My church, Resurrection Church in Greer, South Carolina, is taking a month out of our normal pattern to explore the doctrine of salvation in the weeks leading up to Easter. I’m also endeavoring to write a complementary blog each week, for what that’s worth, and attempting to connect some overarching themes while allowing the elders to do the real grunt work in the pulpit on Sunday.
This week, our text is the first three chapters of John. Like I said, I’ll only be able to provide a flyover, but after the flight attendants show you how the emergency flotation devices work, I’ll be sure to point out some landmarks.
Big God Theology
John 1 starts out letting you know who the star of the show is.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:1-5John 1:1-5
We have the Word, who is God but is also with God, which makes sense because if the Word weren’t God, then he would be lumped in with the created things in verse 3, but he’s not created. He’s God. At the same time, we don’t have two Gods but one. John comes out swinging with the deity of Christ and the rumblings of a rich trinitarianism.
God’s sovereignty, man’s inability
And while John is swinging, he moves right from God’s sovereignty to bruising our collective ego with what might be bricks in his boxing gloves.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.John 1:12-13
I’ll be blunt here. The amount of people who read this who claim to “take the Bible seriously” or “take the Bible literally” who are squirming right now is likely pretty high. Our pride doesn’t like this verse, and we’ll start to appeal to the “receiving him” portion of verse 12, forgetting that verse 13 tells us how Christ is received.
He is not, in fact, invited into our hearts. He is not received by a free will decision. If you have an issue with that, read the sentence again. The children of God are not born by the will of man, period. It’s all God, from start to finish.
It doesn’t stop there. In verse 29, John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus takes away your sin; he doesn’t wait for you to give it to him.
Moving along to the end of chapter 2, when some had believed in Jesus when he cleansed the temple the first time, but he entrusted himself to no one, “for he himself knew what was in man.” This is because Jesus is the only man to ever live to know exactly how sinful sin really is. He knew all along that no one seeks after God (Rom. 3:11) and that man is dead in his sin (Eph. 2:1). And despite what people may believe; our natural condition is no better than our prediluvian forebears. Outside of Christ, we too are totally evil in our thoughts and intentions (Gen. 6:5). It simply follows that if all our thoughts are evil before regeneration, then we neither can nor want to “make a decision” to follow; that would require our intentions being changed.
Which brings us to chapter 3 with one of the most famous conversations in the Bible, when Jesus tells Nicodemous of his need for rebirth. To go along with our theme, not a single one of us, no matter how stubborn, dictated the time of our births to our mothers or the doctors who assisted in the process. We were entirely passive in that process, and Jesus intentionally picked that picture as his illustration of salvation.
Jesus also beautifully hijacks the Numbers 21 narrative of Moses erecting the bronze serpent to save Israel from their venomous snakebites and correlates the Genesis 3 promise that the seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head by himself being lifted up, because God’s intention was global salvation, not ethnic purity (John 3:16).
In our final stop in chapter 3, this theme is hammered home once more by John the Baptist, who explains, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27).
Really, what difference does it make whether I muster up a free will decision for God, or whether God unilaterally chose to give me salvation, like he did with Abraham, Old Covenant Israel, the prophets, and the apostles? Like a good Baptist, I have three reasons.
If salvation is all of God, then grace is not only necessary, it is sufficient, which means the faith that has been given to me is actually enough, and my assurance of salvation also rests on the work of Christ alone. My salvation doesn’t hinge on whether I was “authentically broken” or whether I “meant it” when I prayed a sinner’s prayer. It hinges on Jesus.
My favorite story along these lines comes from the Proestant Reformation, when Bloody Mary had Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley burned at the stake. When Ridley showed signs of panic, Latimer told him, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
Only sovereign grace can turn torches made of men into candles of grace.
If God is sovereign and I’m invited to play a role in his Kingdom, one which has been promised to grow until it fills the earth while we plunder hell (Dan. 2:35, Matt. 16:18), then what is produced is Christian life with backbone.
This is why the bulk of evangelicalism acts more like evanjellyfish. In most of American Christianity, God is not sovereign and it’s up to us to goad or hoodwink or guilt trip people into “saying yes to Jesus,” which results in capitulation to the pop culture diktats of the hour.
This is in stark contrast to the Apostles’ teaching that the most heinous act of all-time, the execution of the only innocent Man to ever live, was predestined by God (Acts 4:28). It’s this understanding that gave them the boldness not only to teach in light of persecution, but to be generous and to withstand martyrdom, rejoicing that God counted them worthy to suffer dishonor for his name (Acts 5:41).
The final conclusion to God’s unilateral grace is radical humility. All orthodox Christians understand they deserve to go straight to hell (Rom. 3, Ps. 58:3, Eph. 2:3), but the deciding factor in our conversion and faith makes a real difference in our countenance toward other sinful image bearers.
Work with me here. If my salvation and faith ride on a free will decision to follow Jesus, then what is the difference between me and an unbeliever? The difference isn’t grace but my own decision. The difference lies in me.
But, in fact, both God’s grace and our faith are gifts from God(Eph. 2:8-9), which eradicates our pride to his glory and our eternal joy.