In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Author Philip Yancey shares a heartbreaking story about a woman living on the streets of Chicago who was “renting” her two-year-old daughter to sexually perverted men in order to support her drug addiction.
The story was related by a friend of Yancey’s who worked with the down and out in the inner city who says, “I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me liable — I’m required to report child abuse. Further, I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last, I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face as she responded, ‘Church?! Why would I ever go there? I am already feeling terrible about myself.”
For some reason, she expected the church to be a place of judgment and condemnation, not mercy and safety.
Here’s my question: “Why don’t sinners flock to the church the way they ran to Jesus?”
During his earthly ministry, child-abusing, drug-addicted women like this — sinners in all shapes and sizes — were drawn to Jesus, not repelled by Jesus. Ironically, the people who were repelled were self-righteous, religious types, not "the sinners."
What has happened to us? Why is there such a gap between how sinners encountered Jesus then and how they encounter Christians today?
Maybe you are feeling terrible about yourself, too. I want you to know that the ministry of the church is not to convince you that you are a sinner. The ministry of the church is to help convince you that there is grace and mercy, forgiveness, and new life in Christ Jesus.
My desire in this post on John 3:16-17 is to help us close the gap between how sinners encountered Jesus and how they encounter the church today as the people through whom his heart is expressed to the world.
Let’s begin with the first part of verse 16.
16a For God so loved the world...
I fear that when many of us hear that phrase, we interpret love as sentimentality.
Like how children love puppies. Of course, they do! By nature, puppies are adorable.
And so we hear, “God loves the world,” and think, “Well, of course, he does!”
The problem is that human beings are not puppies.
When John uses the word “world,” the meaning is anything but adorable. For John, “the world,” as a concept, represented rebellion to God, sin, and unbelief. For example, to follow “the ways of the world” was to live in opposition to God’s ways.
In Ephesians 2, Paul would say that to follow the ways the world was to follow Satan himself.
Whether Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus in verse 16 or whether this is commentary by John, the notion of God loving “the world” would have been a shocking proposition for first-century Jews, and especially for a Pharisee like Nicodemus.
The conventional wisdom among God’s covenant people of Israel was that they, and they alone, were loved by God. Everyone else was an enemy, especially the gentile Romans.
So, when we read, “God so loved the world,” we need to hear “for God so loved God-hating sinners.” Again, in the words of Paul in Ephesians 2, God loved those who “by nature” were deserving of judgment and wrath, not mercy and grace.
And sinners really do come in all shapes and sizes, don’t we?
There are the prostitutes living on the streets of Chicago renting out their daughters. And there are the smug, self-righteous religious people who despise them.
Yet in despising other sinners, the self-righteous reveal just how far their heart is from the God who loves the sinner.
But again, this is not sentimental, Hallmark card love. This is confirmed in the next part of verse 16, where we read...
16b that he gave his one and only Son...
While the specifics of God’s giving of Jesus is not defined in verse 16, it is in verse 15, where Jesus uses an Old Testament allusion to demonstrate that he would be lifted up on a cross, executed for our crimes against God’s Kingdom.
This is not sentimental love. This is a fierce, costly, sacrificial love.
In his letter 1 John 4:9-10, the apostle writes,
“9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
An atoning sacrifice. My sin deserved the death penalty before the courts of heaven. Jesus suffered it in my place. This is the apex of biblical love.
In sync with John, Paul would write in Romans 5:6 that Jesus “died for the ungodly.”
For ungodly, worldly people. For sinners.
Like the woman on the streets of Chicago… and for a man like me.
We don’t need a moral teacher or merely a godly example to follow. We need an atoning sacrifice. I need someone who can take my rags of sin and cover me with a robe of righteousness.
This is what the cross is about.
This is what is meant by “he gave.” First, he took. He took my moral record as his own. Then he gave me his moral record to be my own.
All this is a gift. We don’t earn it. We simply receive it.
Look at the last part of verse 16.
16c that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
I want us to note three things about this verse.
First, the process of receiving the gift of God’s grace in Jesus centers on believing — believing that, through the cross, your sins have been credited (or imputed) to Jesus and his perfect record is credited (imputed) to you. That is the essence of saving faith.
Second, this is for whosoever. In theology, we call this the free offer of the gospel. While the preceding context in John 3:1-15 teaches us that those who believe must first be given the ability to do so through regeneration, the fact remains that the free offer of grace is for anyone who wants it and who will receive it through trusting Jesus as their sin-bearer and righteousness provider.
Third, the consequences of what we do with the free offer of the gospel last forever. We either will perish, facing eternal death, or we will possess eternal life. The Greek words used to describe these contrasting destinies could not be more dramatic. To perish is to be ruined, destroyed, crushed. Some even translate it as smashed. And the concept of eternal life is more than the duration of life but the quality of life. Psalm 16:11 describes it as “the fullness of joy.”
- We are called to receive the gift by faith.
- It is for whosoever will believe.
- The consequences are eternal.
In verse 17, the weight of verse 16 is restated and re-affirmed.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
The ministry of Jesus is much like Noah’s ministry in Genesis. Noah was called to build an ark of rescue and safety from the devastating floodwaters of judgment that were to come upon the earth. He built it with the doors wide open.
Jesus is the ark of God for the world, with doors open wide for any and all who will come aboard.
However, just like the Lord eventually shut the door on the ark, the doors will be shut on the gospel, too.
The free offer of the gospel is available for a limited time.
Though until it expires, the free offer is to be made to every human on the planet, trusting that God will draw to himself everyone whom he enables to believe.
In summary, what we have learned is that Jesus’s mission wasn’t to condemn but to save. He is the one who was willing to perish, to suffer ruin, shame, and be smashed in judgment for sinners so that we may possess eternal joy.
Yes, Jesus spoke the truth. But truth in love — in such a way that sinners ran to him rather than away from him.
In order for that to happen, I want to suggest three words that I think will enable us to close the gap in such a way that sinners begin seeing the church as a place of hope, refuge, safety, compassion, and mercy.
The first word is...
Rather than condemn sinners, believers must identify with sinners.
In the same way that an alcoholic understands the cravings of another alcoholic, a sinner understands another sinner’s struggles.
This means that to express a condescending, condemning, holier than thou tone toward the sin of others is to deny my profession of faith—that I am merely a sinner saved by the grace of God in Jesus.
This leads to the second word. First, we identify, then we…
I am not only a sinner saved by sheer grace. I am the object of God’s extravagant affection. In fact, the apostle John would describe himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Embracing that self-identification as the beloved of God is essential for closing the gap between a church that attracts sinners vs a church that repels sinners. Why? Because, as sinners, we know that God’s love for us is not expressed to us because we are loveable.
Remember what Paul said, “God expressed his love for us while we were sinners.” That is the condition in which God found us and in which he loved us.
The ground for God’s eternal, steadfast, covenant love finds its source not in us but in the heart of God. The love of Jesus for us is not a reward for our cuteness or goodness or gifts.
In fact, if we were puppies, we wouldn’t be the pure-bred English Spaniel. We’d be the socially awkward, scraggly, out of proportion mix breed in the back corner of the pet store that nobody else wanted.
Except for Jesus. The one who willing to give his life for mutts like us.
Identifying with sinners and embracing the love of God for us leads to a final word, which is…
Rather than function as sin police, believers must see ourselves as a search and rescue team, expressing in word and deed the message of the cross to other sinners like us.
This means that when someone blows it, whether a spouse, a child, or whomever, we express the message of the cross with five words. Five words that we have received and now re-gift: there is grace for that.
There is nothing we have done or will do that exceeds the boundaries of Jesus’s blood. Because of the cross, there is grace for that.
Come to Jesus
If I were to tell you that it is time for a “come to Jesus” meeting, what would you think?
According to several online dictionaries that I consulted this week, a come to Jesus meeting is “an unpleasant conversation that is held in order to resolve a problem issue. As the last attempt to straighten someone out before dire consequences are enacted, a come to Jesus meeting typically begins with a charge of offenses followed by an ultimatum along with the threat of impending punishment if the offenses are not corrected.”
But the Father did not send the Son into the world to condemn but to save. Not to threaten, but to free. Not to express disappointment but to confirm his eternal love demonstrated in mercy.
A come to Jesus meeting is intended to be just the opposite of what we have come to expect.
Some of us may need to unlearn what we think we know about Christianity in order to overcome our moralistic perceptions.
To all who are weary and mourn; to all who are weak and struggle; To all who fail and feel worthless; to all who fear and doubt; To all who sin and need a Savior.
God has so loved you that he gave his Son, not to condemn you, but to save, deliver, and rescue any and all who will look to the cross and believe.
This post is a sample chapter from our book, The Jesus Script (with small-group discussion guide).
***For a listing of all free resources
available through Mustard Seed Publications LLC
, visit this link