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What is the Gospel?

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 17, 2013

John 3:16

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to the gospel of John.  We’re taking a break from our series in the book of Hebrews to look at the Gospel - what is the Gospel?  There are wonderful summarizing statements of the Gospel all through the New Testament; there is none more familiar, more beloved, or clearer than this one.  This passage comes in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and one of the most learned teachers in all of Israel, a man named Nicodemus, who was confused by what Jesus had been teaching about the new birth.  Nicodemus had heard Jesus’ teaching that in order to see the kingdom of God, in order to understand God’s kingdom, to be a part of God’s kingdom, you have to be born again.  And Nicodemus didn’t understand this.  How can a person be born again?  If you’ve already been born, how can you be born again?  It confused him.  And so by night, he went to Jesus to ask Him about this.  And it’s a very humorous conversation.  Jesus says to him, “Now Nicodemus, you are reputed to be the teacher in all of Israel and yet you don’t understand something very simple and basic and important like the new birth.”  And at one point in the conversation Jesus says, “You see Nicodemus, if you’re not born again, you can’t understand the kingdom of God.”  And you remember how Nicodemus responds?  “I don’t understand,” thus proving Jesus’ point.  It’s a very humorous but a very important conversation.  And in that conversation Jesus uses the picture of the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness to explain His own death on the cross.  And in that context He says the words we’re about to read.  He is, in these words, explaining the Gospel message and His mission in this world.  

And I want you to be on the lookout for two or three things as we read this very familiar passage.  First of all, I want you to be on the lookout for its emphasis on God’s love.  Secondly, I want you to see how it points to who God gave.  And then I want you to see the promise that God makes.  The emphasis on God’s love, the emphasis on God’s gift, the emphasis on God’s promise.  Be on the lookout for that.  Let’s pray before we hear God’s Word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word.  Not a word of it can fall.  Every syllable of it is true.  We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of our God.  So speak, Lord, Your servants listen, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

This is God’s Word.  Hear it in John chapter 3 verse 16:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth on all our hearts.

This is one of the most well known, if not the most well known passage in all of the Scripture.  Many of us in this room learned this verse on our mother’s knee or in Vacation Bible School or early when we were in Sunday School in church and we have quoted it often as we have grown up in the faith.  There are many passages in the New Testament that summarize the Gospel.  Billy read some of them from Romans 5 this morning.  Paul is always coming up with short, pithy ways of expressing the glorious truth of God’s grace, but there’s none better than this passage for explaining the Gospel.  And I want us to think about what the Gospel is this morning, thinking about three things from this passage.  The Gospel tells us of the surprising love of God, the lavish gift of God, and the gracious promise of God.  And I want to think about those three things with you for a few moments this morning.  

THE SURPRISING LOVE OF GOD

The first thing I want us to see in John 3:16 is how it shows us the surprising love of God.  Now you may say, “it’s not surprising to me at all that God is loving because I have seen His gracious purposes played out on the pages of Scripture all the way from Genesis to the book of Revelation and I’ve experienced His love in my own life.”  And that is good and that’s wonderful and it’s true, but you know for many, many people it is very difficult for them to believe that God is love.  And one of the reasons for that is because of our own struggle with guilt.  We know that we are sinners and we know that we deserve to be punished for that sin.  Isn’t it interesting that in Romans 5, in the passage that Billy read, Paul says this - while we were still weak, while we were still sinners, while we were still enemies, God demonstrates His love for us in that He gives His only Son?  We are weak, sinful, and at enmity with God and every human being deep down inside knows that.  We know that we are in bondage to our own sin.  We’re weak; we’re not strong.  We can’t break free from the bondage of sin.  We want to do what we want to do.  And very frankly, if God commands against it, we still want to do what we want to do.  And we are weak to break away from those kinds of desires.  We are sinners.  

And of course the New Testament uses that term in various ways.  Sometimes that word means a lawbreaker.  We have broken the law.  Sometimes it means we have fallen short of what God created us to be.  And both of those things are bad.  When you have broken God’s Law which He gave for His glory and your good and when you have not ended up being what He created you to be, you have fallen short indeed.  And that’s why Paul, in the book of Romans, will say, “All have fallen short of the glory of God.”  And he tells us - what is the wages of that?  “The wages of sin is death.”  And of course Romans 5 told us that we are at enmity with God.  Human beings are not God’s friend by birth.  We are at enmity with God apart from His own work of grace.  We want to do it our way, not God’s way, and that puts us in a predicament.  We deserve to be punished.  Isn’t it interesting in this passage that John says God loved the world, He gave His only Son, whoever believes in Him should not perish.  He mentions that because we all know that we deserve to perish.  It’s very interesting.  If you look at the other world religions that believe in a final judgment, all of them teach - “Here’s your only hope when you face that final judgment:  You’d better hope that you’ve been good enough not to perish, that you’ve been good enough not to be condemned, that you’ve been good enough not to be judged, found lacking, and cast out.”  And so it’s not surprising that God would punish sin, but what is surprising is that God would show love to people who were weak, in bondage to sin, lawbreakers, sinners, not keeping His Word, and enemies - not His friends but people who hated Him.

And look at what this passage says.  “God so loved the world.”  Now John uses that word, “world,” repeatedly to indicate that which is set over against God in opposition to Him.  So for instance, later in the gospel you remember that Jesus will tell His disciples, “Do not love the world.”  What does He mean by that?  He means that attitude of heart and thought that is set over against God, that treasures other things more than God, that wants to live life the way we want to live it instead of God’s way that doesn’t trust in God, that doesn’t worship God, doesn’t treasure and value God.  And Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Don’t get caught up in that.  Love God.  Don’t love the world.”  But here in this passage we’re told that “God so loved the world”!  That’s stunning!  That’s surprising that God loved a weak, sinful world at enmity with Him.  And that’s what John is telling us and that’s what Jesus is telling us in this passage.  He’s telling us about the surprising love of God - God who has every right to be angry with this world, instead, loves.  That’s amazing.  “God so loved the world.”

THE GIFT THAT GOD GAVE

Second, look at what else it goes on to say.  “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”  Now this points to a lavish, inestimable, great beyond speaking gift that God gave.  He gave the gift of His own Son.  The greatness of God’s love is seen in that He gives His own Son for a world who hates Him.  John records for us in this passage a word that Jesus spoke that helps us understand how great the surprising love of God is and he helps you do that in two ways.  He says, “Look at what God loves and look at what God gave.”  Look at who God loves - the world.  A world of sinners in opposition to Him?  Yes, He sets His love on them.  And look at who God gave - His only begotten Son.  Now understand that saying that the Father gave His Son doesn’t mean that God is like humans and that in some point in time He came into being and some point in time the Son came into being.  The Son and the Father are both from before all ages, before the creation of this world.  This world was brought into being by God through the Son of His love - the Word.  But the Father has always been a Father and the Son has always been a Son.  The Son was not brought into being by human generation; He is eternal, and He has been in relationship with His Father from before there was a world.  And the Father gave that Son for the world.  That’s amazing.  You see, Jesus is saying, “You see the greatness of God’s love when you look at who He loves - a world of sinners who hate Him - and who He gave so that that world of sinners could be saved  - the Son of His love, His only begotten Son, the only and unique Son of God.  That’s who He gave.”  

You know I told you a story a number of years ago about my friend, Michael Ramsden, and a very intelligent, curious, Muslim imam said to Michael, “Michael, why is it that you Christians say that Jesus had to die?  I really want to know what your explanation of that is.”  And of course the answer to that is found in John the Baptist’s words when he sees Jesus coming out in the wilderness when he was doing all of his baptisms.  You remember what John says?  He looks at Jesus, he sees Him coming, and then he says what?  “Behold, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.”  Why did Jesus have to die?  To take away the sins of the world.  Look at what Jesus is saying here.  Jesus is saying, “God so loved the world that He gave Me in the place of all those who believe in Me.”  So that Jesus’ righteousness is credited to us and our sin is credited to Jesus.  So Jesus bears the punishment for our sin and we go free!  

THE GRACIOUS PROMISE OF GOD

And that leads us to the third point.  We go free as we trust in Him.  Because we see in this passage not only the surprising love of God and this great, this inestimable, this lavish gift of God, but we see the gracious promise of God.  Look at the second half of the verse.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  In other words, God grants pardon and life to all who trust in Jesus for salvation.  God grants pardon and life for all who trust in Jesus for salvation.  What does the hymn say?  “In my place condemned He stood, sealed my pardon with His blood.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!”  And Jesus is saying, “I came to take your place, to bear your sins, and your shame, and the scoffing that you deserve, and I came to give you a new heart to forgive your sins, to bring you back into the Father’s family, to give you gifts that you did not deserve because I lived a life that you hadn’t lived and I died the death that you deserved to die so that if you will trust in Me, you will receive pardon and life from My heavenly Father.”  That’s why Jesus came to die.  He came to die in our place and He was raised again, the apostle Paul says, for our justification.  And so as we trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel, we are pardoned and accepted and welcomed as children into the family of God and we receive all the benefits that Jesus deserves.  

And why?  Because of God’s gracious promise.  And here’s the promise - “Believe on My Son.  I will forgive you.”  That’s God’s promise.  “Believe on My Son.  I will forgive you.”  It’s the greatest news that we could ever hear because we know that we deserve God’s wrath but instead He has given His Son that we might receive pardon and life in Him.  That is the Gospel!  And my friends, it is possible to sit in churches week after week, month after month, year after year, and hear the Gospel and not embrace it for ourselves.  Do not go from this place today without trusting in Jesus so that you can know for sure, not because you are a good person, not because you have done good deeds, not because you have tried hard that you will be accepted at the end, but that you will be accepted in the Beloved, accepted in the Son, accepted because of what Jesus has done for you because you put your faith in Him.  

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word and we ask that You would work it deep into our hearts and that we would understand, as Nicodemus did not initially understand, but by God’s grace we can tell from the gospels that later he came to understand what it meant to experience the new birth and to trust in Christ for salvation.  Grant that we would understand and believe in Jesus’ name, amen.

Now let’s sing again about the Gospel.  Number 460 - “Amazing Grace.”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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