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“When We Return John 3:16 to the Bible”
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”
That verse from this morning’s gospel lesson is, needless to say, one of the most widely known, and frequently quoted, verses in all the Bible. Having appeared in venues as various as billboards and bumper stickers, t-shirts and tattoos, John 3:16 has been turned to more often than any other verse of scripture to serve as the single sentence which most completely captures one of Christianity’s most widely held assumptions; that eternal salvation or condemnation hinges, entirely, on one thing; whether a person does, or does not, believe in Jesus.
But, when we take John 3:16 off the billboards, and return it to the Bible, what we discover is that John 3:16 is one verse in a Bible-wide chorus of verses and voices, some of which say the same as John 3:16, and some of which do not.
John 3:18, for example, says the same as John 3:16, that all will be saved or condemned based on what they believe about Jesus, as do First John 5:1, First John 5:12 and Romans 10:9.
But, then, you have Luke 10:25-28, and Matthew 7:21, 12:37, 13:41 and 25:46, all of which make salvation contingent, not on what we believe, but on how we live, and what we do.
Then, of course, there are other Bible verses in which salvation is not about what we believe or what we do, because, in those verses, salvation is more about what God wants, than how we respond; verses such as II Corinthians 5:19, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self,” Ephesians 1:10, “God’s plan for the fullness of time is to gather up all things in Christ,” Romans 11:32, “God has included all in sin so that God might include all in mercy,” and Colossians 1:20, which says, “Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile the world to God’s self, by making peace through the blood of the cross”; a verse of scripture which makes what happened at the cross so effective that the cross doesn’t need our cooperation to accomplish God’s work of reconciliation; unlike John 3:16, where what happened at the cross is effective only for those who respond to it in the right way with the right belief.
All of which is what we see when we return John 3:16 to the Bible. Lifted from the Bible, and read all by itself, John 3:16 has helped generations of dear and sincere Christians to say, with unwavering finality, and unassailable certainty, “Only those who believe what Christians believe about Jesus can have eternal life with God.” But, returned to the Bible, and read alongside the Bible’s other 31,239 verses, John 3:16 turns out to be only one of many varied voices concerning the subject of salvation, some of which say the same as John 3:16, and some of which do not, requiring all of us, no matter what we believe, to be content to say, “I believe what I believe about salvation because it rings true to what I believe about who God is, how God acts and what God wants. I can point to some scripture which supports what I believe. But, there is also some scripture which does not support what I believe. Which is why, at the end of the day, all I can say is that I believe what I believe about salvation, because it is what rings most true to what I believe about God.”
I call that “reading the Bible until we lose our voices.” If we read the whole Bible long enough, we will eventually lose our loudest and most strident voice, which will then be replaced by a less certain, more gentle, one.