Or a Both/And?
This is a partial reprint of the Q&A column published each week by Bishop John Shelby Spong. This week’s answer is from the Rev. Mark Sandlin, who currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant and is a co-founder of The Christian Left. I believe the question gets at the heart of our current Christian identity crisis. As one who thinks we should balance both our inner spiritual life and our outer social activism, I appreciate the insight and challenge raised by both questioner and answerer. Undoubtedly, the subject needs further discussion.
Kay from Florida, writes:
I have friends who seem to think believing that Jesus died for them is all they need to do. Some of them even treat other people badly and when I say something to them about being more Christian they just quote John 3:16 to me. What are your thoughts?
Most of us could probably quote at least one verse of the Bible and most likely that verse would be John 3:16. It has been called the greatest love story ever told. Martin Luther, (the early church reformer) called that verse “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Someone else once said that “if the Bible was destroyed and only John 3:16 remained, that would be enough information of God’s love to change the human heart.” It is also, by far, the most popular verse for cardboard signs at sporting events as well as for wooden roadside reminders.
Personally though, I sort of disagree with Martin Luther and others who hold this verse in such high regard. If anything, taken by itself, I find it to be symbolic of contemporary theological perspectives that find their way into books like the Prayer of Jabez and The Left Behind Series. They are overly simplified and promote a bumper sticker kind of theology that says, “Jesus did it, so come and get it.”
When we let John 3:16 stop at an understanding of “Jesus did it, come and get it,” we are only telling half the story. The remainder of the story is up to us. You see for me John 3:16, is incomplete without 1 John 3:16 – or at least the meaning behind 1st John 3:16. Let me read them to you together. (Note from me: I’ve changed the version of the texts to those from The Inclusive Bible.)
Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for one another.
I’m much less concerned about what the theological question of atonement would encourage us to do and more concerned about what the life and teachings that lead to the cross would encourage us to do. In my way of reading these verses, in John 3:16 we learn how far Jesus was willing to go to show us how much we are loved, then in 1st John 3:16 we learn how far we should be willing to go in response to that love to show others how much they are loved.
Far too often, those of us who consider ourselves or call ourselves, “Christian,” forget to practice our faith as if these two verses go together.
Somehow, we don’t realize that on its own John 3:16 is only half the story. When we think it is the whole story, it is just a little bit too easy to feel slightly privileged, it is just a little bit too easy to measure the rest of the world by your own standards, judging whether people measure up rather than just loving them.
The truth is we all need to be a little bit better about turning our faith outward.