Rev James S. Sinclair
Text: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” John 3:16.
WE are told in the opening verses of this chapter that Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus by night. Nicodemus had become secretly convinced that Jesus was no ordinary man, but a teacher who possessed the presence and power of God in His work. He was, therefore, anxious to meet Jesus, but to escape observation, came by night, and said unto Him, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” It was no doubt a great step on the part of Nicodemus to give this testimony, if we consider his as yet imperfect knowledge, and the keen sense he had of the enmity with which his Jewish brethren regarded Christ.
The testimony, however, true as far as it went, was inadequate in at least two important respects. First, Nicodemus appeared to have nothing more than a belief in Jesus drawn from the observation of His miracles. The belief was therefore only natural or intellectual. “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The Lord Jesus did not in His reply proceed to convince Nicodemus of the inadequacy of his faith by a process of reasoning, but with all authority declared unto him the great fundamental doctrine of the new birth, without the experimental knowledge of which a man could in no wise see the kingdom of God. Natural knowledge, without an inward radical universal change in his soul by the communication of a new spiritual life, would be of no avail.
The second inadequate feature in the testimony of Nicodemus was his acknowledgment of Christ simply as “a teacher come from God.” He did not as yet apprehend that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Son of the living God. The Lord Jesus therefore graciously led him on from the consideration of the “earthly things,” things that concerned the new birth which required to take place in his soul on earth, to contemplate “heavenly things” concerning Himself who had come from heaven as the Saviour of sinners.
In unfolding these “heavenly things” Jesus declares Himself to be “he who came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (verse 13), in one word testifying both to His humanity and divinity. Then, after announcing with evident reference to His death upon the cross, and its consequent benefits, that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life,” He proceeds to give a full epitome of the great work of salvation from its origin to its end, in the remarkable words of our text. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Let us now, therefore, in dependence upon the Spirit of God, consider:
I.The love of God: “God so loved.”
II.The objects of His love: “the world.”
III.The manifestation of it: “that he gave his only begotten Son,” and
IV.The ends of the whole design: “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
I. The love of God. In speaking of this wondrous love we shall take occasion to point out, first, its nature, and secondly, its properties.
1. Its nature. It is very important that we should know the exact nature of this love, as many have erred concerning the faith in regard to it. Many are not slow to ascribe even to the love of God these weaknesses that are characteristic of natural affection among men. According to Arminians it is at best but a weak ineffectual thing, because, if it is set upon all men, as they say, it fails to secure the salvation of multitudes of its objects, who perish in their sins. This is not the love of God revealed in the Bible, for the latter is an effectual, saving love, and no other will meet the case of helpless, perishing sinners.
(1) Let us observe then that the love of God here set forth is not a natural affection whose exercise towards men His nature necessarily demands. The love of God viewed as natural and necessary is only to be seen in exercise between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the glorious Godhead. This love is an essential element in the blessedness of the Triune God. But the love of God to creatures is not essential to His blessedness. He is eternally blessed in Himself, and would have been so had no creature ever existed. He required no object of satisfaction outside Himself. The very existence of creatures is a pure act of His good pleasure. To say, therefore, that His love to men is a necessary affection of His nature is to make Him dependent for part of His blessedness upon His creatures. This is derogatory to His all-sufficiency as the self-existent God, and makes Him a dependent being. This changes God into a creature. His own word declares Him to be “blessed for ever, and dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto” (1 Timothy 6:16.) The conclusion, therefore, is that His love to His creatures is not a natural and necessary affection. Let no one think, however, that it is any less glorious on this account. It is a revelation of His character which results in the deliverance from everlasting misery, and the entrance into eternal life, of a vast number of unworthy sinners of Adams race.
(2) What, therefore, does this love actually consist in? It consists in a free voluntary purpose on the part of God to reveal His goodness in the salvation of men. “I will make all my goodness pass before thee” (Exodus 33:19). The Scriptures declare that God is good, and the love which He has set upon sinners for their salvation is a manifestation of the boundless goodness of His character. This manifestation was not natural and necessary, but voluntary, and therefore originated in the will of God. He willed to show the riches of His goodness; He willed to set His love upon sinners, and so we find in the Scriptures the purpose and the love of God inseparably united. His eternal purpose to save sinners, and His eternal love are frequently spoken of as expressing the same thing. They are also mentioned together, as in the following passages: “I will love them freely” (Hosea 14: 4). “Be thou partakers of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; who hath saved us . . . according to his own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:8, 9). The purpose and love of God, having reference to one and the same end, and to one and the same persons, must infallibly secure the salvation of their objects. “The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever.” “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance” (Psalm 33:11, 12). We shall now speak of the properties of this love which further disclose its glorious character.
2. Its properties. These are the following:
(1) It is eternal love. The love of God to sinners existed before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). It shall also last through eternity. “I have loved thee with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3).
(2) It is infinite and unchangeable love. God is infinite, and this is the love, not of a finite being, but of Him who is the infinite God. When it is said that “God loved,” the love is necessarily like Himself, and therefore infinite. “God is love.” It is also unchangeable. “I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). His peoples sins are fitted to provoke Him to withdraw His love, but, saith He, “The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee” (Isaiah 54:10).
(3) It is undeserved and unmerited love. It is undeserved, because the objects of it were sinners, rebels, “children of wrath even as others.” Instead of love they deserved the everlasting hatred of God. “Thou hatest all workers of iniquity” (Psalm 5:5). It is also unmerited. They who deserved the wrath and curse of God could not merit any good thing, far less His eternal and unchangeable love. No merit can purchase this love. The merits of Christ did not purchase it; they are its immediate fruits. The love of God in Christ Jesus not only gave eternal life to sinners, but removed the barriers which, on account of sin, law and justice had righteously set up between God and men, and which would have effectually prevented them from ever enjoying His love.
(4) It is love unto salvation. It is not a fruitless sentiment in the mind of God, but is efficacious to the salvation of sinners. It absolutely secures the salvation of its objects. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).
(5) Lastly, it is sovereign love. God passed by fallen angels, and loved fallen men. Nor is it set upon all men. It is only set upon such as were “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Romans 9:13). Instead of quarrelling with the divine sovereignty it becomes us to wonder that the least love or mercy should be shown to even one of our hell-deserving race. Rebels who deserve to be cast into everlasting woe, as the righteous reward of their sins, may well marvel that the infinitely holy God should set His love upon an innumerable company of them. The Lord hath said, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.” This sovereign mercy is revealed in Christ, and the most direct way to its enjoyment is for us to come as unworthy sinners, and ask for it at the feet of a sovereign God in Christ Jesus. Such persons will speedily learn that it is “no vain thing” to wait upon God. Yea, He has given a free invitation to all to look to Himself as the only Saviour. “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:22).
II. The objects of His love: “the world.”
Under this head we shall consider, first, the character and state, and secondly, the number of these persons, as designated by “the world.”
1. What is their character and state? Their character is that they are sinners. They broke the law in their natural head, Adam; they are possessed of a corrupt nature, and have committed innumerable actual transgressions against the same law. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). None of the human race, the elect included, are anything less than sinners. Sin has also made them rebels. We are rebels against the authority of God, because we despise His law and trample it under our feet. “We have rebelled even by departing from thy
precepts and thy judgments” (Daniel 9:5). Further, we are enemies against God. “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). We are therefore filthy and polluted in the sight of God. What is more foul than enmity to that God who is “glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” Such is the character of “the world.”
What is the state of “the world?” The whole world is under the righteous curse of God. For “cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them” (Galatians 3:10). All have not only failed to keep the law, but all have transgressed its precepts, either in thought, word, or deed, so that all are without mistake under the curse.
It is upon such persons, as were enemies to Himself and under His righteous curse, that God set His eternal and everlasting love. They were meet fuel for hell, yet He loved them, that they might be made meet for the enjoyment of eternal glory. It is therefore matter of great encouragement to all who hear the Gospel that it is sinners whom God loves. It is unholy rebels and enemies whom He has chosen in Christ from all eternity, and therefore souls, sensible of their miserable and guilty condition, are encouraged to look to Him who loved vile sinners, and sent His Son “to be the propitiation for their sins.”
2. Why are they designated “the world” in respect of number? Because God loved persons “out of every kindred, tongue, people, and nation” in the world. (Revelation 5:9). It was a common misunderstanding on the part of the Jews that God had a gracious regard to no people but themselves. Under the old dispensation He showed them His peculiar favour, but He clearly intimated by His servants, the prophets, that the Gentiles should in due time be brought into the Church, and that “all the ends of the earth should see the salvation of our God.” “The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isaiah 60:3). Many passages might be quoted from the Old Testament in proof of this truth, and the New Testament is full of it. The Apostle Paul points out in the second of Ephesians that Christ by His precious blood had brought those nigh who were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenant of promise,” and it is these same persons whom he speaks of in the first chapter of this epistle as chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. The coming of Christ was therefore the time at which this great enlargement of the Churchs borders was to take place, and so the apostles are bold to declare the love of God to Gentiles as well as Jews, yea, to sinners of all nations under heaven. It was for this end that the Lord Jesus commissioned them, saying, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
An error on this important doctrine has crept into the professing Church, and we would do well to beware of it. At the time of Christs appearance the erroneous tendency was to limit the love of God, and the hope of salvation to one people, now the tendency is to extend this love to a degree unwarranted by the Word of God. For this purpose the expression “world” in our text is taken as applying to every person that ever was or shall be born into the world. God is therefore said to have loved all men in the widest sense of the term. Various passages of Scripture are used to establish this view. We believe, however, that, in the case of all passages so used, an unwarrantable construction is put upon them, and that, if closely examined, they teach nothing but what is in perfect harmony with the clearly-revealed doctrine, that Gods love, while extending to sinners of every nation, is set only upon some, though many, whom He chose in Christ from everlasting. In order, therefore, to guide our hearers in the examination of such passages, we shall state a principle laid down by eminent divines: Every place in Scripture, where universality is apparently attributed to the love of God, the atonement, or the salvation of men, has a limitation in the context, and a decided limitation in the analogy of the faith.
If we apply this rule to the passage before us we find that there is a limitation in the very heart of it. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” not that all universally, but “that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish.” Again, in the following verse we are told that “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” “The world” is here unmistakeably used in a limited sense, for the Son did not come to save the whole world, otherwise the whole world would have been saved. Vast multitudes of the race were in eternity, and many of them, sad to say, in a lost eternity, before He appeared in the flesh. The Saviour also declared that the wicked should go away into everlasting punishment, and so many would be lost forever. Observe further in the first chapter of this Gospel, tenth verse, that the expression “world” is used in the same verse in two distinct senses. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” In the first two clauses of this verse “world” includes the material creation, while in the last clause it refers only to man. Even in the last clause the expression “world” has a further limitation. It cannot be said that none of the “world” knew Christ. Some did know and receive Him, for we are told almost immediately after that “as many as received him to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” “The world” must therefore be taken in the above passage either as the unregenerate, or as the greater portion of the world. It is in fact perfectly clear, that this word must be taken in an indefinite sense in many parts of Scripture, and that such indefinite expressions must be understood in the light of those that are definite. If you wrench such words as “world” and “all” from their context you can easily give them a universal meaning of the widest extent, but it is the duty of the reader of Scripture, yea, of any book whatsoever, to consider every word in the light of its context, and thus to learn its correct meaning. When, therefore, we look at this same Gospel where the word “world” so frequently occurs, we find that in no portion of the Word of God is the doctrine of Gods love to the elect only more clearly set forth, “All that the Father giveth me shall come unto me” (John 6:37). “Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him” (John 17:2). “I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world” (verse 6). “I pray for them; I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me” (verse 9). All these passages clearly prove that it was not all but a portion of the human race which God gave to Christ that they might be saved.
It is not ours, however, to conclude that, because all are not chosen, we ought not to trouble ourselves about the matter of salvation. It is our highest duty to seek an interest in that salvation which God in His eternal love has provided in Christ, and no other consideration whatsoever can relieve us from this duty. “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6, 7).
III. The manifestation of His love: “that he gave his only begotten Son.” It is evident from these words that it is God the Father who is spoken of in the text as having “so loved the world” as to give His only begotten Son. This display of love is exceptionally wonderful and glorious. In speaking of the gift of the Son we shall refer, first, to the gift of God, and secondly, to the immediate purposes for which He was given.
1. The gift of God was His only begotten Son. “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. When there were no depths, I was brought forth” (Proverbs 8:22-24). He was by eternal generation the only begotten Son of the Father. He is also co-equal with the Father in substance, power and glory. The Father is God, but the Son is also God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). What an unspeakable manifestation of love is it that the Father gave the Son, who is also God over all, for the salvation of hell-deserving sinners? The gift of all the angels and archangels in heaven, and all created existences together were nothing to this. The redeemed may well say, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
2. The immediate purposes for which God gave His Son. These provide a marvellous manifestation of this love.
(1) He “gave him to be head over all things to the Church, which is his body” (Ephesians 1:22). The Father in the everlasting covenant gave the Son to be the head and representative of elect sinners, that in this capacity He might perform the work of a mediator between God and guilty men, and in due time accomplish their eternal salvation. The Son as Creator was infinitely exalted above their persons, as creatures, and as holy, was also infinitely exalted above them, as sinners, yet the Father willingly gave Him that He might be their surety and substitute, and thus take their place under the law, satisfy justice, and obtain for them eternal redemption, and eternal life. The Son, with equal love and willingness, undertook the work. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
(2) God actually gave the Son “in the fulness of the time” to perform the work committed to Him. This work involved a life of humiliation, obedience and suffering on the earth. It was necessary, therefore, that the Son should assume human nature, the assumption of which was His first act of humiliation. It was humiliation for the Creator of heaven and earth to veil His glory, and to take flesh and blood. He was born a little child in Bethlehem, and in a low condition. His mother was a humble virgin, and His birth place was a manger. There was no room for mother and child in the inn. There was no room among men for Him who dwelt in the bosom of the Father amidst the unspeakable glories of heaven from all eternity. His first dwelling-place on earth after His birth was in a stable among the beasts that perish. Such was the deep humiliation that attended His birth in the flesh. All His future life in this world was a life of humiliation. He hungered, thirsted, was weary, and had not where to lay His head, and all this was done that His people might be delivered from the miseries that their sins deserved, and might enjoy a blessing instead of a curse.
Further, He was made “under the law” in the room of His people. This involved Him in the imputation of their sins. He who was holy, harmless, undefiled, bore the sins of a company which no man can number. “He hath made him to be sin for us,” says the Apostle, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Son of God, having the sins of men laid upon Him, suffered the curse due to these sins. For this reason He suffered from men, devils, and the justice of God. The last act of suffering was, when He endured the infinite wrath of God on the cross. It was then He drank the full cup of the righteous indignation of God, paid the full penalty that justice demanded, and finished the work of redemption. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
In all this work we behold the love of God to guilty sinners. Abraham laid his son upon the altar, but was not permitted to shed his childs blood. But here, we have God the Father, for the great love wherewith He loved accursed sinners, drawing the sword of infinite justice, and bathing it in the precious blood of His eternal Son. “Awake, O sword, against my Shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, said the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 13:7). The Son cried, “It is finished,” and gave up the ghost. The dignity of His person added infinite merit to the sufferings of His humanity, and justice received infinite satisfaction. The work of redemption was thus completed for ever.
We have to observe, however, that the Lord Jesus not only willingly and lovingly endured all necessary sufferings in order to satisfy a broken law, but he kept the law perfectly in its precept in the room of His Church. He fulfilled the covenant of works, so as to obtain the promise of eternal life, originally lost by His people in Adam their first covenant head. The law of God is summarily comprehended in these two great commandments, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul, and strength, and mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” The Son of God rendered infinitely perfect obedience to this law, and so obtained eternal life for His people. He, therefore, secured not only eternal redemption, but eternal life, not only everlasting freedom from the curse, but the everlasting enjoyment of the favour and fellowship of God. “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Some represent the work of redemption, as if it were solely the interposition of Christ between the Father, as an angry judge, and men as guilty sinners, and thus as if the Father showed no love at all. This is a very unscriptural view of the work. In every step of it, from its origin in the covenant of grace to its execution in the incarnation, obedience and death of Christ, we have as surely the display of the Fathers love to sinners as we have of the Sons. The Father undoubtedly displayed His righteous wrath in the curse of the law, and in the sufferings of Christ upon the cross. But it was He also who, out of His eternal love to sinners, provided His own Son as a sacrifice in their stead. We see therefore in the cross of Christ a glorious manifestation of the love of God to guilty men, for He spared not His Son, but freely gave Him up to an accursed death, that poor sinners might be set free. “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
IV. The ends of the whole design: “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
1. The first end is that sinners may believe in the Son of God. To believe in the Son is to “receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation, as he is freely offered in the gospel.” No one is excluded from believing in Him in virtue of any natural circumstances whatsoever. Race or rank is no obstacle. Whosoever, young or old, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, moralist or open sinner, believeth in Him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. Faith, however, is absolutely necessary. It is only “he that believeth that shall be saved.” “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
A historical faith is not sufficient. We may believe by our natural powers the historical record of the work of redemption, and have no saving knowledge of Christ. Saving faith is the gift of God, and the fruit of His Spirits work in the soul. “By grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). This faith is a consequence of the new birth. What is its first effect? It unites the soul to Christ. Christ offers Himself as a Saviour in the gospel, and the soul, by this heavenly faith, receives and rests upon Christ for all the ends of salvation for which He came into the world.
2. The second end is that believers “should not perish, but have everlasting life.” No sooner is a sinner united to Christ by faith than he obtains two benefits. The first is, freedom from the curse of the law from which Christ has redeemed His people. That curse is “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). The believer shall not perish, because he is now no longer under the curse. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The second benefit is everlasting life. Christ says that He gives unto His sheep eternal life. This eternal life begins in spiritual life. The dead sinner is made partaker of spiritual life in the new birth. Faith is the outcome of this spiritual life, and it is the same life that will eventually be swallowed up in eternal life. This eternal life is in heaven, but the believer becomes an heir of it here, through his union to Christ by faith. He is therefore said to have everlasting life, because he is a rightful heir of it in Christ Jesus. Believers are heirs of an “inheritance that is incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for them who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (1 Peter 1:4, 5). The love of the Father, the obedience of the Son, and the work of the Holy Spirit, concur to this gracious and blessed end.
Application. (1) If you are still in your natural state, you are dead in sins, under the curse of God, and in danger of hell fire for ever. God, in His eternal love, gave His beloved Son, that He might die, and open up a way of escape and salvation for even such as you. Now, in the day of your merciful visitation, seek grace to believe in Christ, lest you perish for ever. At the judgment seat you will have to answer, not only for your transgression of the law, but for your rejection of the gospel. If you are then found in your sins you will have to bear the wrath of the Lamb, and the punishment of unbelief through eternity. Flee now for your life to Christ, the only refuge for sinners from the tempest of the wrath of God. “Seek ye me,” saith the Lord, “and ye shall live” (Amos 5:4).
(2) You that have good reason to hope you were enabled by grace to believe in Christ, seek a deepening sense of your absolute unworthiness of any good thing at the hand of God, and especially of the salvation that He has provided in His beloved Son. The more lively your faith in Christ the deeper will be the sense of your constant need of dependence upon Him in all His fulness. Seek to get such a measure of nearness to Him by faith as to be filled with ever-increasing wonder and praise at the eternal unchangeable love of God manifested in His Son, to such unworthy, hell-deserving sinners. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”