by Matthew C. Harrison
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Why in the world would The Lutheran Witness publish an entire issue on heresies? Some might say, “For Pete’s sake! We live in a tolerant world. There are enough divisions among people of various faiths. Isn’t Christianity supposed to pull people together so we can get along and stand together against all the terrible stuff happening in the world? Why not just be content with John 3:16 —the Gospel in a nutshell — and keep it simple? Let’s not get all wound up about doctrine; let’s stick to the Gospel.”
The New Testament says a lot against pharisaic, holier-than-thou attitudes. The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled: “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Jesus was acting against their man-made doctrine. Jesus is especially hard on those who push “doctrine” that is not God’s Word. “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).
And yet, Jesus and His apostles also emphasize the importance of true and right teaching (another term for doctrine). That true teaching is God’s own Word. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
As the Gospel in a nutshell makes clear, faith and love belong together because they are drawn from God’s Word. “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). The pattern of sound words St. Paul directs Timothy to follow is nothing less than the Word of God that St. Paul had taught him. John 3:16 ties together love and faith — which includes its content, doctrine.
In other words, pitting John 3:16 against doctrine is a great mistake. You see, John 3:16 is doctrine and love all throughout.
“For God.” Which God? What God? Jesus speaks here of His Almighty Father, Creator of heaven and earth. As you’ll read in this issue, many today — indeed most — simply come to their views of some god without a trace of biblical knowledge. Jesus came to bear witness to the truth, the truth that the eternal First Person of the Holy Trinity sent Him as the Lamb of God (John 1:29) to suffer and die for the sins of the world. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). All other “gods” are figments of the human imagination.
“So loved.” John the apostle wrote, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and
whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). These two words tell us of the Father’s heart, which Jesus revealed. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). These are specific doctrines of the love and grace of God in Jesus.
“The world.” Here we have the doctrine of creation, including man’s duty to tend the earth. We also have the Bible’s teaching on Satan, the fall and the sin of humankind. We have the promise of God in Genesis about the Seed. “He [Jesus] shall bruise your
head, and you [Satan] shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Here is the doctrine of universal grace and atonement. Does God love even me? Are you part of the world? Yes. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). “God our Savior … desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3–4). This also points to God’s equal love for all people, marking any race-based view of humankind as heresy. “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). “That he gave.” God’s love is active. He created. He redeems. He sanctifies. He “gave” (the doctrine of grace alone) and keeps on giving Jesus. “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
“His only Son.” These few words contain the whole doctrine of Christ, who is eternally “begotten not made” (Nicene Creed). Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). We also see His divine and human natures: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). And His human nature: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). These words also
encompass His divine mission to save. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Finally, the words also testify to His perfect life lived for all people: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4).
“That whoever believes in him.” Here is the doctrine of universal grace. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). The doctrine of faith alone also belongs here: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9) We also see here the doctrine of Christ as the content and object of faith. “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
“Should not perish but have eternal life.” This snippet contains the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of heaven and the New Testament teaching on spiritual death: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him” (Eph. 2:4–6). And physical death: “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (MATT. 8:12). The resurrection also shows up here: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
Gregory the Great once said that “Scripture is like ‘a river broad and deep, shallow enough for a lamb to go wading, but deep enough for an elephant to swim.’” The Christian faith is as simple as John 3:16 and as profound as the rich
doctrine contained in it. The basics of the faith are very simple, thank God. And we thank God that even though many dear Christian people believe all kinds of silly and non-biblical things, they still cling to the simple message that “I’m a sinner, and Jesus is my Savior” and are saved if only that foundation remains (1 Cor. 3:10–11). Nevertheless, stand guard against the trap of pitting the Gospel against doctrine. The Gospel is doctrine and love, the saving doctrine and love of Jesus.
Photo Credit: A crucifix at First Lutheran Church in Boston. LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford