For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,
so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through Him.
Whoever believes in Him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
John 3:16 is arguably the best known and best loved verse in the New Testament, expressing as it so beautifully does God’s overarching purpose in the creation of humankind, His patience through the long years of disobedience catalogued in the Sacred Scriptures, culminating in the gift of His only Son, whose death and resurrection brought salvation to the world. “World” in this text is not the world organized against God, as in First John 2:16: “All that is in the world is not of the Father,” but refers to the created order, declared good in the beginning, that has been the object of God’s love since creation.
Yet there is more to the story than God’s great all-comprehending love, for the text goes on to say that our appropriation of this great gift of life and blessedness is by belief in the Son, adding the harsh word that lacking belief or faith in the Son of God means being condemned already. Souls are not in the first instance lost by falling into sin but by skepticism in the face of God’s revelation: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness” (19). Near the end of the Gospel of John the author will tell us that as well as dying on the cross for love of God and us, the Son came to teach us what righteousness is and what sin is. When He comes, He will convince the world of sin and of righteousness, of sin because they do not believe in me. And belief in Jesus is the author’s purpose. As he says at the end of the book, apologizing for abbreviating the account of Jesus’ signs: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Belief, one of the too numerous capacities that distinguish the human person from our animal relatives. Every person lives within a texture of convictions that describe reality and informs behavior, a construct that is for that person reality. This is as true for a skeptic as for a saint. On a certain level these are assumptions born of day-to-day experience. But beyond these lies faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1), the meaning of life in a future not yet known. Belief that Jesus is the Son of God is the summary of that faith. It affirms that there is one we know who the son of god in the loose sense is not that an emperor might have been so described but is rather the Son of the incomprehensible Glory who created this world, who rules nature and every heart through His divine providence, who condemned the world because of sin and saves it because of His indefeasible will that the conversation interrupted in the Garden may find fulfillment among His elect and in His coming kingdom.
It is not good works, not even fine character, but belief that Jesus is the Son of God that in the first and fundamental instance fulfills our duty toward God, being as it is the reality from which the actions that are our life flow. The verb for “to believe” in the present tense is found about seven times in Matthew, ten times in Mark, five times in Luke, and fifty-one times in John. Unsurprisingly, we find in the Letters of Paul the reiterated claim that we are made right with God by faith, which means believing that God is who He is and that He will do what He has promised. “Abraham believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” Genesis 15:6. As the lynchpin of his preaching this text is quoted by Saint Paul the Pharisee with the explanation, “Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trust in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5). And to this the Apostle James adds the example of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command as proof that faith issues in obedience: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (2:21-22). And the apostle adds: As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
From its birth Christianity fought persistently against the tendency of some to find a fulfilling peace in a certain intellectual apprehension that imitated the gift of faith. These were called gnostics, “the knowledgeable,” “the insightful,” who argued that the redemption Christ offered could be experienced through what was, to use Saint Irenaeus’ word, invisible, transforming the soul through union with God but having no ability to conform the human will to the will of God in witness and behavior. But when faith is real, when love is real, it issues in a desire to please God our Father. Saint John is speaking of the common Christian aspiration when he says: “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God” (I John 3:9).
Of course Christians do sin, sometimes grievously, but faith is not stamped out and the claim God has upon the baptized is not obviated. The same Saint John who says that if we are born of god we cannot sin, writes in the same letter, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9). And this requires belief, believing in God’s mercy, believing that Christ gave the apostolic mission the power to forgive sins, saying to the frightened disciples on the evening of the first day of His life in glory: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23).