(John 3:16 ESV) 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Although the work of the Spirit and coming of the Messiah were extensively prophesied, nothing in the Old Testament explicitly requires faith in the Messiah as a condition of salvation — not obviously so. However, First Century Jews understood the necessity of faith in God.
This is therefore a truly new teaching, and a “heavenly thing” that would have been much harder for Nicodemus to accept. Certainly, he should follow the Messiah and accept him as king, but have faith in him, as a good Jew would have faith in God? This is a claim to divinity (a very heavenly thing indeed).
This is, of course, the most famous passage insisting that all with faith in Jesus will be saved. It’s a recurring theme in John — overwhelmingly so. The early church and the Pauline epistles all assume that those with faith will receive water baptism. This is assumed by all writers. Water baptism and Spirit baptism were never intended to be separated — unless by the hand of God.
Nonetheless, they have been separated, and the tension is therefore with us. There are many verses that speak of all with faith as saved, which at the time did not contradict the idea that only those with faith and water baptism are saved — they would always be the same people.
But the Protestant Reformation, especially the teaching of Zwingli, separated water baptism from salvation; and infant baptism, three or four centuries after Christ, separated baptism from faith. As a result, these verses create endless debates among modern denominations.
We should resolve those conflicts, not by reading our verses after their verses (they read theirs after ours) but by looking more deeply into the truths found in both kinds of verses.
And regardless of how you resolve the paradox modern denominations have created, we should never be embarrassed to speak as Christ spoke. If he said, “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” we should happily speak the same words without apology — as though we’re somehow smarter than Jesus. We’re just not.
[It's not as though the Baptists snuck these verses in and they don't really belong. This is Jesus himself speaking, and we must own his words.]
(John 3:17 ESV) 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This is a critically important verse because it reveals the heart of God. God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world. He didn’t send Jesus to give us a choice. However, some will be condemned and we do have a choice. His purpose is to bring salvation. That’s his desired end.
Therefore, that must our desired end. We must want the world to be saved, and so we must mourn for those who are lost. It’s not enough that we give to missions. We need to care about missions as much as God does.
(John 3:18 ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
As is typical of John’s Gospel, the idea is expressed as an either-or proposition. There are no in-betweens. You either have faith and are saved; or else you don’t have faith and you’re lost.
This is not complicated, and yet it’s confusing to us because it runs contrary to our baptismal theology. It’s obviously contradictory to this verse to say that only those who are both believers and baptized are saved.
Moreover, if Jesus was speaking of water baptism back in John 3:5 (“begotten of water and the Spirit”), intending to say that those who are not baptized are damned, then how on earth do we reconcile 3:5 with 3:18? Surely the answer doesn’t depend on our denomination!
The first step toward reconciling the verses is humility. If we approach them as though we already know the answer, then we’re imposing our views on God’s inspired text. That’s a failure to respect inspiration. We have to let the text speak to us.
And so here’s the question: which interpretation is most true to the heart of God as revealed in John 3? Which interpretation most correctly reflects the lesson Jesus taught Nicodemus? Which interpretation reflects the same emphasis as Jesus’ own words?
Now, that’s hardly the end of the discussion: it’s the beginning. We start with humility and, from there, seek to conform our own hearts to God’s heart. Only then can we be good expositors of the text.
If we seek to impose a preferred view on the teaching — to be loyal to our denomination or parents or the preacher at the church where we grew up — or because of pride — then we are not yet ready to interpret the text.
And if you conclude that to insist on humility and the heart of God as a condition to entering into the discussion is somehow improper, well, then you’ve effectively admitted that your position is contrary to those things, which makes it error.
Nonetheless, the correct answer may not be quite as simple or obvious as some would make it. After all, when we’re done with the discussion, the baptism verses have to be respected, as do the faith verses. Neither set will go away, and any interpretation has to cope with both in a manner that’s consistent with the heart of God as revealed in John 3.
(John 3:19-20 ESV) 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
Jesus now speaks in metaphor. Light and darkness are images borrowed from Genesis 1, as we considered earlier. Just as God created light and separated light from darkness, God sent his Son to separate light from darkness.
“Darkness” is preferred by those with evil hearts. They want to keep their works secret, and they don’t want to come to Jesus and repent. They enjoy their sin far too much.
The passage is remarkably parallel with —
(Isa 50:10 ESV) Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.
But for those in the light –
(John 3:21 ESV) 21 “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Those who are willing to repent, to follow God, come to Jesus. They aren’t afraid to be in God’s presence.
Jesus sees those as outside the church as having a choice, and their motivation, and so their choice, depends in part on the wickedness of their hearts. Jesus, therefore, sees the greatest barrier to conversion as moral, not intellectual. It’s not the reasonableness of belief but willingness to submit to the life Jesus requires of his brothers and sisters.
Now, this is true, but surely more in a proverbial sense, that is, it’s generally true but will admit of exceptions. There are people who are constrained by intellectual issues.
But in reality, the moral standards of Christianity are indeed the largest barrier to conversion for a great many people. Some are just unwilling to give up sins that they enjoy. Some are just unwilling to consider the sins of their friends to be, well, sins. And Jesus tells us that this is expected.
On the other hand, you can’t tell who will reject Jesus by how sinful they are. Paul was a great sinner — a murderer, in reality — when Jesus converted him. Many others left lives of deep sin to follow Jesus. The last thing we should do is refuse to teach the gospel to the immoral! Many who live in immorality are desperately looking for something better.