Every Thursday night I have the wonderful opportunity to meet with nine other people and study God’s Word. To assist us in our studies we are currently using a book called, The God Who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story, by D.A. Carson. I appreciate this book for many reasons, but I will point out one specifically just from the title. If you notice, it is God’s story. It is not a book about how you can fit God into your life, but rather how your life is being fitted with God. It is His doing, not your own. Carson’s book is 14 chapters walking the reader from Genesis to Revelation hitting the major themes and narrative points. It is a wonderful book to use as a devotional study tool, or in a group discussion format. OK, sales pitch is over.
I am bringing this book up because Carson writes a chapter on John 3.16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” which is a verse that had a huge impact on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Though Carson is writing before Bell’s book came out, it is a pointed reminder that many people, especially leaders in the church, have a faulty assumption about the world in which God loves. For Rob Bell, God loves the world because we are lovable and He would never throw any of His children into hell (if it exists) because love wins. For Carson (who I agree with) God chose to love something entirely unlovable and deserving of eternal separation from its Creator. This is what Carson says,
“Now God comes along in John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world.’ What is God saying to the world? ‘World, I love you’? Is he saying, ‘World, your scintillating personality, your intelligent conversation, your wit, your gift–and you’re cute! I love you! I can’t imagine heaven without you.’ Is that what he’s saying? In other words, when God says, ‘I love you,’ is he declaring the loveable-ness of the world? There are a lot of psychologists who use the love of God in exactly that way. If God says, ‘I love you,’ it must be that ‘I’m okay, you’re okay; God says we’re okay. He loves us; it must be because we’re lovable.’
“Biblically that is a load of nonsense. The word ‘world’ in John’s Gospel typically refers not to a big place with a lot of people in it but to a bad place with a lot of people in it [also see 1 John 2.15-17]. The word ‘world’ in John’s gospel is this human-centered, created order that God has made and that has rebelled against him in hatefulness and idolatry, resulting in broken relationships, infidelity, and wickedness. That is why already in the first verses of this Gospel…the so-called prologue of John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18), we read, ‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him’ (1.10). It is why we read in this passage, a little farther on, ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil’ (3.19). That is, with the coming of Jesus comes God’s gracious self-disclosure, his revelation, light that is good and clean and pure–but people love darkness instead of light. People do not want to be exposed to that kind of light. All it does is show the dirt.
“But the text says, ‘God so loved the world’–this broken and fallen world. It is as if God is saying to the world, ‘Morally speaking, you are the people of the crippled knees. You are the people of the moral bad breath. You are the people of the rampaging Genghis Khan personality. You are hateful and spiteful and murderous. And you know what? I love you anyway–not because you are lovable but because I am that kind of God.’ That is why in the Bible, this side of Genesis 3 [the Fall], God’s love is always marveled at. God’s love is wonderful, surprising, in some ways not the way it ought to be. Why doesn’t he just condemn us instead?” (140-41)
I hope you understand Carson’s point. We are not the reason God loves us; God is the reason God loves us. This speaks entirely of an immeasurable grace. Another hope is that you begin to understand the importance of reading John 3.16 properly. The world is not lovely, God is. I do not know whether to cry for joy or despair upon hearing the words, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”