be as easy to read a more literal translation in places would be of great benefit.

    I really think I should try and learn at least the basics of a Biblical language some time. I’m sure it would be a great help for learning about much that has been lost in translation.

    Matt Vinay

  7. I think it’s important to remember that the words ”born again” signify that we don’t have any part in coming alive in God – it has to be all God’s work – Sola Gratia,…otherwise John 3 could have used a different sentence like ”You must make a committment.” ”Born again” would have totally shocked people hearing it because it alludes to the fact that we don’t get our parents to make us….it’s all their ‘work’ – just like Salvation is all God’s work….and to make the point even clearer John follows this description with the line ” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” …”You must be born again” is not a challenge but a fact a truth statement.

    Jeremy Woods

  8. But God desires that none would be lost and yet many will be.

    Elsewhere in scripture phrases such as “Repent and be baptised” indicate the importance of repentance.

    While the grace of God cannot be earned it can be rejected.

    No one is born again who is not willing to be.

    Think of the potter and the clay in Jeremiah. The clay would not run in the potter’s hands so instead of making it into a beautiful vase, the potter made it into a crude crooking pot.

    Or consider Pharaoh. Pharaoh hardened his heart several times so then God hardened Pharaoh’s heart some more.

    Jesus himself wasn’t baptised with the Holy Spirit till immediately after he was baptised in water. While he had never sinned he still humbled himself and accepted his calling and set an example for us to follow.

    Now baptism in the Holy Spirit may come before baptism in water or after but no one can be forced to receive the Holy Spirit. You have to be willing to receive.

    Matt Vinay

  9. Matt Vinay, I think I have to respectfully disagree with you. There are many good scholars who debate this issue and come to different agreements, so I just feel as though the idea of someone ‘losing their salvation’ can’t just be presented as truth without at least touching the alternative.

    Jesus says in John 6 that “he who believes in me has life eternal.” The word ‘has’ in Greek is in the present tense, and is used all through the NT as representing something you presently have (i.e. If you HAVE something against your brother… etc).

    So when someone genuinely expresses faith, believes in Christ and is born again, he is reckoned as having life everlasting at that point. I guess my point is that how can that life given be regarded as everlasting if it can essentially be taken from you?

    I’d argue that eternal life isn’t simply a possession that can be lost, rather it is the effect of being born again. The believer has “crossed over from death to life.”

    As I’ve noted above though, I respect this is a hotly debated issue and that Christians far more skilled in Biblical literature than I have different views. I just feel strongly about providing the alternative viewpoint.

    Mark Buscumb

  10. Thanks guys

    The debates over things like eternal security, as important as they may be, are a bit afield from this post. It was mostly about the context of John 3:16. Mark is right to say there certainly are legitimate differing views here on such matters. The truth is, there are truck loads’ full of passages warning about not falling away, and there are truck loads’ full of passages on our eternal security. One’s take on this particular debate will largely depend on one’s bigger overall theological commitments. But as I say, that is the stuff of another debate. So when I write a post on that topic, then people can go to their heart’s content, pushing for their favourite pet theological positions.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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