John Stott, in his book, ‘The Cross of Christ,’ tells of a drama that addresses the victims of evil and injustice and God’s response to their pain. In the short drama entitled ‘The Long Silence’, the following scene is acted out:
At the end of time, billions of people are scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrink back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a pert young brunette. She rips open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror…beatings…torture…death!’
In another group a Negro boy lowers his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. ‘Lynched… for no crime but being black!’
In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. ‘Why should I suffer’ she murmured, ‘It wasn’t my fault.’
Far out across the plain are hundreds of such groups. Each having a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they say.
So each of these groups sends forth their leader, chosen because they had suffered the most. A Jew, an African, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It is rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision is that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man!
Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.
‘At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.’
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.[i]
What we discover in that this sentence did not originate in the mind of the dramatist. This story did not originate from humanity, but from God. In John 3:16, we find the real motivation for why God died for us, but before we get there, I want to focus our thoughts briefly on why God had to die.
Why doesn’t God just forgive us regardless of our response to him? The answer simply put is that it would not be just. This would be a travesty against justice. The innocent dying for the guilty is not justice. When someone sins, they violate someone. It is unjust for nothing to happen as the victim has suffered in some way. There must be some form of restitution.
In the middle ages, a biblical scholar by the name of Anselm, wrote a book entitled, ‘Why God Became Man’ and tried to answer the question Why God had to die. Obviously, we are talking about God in the person of Jesus Christ. God in the flesh. In the teaching on the Atonement, which deals with how Christ’s death on the cross brought about forgiveness of sins, Anselm’s focus is on the demand of justice that go along with mercy and forgiveness.
He assumes the classical conception of justice as rendering each his due, that is, paying what one owes. The key concept Anselm introduces is ‘satisfaction,’ which means paying what is owed to someone who has been harmed, offended, or dishonored. Although God cannot be harmed in himself, he can be dishonored by his creatures. Because God is better than the whole world or an infinity of worlds, the debt incurred by sin or disobedience to God is infinite. To leave the debt unpaid, Anselm argues, is not mercy but injustice. If someone cannot make satisfaction for his offense, the only just alternative is punishment.
In Anselm’s account, God became human because this was the only way to ‘make satisfaction’ for sin. Only humans owe the debt, so God becomes human to repay the debt. As a human being, Christ owes the debt; but as God, he pays the debt. Rather than looking at Christ’s death as an innocent person being unjustly punished, Anselm takes the view that Christ is merciful by paying the debt for our sins.[ii]
So, we can see that what we believe about Jesus is critical. The Christmas celebration is a reminder each year that God became a man: theologians called this the incarnation. Jesus is both fully God and fully man. We have seen why God had to die, but what motivated Him to die for us? John and later the apostle Paul will tell us that God died for us because of who He is, not because of who we are or what we have done. Christ’s gift of forgiveness is granted despite us. What motivated the heart of God comes from within Himself. God so loved that He gave… (cf. Jn. 3:16).
But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.[iii]
Later, writing to the Ephesians, he describes our condition as being dead as a result of our sins. This death speaks of alienation and separation from a holy God, which, unless addressed by God’s grace, will continue throughout eternity.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions- it is by grace you have been saved.[iv]
Grace translated from the Greek word ‘charis,’ means gift. It speaks of ‘unearned favor.’ Here in our text from John’s gospel, we discover three elements regarding the nature of God’s love which is running to each of us.
THE FIRST ELEMENT WE DISCOVER OF A LOVING RUNNING TO US IS THE EXTENT OF GOD’S LOVE
One of the most well-known passage of Scripture is the good news expressed in a nutshell.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.[v]
The idea is not how much God loved, but how God loved. The crucifixion of Jesus is how Jesus’ death is the ultimate expression of his love. God loved us so much that the three persons of the God-head brought about our salvation. First of all, we discover that God, the Father, planned it; God, the Son provided it; and God, the Holy Spirit applies it to our lives. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that convicts us of our sin and reveals Christ to us. We know what the Son did because he came to earth, lived and died a shameful death on our behalf. But what about God, the Father? Whenever we think that it did not cost the God, the Father, we need to remember the story of Abraham offering his one and only son of promise, Isaac. The heartache of giving up your son for the sake of others is heart-retching. Only a father who has sacrificed a son can really understand the depths of our Father’s love.
Back in the days of the Great Depression a man by the name of John Griffith was the controller of a great railroad drawbridge across the Mississippi River. One day in the summer of 1937 he decided to take his eight-year-old son, Greg, to work with him. At noon, John Griffith put the bridge up to allow ships to pass and sat on the observation deck with his son to eat lunch. Time passed quickly. Suddenly he was startled by the shrieking of a train whistle in the distance. He quickly looked at his watch and noticed it was 1:07- the Memphis Express, with four hundred passengers on board, was roaring toward the raised bridge! He leaped from the observation deck and ran back to the control tower. Just before throwing the master lever he glanced down for any ships below. There a sight caught his eye that caused his heart to leap into his throat. Greg, his eight year old son had tried to follow him and had slipped and had fallen into the massive gears that operated the bridge. His left leg was caught in the cogs of the two main gears! Desperately John’s mind whirled to devise a rescue plan. But as soon as he thought of a possibility he knew there was no way it could be done.
Again, with alarming closeness, the train whistle shrieked in the air. He could hear the clicking of the locomotive wheels over the tracks. That was his son down there – yet there were four hundred passengers on the train. John knew what he had to do, so he buried his head in his left arm and pushed the master switch forward. That great massive bridge lowered into place just as the Memphis Express began to roar across the river. When John Griffith lifted his head with his face smeared with tears, he looked into the passing windows of the train. There were businessmen casually reading their afternoon papers, finely dressed ladies in the dining car sipping coffee, and children pushing long spoons into their dishes of ice cream. No one looked at the control house, and no one looked at the great gear box. With wrenching agony, John Griffith cried out at the steel train: ‘I sacrificed my son for you people! Don’t you care?’ The train rushed by, but nobody heard the father’s words…”[vi]
Oh! That we would hear our Father’s words today and not be indifferent to what it really cost God to express His love for us. May our hearts be touched by God’s amazing, unfailing love for each of us. It is a love running towards us.
THE SECOND ELEMENT WE DISCOVER OR A LOVE RUNNING TO US IS THE EFFECTIVENESS OF GOD’S LOVE
Jesus came not to condemn but to save. We need to realize that we were all under the condemnation of sin.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.[vii]
The Son of Man came into an already lost and condemned world. He did not come into a neutral world in order to save some and condemn others; he came into a lost world (for that is the nature of the ‘world’, 1:9) in order to save some. That not all of the world will be saved is made perfectly clear by the next verses (vv. 18–21); but God’s purpose in the mission of Jesus was to bring salvation to it. That is why Jesus is later called ‘the Savior of the world’ (4:42; cf. 1 Jn. 4:14).[viii]
The key to experiencing salvation rather than condemnation is embracing the gift of love, by receiving Jesus, God the Son, as Lord and Savior of our lives.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.[ix]
Our trust in Christ delivers us from condemnation. Yet, whenever someone refuses to accept God’s sacrificial gift they not only remain under condemnation, it is an even greater condemnation because they have rejected God’s loving provision. Our society, for the most part, either ignores God entirely or else blames him for so much of the evil in the world. How often do we hear the comments that people cannot believe because of the suffering in the world? But that is really an indictment against us. It is our evil actions that cause the suffering in our world.
The story is told of an atheist barber who happened to be talking to a minister as they rode through the slums of a large city. The barber pointed out the people, ‘If there is a loving God, how can he permit all this poverty, suffering and violence among these people? Why doesn’t he save them from all this?
Just then they noticed a disheveled man crossing the street. He was unshaven and filthy, with long scraggly hair hanging down his neck. The minister pointed to him and said, ‘You’re a barber and claim to be a good one, so why do you allow that man to go unkempt and unshaven?’
‘Why, why…the barber stuttered, ‘he never gave me a chance to fix him up.’ ‘Exactly,’ said the minister. ‘Men are what they are because they reject God’s help.’[x]
The man who depreciates Christ, or thinks him unworthy of his allegiance, passes judgment on himself, not on Christ. He does not need to wait until the day of judgment; the verdict on him has been pronounced already. There will indeed be a final day of judgment (John 5:26-29), but that day will serve only to confirm the judgment already passed.[xi]
When people come to Christ, they move from living in condemnation to a freedom known only to the forgiven. We are delivered from guilt, shame, and ultimately the second death, which is eternal separation from God. The apostle Peter described the Christian life this way – that though there are trials for a season, they come to refine our faith, and he continues on with these words:
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him, and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,
For you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.[xii]
It is amazing to experience the freedom of forgiven sins, the joy of walking with God, knowing that He cares for us. It is an amazing life when we learn to cast all our cares on God and know that He cares for us. Now as a follower of Christ, we live with a compelling purpose and have confidence in an amazing eternal future in His presence where all the effects of sin are removed. We should be continuously praising God.
THE FINAL ELEMENT WE DISCOVER OF A LOVE RUNNING TO US IS THE EVIDENCE OF GOD’S LOVE
How do we know that we are experiencing God’s love in our lives? It is basically by the direction of our lives. We are either moving toward God or away from God.
A. When we move away from God it reflects a wrong heart condition.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.[xiii]
John tells us in his first letter that God is love. Sin is an absence of love, because sin separates us from God who is love (cf. Isaiah 59:2). We cannot be filled with God and living in continuous sin. This does not mean that we never sin as believers, but rather when we sin, we confess our sins in order to be forgiven and cleansed (cf. 1 John 1:8-10). When we are experiencing God’s love in our lives, it is reflected by our confidence in God, which creates courage from God.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.
In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.[xiv]
So, what are we afraid of? When we sin we are afraid of God. “Sin invariably leads the sinner to hide himself from God…”[xv] We see that immediately when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden found in the third chapter of Genesis. Their first response was to clothe themselves and hide from God.
Here we see in out text that when we do evil, it is a reflection of our attitude toward God. We are not loving God, rather we are placing ourselves in place of God. We are dethroning God from His rightful place in our lives and putting ourselves on that throne. The only problem is that we lack the wisdom to truly govern our lives aright. We are not as wise as God. He knows what is best, even when we think we know what we want and decide that it is best, but if it is not God’s will, we will suffer and so will others because of our sin.
That is why the Scriptures call for us to deny ourselves. The real test of love is not what we say to each other, but it is demonstrated by our actions. True love means putting others ahead of ourselves. Jesus explained the nature of what it means to truly love God.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple [become a lover of God, must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in this Father’s glory with the holy angels.[xvi]
In a different text Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. So what does that mean in light of the need to love ourselves and also deny ourselves?
How is it possible to value ourselves and deny ourselves simultaneously? …What we are (our self or personal identity) is partly the result of the creation (the image of God) and partly the result of the Fall (the image defaced). The self we are to deny, disown and crucify is our fallen self, everything within us that is incompatible with Jesus Christ (hence his commands ‘let him deny himself’ and then ‘let him follow me’). The self we are to affirm and value is our created self, everything within us that is compatible with Jesus Christ (hence his statement that if we lose ourselves by self-denial we shall find ourselves.) True self-denial (the denial of our false self) is not the road to self-destruction but the road to self-discovery.[xvii]
B. When we move toward God it is because of what God has done within us.
But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.[xviii]
D. A. Carson explains that these deeds are done by God’s enablement, not out of some self-righteous action independent from God.
While the lover of darkness shuns the light out of fear of exposure, shame and conviction, the lover of light does not prance forward to parade his wares with cocky self-righteousness, but comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. This strange expression makes it clear that the lover of light is not some intrinsically superior person.[xix]
Like the apostle Paul, we explain that what we are now, we are by God’s amazing grace and His loving favor which we do not deserve (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10). That which we love we run to because there is a joy and excitement. We so often see this with little children running to hug those they love. What a beautiful experience to have someone love you so much that when they see you, they run to you. That is what our God does for us.
One of the most moving parables that Jesus taught is commonly known as the ‘prodigal son.’ It is the story of two sons. One asked for his share of his inheritance, then abandoned his father’s house and squandered his inheritance in a sin-filled, self-centered lifestyle. What did the rejected father do? He continued to hope, to watch, to wait for the day his son would return. After spending his entire inheritance the younger son, in a time of suffering and soul searching decided to come home and ask his generous father to be hired on as a worker, but the father, seeing his son from a distance, ran to him, embraced him and restored him as a son. God runs to us when we come to Him. Your view of God reflects your relationship with Him. How do you see God? Do you see God as a judge condemning you or as a loving father running to you? If we come to God with a repentant heart, He will come running to us and forgive us, restores us into His amazing image.
[i] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grove, Il: Inter Varsity Press, 1986), 336-337.
[ii] Phillip Cary, The History of Christian Theology, Course Guidebook, (Chantilly, Va: 2008), 51-52.
[iii] Romans 5:8, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iv] Ephesians 2:1-5.
[v] John 3:16.
[vi] Michael Green, Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Book House, 1982), 309-310.
[vii] John 3:17.
[viii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 207.
[ix] John 3:18.
[x] Michael Green, Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 317.
[xi] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 91.
[xii] 1 Peter 1:8-9.
[xiii] John 3:19-20.
[xiv] 1 John 4:16-18.
[xv] R.V. G. Tasker, John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans, 1960), 69.
[xvi] Mark 8:34-38.
[xvii] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 282.
[xviii] John 3:21.
[xix] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 208.