Revisiting John 3:16 (pt 1)

The reasons for this piddly mini-series can be found in the prologue here.

There are unplumbed depths in the limpid clarity of this writing. What at first appears obvious is presently seen to pose problems.
–Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John

So long as we discuss soteriology we will discuss the meaning and implications of Jn 3:16 and for good reason. Few verses so succinctly capture such massive themes in redemption–God’s unmerited love for rebels, the giving of the incarnate Son as a sacrifice for sin, and the promise of eternal life for all who place their trust in him. But all that’s succinct is not always simple.

TALKING ‘NEW BIRTH’ WITH A PHARISEE

Too many times we invoke Jn 3:16 without appreciating the role of the surrounding context in determining its meaning. Before we get to some of the particulars in 3:16 itself we need to say a few things about the broader context.

First, 3:16 is part of the “new birth discourse” found in 3:1-21 which means that the verse can’t be interpreted on its own. Too often 3:16 is tossed around without any consideration of its place in the overall discourse.

Second, since we’re told that this new birth discourse is delivered to a Pharisees/Jewish ruler, we should ask what Jesus said and what Nicodemus would have heard. For example, what would a Jewish religious leader have understood Jesus to mean when he said “God so loved the world“? Expanding the scope of our question, how would 3:16 have been understood in conjunction with Jesus’ prior claim that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3)?

In Nic’s mind natural birth was all that was necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom since your physical birth determined who was in (Israel) and who was out (anyone not Israel). But even if Nic were to have grasped what it meant to be “born again” he still would have assumed that that sort of thing was reserved for those who were “in” Israel. It’s not until 3:16 that Jesus clarifies that the offer of life to “whoever believes” (3:15) is an offer that extends to the world. The takeaway is that God’s love is not limited to Israel as the kingdom is inherited by spiritual birthright available to people of every nation (i.e. the world). So whereas we interpret 3:16 as God so loved [every single person], Nic would interpret it as God so loved [all people]. Both statements are true, but the latter is a truer fit for the context. Think of the different interpretations as an approach to a pointillist panting–you can focus on the individual spots but you’d be missing the artist’s larger point (no pun intended).

Third, when we recognize the implicit relationship between new birth and God’s love for the world, we’re not surprised to find that this connection is established as early as Jn 1:12-13 where the right to become children of God is granted to those who believe in His name, who were born . . . of God. Interestingly, belief (1:12) is not said to be the condition for the new birth (1:13)–those who received Him (v 12a) are those who believe in His name (v 12c) are those who are born of God (v 13).

This lack of distinction between new birth and belief in 1:12-13 has interesting implications for 3:16 which stresses the necessity of belief for eternal life. If belief and (new) birth are both attributed to God’s work in 1:12-13 and if born again is attributed to the mysterious work of the Spirit in 3:6-8, should we then attribute believe in 3:16 to the will of man? Doubtful. We’d do better to follow the pattern laid out in 1:12-13 and to understand both born again and believe as a mysterious work of God by his Spirit.

But even if we were to discount the role of 1:12-13 in interpreting 3:16, I don’t think the verse stands up as a proof text for free will. To say that that whoever believes will not die simply means that . . . whoever believes will not die. The promise makes no claim concerning the ability or likelihood of enjoying the promise. Those issues can only be brought into 3:16 by inference or from other verses.

Jn 3:16–succinct but not necessarily simple.

Stay tuned for pt 2.

 

Revisiting John 3:16 (prologue)

Some discussions emanate from perennial issues that are sure to be revisited in the not-too-distant future and when those discussions happen on the Google machine it seems prudent to save your work. Such is the reason for this piddly mini-series on the interpretation of John 3:16.

The genesis of the subsequent posts was a friendly back and forth over the work of salvation as it’s popularly understood by Calvinists. [When will the mavericks be given a platform for their hybrid theologies?!? –Shive]. At some point–and such was the case here–the non-Calvinist invokes John 3:16 to make three related points: (1) God doesn’t love the elect in a special way because “God so loved the world” (2) everyone is a potential believer because the verse says “whoever believes” and (3) only by hermeneutical jujitsu can a Calvinist ever hope to neutralize this defeater verse (e.g. God so loved the world [of the elect]).

But I hope to show that Jn 3:16 is far more substantive than the straw men we construct when we ignore the larger context. On its own the verse is neither an anti-Calvinist trump card nor is it stealth support for unconditional election.

I say all this as a simple attempt to provide some context for the posts to come. Names will be withheld to protect the innocent and the content lightly edited so as to keep the profanity-laced tirades and ad hominem attacks to a minimum.

Stay tuned.

 

Need some conversation?

If God is unable to sin, is He truly free?

If in our future glorification we will be unable to sin, will we be truly free?

Discuss.

 

Newton’s encouragement for dark days

The ship was safe when Christ was in her, though He was really asleep. At present I can tell you good news, though you know it: He is wide awake, and his eyes are in every place. You and I, if we could be pounded together, might perhaps make two tolerable ones. You are too anxious, and I am too easy in some respects. Indeed I cannot be too easy, when I have a right thought that all is safe in his hands; but if your anxiety makes you pray, and my composure makes me careless, you have certainly the best of it. However, the ark is fixed upon an immovable foundation; and if we think we see it totter, it is owing to swimming in our heads. Seriously, the times look dark and stormy, and call for much circumspection and prayer; but let us not forget that we have an infallible Pilot, and that the power, and wisdom, and honor of God, are embarked with us.

–John Newton, “To the Rev. John Ryland.” Letter I. 31 July 1773. Letters of John Newton

Flatterers everywhere

If I were a Protestant Pope, I would issue a papal decree requiring all the faithful to read Pilgrim’s Progress.

And as [Christian and Hopeful] were thinking about the way, behold, a man black of flesh, but covered with a very light robe, came to them, and asked them why they stood there. They answered, they were going to the Celestial City, but knew not which of these two ways to take.

FLATTERER: Follow me; I am going there.

So they followed him in the way that but now came into the road, which by degrees turned and turned them so from the city that they desired to go to, that in a little time their faces were turned away from it, yet they followed him. But by and by, before they were aware, he led them both within the compass of a net in which they were both so entangled that they knew not what to do; and with that the white robe fell off the black man’s back. Then they saw where they were. Wherefore there they lay crying some time for they could not get themselves out.

CHRISTIAN: Now do I see myself in an error. Did not the Shepherds bid us beware of the Flatterer? As is the saying of the wise man, so we have found it this day: “A man that flatters his neighbor, spreads a net for his feet” (Prov 29:5).

HOPEFUL: They also gave us a note of directions about the way, for our more sure finding thereof; but therein we have also forgotten to read, and not kept ourselves from the path of the destroyer. Here David was wiser than we, for, “Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips, I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer” (Psalm 17:4).

A few takeaways:

  1. Flattery is a danger to all of us. We’re not told what Flatterer said to mislead the pilgrims so maybe the point isn’t the content of the flattery but its results; not so much how they were deceived but that they were deceived. Flattery doesn’t work from a fixed script. It’s revised and edited for the man and his times. We’re always susceptible.
  2. Flatterer has the form of godliness. He appears to be a fellow traveler: he meets the pilgrims on the path to the King’s City, he’s dressed in Christian garb, and he professes to share the same destination. The most dangerous flattery comes from the one who professes to be one of us.
  3. Flatterer works at the fork in the road. He appears as the pilgrims are trying to decide which path to take and their indecision is his opportunity to lure them off the path. Reject the smooth talk; read (and trust) your directions.
  4. Flattery leads us astray “by degrees.” Turning our faces away from the King and his City rarely, if ever, happens in one step but through a series of smaller steps–a misinterpretation here, a deluded sentiment there–until we find ourselves caught in the net.
  5. Only one path leads home. In a subtle but profound line Bunyan says the pilgrims followed Flatterer “in the way that but now came into the road.” Two things are worth noting here: (i) the errant path was a late addition (ii) the errant path came into the road from the outside. Beware the novel ideas and reinventions that worm their way into the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
  6. The flatterer’s net is avoidable. Read, read, read–Scripture, of course.

 

‘For us’ first, last, and always(?)

For several weeks now I’ve been unable to continue my reading in Rutledge’s The Crucifixion and when I picked it up today I came across these lines:

Even as he is the Judge, he is first and last “for us.” He was for us before he was against us, and for us even as he was against us — pro nobis first, last, and always. (515)

At the risk of having my house pounded with a box of Grade-A’s from Arminian Farms, an unequivocal statement like that seems to require far more than our free will or else universalism.

What am I missing?

What makes for ‘good’ corporate worship?

There are far too few choruses and services and sermons that expand our vision of God…

This point is acknowledged in a praise chorus like “Let’s forget about ourselves, and magnify the Lord, and worship him.” The trouble is that after you have sung this repetitious chorus three or four times, you are no farther ahead. The way you forget about yourself is by focusing on God–not by singing about doing it, but by doing it. There are far too few choruses and services and sermons that expand our vision of God–his attributes, his works, his character, his words. Some think that corporate worship is good because it is lively where it had been dull. But it may also be shallow where it is lively, leaving people dissatisfied and restless in a few months’ time. Sheep lie down when they are well fed (cf. Ps 23:2); they are more likely to be restless when they are hungry. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus commanded Peter (John 21); and many sheep are unfed. If you wish to deepen the worship of the people of God, above all deepen their grasp of his ineffable majesty in his person and in all his works.

-D. A. Carson, Worship by the Book, 31.

Reformation 500: Calvin on sanctification

Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it may be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday, the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself.

-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.6.5

Reformation 500: Zwingli’s turn to ‘sola scriptura’

When I was younger, I gave myself overmuch to human teaching, like others of my day, and when about seven or eight years ago I undertook to devote myself entirely to the Scriptures I was always prevented by philosophy and theology. But eventually I came to the point where led by the Word and Spirit of God I saw the need to set aside all these things and to learn the doctrine of God direct from his own Word. Then I began to ask God for light and the Scriptures became far clearer to me.

–Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger, 90-91 (as cited in George, Theology of the Reformers).

Reformation 500: Luther’s ‘discovery’

In his Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George recounts, through Luther’s own words, the seminal discovery that changed church history and the world as we know it:

Near the end of his life, Luther remembered how as a monk the phrase “justice of God” in Rom 1:17 had struck terror in his soul. All of his attempts to satisfy God–his prayers, fastings, vigils, good works–left him with a wholly disquieted conscience. His mood swung from despair over his own failures to a simmering rage at God: “I did not love, indeed I hated, that God who punished sinners; and with a monstrous, silent, if not blasphemous, murmuring I fumed against God.” Still, he “knocked persistently upon Paul,” meditating day and night in his study in the tower, until

I began to understand that the “justice of God” meant that justice by which the just man lives through God’s gift, namely by faith. This is what it means: the justice of God is revealed by the gospel, a passive justice with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “He who through faith is just shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.