Such is faith
John 3: 16 is, without doubt, the most famous and best-known verse in the Bible. This is possibly true because it captures the gospel—in essence at least. To comprehend this passage we must understand the meaning of the word ‘believe.’
‘Believe’—and all its cognates—is a concept that is largely misunderstood. One of the most common misunderstanding is that belief is nothing more than cognitive assent to the existence of God and certain true facts about him. The Nicene or Apostolic Creeds for instance, are seen as the summary of true things we must give mental homage to in order to be called a believer. Certainly, these true facts about our belief are helpful and important, but this is not what John was meaning when he said, “whosoever believes” (John 3:16). Indeed, most people come to believe in Jesus long before they can comprehend all the truths captured in the Creeds. To believe in God, and what he has done to us and in us through Jesus Christ, is the centre of our believing. Belief is better understood as trusting in Jesus as a person and giving him our full allegiance as Christ (the true king and highest authority).
To believe in Jesus is to throw in your lot with him and to be identified as one of his accomplices and followers. It would be very similar to being a member of an outlawed political movement in an communist country (indeed it is precisely like that in authoritarian regimes). For better or worse you have sided with Jesus over and against any other authority or cultural outlook. We are not primarily defined by our family, country of origin, political leanings, gender, race or any other category. We are defined by Christ. Christian belief is allegiance revealed in obedience to king Jesus. Only when belief is understood in this way, and in the context of kingdoms, can we make sense of the rest of passage surrounding John 3:16.
Accordingly, John goes on to say, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. ” (John 3:18). This must be understood, not as a threat, so much as remedial warning. This is borne out in the verse preceding where John writes, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them!” (John 3:17). Like a drowning person refusing the help of a lifesaver, the person rejecting Christ is self-condemned. This must not be read as, “believe in Jesus, or else you get hell!” It would be more apt to say, “recognise your predicament and let Jesus save you.”
This really is a matter of spiritual life-and-death. It is the most important truth a human being can possibly apprehend. Our salvation is out of our control and is totally in the hands of Jesus Christ. We cannot save ourselves and nothing we do can change that. Indeed, if your allegiance is not with the true king then it matters not one bit how good or bad you are, what family you are from, what religion you are affiliated with, what creed you sign up to or any thing else at all. The true king is coming, and he rightfully demands the allegiance of those he means to rule. All other kings are impostors, and their kingdoms are a sham. This is what salvation is. It is not only about what we are saved from but is about what we are saved into: eternal life. (John 3:16).