Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent: Laetare Sunday, the mid-point of Lent, the day of rejoicing in an otherwise somber season. And today, we hear familiar words:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever would believe in him would not die but would have everlasting life.
For a great many evangelical Christians, John 3:16 is like a generous wind of salvific grace… It has become the prooftext, par excellence, of salvation; and an assurance of the reformers’ doctrine of sola fide, salvation by way of faith only, without need of righteous works. For those who don’t believe, however, it is an ill wind that blows through John 3:16. And this time, it has become the negative proof text par excellence that condemns those without faith to an eternity of fiery torments.
It reminds me of something that happened at the recent Annual Council.
During his first keynote address, the speaker flashed a slide onto the screen…it was a t-shirt he found for sale online that read: Every time you take a breath, seven unbelievers go to hell. The message seemed to take everyone by surprise, and there was an immediate communal gasp from the delegates and clergy. Obviously, something like this falls into the same theological category as bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets, and can’t be trusted…right? A reasonable person of faith would never, ever promote such hateful doctrine…right?
Except… there it is in John’s gospel. God’s only son died for believers. And if you aren’t certain, then verse 18 stands as a stark certainty: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already…So, how does a reasonable believer understand John 3:16?
Well, as is often the case with the Bible, the truth is neither so neatly organized, nor quite so easy to see. You have to dig a little. Yes, Jesus makes a statement in John’s gospel about salvation at chapter 3, verse16, but standing alone, that verse is incomplete. John’s entire gospel makes a statement about salvation, but in this instance it’s verses 16-18, and not just verse 16, that represent a more complete statement about salvation.
In the gospel story, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night…he approached in darkness, seeking illumination about the practice of faith. And ultimately, Jesus did speak of salvation…God so loved the world…But even in that beautiful, light-filled sentence, there is a shadow present. For even though Jesus spoke of grace - God so loved the world – in the next breath he spoke of judgment: those who will not believe are already condemned.
And what we understand is that this isn’t just cut and dried…turn or burn…get right or get left…but rather we see that salvific grace is like a coin.
On one side is divine imperative: The Son of Man - a term that at once signifies the majesty of both God at his lowest and humanity at its highest - must be sacrificed; the Son of Man must be lifted up. On the other side of the coin is human response: all those who believe already have eternal life. But those who will not believe already face judgment. I know this is a sticky subject. And to tell the truth, I’m glad that the judging of others is far above my pay grade. But what I do understand is that grace urges a personal response.
In simple terms, if we are believers, then we must follow. And if we are followers, then we are to work out the cost of following. And so we must ask: what does it mean to pick up the cross and follow? What am I willing to give?
I think it’s different with everyone. But such is the message of Grace: the Son of Man must be lifted up, and we must believe, and trust in what we believe, and then act on it.
When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, he told him that new winds of the Spirit were about to blow. That God was doing something different. He told him that the Son Man must be lifted up - must experience death on a cross, so that all who look upon him in faith might experience life.
But – and this is important – there must be the response of faith.
John’s gospel doesn’t offer up a superficial proof text of salvation.
(And while we’re on the subject, let’s take a moment to remember just what salvation is. People take it to mean many things…safe in the arms of Jesus…pie in the sky…my mansion in the clouds…a sinless existence…and on and on. I think a reasonable idea of salvation is spiritual wholeness…a gradual process of spiritual maturity that we work out over the course of a life lived by faith.)
That’s the reality of grace…of unmerited favor. John’s gospel here offers a small glimpse of the full perspective of salvation in these three verses: God is the initiator and principle actor in salvation. Salvation begins with God…not with us believing.
However, God has given humanity a sense of freedom and the free will to choose. Accordingly, we are responsible for our choices, for our belief, and how we act on it.
Two sides of the coin…God’s graceful imperative, and our faithful response. And it is a puny theology that minimizes the participation of either God or humanity…that only sees one side of the coin or the other. From the beginning of salvation history God’s aim has been to reverse the human problem of sin, to provide a path toward spiritual wholeness and healing. And he does so through the life and work of his Son.
But human response is crucial. Without response, is there really faith? Certainly, that’s the belief St. James put forth when he wrote: Show me your faith without a response, and I’ll show you my faith by my response.
And what we come up with, finally, is that salvation doesn’t just represent a cabin in the clouds, or pie in the sky by and by, but rather a living, working, active relationship our creator and ourselves…a covenant relationship…in which one side initiates and one responds…yes, but ultimately, a relationship in which both are actively participating.
That’s my notion of salvation, and of what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, in John 3:16…and seventeen…and eighteen. I hope it makes sense.
You know…Lent is the season we’re given to remember and relive this commitment to faithful response, to remember and relive our salvation…and to remember and experience the joy of it. And the fourth Sunday in Lent – Laetare Sunday: the Sunday of rejoicing - reminds us that we have no other need of spiritual assurance but him. For God so loves this world that his son has been lifted up for us, so that in believing and responding, life is found.
And because of that, in the midst of this somber season, we can rejoice.