Monday, August 06, 2012

Salvation and Condemnation (John 3:17-21)


Baptists are something of an exception among Christians of the world in that typically we do not recite a creed during our worship services. Baptists have typically claimed for themselves, “No creed but Christ,” and looked to the entire Bible as our rule of faith and practice. But it is not that we could not affirm widely accepted Christian creeds like the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. With the exception of a phrase added late into the Apostles’ Creed about Jesus “descending into hell,” we could affirm these statements as doctrinal summaries of the Christian faith. So, for instance, if today you were worshiping in a church of some other denomination, you might confess aloud together the words of the Apostles’ Creed, in which you would affirm your faith in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord. As you recite that creed and speak of your faith in Jesus Christ, you would affirm your belief that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. You would affirm that on the third day He rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven, where He sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. And then you would say, “from thence He shall come to judge the quick (or, “the living”) and the dead.” It is an essential component of orthodox Christian belief that there is coming an ultimate and final day of judgment in which some will be saved and others condemned. The Bible speaks of this fact clearly and often, in the Old and New Testaments.

Typically, in literature, art, and folk beliefs, the idea of “judgment day” is employed to evoke fear and trembling. Think about it: there is coming a day in which you will stand before a perfectly holy God who knows everything that can be known about you. He knows your every thought, your every word, your every deed, your every attitude and affection, and your every motivation. He will pass perfect judgment and an eternal sentence upon you, which is based on His perfect knowledge of you. Is that a terrifying thought? I imagine it is something we do not like to think about very often. But what if you knew the outcome of that day already? We tend to fear the unknown, and if we do not know what verdict will be pronounced on us on judgment day, then there is much to fear. But perhaps if you already knew the outcome, it would relieve some fears, or maybe it would intensify the fears of some as a sort of wake up call to make a change in life. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how you will fare on judgment day? Well, the Bible tells us that you can.

In John 3:17, Jesus says that He was not sent into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He says similarly in John 12:47, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” However, in John 9:39, Jesus says, “For judgment I came into the world,” and in John 5:22-27, Jesus says that the Father has given all judgment to the Son, and given Him the authority to execute judgment. It was in Acts 10:42 that Peter proclaimed that statement that has become the basis of the creedal phrases, saying that Jesus “has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.” To some this seems like a contradiction. Did Jesus or did He not come to judge the world?

The Greek word translated “judge” here in verse 17 is used several times here in the immediate context with a decidedly negative connotation. Therefore many English versions have rendered the word accurately as “condemn.” Thus, here in John 3, Jesus is saying that the purpose of His coming into the world was not to pronounce condemnation on the world. Rather, He came to offer salvation to the world. The interesting thing about salvation is that it would be unnecessary unless there was some imminent danger. We could speak of someone being saved from drowning, or saved from a burning building. No one has ever spoken of being saved from a restful vacation on a tropical beach, or saved from a beautiful afternoon on the golf course. Jesus did not need to come into the world to condemn the world, because, in the words of John 3:18, humanity was “condemned already.” In order to rescue humanity from that condemnation, Jesus came to offer salvation. And those who refuse His offer, find themselves condemned under judgment rather than saved from it. So, there is no contradiction. His coming does result in judgment, and that judgment will be salvation for some and condemnation for others. But He did not come to condemn; rather He came to offer salvation to those already condemned.

Our text here in John 3:17-21 speaks of those who are condemned and those who are saved. And these are spoken of, not as they will be declared on a coming day of judgment, but as they already are. Those who are condemned are spoken of here as “condemned already,” while those who are saved are spoken of as “not condemned.” So, let us examine these two conditions, and ask the Lord to show us where we stand today.

I. The condition of condemnation

In the 1990s, there was a bestselling book, followed by a very successful film, entitled Dead Man Walking. The setting was the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana, and chronicled the work of a Catholic woman involved in the lives of those awaiting execution on death row. The title, Dead Man Walking, comes from a phrase that was often uttered as guards led death row inmates down the prison corridors. The idea was that, even though execution had not yet taken place, the inmate was considered dead already. The verdict and sentence were already passed. John 3:18 tells us that as we walk through the world, we are surrounded by those who are, spiritually speaking, “dead men walking.” They are, in the words of this text, “condemned already.”

Why are they condemned already? There are both primary and secondary reasons given. The first thing stated in verse 18 is that they are already condemned because they have “not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” However, as we move into verse 19, we see that this is really a secondary cause. The primary cause of their condemnation is that “their deeds were evil.” They are condemned because of their sin. Their unbelief is a result of their sinfulness, not vice-versa. This is a prevailing reality among many unbelievers in the world today. Though many would claim that they commit evil deeds without concern because they have become convinced that there is no God, and therefore no objective standard of morality or final judgment to fear, more often the opposite is true.

The Apostle Paul in Romans 1 speaks of the universal knowledge of God that all humanity has within them and around them as a result of God’s creative handiwork. He says in Romans 1:19-20, “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” There is enough information available to every human being, through their own mind, their own conscience, and through the things God has created in the world, to convince everyone that God is there, that He is a holy God, and that He is eternal and powerful. No one has a valid excuse to reject this. So why do so many refuse to believe? Paul says in Romans 1:18 that they have suppressed “the truth in unrighteousness.” Their desire to cling to their sin has buried their awareness of these truths about God. They sought out a way to live a life of sin without consequence or accountability, and this led them away from belief in God. Paul says that as a result of this, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven (in the present time) against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:17). He says that God has given them over to the lusts of their hearts, to their degrading passions, and to their depraved minds (Rom 1:24-28).

Because of God’s love for the world which had come under such universal condemnation, He entered time and space in the person of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son. Verse 19 speaks of this as the coming of Light into the world. John 1 spoke of Christ’s coming into the world in the same way. John 1:5 says, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” But here the reality is put into more stark terms: “Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Because of their love of sin, the bulk of humanity made a conscious decision to remain in the darkness of sin rather than coming to the light of Christ. In fact, verse 20 says that they hated the Light. It was not that they simply chose to ignore Christ; they sought to murder Him. We see this today still with multitudes of unbelievers who are entrenched in sin. Any mention of Christ as the saving Lord casts light into their darkness, and they hate that Light, so they speak evil of Him and of His followers. If you’ve ever been in a dark room for a long time, and then suddenly have a light turned on, or walk out into the light of day, your eyes hate that light. They squint and slam shut, almost pleading with you to return them to the darkness. So it is with those who are condemned already. The Light of Christ has only illuminated and exposed the darkness of their evil deeds, and so they must shut that light out at all costs. Verse 20 says that they do not come to the Light out of fear that the evil of their deeds would be exposed. They do not come to the Light of Christ, because to do so requires that one confess that he or she is a sinner in need of the salvation He came to offer. The condemned person is the one who is too in love with his or her sin to give it up, and too proud to confess that they need saving from it. 
They need not wonder what will occur on the final day when they stand to give account to the Judge of the living and the dead. The outcome is already known. They are condemned already. But integrity requires us to acknowledge that this is the state of the entire human race. All of us could be described in these terms. Our deeds are evil. We are inclined to prefer the darkness to light. We avoid the light, lest our sin be exposed. And thus, each and every one of us would share the same verdict of judgment – we would be condemned already – unless Christ saves us. And that is what He came to do. “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge (or condemn) the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

And it is to the condition of salvation that we direct our attention now.

II. The condition of salvation

When I was a kid, I used to watch old western movies with my dad. Those old westerns always had a way to make it easy to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys typically wore white hats, and the bad guys usually wore black hats. Now, it’s really tempting to look at the world through that lens and see some people as good guys in white hats and others as bad guys in black hats. It would be easy to misunderstand this entire passage as teaching that. But in reality, the Bible presents a different picture of the world. Rather than a conflict between the guys in the white hats and the guys in the black hats, the entire mass of humanity is wearing black hats. We’re all bad guys. But into this sea of darkness, Light has come. Into this great field of black hats, there has come one lone white hat riding in. And that white hat belongs to Jesus. He is the only good guy on the scene of human history. But He did not come to slay the bad guys. He came to save them.

In His conversation with Nicodemus here in Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, Jesus has linked together several key ideas: entering the Kingdom of God, being born again, and having eternal life. In order for us to be born again, to have eternal life, to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus says that He must be lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. We discussed that passage at length a few weeks ago, and recounted how the Israelites were saved from deadly snakes that the Lord had sent upon them in judgment by looking upon the image of the bronze serpent, impaled high upon a standard. If they were bitten, they would die unless they looked to that mangled serpent in faith that God would rescue them from death. Jesus said that He must be lifted up like that serpent, and this took place on the cross. Impaled and mangled, He was lifted up so that those who are dying under the curse of sin might look to Him in faith and be saved. And He willingly endured the cross for our sakes out of God’s great love for us. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Verse 18 states this same truth in different words: “He who believes in Him is not judged” (or condemned). The one who believes upon the Lord Jesus Christ is no longer under the condemnation that once towered over him or her. That condemnation has been lifted because Christ has suffered the condemnation for us in His cross. When He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” on the cross, He was crying out in the agony of condemnation as He bore our sin. All of our evil deeds were placed upon Him. This is what He came to do – to die for us that we might be saved from that well-deserved condemnation. All that was necessary to rescue us was done completely and perfectly by Him. You have nothing to do. Only believe. Believe that He is the One who can save you from your sin by His perfect life, His sacrificial death, and His glorious resurrection. That does not amount to “doing something.” It amounts to acknowledging that you cannot do anything to save yourself, and that He has done it all for you. He has removed the condemnation. Rather than being “condemned already,” Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Just as there was a correlation among the condemned between their deeds and their belief, so there is here to with the saved. But unlike the condemned, whose evil deeds produced their unbelief, with the saved it is reverse. Their belief effects a life change in which no longer does this person cling to his or her evil deeds, no longer does he or she love darkness more than light, or hate the light. The unbeliever avoids the light for fear that his or her deeds will be exposed. The believer practices the truth and comes to the Light so that his or her deeds may be manifested. We want the world to see the change that has taken place. But what we want the world to see is not how good we are, but rather how God has worked in us to rescue us from sin. Thus verse 21 says that the one who believes and loves the Light and practices the truth comes to the Light so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. The old gospel song said it well, “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my heart!” We did not produce this change in our own power. God has produced the change by His power and for His glory. Thus Jesus says in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

D. A. Carson notes well, “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. … The lover of light is not some intrinsically superior person. If he or she enjoys the Light, it is because all that has been performed, for which there is no shame or conviction, has been done through God.”[1]

So, if you have been believed on Christ, you are not condemned – not now, not later when the day of judgment comes. But there is no grounds for you to boast of yourself in this. It is not because you are better than anyone else in the world. It is because God has redeemed you through the cross of Jesus Christ and His light has shone into your heart by His grace to bring you to faith. Remember what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. Consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written,
‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

So, we have this reality hovering over us, that in the final day we will stand before the Maker and Judge of us all. There some will be condemned and some will be granted eternal life. But this text serves to inform us that there will be no surprises on that day. Those who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior are not condemned now, and will not be then. There is nothing to fear for the believer, for the day of judgment will be a day of great salvation! If you are a believer in Jesus, then He is transforming you from your life of evil deeds to a life of practicing the truth. Live in the light as you practice the truth, that all might see what God is working you through your faith in Christ!

But many in the world are, in the words of this text, “condemned already.” You will not have to wait for that day of judgment to discover that you have been condemned. Because of your evil deeds and your refusal to turn to Jesus by faith, condemnation is a present reality for you. But while you have life you have hope. The writer of Hebrews says that God has fixed a certain day, and calls that day, “Today, saying, … ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts’” (Heb 4:7). God’s Word declares, “Now is the acceptable time, behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). Romans 2:4-5 says, “do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” God has informed you that you are condemned already because of His love for you, so that He might warn you of the reality that is to come, and in His kindness offer you the opportunity to repent and turn to Christ to be saved. Today is the only day you know you have to do that, so why put it off?

Christians, if you know someone who has not yet believed upon Christ, will you speak His truth to them in love? Many are afraid to speak for Christ, for fear that we may offend someone. If it is true that they are already condemned, will they be the worse off to be condemned and offended? They are condemned, but they need to be informed that Christ has come to save them. How will they know unless we tell them? We have the opportunity to speak to them, as those who have been delivered from condemnation into salvation through faith in Christ, and share this glorious good news with them. May God forbid us from keeping this good news to ourselves!

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 208. 

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