by Robert Brow
John 3:16 has been called the Gospel in a nutshell, and it is by far the best known verse in the Bible. It gives us our total assurance of eternal life. But many lack that assurance. They may read "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." But they wonder if they might be among those who perish, and end up in hell? Others say it is presumptuous to imagine one already has a place in heaven. By the end of this service I want you to be able to say with conviction "Thank you God for giving me eternal life."
The problem is that because John 3:16 is the best known verse in the Bible, Satan makes sure it is confused and misinterpreted. We need three questions to clarify its proper meaning.
WHAT IS BELIEVING ? Some say a believer is someone who believes every verse of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. That excludes all but a small number of people. Very few have a Bible, and if they have one they certainly haven't read every word, and if they have they certainly wouldn't understand what every word means.
In Northern Ireland there are Protestants who are sure Roman Catholics are not believers, and they will certainly go to hell. There are Roman Catholics who are sure Protestants are not believers, and they will certainly go to hell. They can't both be right, and actually both are totally and ignorantly wrong. Which is why they have kept killing one another. Faith in God is nothing to do with being a Protestant or a Roman Catholic or any other denomination of the church.
Others imagine it is only good people who make it to heaven. That ignores that fact that all of us are imperfect, and the self-righteous are the most imperfect of all. Paul wrote "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 2:23). He also assured us "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Messiah Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of who I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).
Radio preachers confuse us by saying that faith is making a decision. They twist John 3:16 to say "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who makes a decision for him may not perish but may have eternal life." By the end of this sermon I will explain why making a decision is very helpful, but the Bible nowhere tells us that we are saved by making a decision.
People whose assurance is based on "I made a decision" are easy prey for the devil's counter attack. "Your decision was based on psychological pressure . . . you were not really sincere . . . you have changed your mind."
Faith is not a decision of faith, but a direction of faith. Out in the country you will see farms with a huge satellite dish. If it is pointed towards a satellite, the family can choose among a hundred channels. The satellite is invisible, and the farmer may not understand how the satellite or the computer or the television set works. But the only thing that matters is being pointed in the right direction. Abraham certainly did not understand how the Son of God would come into our world, die on a cross, be resurrected, and ascend back to his Father. But he looked in the right direction, and that was what counted. "He looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:10).
The Hebrew word shubh, that is often translated repent, merely means to turn. Preachers tell us that we first have to feel bad about our sin before we can take the step of believing. Often some months after first turning to God the Holy Spirit may give us a deep conviction of sin (contrition), but it is not feeling bad about our sin that saves us. All that is needed is turning in God's direction. And immediately all the channels of the love of God are available to do in us and for us much more than we can possibly imagine.
WHAT IS GOD'S LOVE? Hell fire preachers focus on the word "perish" and they tell us that God condemns us to burn in hell if we do not hear about Jesus and make the right decision. But our text tells us that God loves the world, and that includes the whole of humanity. The very next verse after John 3:16 goes on "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Does that mean that every single person who has ever lived will be forced willy nilly into heaven? God is love but he does not force us to accept his love. What he longs for is that we should bask in his love and enjoy that love for ever. This spring billions of plants are being saved from perishing because they welcome the warmth of the sun. All the plants that we know are light loving. If you put a plant near a window it will grow in the direction of the light.
But what if there were light hating plants that moved into the darkest parts of the room? Similarly there are light loving people, and there can also be those who reject the idea of being loved by God or anyone else. If you move a big rock up at the cottage, all sorts of little insects will scurry away into the darkness. Similarly there is a freedom for people to choose the darkness away from the love of God. But I cannot imagine they will be very numerous.
John goes on to explain "This is the judgment (the Greek word is krisis from which we get our word crisis) that light is come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). The only people who will go into eternal death are the ones who hate the love light of God and prefer the darkness. If there were plants that totally hated the light of the sun, they would inevitably perish. God's love does not send anyone to hell, but humans are allowed the awesome freedom to reject that love and choose eternal death.
Jesus himself said "I AM the light of the world" (John 8:12). But he did not become the light when he took birth among us. In the first chapter of John's Gospel we are told that "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was continually coming (a Greek imperfect tense) into the world" (John 1:9). That means that long before Jesus the Son of God was born as man, people more or less dimly sensed his light. "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork . . . their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm 19:4). Which is why Paul was able to say in Athens "he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth . . . so that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:26-27).
Sometimes the light of the love of God seems clouded over, and on occasion the light seems too bright for us to look directly at its brilliance. But if we are looking in the direction of the love of God, we have eternal life. That's where we belong.
WHO THEN IS SAVED? The Bible does not say it is making a decision that saves us. But a decision can wonderfully give us assurance. "One believes with the heart and so is made right (see the article on justification), and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved" (Romans 10:10). Many live their whole life without being sure of eternal life But it is putting into words our heart experience of the love of God that gives us assurance. Lovers move from heart feelings to expressing their love in words, and that is what makes them sure they love and are loved.
It does not matter very much what words you use. After seven years calling myself an atheist, when I first turned to God, I just said "If you can make anything of me please get on with it." and I have never doubted I have eternal life in the past 43 years. So I am going to give you the opportunity to pray a simple prayer to assure you of your salvation.
Prayer "God, I may not be particulary good, but I accept your Son as my light and my salvation. I am looking in His direction. Thank you for giving me eternal life."
If that was your prayer, from now on you can say "I know I have
eternal life, not because anything I am in myself, but because I am looking
in the direction of the light of the world for all my heart needs." Immediately
all the channels of the love of God are yours. You can enjoy God without
any fear of being ever excluded (John 10:27-28).