The Love of God in the Death of Christ
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. Jn. 3:14-17
When we come to think about the atonement, it is important that we emphasize what the Bible emphasizes and to put weight on what the Bible puts weight. After centuries of theological conflict, sometimes this can be difficult for us to do. Nowhere is this consideration more relevant than when we approach the doctrine of the cross. For those of us who embrace the doctrines of grace as they are expressed in that constellation of five doctrines called TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints), it is especially easy to forget this. You might think, the way some preach, that the most important thing to affirm is the limited scope of the atonement – that is, that the atonement was intended in the eternal purpose of God only for the elect. And they will come to verses like John 3:16 and spend the entire time arguing that the word world means “the world of the elect.”
Now before I say anything else, let me say that I do believe that God’s purpose in sending the Son to die was for the salvation of the elect, and that all the elect will be saved. But let me be blunt: to come to John 3:16 and teach it in such a way that folks come away thinking the most important thing about the atonement is its extent is to mangle and mishandle God’s word. That is not the most important aspect, or even one of the most important things to affirm about the atonement. John 3:16 tells a different story.
And this is not just true of John 3:16, but when the Biblical authors handle the doctrine of Christ’s death, the emphasis is often what we see here: that in the death of Christ we see the preeminent signpost to the love of God for sinful men. Hence, in his epistles, John says the same thing, echoing the words of our Lord in Jn. 3:16: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:9-11). Or when the apostle Paul wants us to know about the love of God, he also points us to the cross: “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour” (Eph. 5:1-2). Or this: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (5:25). Or this: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). How does God commend his love toward us? He does so in the death of Christ for sinners. We see that this is a repeated emphasis of the New Testament.
So when we come to a consideration of the death of Jesus, we have to put emphasis on this, on the love of God, not on the extent of the atonement. The death of Jesus Christ demonstrates God’s love to us. But of course the question we then need to consider is, What sort of love is this? What does the Bible have to say about the love of God, this love which is manifested and proclaimed in the redemption accomplished by Christ? This is where it becomes appropriate to consider the extent of the atonement. It is in the light of the love of God that we do so. Not that we start and end there, but that if we want to be Biblically faithful to what the Scriptures as a whole have to say about this love, we will need to argue that this love is a love which finds its spring in the eternal counsel of the Most High, and that this love is an electing love.
What then does the atonement have to teach us about God’s love? And what, in turn, does this tell us about the atonement? Let me suggest the following things: the cross tells us of God’s electing love, his saving love, his costly love, and his worldwide love. And this in turn has implications for ourselves and our lives here in this world.
The cross tells us of God’s electing love.
You might ask, “But where do you get that in John 3:16?” Well, I get it from John 3:16 and the rest of the Bible. “God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son.” You don’t read passages in isolation. You read them in context, and part of the context of every text of Scripture is the rest of the Bible. It is true that the Biblical books were written by various men, but we believe that God is the primary author, that “the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21). Because of that fact, there is a unity to the Bible. We interpret the Bible with the Bible. John 3:16 tells us about the love of God, and it also tells us about a love that sent the Son of God into the world. It tells us about the mission of the Son and points us to the eternal purpose that sent him on this mission. And this points us to God’s electing love.
For in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, we read this, which gives us some insight into the mission of the Son, and why he was sent by the Father into the world: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:37-40).
This verse tells us that Christ came to live and die to fulfill the Father’s will and that the Father’s will was for the Son to save all whom he had given him and to lose nothing. We saw in our last message that this is all about God’s eternal and unconditional choice of a people to be saved by Christ. Election stands behind atonement, and that means that the purpose of God in the death of Christ was to save those whom he had chosen.
You see this in other ways as well. Jesus will say in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel that he came to give his life for the sheep, another name for the elect: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). It is important to see that it is not faith in Christ which makes us his sheep; it is because we are his sheep that we come to faith in Christ. When our Lord says, “ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you” (26), he is saying that what determines whether or not someone believes is whether or not they are sheep. He goes on to say: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand” (27-29). Jesus gave his life for the sheep, the elect, so that they might come to faith and believe, so that they would follow him, so that they would never perish but be everlasting kept for eternal salvation by the Father and the Son.
You see this also in the way Paul speaks of Christ’s death and the church. For whom did Christ die? And the answer which Paul gives is that he died for the church: “Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27; cf. Acts 20:28). The church is the people of God, chosen by him from eternity and predestined to the adoption of sons (Eph. 1:4-5). It is just another way of saying that God’s love in the death of Christ is an electing love.
It is in fact the ultimate expression of that electing love. This is Paul’s point in Romans 8: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (29-34). Here we see that God sparing not his Son but giving him up for “us all” is the ultimate expression of God’s love and commitment to his people (cf. ver. 35-39). The “us all” here refers clearly to the elect, the foreknown and predestined. The love of God in the death of Christ is an electing love.
What does that mean? It means that God’s intention behind the atonement is not a general gesture of good-will which men may or may not take up or take advantage of. It is an intention of God’s eternal purpose in Christ, a purpose that will not stop until it is accomplished. It is an unbreakable and unchangeable purpose. It means that all for whom Christ died will be saved. It means that Jesus is a successful Savior; not one of those whom the Father gave to him will be lost. It means that if you are in Christ you can be sure that you will be saved.
But this is not the only thing about God’s love which the cross has to say to us.
The cross tells us of God’s saving love.
The cross not only points us to the eternal spring in election from which Divine love sent the Only-begotten Son into the world; it also points us to its issue, salvation. It tells us that “God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish but have everlasting life.” What comes to us through Christ is not your best life now. What comes to us through Christ is not riches and health and business success and fame. In fact, in this world, the people of God are a persecuted people. When Christ confronted Paul (then called Saul) on the road to Damascus, he asked him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Not that Paul was actually persecuting Christ himself; he was persecuting his people.
Rather, Christ came to do two things: to save us from perishing forever under God’s just wrath and to give us eternal life in God’s presence with never-ending, ever-increasing joy. And this then leads to the question: How can God do this? How can a just God save a sinful people? How can a good God forgive sins? How can a just God justify the unrighteous? How can a holy God accept the ungodly? This is not just an abstract theological question, because if you are honest with yourself about your sins before God, you are going to want to know how this can happen; otherwise you will never be able to find peace with God. We need a solid basis upon which to rest our hopes when it comes to deliverance from our sins and guilt.
The answer to this is in the way Christ died. He died as a sacrifice and substitute. This is the way the NT speaks of his death again and again. He died in the place of sinners. In the words of our Lord, “the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for [in the place of] many” (Mt. 20:28). It is the language of the apostle Paul: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). It is the language of the apostle Peter: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18). He is a ransom for us; he paid the debt we owe to God. He was made sin for us; he suffered for the consequences of our sins upon the cross. He is the just for, or in the place of, the unjust, in order to bring us to God.
What this means is that God does not just forgive sins. He doesn’t just look the other way. On the cross, Jesus suffered the full penalty for our sins. Throughout his life, he fully obeyed God’s law. And he did this, not for himself, but for the elect. He did this for his people, for those who would believe on him. God constituted Christ as our Head and Representative so that the merit accruing from his life and his death can be credited to our account. So the demands of God’s law are fully satisfied in the obedience and death of Jesus so that God is not only gracious but also just when he forgives sinners because of what Christ did for them.
In other words, it’s important to understand that the reason God can save anyone is not because of anything in them. It is true that the benefits of Christ come only to those who believe. This is a repeated emphasis here in the third chapter of John’s gospel. Our faith is the means by which we receive the gift of salvation in Christ, but it is the death of Christ for us that is the reason why we are saved. We are not saved by our righteousness but by the righteousness of God which is given to us on the basis of what Jesus did in his life and his death for us.
The death of Christ therefore fully and completely satisfies God’s justice for those who belong to him, for those who by God’s believe in him. This is why the apostle can say this: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:7- 9). How can the apostle put justice and forgiveness together? He can do so because “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Our sins are completely and finally put away in the death of Christ for us. We can truly rest in him for salvation. The Christian gospel is not a new law by which we achieve the favor of God or hold onto it. The gospel is the good news that the demands of God’s law upon us because of our sin have been finally and fully met in the death of Christ for us. Our Lord doesn’t just make his people savable; he really does save his people from their sins (Mt. 1:21).
So as we consider the cross from the perspective of God’s love, we need to see that the cross is the provision of love, not just in the sense that the death of the Son of God makes us savable. Rather, this is love that goes all the way, that has made full provision for the salvation of the elect, so that when the sinner appears before God clothed in the righteousness of God through Christ, he or she has nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. This is saving love, redeeming love. It is a salvation that proceeds from God’s love and by which love we are forever secure in that salvation.
Does this salvation mean anything to you? Do you not see that this is the provision of amazing love? If you don’t, it is probably because you have been blinded to the sin in your life. It is incredible that despite the repeated instances of the destructive nature of sin all around us and in us, we continue to convince ourselves that we are okay. We are told, and we choose to believe, that we are good. But look around you. Take an honest look in your heart. Ask yourself if you would be okay if the world could see what goes on in your mind and in your heart, and then realize that God does know everything wicked thought, every evil desire you have ever cherished in your soul. He knows every sinful act you have covered up and hidden from human eyes; yet the eyes of the Lord are in every place beholding the evil and the good. The fact of the matter is that every human being is condemned; we are all justly exposed to the righteous wrath of God (cf. Rom. 1:18). The poison of our sin is coursing through our veins, and we will die unless we are rescued.
God does not have to rescue us. Redemption is not something God did because he felt responsible for the mess this world is in. Sin is not God’s fault; it’s ours. And so he could have let the whole world perish eternally and let his justice be vindicated in our tribulation and anguish. We are rebels, all of us. We are traitors. But “God so loved the world,” this bad world, this evil world, this world in rebellion against God, this world that was made by him and yet did not recognize him in the person of his Son Jesus (Jn. 1:10), this world of which you and I are fully a part. He loved this world so that he sent his Son into it and to die so that whoever believes on him should not perish but have everlasting life. That is amazing, incomprehensible love. Indeed, we should feel the marvel of the apostle when he wrote, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 Jn. 3:1)!
The cross tells us of God’s sacrificial love.
God’s love is highlighted in the cross, not only in what the cross accomplished – salvation – but also in the cost. Not the cost for us, mind you, for this is a free gift; we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24). But for God, this was very costly. Note how our Lord puts it here: “God so loved the world” – it was in this way that he loved the world. The emphasis is on the manner in which God loved us. In what way did he love us? In sending his own Son to die for us.
I’m not sure we really understand the nature of this sacrificial love. Think of the anguish of Abraham as he lifted the knife to sacrifice his son. And yet, for all that, Abraham was not perfect. His love for Isaac was therefore not perfect. We are evil; God is not. God the Father is perfect; the love he has for the Son is perfect. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” he announced to the world at the baptism of Christ (Mt. 3:17). What then must the Father have felt in surrendering his Son to the clutches of evil men? To the instruments of Satan? I don’t think we can fathom it. This was an incomparable sacrificial love on the Father’s part.
And though it is true that the Son willingly came to fulfil the Father’s will, he also bore the cost of our redemption. He became the propitiation for our sins (Rom. 3:25). He bore the wrath of God in our place. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” was not just hyperbole; our Lord really did feel the brunt of his Father’s just wrath as he bore the penalty due to our sins.
It is not for no reason that theologians describe the earthly life of our Lord as his humiliation. He was humiliated, despised and rejected of men, betrayed, and then nailed on a cross to die a horrible and agonizing death. “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” wrote the apostle Paul, “that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
This is unfathomable poverty. And yet he did it, willingly, for the sake of his people, for the sake of those whom the Father gave him to save. He did it because he loved them, the Good Shepherd, who loves the sheep and laid down his life for them.
And hence we see what real love is all about. It is not about having something or someone that makes you feel good about yourself. Love, the kind of love God has for his people, is a love that descends from breathtaking glory at the Father’s right hand, and comes into a world that hates you, and then to die for them. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10).
The cross tells us of God’s worldwide love.
We have argued that the purpose of God in the atonement was to save the elect. The word world then is not meant to say the opposite, as if God intended to save everyone who ever lived. But this doesn’t mean that the word world has nothing to say about the scope of the atonement. It’s just that it doesn’t mean what some people read into it. What then is the purpose of world in relation to the love of God and the death of Christ? I think there are three realities pointed to here.1
First, there is the reality of the worldwide scope of the atoning sacrifice of our Lord. What I mean by that is that the benefits accruing from the death of Christ were not to be thought of as limited to one particular nation. “World” here doesn’t mean “all men who ever lived,” but rather in the sense of people “redeemed ... to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Often in the NT, world has reference to the Gentiles in contrast to the Jews. This is the meaning, for example, in Rom. 11 when Paul contrasts Israel with the world, as when he writes: “I say then, Have they [the Jews] stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?” (Rom. 11:11-12). Note how world and Gentiles are used interchangeably here. “World” simply can’t be assumed to be taken in the sense of “all men everywhere,” for here the Jews aren’t included in the “world.” It’s a reference to the Gentiles in contrast to Israel. In the same way, when our Lord spoke of the world to Nicodemus, he was wanting him to see that the message of salvation was not just for Israel but also for Gentiles. In other words, we shouldn’t read “world” as “everyone who ever lived” but as “people out of every nation and language and people group.” It doesn’t mean all without exception but all without distinction.2
Second, the word world points us to the reality of the exclusivity of our Lord’s atoning sacrifice. The atonement of Christ is for the world in the sense that no one can be saved except through Christ. It’s not as if one part of the world gets saved by one religion or savior and another part of the world gets saved by another religion. There are not many paths to God: Jesus Christ is the only way. God is not a tribal deity; he is the God of the universe. Anyone in this world who gets saved, gets saved by the death of Christ for them. As our Lord himself said to his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:6). Or as the apostles put it to the Sanhedrin: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Those who embrace false religions are not on an alternate path to heaven; the Bible makes it clear they are lost. For the way we embrace the saving atonement is by faith in Christ. It is not religion or religious faith or being spiritual that allows one to include oneself in the family of God; it is faith in Christ, and in Christ alone.
Third, the word world points us to the reality of the perpetuity of the efficacy of our Lord’s atoning sacrifice. God has shown his love to the world in the death of Christ not only for one generation of this world, but for every generation. It means that the gospel wasn’t just good news for first-century Roman citizens; it is good news for twenty-first century people, and if our Lord delays his coming it will be good for every future generation as well.
We should place due emphasis then upon the whosoever believeth. And we need to see that believing on the Lord is not an act by which we somehow commend ourselves to God. Faith in Christ is not the ground of our acceptance with God. It is simply the means by which God welcomes us into the fellowship of his Son and grants to us the benefits of his death to us – forgiveness, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance in the faith. Faith is the open hand of the penniless beggar that receives the free gift. By faith, we don’t bring anything to God; we receive the atonement as a gift of grace.
Whosoever! Are you wondering that you will really be saved if you put your trust in Jesus, if you receive him for what he really is, the Lord and Savior? Do you think that you are so bad, or have done things so bad that God would never receive you? My friends, listen to these verses again: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Verse 14 is a reference to an incident during wilderness journeyings of the Israelites as they were on their way to Canaan from Egypt. The people were discouraged and began to gripe against and to blame God. As a punishment for their sin, God sent fiery serpents among them. When they were bitten by these snakes, they died. So they begged Moses for deliverance and in mercy God had them raise up a brass snake on a pole and instructed them to look on it, and that those who looked on this snake would live. And that is exactly what happened.
Why do you think God did that? He did it because it was meant to point to Jesus. On the cross he became the curse, just as God cursed the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve and brought about the fall. He took our punishment; he became the snake. And we have the poison of Adam’s corruption and the poison of our own willful sins coursing through our veins. If something is not done, we will die. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). You may feel the poison even now. Well, what are you to do? What does Jesus himself tell you to do? You are to look! Not to yourself, not to your good works, not to your past, present, or future. You are to look away from yourself and to look to Christ. And the promise is that no matter who you are, those who look to Christ in faith will be healed, will be saved, will be forgiven and restored to the fellowship of God.
Now what are we to do with this? Let me suggest four applications in closing.
First, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. That is the promise of Scripture, and it is true today and will be true to the end of the age.
Second, let the love of God move you to give yourself wholly to the Lord. He who loved us so much, how could we not give him everything? He who gave his life so that we might have life eternal, how could we not give our little lives here for his sake and his kingdom? Let us be motivated the way the apostle Paul was motivated: “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:14-15). As the hymn puts it,
And how do we know that we are living a life of love to Christ? Our Lord himself answers the question: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). Love to Christ is not shown in how much we profess our devotion to him, but in how much we actually live in obedience to him. We cannot love Christ if we do not love him for who he is – he is Lord and King and Savior; to love him as such of course involves submitting our lives wholly and entirely to him. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle wrote, “Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust” (15:12). Who will the Gentiles trust? “He that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles.” We could also add: who will the Gentiles love? The answer is still the same: “He that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles.” If you don’t love him as Lord you don’t love him at all. In fact, to love him as Savior inevitably involves loving him as Lord; you cannot separate Christ as Lord from Christ as Savior. For the apostle also wrote, “For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living” (14:9).
Third, if you are a believer in Christ, you should embrace the assurance of God’s love commended to you in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. And because of what Christ has done, nothing can separate you from the love of God. Do not let your sins keep you from repenting out of a sense that you’ve gone too far this time. Let the blood of Christ cleanse you from all sins. Don’t let the shame of past failures keep you from enjoying the fellowship of God’s love, for if you trust in Jesus, you can be sure that died for you, and having died for you will never let you perish.
I love the way Augustus Toplady put it:
Finally, go and be imitators of God. Love others. Love your neighbor as yourself. Husbands, love your wives this way. Wives, love your husbands this way. Parents, love your children this way. The Bible neither commends nor commands self-care. If Christ has prioritized self-care, we would all be in hell. Rather, let us give ourselves for the good of others. Let us bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Let us not be like those of whom the apostle warned: “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's” (Phil. 2:21). Rather, let us be like Timothy: “For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state” (20). Let us be like that, for in doing so we will be like Christ. Hear the words of our Lord: “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. . . .These things I command you, that ye love one another” (Jn. 15:12-14, 17).