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.

 

Sometimes the ice is thick

frozen-rock-pondI wish I could point you to the originator of this analogy but I can’t remember where I heard it. {“Maybe your audience knows; you should ask him.” -DS} It goes something like:

Evangelizing your children is like throwing rocks onto a frozen pond. Nothing breaks through. But when the sun comes out to thaw the ice the rocks will fall in.

On a recent drive I was telling my wife that I’d been asked to ‘baptize’ a terminally ill convert in hospice care. Death was near but the baptism was on the following day. One of our young eavesdroppers asked what would happen if the patient died prior to baptism.

What he said was something like, “What if she dies before you can baptize her?”.

What I heard was, “Dad, I know baptism is important, but could you remind me and all my siblings that in Christ we’re justified by grace through faith?”.

So with my captive audience in tow I eloquently celebrated–in an age appropriate way, of course–the truth of the gospel. I spoke of how nothing we do or don’t do can ever make us right (or keep us right) with God. I succinctly explained that as important as baptism is (Jesus commanded it!) it’s a sign of salvation but not the saving work itself. Baptism doesn’t save us; Jesus does.

It didn’t take long but when I finished I couldn’t believe how well I had done. The only thing missing was the organ music & an aisle to walk. Maybe I should pull the car over and call for any converts to step to curb. This would certainly go down as one of the finest moments in otherwise checkered parenting career.

And then I heard the sweet voice of our scrubby, preschool cherub: “Dad, I wouldn’t kick a baby.”

I still have no idea what she was talking about. Babies played no part in my theological discourse. I was left wondering what my girl had heard. More accurately, I wondered if my girl had heard anything.

Did any of them hear what I was saying?

Reality check: I’ll never be able to talk my kids into saving faith. But “faith comes from hearing and hearing from the word of Christ.” So I’ll pile his weighty words on their cold hearts, praying for the day that his light melts the ice.

The “sinner’s prayer” in Pilgrim’s Progress

God be merciful to me a sinner, and make me to know and believe in Jesus Christ; for I see, that if His righteousness had not been, or I have not faith in that righteousness, I am utterly cast away. Lord, I have heard that thou art a merciful God, and hast ordained that Thy Son Jesus Christ should be the Savior of the world; and, moreover, that Thou art willing to bestow Him upon such a poor sinner as I am. And I am a sinner indeed. Lord, take therefore this opportunity, and magnify Thy grace in the salvation of my soul, through Thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Should kids ‘ask Jesus into their hearts’?

I’m moving more & more to answer “no” on this question. It’s not that I think children are unable to genuinely respond to the gospel but that that particular expression is ambiguous–sometimes dangerously so–on a point where clarity is essential. If you’re a parent whose child has already “asked Jesus into his/her heart”–praise the Lord! Press on in wisdom as you disciple them and exercise discernment as you affirm evidence of their conversion. What I offer here is simply a brief explanation for a shift in my thinking as a parent which is starting to shape my ministry as a pastor.

A little background. My wife and I were talking about baptism for a couple of our kids. She was confident that their profession of faith represented a genuine conversion. I was more hesitant. As a pastor’s kid myself I grew up in the church & have seen firsthand how social conditioning can be erroneously interpreted as conversion. I didn’t want to make that mistake with my kids. Still, I’ve come to recognize that my wife has exceptional insight into the lives of our children so I was a bit perplexed at our differing assessments. Her sage advice: talk to them. Brilliant!

I’ll spare you all the talking points but I found that when I asked our kids questions like “What is a Christian?” or “How is a person saved?” almost inevitably the answer had something to do with asking Jesus into one’s heart. Pressed further, the explanations varied greatly in terms of why someone should/would ask Jesus in or how that invitation secured salvation. Following on these family interactions here are some of the reasons that I think the “ask Jesus into your heart” lingo needs to be retired:

  1. It lacks a “biblical pedigree” (i.e. chapter & verse).
  2. It requires no real grasp of the gospel message.
  3. It fails to articulate our need of a wholesale exchange–His righteousness for our unrighteousness.
  4. It says nothing of repentance.
  5. It emphasizes the (subjective) sincerity of the heart rather than the (objective) certainty of Christ’s work.

I don’t doubt that the phrase has been & will be used by genuine converts. Further, I wouldn’t argue with the claim that the expression need not signify ignorance of the gospel message or an inability to articulate it. But when it comes to the salvation of a soul surely we want to do more than give someone the benefit of the doubt. In light of eternity that may be no benefit at all.

Good news: The heart wants what the heart wants!

It is seldom that any of our [bad habits or flaws] are made to disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning…[or by] the mere force of mental determination. But what cannot be thus destroyed may be dispossessed–and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind…. [T]he heart[‘s]…desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable…. [T]he only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one…. It is…when admitted into the number of God’s children, through the faith that is in Jesus Christ, [that] the spirit of adoption is poured upon us–it is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominant affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires, and is the only way in which deliverance is possible.

-Thomas Chalmers, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”