Whoever Believes in Him Should Not Perish
"Whoever Believes in Him Should not Perish"
St. John 3:16-18
by William Klock
Two weeks ago we looked at John 3:16 and specifically about what it means when Jesus says that “God so loved the world.” Before we move on to Chapter 4 next week, I want to take one last look at John 3:16 and at the two verses that follow it. If you’ve got your Bibles follow along with me as I read verses 16 to 18:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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. 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.
I want to start this morning with those words in verse 16: “whoever believes in him”. We’ve seen that eternal life is made possible by the love of the Father in sending his Son who loving died for us and as his loving Spirit works in our hardened hearts to soften and turn them to him. And that’s when we believe. But what does it mean to “believe in Jesus”? We’ve all met people who are happy to say, “Oh, yes, I believe in Jesus!” And yet their lives show little or no evidence of obedience to God. They never darken the doors of a church and show no love for Jesus’ Body and no desire to be part of it. We hear people say that they believe in Jesus, but they deny his divinity or they deny that you have to make him your Lord or they deny the central truths of the Bible. In the last several weeks something called the “Insider Movement” has been in the Christian press because of their approach to missions. These people are working mainly in Muslim countries and their mission isn’t to convert Muslims (or anyone for that matter) to Christianity. They just want to introduce them to Jesus. The people they reach can stay Muslims, they can still read the Quran, still believe that Mohammed is God’s prophet, still believe everything that Mohammed taught, just so long as they “believe in Jesus” too. They’ve been in the news lately because of the Bible translations they’ve been producing—translations that avoid telling people that Jesus is God’s Son—because that part of the message forces people to make a choice between false religion and Jesus. If Jesus isn’t the Son of God, we can find ways to incorporate him into just about any belief system. The problem is that that kind of belief in Jesus won’t save you. So we have to ask: What does it mean to “believe in Jesus”? We need to understand this not only for our own benefit, but also so that we have some idea of what we need to share with people and why.
To believe in Jesus is to have faith in him and there are three aspects to faith. If any of these three elements is missing our faith falls short of what Jesus calls for here. The first of these elements is knowledge. This is why we share the Gospel. Faith has to have an object—something it believes and trusts in. People can’t have faith in Jesus if they’ve never heard of him, who he is, and what he’s done.
There are some people who seem to think that the Christian faith is nothing more than feelings or experience. The fact that Christians have worked so hard over the years to define the faith—this is why we have statements like the Creeds and our Articles of Religion—should tell us that faith is more than just feelings or experience. Those feelings and experiences need to be defined and focused on truth. This is one reason why the Bible is such a big book. There is intellectual content to our faith. It doesn’t mean that every Christian has to know and fully understand every last bit of that knowledge that God has revealed, but it does mean that there are some basic truths about God, about Jesus, and about the Gospel that we have to know. We put our faith in something and we have to know what that something is. We often say that we are saved by faith. What we really mean is that we are saved by Jesus. Faith is simply the means by which we trust in him to save us. Saving faith has Jesus as its object, and not just any Jesus, but the Jesus of the Bible.
Think of it this way. Chairs keep us from falling on the floor when we sit down. Sitting in a chair and expecting it to hold me up requires a certain measure of faith. And yet before I put faith in a chair, I actually have to know what a chair is. An empty box might look like it will give me some support, but if I sit on it I’ll find out otherwise when my backside goes right through it. Knowledge about chairs will also warn me before I put my faith in a chair with a missing leg or a chair that looks like a chair but is made out of something that isn’t strong enough to hold my weight.
Brothers and sisters, it’s knowledge of God’s truth, of who the real Jesus is, of the Cross, of the inadequacy of my works to save me—it’s this knowledge that keeps us from misdirecting our faith. When it comes to your eternal destiny you don’t want to wind up putting your faith in a religious cardboard box! (There are lots of them out there.) But neither do you want to find you’ve put your faith in a brittle or broken chair. Sometimes the problems aren’t so obvious. There are cults out there that have a Jesus who looks a lot like the Jesus of the Bible, but if he isn’t the Jesus of the Bible you’ll find out on the Last Day your faith might as well have been in a cardboard box. So when we say we “believe in Jesus” that means we believe in Jesus as he is presented to us by God in the Bible.
Second, it’s not enough just to know what the Bible says about Jesus and the Gospel. The second part of faith is that we have to agree with those truths; in other words, we have to hold the conviction that they are true. Some people may call themselves Christian, they may know what the Bible says, and yet they’ll say things like, “I don’t really believe that Jesus is God” or “I don’t really believe that God will punish my sins” or “I don’t really believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Those are all critical parts of the Gospel message itself. If you knowingly deny them you are not a Christian. At the end of his Gospel, St. John tells us, “These [accounts of Jesus’ ministry] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). It’s not enough to know who Jesus is and what he’s done; we have to believe that what we know is true.
Let’s go back to the chair analogy. I know what a chair is. I even know how to tell the difference between a good, solid chair and one that is rickety, broken, or not strong enough to hold me up. I know the difference between a chair and an empty cardboard box. I know that a chair is what will keep me from falling on the floor when I sit down. But if I’m not convinced of that knowledge, will I actually sit down in a chair? Probably not. Instead I’m going to stand here stupidly looking at the chair, forever debating in my mind whether it can or will hold me up. And just like that, there are people who have heard the truth of the Gospel, but because they aren’t convinced of its truth, they never actually put their trust in it. That’s not faith.
That leads us into the third point: trust. Real, saving faith involves trust. Trust is what takes us beyond mere knowledge of the Gospel, beyond being convicted that the Gospel is true, and leads us to truly putting it to work in our lives. Brothers and sisters, to be a Christian is to have committed—to have trusted—yourself to Jesus, sure in the knowledge that at the Cross he paid the price for your sins. Leon Morris writes, “Christian faith means the abandonment of trust in one’s own achievements and a coming to rely on what Christ has done to bring us salvation.” To go back to the chair again: real faith in the chair’s ability to hold me up is seen when I actually sit down on it—and that’s when I really sit down on it. Lots of us say we trust in Jesus, but at the end of the day, if we really look at our hearts, our faith in Jesus is something like me sitting perched on the very edge of the chair. I can sit in the chair—sort of—but still keep most of my weight on my feet. I haven’t really sat back in the chair and let it do it’s work and until I sit back and entrust myself to the chair, I’m not really having faith in the chair. Just so with Jesus. We trust ourselves to him, but we don’t trust him fully. We still lean forward; we still keep our feet on the floor and most of our weight on them. “Yes, Jesus, I trust you paid the price for my sins on the cross, but I’m still going to keep sort of trusting in my good works just in case your Cross isn’t enough.” “Yes, Jesus, I trust in you to save my soul, but if you wonder why I’m not tithing, it’s because I’m going to keep trusting in myself for my daily bread.” We do this in too many ways to count, but friends, true faith means going from knowledge, to conviction, and finally to trust, and when it comes to the Gospel, partial trust doesn’t cut it. We have to put our whole trust in Jesus. The prophet Isaiah gave King Ahaz a warning that applies to all of us: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (Isaiah 7:9). Brothers and sisters, you and I need to be firm in our faith, but as we share the Gospel with others, we can’t forget to let them know what it means to truly trust in Jesus. We can’t be satisfied with an undefined, “Oh yes, I believe in Jesus.” We need to know that they have fully trusted in him too.
Let’s move on now to those words “should not perish”. We need to understand what those words mean. We can never be effective evangelists if we don’t. A few years ago I read a book by R.C. Sproul called Saved from What? He took the title from an experience he had many years before. He opens the book by telling how one day when he was teaching theology at Temple University. He had taken a long lunch and was hurrying across campus to class when a man suddenly stepped onto the path, seemingly from out of nowhere, and simply asked him, “Are you saved?” Sproul describes how completely taken aback he was. He said the first thing that came to mind, “Saved from what?” He writes that the man was completely unprepared for that response and just stood there stammering and stuttering. Sproul writes, “Though this man had a zeal for salvation, he had little understanding of what salvation is. He was using Christian jargon….But sadly, he had little understanding of what he was so zealously trying to communicate.”
It seems like a no-brainer that if we’re going to share the Gospel with people that we need to know why we’re doing it. We’re sharing the Gospel because, as Jesus clearly tells us here, it’s only those who believe in him who will not perish everlastingly. And yet what does Jesus mean when he talks about “perishing”?
He hinted at it in verse 14 when he talked about the “serpent in the wilderness” that Moses lifted up. Remember back to the Israelites who grumbled against God and were bitten by poisonous snakes. They were perishing and many of them did perish, but those who trusted in God and looked up to the brass serpent on the pole were healed. Jesus says that as those people looked up in faith to the serpent raised up before they did not perish, so all those who look to him as he is raised up on the cross will not perish.
Going back further, those snakes that bit the Israelites point to the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God’s command. God had warned them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He warned them, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). I don’t think it was physical death that God was warning them about, because after they ate the fruit what we read about taking place was a spiritual death. Suddenly their innocence was gone and God was forced to cast them out of the garden—out of his direct presence and fellowship. They believed the serpent’s lie and let the poison of sin into their lives—a poison that led to their death. And that spiritual death is eternal. Revelation describes it as to be “tormented day and night forever”. St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that those who perish in their sins “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Brothers and sisters, when we ask, “Are you saved?” That’s what we need to be saved from: from eternal punishment for our sins.
And people will ask: “If God is loving, how can he permit anyone to perish that way?” Jesus gives us the answer in verse 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.” We need to remind people—or tell them in the first place if they don’t already know—that God is as just and holy as he loving. The same God whose love is so great that we can never fully grasp it is also a holy judge. If he were to dismiss our sin he would not be just and if he were not just he wouldn’t be God. Sin is sin and our sins—sins that we have chosen wilfully to commit—condemn us.
And then we need to take people back to God’s love. God shows his love for us in sending his own Son to die for our sins. Through Jesus he has made a way for us to be forgiven and to escape his judgement. It cost him his Son, but through faith in the sacrifice of his Son our sins can be transferred to his account at the cross. That was where he died as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Our souls hang on that act of faith. We can receive his loving offer of salvation or we can refuse it. Friends, no unbeliever will suffer in hell because God was somehow unloving. They will suffer in hell “because [they did] not believe in the name of the Son of God.”
People don’t like the idea of God condemning them and yet there’s no good reason for us to resent God’s judgement. Jesus tells us plainly, “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” (John 3:17). God isn’t a sadistic meanie who takes joy in tormenting or punishing his creatures. Brothers and sisters, we brought judgment on ourselves through our sin. We have no one to blame but ourselves for our predicament. It was God who loved us so much that even as were his enemies, actively rebelling against him, that he lovingly sent his own Son to die for us. He’s like a doctor who gives a prescription for the medicine we need to get better. It’s not his fault if we refuse to fill the prescription or if we refuse to take the medicine. If we refuse the medicine we condemn ourselves to death. It’s just like that with all those who reject Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.
Jesus’ promise is that those who believe—really believe in him as the Bible presents him to us and wholly put their trust in him—will not perish, but have eternal life. And, brothers and sisters, if by “perish” Jesus is talking about eternal spiritual death and separation from God, then to have “life” is to be restored to his presence and fellowship, and not just for today, but for all time. That’s the good news of the Gospel. I hope that everyone here has truly believed—that we’ve all got the knowledge, the conviction, and the trust that make up real, saving faith. But remember that this is the message we have to share with the people around us. The bad news is that we are sinners—sinners who have already perished and sinners who have placed ourselves in the position of being condemned. The good news is that through faith in Jesus and his Cross, our loving God offers us a way back to life.
Let us pray: Gracious heavenly Father, thank you for the Good News; thank you for sending your only Son to die in our place that we might not perish everlastingly, but have eternal life. Strengthen our faith, we ask Father, and let it be a true and saving faith. Remind us also as we share your Good News with the world, that faith is not a vague belief or affirmation about Jesus, but that we must tell people who you really are and help them to understand that they must put their whole trust in you. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.