Great Themes of the Bible (#1-Salvation)

“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.”

Someone has called this verse the “heart of the Bible.” Others refer to it as “The Golden Text of the Bible.” I think of it as the gospel in miniature. It is probably the best-known and most-often-quoted single verse from the New Testament. It is so simple a child can understand it; yet its distillation of theological truth about salvation challenges the most brilliant minds of any age. As we begin a series of thirty studies of “Great Themes of the Bible,” I could not imagine a better place to begin.

Since this is the first lesson in this series, may I be presumptuous enough to make a few suggestions? First, resolve right now to be present for every Sunday morning possible in this series of studies. It will be the most systematic way I could suggest for you to study, understand, and decide the value for you of the core truths of the Christian faith. And if Wednesdays at 7 p.m. are possible for you, we will tandem each Sunday study of a great biblical theme with a more informal reflection on it. Second, please pick up a free copy of the workbook “Thirty Discipleship Exercises” in the lobby as you leave today. Each of the thirty themes I will be preaching on Sunday and Wednesday has a brief two-page study guide to walk you through some practical insights and applications for your life. Third, why not consider joining — or forming — a Bible-study group around these studies. I’ll help you find a group, if you don’t have one. Or I’ll talk with you about how to form such a group. It will be a wonderful way to focus your own heart on these things by having others around you in the same process.

“The Greatest”

Do you know why John 3:16 is called the “heart of the Bible”? Do you have any idea why it is such a beloved verse to Christians around the world and across the centuries? I suspect it is because this verse offers the single best summary of everything that is most critical to faith. If Muhammad Ali really was “The Greatest” at what he did in his prime, this verse is “The Greatest” at telling you what matters most for your life.

“God” . . . The Greatest Lover
“So loved” . . . The Greatest Degree
“The world” . . . The Greatest Rebels
“That he gave” . . . The Greatest Unselfishness
“His one and only son” . . . The Greatest Gift
“That whoever” . . . The Greatest Invitation
“Believes” . . . The Greatest Simplicity
“In him” . . . The Greatest Attraction
“Shall not perish” . . . The Greatest Rescue
“But” . . . The Greatest Contrast
“Have” . . . The Greatest Certainty
“Eternal Life” . . . The Greatest Possession

For someone who is a Christian, this verse is a title deed to everything he or she deems ultimately valuable. For someone who is curious about Christianity, it is a summary declaration of all he or she must know to understand its meaning. For someone who is lost, it is the way home to God.

I would like for you to think of this verse in terms of three cardinal truths. Maybe you’d even like to circle the three words in this verse that I have circled on the page of my own Bible at John 3:16. Each word is a thunderbolt to the heart that explains an essential element of the Christian faith. The words I have circled in my Bible are these: “loved,” “gave,” and “believes.”

Three Central Themes

God’s Love. There are many things we know about God from nature and reason. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psa. 19:1). “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). There are many more things about God that cannot be discovered through our reflection and reason that are revealed to us in Holy Scripture. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But the most wonderful thing about God is not that he is powerful and creative, that he is majestic and worthy of worship, or even that he is mysterious and beyond our ability to comprehend. The most wonderful thing about God is that loves us! No matter how far you are from him, no matter what you’ve done that betrayed him, no matter how unworthy and guilty you feel before him, God loves you.

A sociologist was writing a book about the special challenges of growing up in a large family. Among the families he studied was one with thirteen children. As he interviewed the mother of those children, he asked, “Do you think all children deserve the full, impartial love and attention of a mother?” Her answer was a simple and near-terse, “Of course.” Then, perhaps thinking he would catch her in a contradiction, he asked his next question of her: “Well, which of your children do you love the most?”

The mother gave this brilliant reply of love to her interviewer: “The one who is sick until he gets well, and the one who is away until he gets home.”

Her reply makes me think of three stories Jesus told one day, right after the other. The first was about a shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep to go in search of one that was lost (Luke 15:3-7), the second about a woman who laid nine silver coins on her table to search for one that had been misplaced (Luke 15:8-10), and the third about a daddy who threw a party when his wayward son came home (Luke 15:11-32).

God’s Gift. The ultimate proof of God’s love came wrapped up in a gift box of human flesh, vulnerability, and redemptive care in Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. With all the evidence Christians can point to of God’s existence, power, and concern for his human creatures, unbelievers answer back with a case against the existence of a loving God by reminding us how much pain, poverty, and perversity there is in the world. As a Christian philosopher and theologian, I frame intellectual responses to their objection — known collectively as the problem of evil. The bottom line of my response, however, is simply to point to Jesus.

God didn’t respond to the dismal mess we humans have made of our world by framing an argument but by coming down here and subjecting himself to everything we have to experience. From birth to death — in his case, a whispered-about birth and a tragic-beyond-imagination death. From friendship to betrayal. From popularity to rejection. He experienced the same things we have to face. “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:17-18).

The final step in Jesus’ self-giving love is not simply his identification with us in human frailty or even his temptations and vulnerability. The final step was the act by which he was able to “make atonement for the sins of the people” he loved. And that took him to Calvary.

One of the seven astronauts who lost their lives in the tragic explosion of the spece shuttle Challenger was Christa McAuliffe. She was to have been the first school teacher in space. One teacher said, “When Christa stepped onto that shuttle, we stepped on with her. And when she died, a part of us died too.” Maybe that is why her name is the best remembered by the larger public from that awful day.

That is why Christians remember the name of Jesus Christ. We believe we stepped onto Skull Hill with him that day. We believe something of us died with him that day. We believe that his triumph over the tomb means that we can have his own new life as our hope, joy, and confidence against an uncertain future. We say, “When he was lifted up on that cross, we were there. When he died, we died. Because he lives, we have eternal life as his free gift to us!”

Our response. But it must be pointed out that God’s love and gift are never forced on anyone. It must be accepted. So there is a response to be made to the cross: “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

While Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson was President of the United States, a man was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die. President Jackson wrote a pardon document for that man, but the condemned felon refused the pardon. Prison authorities, the Attorney General of the United States, and his family all tried to persuade the man to accept the pardon. Why, it would be an insult to the president to refuse it! The man stubbornly refused.

Finally the matter went to the Supreme Court. The question was put to that body: Is pardon a unilateral matter? Or does a condemned felon have to accept pardon when it is offered? Or, put another way still, can the legal system force a man to receive a pardon against his own will. The court ruled that the pardon was merely a printed document until accepted by the person to whom it is offered. If he rejects the pardon, it is nothing more than words on paper.

The pardon God offers condemned sinners is not unilateral. Oh, it is — like all pardon — by grace. Grace alone! But it is not really a pardon until that grace is received by faith. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

Faith is essentially a matter that combines intellect, will, and behavior. You must know and believe what God has done for you through Christ, choose to accept and trust that as your hope for eternal life, and begin a life of obedience and surrender to him. You must decide that God’s love means more than your foolish pride, God’s gift is more valuable than the fool’s gold of this world, and your life henceforth will be lived for his glory and pleasure.

Turning away from your sin, you turn to Christ for his pardon. And he affirms that pardon to you in baptism. When you’re dirty, what do you need to do? Take a bath? So God gives you a bath in water to signify what he is doing to your heart because you have chosen to trust Jesus. Baptism “washes away your sin” — not, of course, because of the water but by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ alone (Acts 22:16). Being saved, after all, is “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God” (1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism is a grace-gift that is accepted in a faith-action; it is not a works-display with saving merit.

Your next faith-act is to commit yourself to a community of believers where you will find support, encouragement, and practical help in coming to terms with a mind, heart, and life that have been surrendered to God. Your faith may require you to alter your lifestyle radically. It may need propping up from more mature believers who’ve already made some of the same life changes you’ll need to make. So a church becomes important as a teaching place, a worshiping place, a mentoring place, a safe place. One by one, God will show you the steps of faith and obedience that will be necessary to conform you to the image of his Son and to bring you to fulness in Jesus Christ. And it will be all right for you to be patient with that transformation process, for he will be incredibly patient with you as it proceeds.


Bob Benson, in his Come Share the Being, tells of sending a son off to college. The school was 700 miles away from the family home. He and his wife knew it would be difficult, but they thought they were prepared for the event. So their hearts were filled with pride as the boy drove off. He writes: “Oh, our hearts were filled with pride at a fine young man and our minds were filled with memories from tricycles to commencements, but deep down inside somewhere we just ached with loneliness and pain. Somebody said you still have three at home — three fine kids and there is still plenty of noise, plenty of ball games to go to, plenty of responsibilities, plenty of laughter, plenty of everything . . . EXCEPT MIKE. And in parental math five minus one just doesn’t equal plenty.”

Here is what Benson wrote next: “And I was thinking about God. He sure has plenty of children — plenty of artists, plenty of singers, and carpenters, and candlestick makers, and preachers, plenty of everybody . . . EXCEPT YOU and all of them together can never take your place. And there will always be an empty spot in his heart — and a vacant chair at his table when you’re not home. And if once in a while it seems he’s crowding you a bit — try to forgive him. It may be one of those nights when he misses you so much he can hardly stand it.”

Are you feeling his loneliness for you today? If so, this would be a good time to come home. God is waiting there to save you.


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