“While we were busy living in sin, God was busy loving us.”
Pastor Noel Jesse Heikkinen
Since Adam sinned, now all are sinners by nature and choice. All human beings are born with a corrupted nature and without the spiritual life, and are totally incapable of pleasing God in and of themselves. God is not obligated to save any person, all deserve the just punishment of Hell.
It was an unseasonably humid day and I was sitting on a gator (the four-wheeled kind) with a friend of mine watching a youth baseball game and out of the blue, he asked me “What is John 3:16?”
That was the moment I realized those omnipresent signs at sporting events really do pay off. My friend had seen them so many times over the years that he remembered the reference.
This article is essentially an expanded version of my response to his question, which started off this way: “John 3:16 is a verse in the Bible1 that sums up the message of the whole thing and explains the most important things every person on the planet should know.”
Now let’s break it down.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
We humans are a narcissistic bunch with a tendency to think the earth and everything that happens on it somehow revolves around us. Notionally, we may get how silly this is, but it’s how we behave. We tend to think of salvation in the same sense—it’s all about us, right? But this verse starts in a much different place: “For God.” Salvation is a God thing. It is initiated by Him. It’s His plan. It’s His work. It’s all Him.
Here’s how the Bible talks about salvation (emphasis added):
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:9–10
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Corinthians 1:9
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,
2 Timothy 1:8–9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
Look at all these active verbs: He called us, He saved us, He chose us, He predestined us. God is actively involved in every aspect of our salvation. It’s really crazy to think about, but before He spun the world into existence, God had us in mind and He had already made up His mind to save us. It wasn’t as if He had to scramble to think of something to do to fix all that we screwed up.
The Gospel2 isn’t “Plan B.”
By the same token, because salvation is all about God, He gets all the glory. As the Apostle Paul put it, salvation
…is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
There are many people who point their fingers at God and presume to judge Him for all the evil done in the world. Others accuse God of gross indifference, allowing sin to run rampant, trampling the “innocent” underfoot. On the contrary, in John 3:16, we see God dealing the final blow on all the evil in the world with the polar opposite of hate and indifference: love. And He would know a little something about love. In 1 John 4:8 we are told that “God is love.” Love isn’t just an attribute of God, they are one and the same thing. If you are looking for love, you need look no further than the creator of all things.
In Romans 5:8 we are told that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” What is sin? Sin is any failure to reflect the image of God in nature, attitude, or action. Because our forefather Adam sinned, our nature is unlike God. All of us are likely to admit that our attitudes are unlike God. And our actions? Well, no need to go there.
And while we were busy living in sin, God was busy loving us. Most people are familiar with both the Ten Commandments (part of the law God gave the nation of Israel) and the description of love found in 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s take some artistic liberty and combine a few of these to make our point.
While we were busy worshipping other gods (Exodus 20:3), God was kind to us (1 Corinthians 13:4).
While we dishonored our parents (Exodus 20:12), God believed all things about us (1 Corinthians 13:7).
While we slept around with someone we weren’t married to (Exodus 20:14), God hoped all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).
While we lied (Exodus 20:16), God rejoiced in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6).
Get the point? On a cosmic scale, we are unlovable sinners who are unlike God to our core and, remarkably, God loved us anyway.
God’s love extends to every single person who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live. It is so encompassing that it includes you, me, and Miley Cyrus (not just the cute teeny bopper Hannah Montana version, either). The Apostle Paul says it this way:
[Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
1 John 2:2
What does this fancy word “propitiation” mean? Simply, it means justice has been served and an offended party has been satisfied. Jesus did something that satisfied God’s wrath and He did it for the whole world. What did He do?
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
That He Gave His Only Son
It’s unimaginable, as a father, to think of giving one of my sons (or my daughter for that matter) to be brutally executed for a crime they didn’t commit. Everything inside of me rails against that concept, but that’s because I don’t fully grasp the love of God the Father and Jesus the Son.
As Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
From cover to cover, the Bible shows the only way to cover over the sins of the world is a blood sacrifice. The Old Testament Jews had an elaborate system of sacrifices that were performed daily and yet none could completely satisfy until Jesus. Only Jesus, fully human and fully God, would do. And He did.
That Whoever Believes in Him
The word “believe,” “believed,” or “believer” appears 249 times in the New Testament. In fact, “Believer” is the most common name given to describe those who follow Jesus and for good reason. We are defined by a remarkable set of beliefs. This is how the Apostle Paul puts it:
…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
Christians believe that Jesus is God, that He lived a sinless life (which none of us can truly fathom), that He was executed on the cross, died, was buried, and then rose from the dead!3 Not only that, we believe that He ascended into heaven and will one day return4 to judge the living and the dead.
That’s a lot of crazy sounding stuff to believe! No wonder Christians are called Believers. But there’s more to it than that. In our belief in Jesus, we also affirm:
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
1 Timothy 2:5
We don’t just generally, vaguely believe in “something out there.” We don’t just believe in Jesus as one path to salvation. We believe that only Jesus can, and therefore only Jesus does, save. There is no other way to be made right with God except through Jesus. And that “right with God” doesn’t end with this life.
Rather, those who believe in Jesus…
Should not Perish
One theologian noted that Jesus talked more about Hell than Heaven. While you can quibble over the numbers, you can’t quibble over the fact that Jesus knew something about the after-life and He talked about it a lot. When John says those who believe in Jesus will not perish, he is talking about Hell. He is talking about an eternal punishment, or what the Bible also refers to as eternal death. On the flip-side,
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If you have ever been to a funeral of someone close to you, then you have felt the pain and sorrow that accompanies death. Death is unnatural. Death is our enemy. And Jesus defeated death. His victory is so secure that for those who believe in Jesus, we can say our eternal life has already begun! Yes, all of us will face physical death (unless Jesus returns first), but that is just a transition to the rest of our eternal life.
But Have Eternal Life
People ask me often what Heaven is going to be like and there are two places I like to take them in the Bible. The first is the book of Revelation where Jesus’ friend John is trying desperately to describe what he has seen in a vision. He uses the word “like” a lot because his mind is blown and all he can do is make inadequate comparisons to things we can relate to. Then, we head to this verse:
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him…
1 Corinthians 2:9
This verse is all about the fact that no one could have imagined that Jesus would save us the way He did but I think it can be applied even further. We still have no idea what God is preparing for us in the future. We have hints in Scripture, so let’s look at a few of those and use our imagination a bit…
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
One of the effects of our sin is to separate us from God. Eternal life will be lived with God. Being in His presence for all eternity means we will know Him perfectly, no longer struggling to wrap our minds around Him. Imagine that.
I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.
In this passage, Jesus is talking to His disciples and telling them about a party He is going to throw. And, yes, you are invited. Imagine that.
John 3:16 gets all the attention. But, Jesus didn’t stop there. Here’s the verse in context.
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 God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 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.
There is nothing more important than this.
1. For further reading, see Pastor Steve’s article: The Bible.
2. For further reading, see Pastor Noel’s article: The Liberating Power of the Gospel.
1. For further reading, see Pastor James’ article: Resurrection.
1. For further reading, see Pastor Steve’s article: The Bible.