John 3:16.–[For God so loved the world, etc.] Our Lord, in this verse, shows Nicodemus another “heavenly thing.” Nicodemus probably thought, like many Jews, that God’s purposes of mercy were entirely confined to His chosen people Israel, and that when Messiah appeared He would appear only for the special benefit of the Jewish nation. Our Lord here declares to him that God loves all the world, without any exception; that the Messiah, the onlybegotten Son of God, is the Father’s gift to the whole family of Adam; and that every one, whether Jew or Gentile, who believes on Him salvation, may have eternal life.

John 3:17.–[God did not send…condemn the world.] In this verse our Lord shows Nicodemus another “heavenly thing.” He shows him the main object of Messiah coming into the world. It was not to judge men, but to die for them; not to condemn, but to save. I have a strong impression that when our Lord spoke these words, He had in view the prophecy of David about Messiah bruising the nations with a rod of iron, and Daniel’s prophecy about the judgment, where he speaks of the thrones being cast down, and the Ancient of Days judging the world. (Ps.  ii.6-9; Dan. vii.9-22.)

I think that Nicodemus, like most Jews, was filled with the expectation that when Messiah came He would come with power and great glory, and judge all men. Our Lord corrects this notion in this verse. He declares that Messiah’s first advent was not to judge, but to save people from their sins. He says in another place, “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John xii.47.) The Greek word for judging and condemning, it must be remembered, is one and the same.  Judgment and the condemnation of the ungodly, our Lord would have us know, are not the work of the first advent, but of the second. The special work of the first advent was to seek and save that which was lost.  [That the world…saved.]

This sentence must clearly be interpreted with some qualification. It would contradict other plain texts of Scripture if we took it to mean, “God sent His Son into the world, that all the world might finally be saved through Him, and none be lost.” In fact, our Lord Himself declares in the very next verse, that “He that believes not is condemned already.”

The meaning of the sentence evidently is, that “all the world might have a door of salvation opened through Christ, that salvation might be provided for all the world, and that so anyone in the world believing on Christ might be saved.” In this view, it is like the expression of St. John, “The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.” (1 John iv.14.) The expression, “God has sent,” in this verse, ought not to be overlooked.  It is very frequently applied, in St. John’s Gospel, to our Lord.

At least thirty-eight times we find Him speaking of Himself as Him “whom God has sent.” It is probably from this expression that St. Paul derives the peculiar name which he gives to our Lord, “The Apostle of our profession.” (Heb. iii.1.) The Apostle means simply, “The sent one.” The readiness of natural man everywhere to regard Christ as a Judge much more than as a Saviour is a curious fact. The whole system of the Roman Catholic Church is full of the idea. People are taught to be afraid of Christ, and to flee to the Virgin Mary! Ignorant Protestants are not much better.

They often regard Christ as a kind of Judge, whose demands they will have to satisfy at the last day, much more than as a present personal Saviour and Friend. Our Lord seems to foresee this error, and to correct it in the words of this text. Calvin observes on this verse: “Whenever our sins press us, whenever Satan would drive us to despair, we ought to hold out this shield—that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because He has appointed His Son to be the salvation of the world.”

John 3:18.–[He who believes in Him is not condemned.] In this verse our Lord shows Nicodemus another “heavenly thing.” He declares the privileges of believing, and the peril of not believing in the Son of God. Nicodemus had addressed Him as a “teacher come from God.” He would have Nicodemus know that He was that high and holy One, to believe on whom was life eternal, and not to believe on whom was everlasting destruction. Life or death was before men. If they believed and received Him as the Messiah, they would be saved.

If they believed not, they would die in their sins.  The expression, “He that believes,” deserves special notice. It is the third time that our Lord speaks of “believing” on Himself, and the consequence of believing, within four verses. It shows the immense importance of faith in the sinner’s justification. It is that one thing, without which eternal life cannot be had. It shows the amazing graciousness of the Gospel, and its admirable suitableness to the wants of human nature. A man may have been the worst of sinners, but if he will only “believe,” he is at once pardoned.

 Last, but not least, it shows the need of clear, distinct views of the nature of saving faith, and the importance of keeping it entirely distinct from works of any kind, in the matter of justification. Faith, and faith only, gives an interest in Christ. The old sentence of Luther’s days is perfectly true, paradoxical and startling as it may sound: “The faith which justifies is not the faith which includes charity, but the faith which lays hold on Christ.” The expression, “is not condemned,” is equivalent to saying, “he is pardoned, acquitted, justified, cleared from all guilt, delivered from the curse of a broken law, no longer counted a sinner, but reckoned perfectly righteous in the sight of God.”

The presentness of the phrase, if one may coin a word, should be specially noticed. It is not said that the believer “shall not be condemned at the last day,” but that “he is not condemned.” The very moment a sinner believes on Christ, his iniquities are taken away, and he is counted righteous. “All that believe are justified from all things.” (Acts xiii.39.) [He who does not…already.] This sentence means that the man who refuses to believe on Christ is in a state of condemnation before God, even while he lives. The curse of a broken law, which we all deserve, is upon him.  His sins are upon his head. He is reckoned guilty and dead before God, and there is but a step between him and hell. Faith takes all a man’s sins away.

 Unbelief keeps them all on him. Through faith a man is made an heir of heaven, though kept outside till he dies. Through unbelief a man is already a subject of the devil, though not yet entirely in his power and within hell. The moment a man believes, all charges are completely wiped away from his name. So long as a man does not believe, his sins cover him over and make him abominable before God, and the just wrath of God abides upon him. Melancthon remarks that the sentence of God’s condemnation, which was passed at the beginning—“Thou shalt surely die”—remains in full force and unrepealed against every one who does not believe on Christ. No new condemnation is needful.

Every man or woman who does not believe is under the curse and condemned already. [Because…not believed…name…Son of God.] This sentence is justly thought to prove that no sin is so great, and so damning and ruinous to the soul, as unbelief. In one sense it is the only unpardonable sin. All other sins may be forgiven, however many and great, and a man may stand complete before God. But if a man will not believe on Christ, there is no hope for him; and if he persists in his unbelief, he cannot be saved.  Nothing is so provoking and offensive to God as to refuse the glorious

He has provided at so mighty a cost, by the death of His only begotten Son. Nothing is so suicidal on the part of man as to turn away from the only remedy which can heal his soul. Other sins may be scarlet, filthy, and abominable. But not to believe on Christ is to bar the door in our own way, and to cut off ourselves entirely from heaven. It has been truly remarked that it was a greater sin in Judas Iscariot not to believe on Christ for pardon, after he had betrayed Him, than to betray Him into the hands of His enemies.

To betray Him no doubt was an act of enormous covetousness, wickedness, and ingratitude. But not to seek Him afterwards by faith for pardon, was to disbelieve His mercy, love, and power to save.  The expression, “the name,” as the object of faith, is explained in chap.  i.12. Here, as frequently, it stands for the attributes, character, and office of the Son of God. Luther, quoted by Brown, remarks: “Henceforward, he who is condemned must not complain of Adam and his inborn sin.

The seed of the woman, promised by God to bruise the head of the serpent, is now come, and has atoned for sin and taken away condemnation. But he must cry out against himself for not having accepted and believed in the Christ, the devil’s head-bruiser and sin-strangler. If I do not believe the same, sin and condemnation must continue.” [1]

J.C. Ryle


End notes:

[1] J. C. Ryle. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (Kindle Locations 19196-19200, 19280-19338 ). Monergism Books.

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