John 3:16-21

John 3:16-21

SERIES: The Gospel of John

The Love of God

SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus

Introduction:  There is hardly a place in the world to which the Gospel of Jesus Christ has gone that John 3:16 has not become almost instantly known.  It is the first verse that translators put into another language.  It is the first verse children memorize.  It is the first verse adult converts are taught.  A multitude of songs have lyrics based on it; we heard three of them this morning.  An incomparable number of sermons have been preached on it.  In fact, I heard of one preacher of the last century who expounded on John 3:16 every Sunday for five consecutive years and never used the same outline twice.  

With that kind of richness of content, I have pondered what I can say in thirty minutes that will unfold some of the profound truths found here and still enable us to avoid the contempt that often comes with over-familiarity.  I have chosen to take a simple approach—to leave the deep, subtle, theological issues to the scholars and focus instead on the basic, elementary truths that God has placed before us.  

There are five words in John 3:16-18 which are repeated at least three times each.  Watch for them as I read our full text, John 3:16-21:  

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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 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.

Did you spot the five words?  They are as follows: God, Son, world, believe, condemned.  These form the emphases of the passage, and by putting them together we can express very clearly the theme of the text:  “God’s Son came into the world.  Believe or be condemned.”  

Now there’s something just a bit unsettling about this message.  The first part sounds great—”God’s Son came into the world.”  All of Christendom is gearing up to portray that fact in one way or another during the upcoming Christmas season.  Even the first half of the second part—”believe”—is widely accepted by most Christians as essential.  But that last phrase—”or be condemned”—sounds strangely harsh to many, and if they do not outright reject it, they certainly wish to tone it down. 

There’s a certain logic to their thinking, for according to John 3:16-17, the clear motivation for God sending His Son into the world is love and salvation.  How does love have anything to do with condemnation?  When you think of the word “love,” what do you associate with it?  “Love and what?” Well, probably “Love and marriage—’cause they go together like a horse and carriage.”  Or you might associate love with tenderness or kindness, or romance, or being a good neighbor.  

But almost no one would make the association Jesus does in this passage between love and condemnation.  The fact is that God demonstrated His love in a remarkable way, but He has also given mankind a choice, and those who choose not to embrace His love-gift automatically choose condemnation.  That is the message before us, and it is so critical to the welfare and destiny of every human being that I want us to think it through very carefully.  My outline consists of just two main points—God’s love and human choice.

God’s love (16-17)

God’s love is described for us in respect to its source, its degree, its object, its evidence, its content, its scope, its purpose and its rationale.  

Its source:  “God” Himself.  Benjamin B. Warfield, a great Presbyterian theologian born in 1851, wrote,

“We shall not make the slightest step forward in understanding our text … so long as we permit ourselves to treat the great term ‘God’ merely as the subject of a sentence….  When we pronounce the word we must see to it that our minds are flooded with some wondering sense of God’s infinitude, of His majesty…, of His holiness, of His righteousness, of His flaming purity and stainless perfection.  This is the Lord God Almighty whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, to whom the earth is less than the small dust on the balance….  What we call infinite space is but a speck on the horizon of His contemplation:  what we call infinite time is in His sight but as yesterday when it is past.  Serene is His unapproachable glory, His will is the resistless law of all existences to which their every motion conforms.  Appareled in majesty and girded with strength, righteousness and judgment are the foundations of His throne.  He sits in the heavens and does whatsoever He pleases.  It is this God, a God of whom to say that He is the Lord of all the earth is to say so little that it is to say nothing at all, of whom our text speaks….” [i]

John 3:16 tells us of this God that He so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.  Isn’t it amazing that we are loved by such a God?

The second thing our text describes about God’s love is its degree.

Its degree:  “God so loved.”  The little word “so” means “in such an infinite degree” and “in such a mind-boggling manner.”  God’s love for us is not a passing fancy, nor a vaguely sentimental emotion, nor a response dependent upon our performance.  No, it is a love incomparable and incomprehensible.  Consider the words of the hymn writer:

“The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell,

It goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell.

Could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry,

Nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.

O love of God, how rich and pure!  How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure—the saints’ and angels’ song.” 

We have a hard time understanding God’s love because our love is so often contingent and ambivalent.  We talk love and act indifference.  We are like the 4th grade class that sent a card to their teacher who was at home recovering from surgery.  The card read, “Your 4th grade class wishes you a speedy recovery—by a vote of 9 to 7.”  

God is different.  He wishes us a speedy recovery from the penalty and the power of sin, and He is not divided or half-hearted about it.  He says to our generation, as He did to the ancient Israelites:  “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).  That’s the character of God’s love.  

Its object is “the world.”  This, friends, was a startling new idea to the Jews.  They were ready enough to think of God as loving Israel, but we have no record of any Jewish writer outside the Bible ever maintaining that God loved the world.  It is a distinctively Christian idea that God’s love is wide enough to embrace all mankind and not confined to any one race, tribe, people, or nation.

Ironically, the same difficulty the Jews had with believing that God’s love goes beyond the Chosen People of the OT to the whole world is evident today in the writing of certain theologians who contend that God’s love is limited to the Elect, the Chosen People of the NT.  In fact, they will go so far as to read John 3:16 as, “God so loved the world of the elect….”  I don’t know what they fear in acknowledging that God loves even the perishing.  I guess it doesn’t fit into their logical system to have a sovereign God’s love rejected, so they prefer to deny that He ever loved the lost.  But it seems to me that Jesus could very well have said “world of the elect” if that’s what He meant.  But what He said is, “God so loved the world.”

I just wish I could tell you why God loves the world.  There’s not too much lovely about it—not its people, at least.  There are so many who are mean and perverted and manipulative and proud and insensitive to others.  For that reason, I would suggest to you that the point here is not that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but rather that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all.  “If I were as our Lord God,” cried Luther in his vivid way, “and these vile people were as disobedient as they now be, I would knock the world in pieces.” [ii]  

We may be thankful Luther was not our God!  For some reason our God has a divine love for people.  He wants to be their God and wants them to be His people.  He wants to change them and give them a future and a hope.  

Its evidence: “that He gave.”  Love is almost always demonstrated in giving.  For the next six weeks gifts are going to be uppermost in many of our minds.  Some of the gifts you buy will be a drag because you feel forced to buy them; you are expected to—like gifts for clients or fellow employees or distant relatives.  But when it comes to those you really love, your problem is that you can’t afford to give them everything you would like to give.  Right? 

Well, God so loved that He gave, and He gave the most precious possession He had.  And what exactly did God give?  

Its content: “His one and only Son.”  Perhaps your mind is drawn immediately, as is mine, to the story of Abraham and Isaac.  This aged father, who had finally realized the dream of his lifetime—to have a son by his wife Sarah, took that young son and walked him up to Mount Moriah and bound him upon an altar there and offered him to God.  And every one of us who is a father or a mother searches for words to express the awful pain that must have come to the heart of Abraham until he heard those words, “Abraham, Abraham, do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

And yet this is only an illustration, and an inadequate one at that, of the heart-rending pain our heavenly Father must have gone through when He offered His Son, His only Son, His perfect Son, His absolutely innocent Son, to die for us.  This time there was no one to stay the executioner’s hand at the last moment.  God had to see His Son actually die!  For the first time in all of history or even prehistory, the Father and His Son were spiritually separated from one another.  

Its scope: “whoever believes in Him.”  The word “whoever” is crucial, because it tells us that God has not restricted salvation to any certain race or class or age group or gender.  In fact, there is no one so wicked, so despicable, so ignorant, so old, or so anything else that God has prevented him from believing.  No one will be able to stand before God’s judgment and claim, “But I couldn’tbelieve.”  All they will be able to say is, “I didn’t believe.”  Not even the doctrine of election should be construed as watering down this term “whoever.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, that great English Baptist preacher of the last century, was a great believer in the sovereignty of God in salvation, a great believer in election (the doctrine that God takes the initiative and chooses certain individuals for salvation).  But Spurgeon preached a sermon on this little word “whoever” that does a remarkable job balancing the sovereignty of God with the responsibility of man:

“Well now, I believe the doctrine of election.  I thank God I do.  It is a precious doctrine, and let me tell you, dear friend, that the doctrine of election shuts nobody out, though it shuts a great many in.  ‘But, (someone says) I cannot come and trust Christ.’  How do you know? God says you may, and He tells you that you must; in fact, He says, “He that believes not is condemned already, because he has not believed,” thus making it a sin not to believe; so, you really have such a right to believe that it becomes even your duty.  Whatever the doctrine of election may be, we will not talk of that just at present, for it is quite certain that it cannot contradict any plain practical direction of Scripture.  Here is a plain text, which no one can deny, ‘Whosoever believes in Him will not perish but has eternal life.’  If then, you believe on Jesus Christ, you are not condemned, election or no election.” [iii]

And I would add, if you do not believe on Jesus Christ, you are condemned, election or no election.

Now before leaving this matter of the scope of God’s love reaching to whomever believes, it is important to understand that “belief” in the NT is no mere assent to certain facts; it is not a warm feeling up and down one’s spine; it is not just a verbal confession, possibly even made with tears.  Belief is placing all our confidence and trust in Jesus, recognizing that His death on the Cross for our sin provides the only bridge across the spiritual gulf that separates a holy God from sinful man.  

A personal relationship with God is available only through believing in Jesus; in that sense salvation is very exclusive.  But it is also true that whoever believes in Jesus receives eternal life; in that sense salvation is very inclusive.  

Its purpose.  The purpose of God’s love-gift is stated positively and negatively.

1.  Negatively, that whoever believes shall not perish.  Such a statement implies, of course, that perishing is a real danger.  It is going to be the experience of any who don’t believe.  We’ll speak more of this in a few moments.

2.  Positively, that whoever believes might have eternal life.  Many misunderstand eternal life, thinking of it primarily as quantity of life.  In other words, eternal life is viewed simply as life that never ends.  Some even have the mistaken notion that eternal life begins when one dies.  However, chronology is not the focus of the word “eternal;” it speaks primarily of quality of life.  Eternal life is something you can have now, not something you have to wait until you die in order to experience. Furthermore, it is a kind of life that has an eternal, divine dimension.  Later in the Gospel of John Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”  (John 10:10). That’s eternal life—life to the full.

Now just in case there is still a gap in our thinking, John offers in verse 17 the rationale as to why God would offer such a love-gift as His own son.  

Its rationale:  God’s motive was not to condemn but to save. (17). “God did not send His Son into the world for the purpose of condemning the world, but with the purpose that the world might be saved through him.”  God could have sent His Son into the world to condemn the world, for the world is certainly deserving of condemnation because of its sin and rebellion against God.  But fortunately for us, as the Scripture says in Psalm 103, “God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”  (Psalm 103:10ff) God’s motive in sending His Son was good and gracious, and the fact that some are condemned is not God’s fault but their own.

Well, that’s God’s love in its source, its degree, its object, its evidence, its content, its scope, its purpose, and its rationale.  But we have already had a hint that God’s love is not the sole theme of this passage.  Perishing and condemnation have already been mentioned as realities that need to be taken into consideration as well.  They do not reflect God’s purposes, but they are the result when men refuse God’s great gift of love.  And that brings us to the fact that God has given man a choice.

Man’s choice (18-21)

He can choose life.  (18a) 

Or, he can choose condemnation.  (18b)

Verse 18 reads, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”  Please note that the word “believes” is present tense here.  This verse is not saying that everyone who has ever made a profession of faith, or walked an aisle, or been baptized, or experienced confirmation, or prayed a prayer is free from condemnation.  All it says is that the one who is in a state of believing is free from condemnation.  By the same token the last half of the verse needs to be understood similarly, for it too speaks in the present tense.  “He who does not believe has been judged already.”  The issue is not whether one has disbelieved at some point or other in his life, but rather whether the person is persisting in unbelief.  If he is presently in a state of not believing in Jesus, then he is already under a sentence of condemnation—he doesn’t have to wait until the Final Day of Judgment.

I believe this is analogous to a man on death row.  He hasn’t been executed yet but he has already been judged.  All that is left is the carrying out of his sentence.  Of course, so long as the criminal has a breath in his body, there is the possibility that his sentence might be commuted or that he might be pardoned.  So too, so long as an unbeliever is alive, there is still the possibility of salvation if he will but repent and believe in Jesus.  But he must choose to do so—God will not force him. 

Perhaps the key point we need to understand here is that no one is in a neutral position before God, for it is not the case that there are three classes of people:  those who have believed, those who have rejected, and those who haven’t made up their minds.  No, there are only two categories:  those who are believing and possess eternal life, and those who are not believing and are condemned.  To have failed to have accepted God’s provision for your sin is equivalent to having chosen to reject it.  If you die in your unbelief, then that condemnation which has already been charged to your account will be carried out for all eternity.  

Some may object and say, “But it isn’t fair!  Why should a person spend eternity in hell for something he failed to do during a short life here on earth?  And besides, not everyone has had the same chance.”  In response, John offers us a threefold justification for the unbeliever’s condemnation:

1.  He has not believed in Jesus.  (18b) “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  The enormity of the crime of unbelief lies in the fact that God’s requirement of belief is so simple and the One in whom belief is required is so special.  If God asked us to perform great deeds of penitence, or give great sums of money, or keep great lists of laws in order to have a relationship with Him, then perhaps our charge of unfairness would be justified, for not all would be on an equal footing.  But all He has asked is that we believe in Jesus to receive eternal life.  

But furthermore, Jesus is the one and only Son of God, who perfectly obeyed the laws of God, who went about doing good, and who was sent to a cruel cross for no sin of His own to purchase our redemption.  When a man refuses to accept such a Savior, condemnation is what he deserves and will get.  

A visitor was being shown around an art gallery by one of the attendants.  In that gallery there were certain masterpieces beyond all price—possessions of eternal beauty and unquestioned genius.  At the end of the tour the visitor said, “Well, I don’t think much of your old pictures.” The attendant answered quietly, “Sir, I would remind you that these paintings are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are.”  

Jesus Christ is no longer on trial.  But those who look at Him are.  If a man, when confronted with God’s greatest gift, sees nothing demanding his total allegiance, then he stands condemned.  Nor is it God who condemned the man; God only loved him.  The man condemned himself.  

But if the issue is so clear-cut, why do many choose condemnation when eternal life is offered?  Verse 19 tells us it is because man prefers sin.

2.  He actually prefers sin.  (19) “This is the verdict:  Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”    I have on other occasions expressed my strong conviction that no one really has an intellectual problem with the Gospel.  People don’t reject Christianity because it is intellectually naive or philosophically inconsistent.  People reject it because they have moral problems with it.  They have sin in their lives.  Some break God’s commandments wholesale; others are guilty of more “acceptable sins,” like pride and self-reliance and a spirit of independence from God.  

Whatever the case, the moral life we choose does affect our beliefs, for no one is able over a long period of time to exist with beliefs and behavior out of balance.  Either our behavior must change to conform to our beliefs, or our beliefs must change to conform to our behavior.  Tragically, many choose to reject the truth in favor of continuing a sinful lifestyle.  

Finally, John gives one more reason for God’s condemnation of the unbeliever.  

3.  He hates the light.  (20-21) Verse 20:  “Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”  The strife between light and darkness is no lukewarm affair, as anyone knows who has observed the battle over abortion or pornography or the homosexual lifestyle, or the battle for the teaching of abstinence in our schools.  When the lawsuit of the Good News/Good Sports Club against the Ladue School Board goes to trial tomorrow morning in the Federal Courthouse, it will not be simply a sorting out of legal rights; it will also reveal the bitter hatred of the forces of evil against the light of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

The reason sinful man refuses to come to the light is that the light shows his darkness for what it is, and that is a very uncomfortable process.  Man is not unlike the termite, doing his dastardly deeds in the dark, building mud tunnels he supposes are beyond the purview of the Creator.  Only when the light breaks through does the destruction stop to himself and society.

Conclusion:  When I was a small child, I was taught to put my name in John 3:16 and read it like this: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that if Michael Andrus should believe in Him, he will not perish but have everlasting life.”  But John Newton, the one-time slave trader and despicable sinner, who came to faith in Christ and later wrote the great hymn, “Amazing Grace,” used to say that it was a great deal better for him that John 3:16 had the word “whosoever”in it than the name, “John Newton.”  Why?  Because there might be some other John Newton to whom the text was written, but “whosoever” meant this John Newton, that John Newton, and any other John Newton, whoever he might be!  John 3:16, friend, applies even to you.  

To sum it up:  God loved; God gave.  We believe; we have eternal life.  Could anything be simpler?  Have the stakes ever been higher?  Won’t you believe in Jesus and receive Him today as your Savior and Lord?  You say, “Well, I have been thinking about it.”  Thinking about it will not do.  Spurgeon once wrote that if you continue to think about it “you will think yourself into hell.”  

The Bible does not even ask you to pray about it.  It simply calls upon you to believe and receive.  “Now is the accepted time,” God says, “behold, now is the day of salvation.”  (2 Cor. 6:2)

I want to conclude where I began.  The five key words in our passage offer us this theme: God’s Son came into the World.  Believe or be Condemned.  Failure to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord will have devastating consequences for you, not only in this life but for all eternity.  But now in a moment of time you can step out of darkness into light.  Today you can pass death into life, from condemnation to an eternal relationship with the living God.  Won’t you receive God’s amazing love-gift right now?

DATE: November 15, 1992


Love of God




[i] Benjamin B. Warfield, citation lost.

[ii] Martin Luther, Table Talk, CXI.

[iii] Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons, Vol. 13, 153-4. 

John 4:1-30