Undoubtedly, the best known of all Bible verses is John 3:16, but even this does not sound the same in its different renderings. One of these is a personalised version, sometimes employed in church settings: “For God so loved [insert your name here] that He gave His one and only Son, so that if [insert your name here] believes in Him, [insert your name here] shall not perish but have eternal life.”
For all the wonderful complexity, the heart of the Bible’s good news can be summarised into this single sentence that even a child can memorise and begin to understand. And this personalised version of this well-known Bible verse is a valuable way of emphasising the personal love of God for each of us and the choice each of us has to make to accept God’s gift offered through Jesus. As such, this adaptation of the well-loved verse portrays an awe-inspiring and life-changing truth.
But we also must remember that this personalised version of John 3:16 is not what the verse says. And if reading it in only this way, we can be tempted into a too shallow understanding of salvation and risk missing so much more that is involved with a deeper exploration of this Bible verse.
That old argument
Too often salvation—to hear many church people talk about it—seems to be all about getting me into heaven one day. It’s surprising to think that even our theological discussions might be self-centred. If we are driven by “what’s in it for me?”—unless we exercise great care—such attitudes can flow into even our most devout reflections. In this sense, too often it seems we are looking for salvation at the cheapest price possible.
Undeniably, we are saved only by the grace of God: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). But the apostle Paul continues in the next verse and recognises another aspect of this relationship: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (verse 10).
In the big and eternal picture of salvation, we are saved by what Jesus has done for us and we take hold of that by faith. But in the practical aspect of living life today, salvation should trigger a life lived in partnership with God, as a member of the present kingdom of God. The call of God repeated throughout the Bible is to a life of faith and a life of faithfulness. It is not so much about gaining salvation as about living and serving joyfully in the light of salvation.
When we begin to appreciate the wonder and mystery of the unfailing love of God, we respond with faith and gratitude and we seek His goodness in our lives and for those around us. We live with as much faith and as many good “works” as we can muster, realising these are themselves gifts from God and that neither of them add anything to our salvation or to God’s abundant provision.
Read it again
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world,” and the original Greek word for “world” is kosmos, meaning “the world as a created, organised entity.” That “John 3:16 is about me” is an important starting point; that the plan of salvation so neatly summarised in this verse has implications for everyone and the whole of creation is something we need to spend more time exploring.
Of course, this is not about mounting an argument for universalism—that everyone will be “saved” regardless of their choices for or against God and His plan. Or that Jesus died for the trees or the whales, rather than people. Instead, the focus is on God’s love that reaches out to all and His purpose of working through those who choose to cooperate with Him to redeem and ultimately recreate the whole creation. It is a broader understanding of salvation, stepping away from the temptation to self-centredness that sometimes mars the understanding of salvation that can arise from an individualistic way of thinking.
Yes, salvation is about me and my saving relationship with God—but it is not merely about me. In his book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, theologian N T Wright puts it like this: “Justification is not just about ‘how I get my sins forgiven.’ It is about how God creates, in the Messiah Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, a single family, celebrating their once-for-all forgiveness and their assured ‘no condemnation’ in Christ, through whom his purpose can now be extended into the wider world.”
We can, perhaps, readily accept that God loves people other than just ourselves. He loves those we love and we can rejoice in that. But He also loves those we are afraid of or otherwise dislike. God loves people—all people, everywhere, all the time. God’s favour is not limited to our favour.
Creation is one way we see this demonstrated. The Bible consistently points to the world around us as evidence of God’s goodness. Jesus referred to the natural world and the created order as evidence of God’s love: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). As well as all the goodness of the natural world, life itself is a gift from God and, regardless of the individual’s response or attitude to God, every person is a recipient of that grace.
Creating the world
But even this reading doesn’t do justice to the breadth of John 3:16’s “for God so loved the world.” If this summary of God’s love and His offer of salvation was limited to all the people in the world, we would need to go back and perhaps rewrite the Creation account in Genesis 1. Rather than carefully describing God’s specific acts of creation on each of the days, the whole story could be neatly summarised into something like, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and then said, “Let us make man in our image . . .”
Instead, six times in the six recorded days, before there is even mention of human beings, we read that “God saw that it was good” (see Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). The refrain is even repeated on day six right before the creation of Adam. As well as providing a home for the first people, God takes pleasure in each step and in each part of Creation.
Human beings do have a special place in Creation, and more attention is given to their creation in Genesis 1 and 2 than to the rest of the world. But it is interesting to note that the first “definition” of what it means to be human includes being created in the image of God and situated in relationship to Creation (see Genesis 1:26). Creation is important to who we are as human beings in relation to God and, while humans are an intrinsic part of Creation, it is clear God also has a special concern for the rest of the created order.
Praising and groaning
When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, all of creation was affected. The reality of sin changed the relationships between God and humanity, between humanity and nature and, it seems, between God and all His creation (see Genesis 3). God is still the Creator, and He still orders and sustains all of life. But perhaps in ways analogous to the change in the relationship between God and His people, God’s relationship to Creation is rendered less direct and more difficult.
Not that there are not still glimpses of God in the created world. As noted above, God still speaks and works in and through the natural world. And somehow, the creation and the creatures themselves have voices that offer praise to God and echo the relationship for which they were created (see Psalms 148:7–13).
But even in this ordered praise, the tones are muted, the celebrat-ion is incomplete and the brokenness is evident. The praise is mingled with groans (see Romans 8:22). Life is punctuated by death. Creation is beset by decay—and somehow yearns for re-creation: “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19).
In a sense, the dislocation of creation because of human sin was most visibly demonstrated at the crucifixion. C S Lewis described the resurrection as the “great miracle” that introduced an entirely different kind of possibility into the world but the death of the world’s Creator within the confines and limitations of that world must be no less a magnitude of “anti-miracle.” It is little wonder that nature turned away and violently revolted at this darkest moment in human history (see Matthew 27:45–51).
Agents of re-creation
Contrary to what has been assumed throughout much of Christian history, the Bible is clear that the ultimate purpose of salvation is re-creation. God’s plan is for the world to be restored to its original goodness. As such, we are called not only to accept His offer of salvation but also to be participants in, and agents of, that salvation in our world today, in anticipation of the complete re-creation promised by God (see Revelation 21:1–5).
This has significant implications for how we understand our role in God’s salvation and our relationship to the created world in which we have been created and re-created. As Wright says, “We are not saved from the world of creation, but saved for the world of creation (Romans 8:18–26). Humans were made to take care of God’s wonderful world, and it is not too strong to say that the reason God saves humans is not simply that he loves them for themselves but that he loves them for what they truly are—his pro-creators, his stewards, his vice-regents over creation.”
Because God so loved us, God gave His Son for us and we are called to love what He loves. Because “God so loved the world”—“as a created, organised entity”—so must we. Because we have accepted God’s gift of salvation, we seek that same salvation, restoration and re-creation for our fellow human beings, our fellow creatures and the whole created world. And in a specific and special way, we are now God’s agents for serving, preserving, helping and healing in our world—and to all creation.