What constitutes our Christian identity? Do we have one? Is it our core identity? Should it be? Is it all that important? Are we people of the Book, the Word, the Gospel? Or are we just people of the Church, an institution and a building where we find social interaction and comfort for ourselves? What would change in our daily lives if our Christian faith drove everything that we do and say? What might tomorrow look like? What might your Holy Week look like? How might your worship patterns change?
How might your stewardship patterns change? Where does your money go? How much time and money do you spend on the Church compared to what you spend on entertainment and earthly pleasures? As Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). If you truly think about this objectively, you may discover where your hearts really are. Your patterns of living and giving, measured against your commitment to Jesus Christ and His Church, are all you need to examine.
We cry out against the total secularization of contemporary American society, yet we ourselves are awash in it and have been for decades. It’s the life we know best. The Christian life as described in the Bible is less familiar to us experientially. We have redefined Christianity as a “comfort zone” to which we can retreat “as needed” by us, but certainly not as demanded by the claims of Christ on our lives. Our Christianity is pretty much confined to periodic church attendance when it’s not in conflict with our other activities, with competing attractions, with inclement weather or with a bad case of the sniffles.
What does any of this have to do with today’s Scriptures? Absolutely everything! Today we have two of the best-known and most frequently quoted passages in the whole of the Bible. Yet both are most often quoted out of context and given a spin that is almost in contradiction to what each passage actually says and means. There’s a popular saying that “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text.” Yet we’ve taken John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8 & 9 and made watered-down proof-texts out of them that would have astonished and dismayed Jesus, John and Paul.
What am I saying? Let’s start with Ephesians 2 and end with John 3:16. What use do we make, almost exclusively, of Ephesians 2:8 & 9? We use it to prove that salvation is solely by God’s grace, appropriated by faith, and has nothing to do with good works. We use it to combat the “heresy” of those Roman Catholics who believe that they have to do a variety of other things to procure their salvation from week to week if not from day to day. We’ve used it that way so often and for so long that we’ve lost a sense of what these verses mean when examined in the light of Paul’s overall argument in this section of Ephesians.
It’s easy to forget that when Paul wrote Ephesians and all the rest of his epistles, there were no chapter divisions and no verse numbers. And I think we’ve allowed chapter and verse citations to become a convenient and catchy short-cut instead of reading more and challenging ourselves with the complexities of Pauline thought, logic, instruction and, yes, demands. In other words, we’ve indeed made texts without contexts into pretexts for proof-texts, often without even realizing it.
Is it Paul’s point in what we call Ephesians 2 that salvation is “by grace through faith plus nothing?” That’s what we say. But in the way of context, let’s first of all look at the very next verse, one that hardly anyone who quotes verses 8 & 9 could quote or even paraphrase! Verse 10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, that God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
If we go back to the beginning of our passage, we get Paul’s actual point: he is telling believers that while we were dead in trespasses, sins and transgressions, living under the control of “the prince of the power of the air,” now we have been made alive in Christ so that, as His re-born followers, we might no longer indulge in “the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” We must show ourselves no longer to be “by nature children of wrath.” This passage is less about how to be saved than about how to live as Christians. And it’s all about no longer indulging in our fleshly appetites but engaging our whole selves in doing those good works that God prepared for us before we ever came to faith.
So what’s wrong with the way we quote John 3:16, the verse that is found on countless T-shirts, posters, road signs, church signs, internet sites, letter-heads, signatures, etc. It’s what we use as the most common formula for salvation: “God so loved us that He gave His Son to be the object of our faith, thereby providing eternal life.” But what was Jesus really saying in the context of what we know as the third chapter of John’s Gospel?
This verse is appended to a conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling body known as the Sanhedrin. Presumably Nicodemus was a man who knew his Scriptures quite well. He certainly knew the story about Moses holding off one of God’s punishments of His impatient and grumbling people by raising a fiery serpent on a pole so that they might look on it and live. He was a bit perplexed about the business of being “born again;” but he was an honest and earnest inquirer, even if he did approach Jesus under the cover of darkness.
Ultimately Nicodemus was one of the very few persons still standing at the foot of the Cross when Jesus died, helping Joseph of Arimathea to prepare the body of Jesus for burial in his tomb. By then Nicodemus seems to have shed any reluctance to be openly identified with Jesus regardless of the cost. He would have had to learn what it means for a Christian to be an exile from his society, something few of us have been willing to risk in our day. We’re more prone to compromise and accommodation, things that render us invisible in a society that has essentially abandoned the way of the Cross. We’re actually doing rather little to stem the tide of secularization. But it may be time for us to view ourselves and Christians in general as exiled immigrants, as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea became in their day.
Our society is quick to celebrate diversity of every sort, being almost passionate about embracing other religions, other ideologies, other systems of government, other cultures, other practices associated with those cultures, alternative sexual identities and behaviors, just about anything that’s radically opposed to Biblical Christianity. Notice I did not say that our society merely accepts these alternatives, which might even be a Christian way to regard them. I said that our society “celebrates” them; it “embraces” them, it incorporates them into the very ways that they think and act. And that is decidedly antithetic to Biblical Christianity!
Back to John 3:16. What was it that caused the Israelites to go off the rails over and over, even at the cost of their becoming exiled immigrants, first in in Assyria, then in Babylonia and ultimately throughout the world? The answer is simple: syncretism, a repugnant inclination to integrate into their own faith and practices those of their pagan neighbors. And that’s precisely what we’re doing today as Christians. We do it under the guise of enlightened tolerance and cross-cultural enrichment. But what it really is, is a readiness to compromise our faith at every turn in the road until, in the end, our own faith no longer has very much in common with the steadfast faith of our spiritual fathers and mothers.
In the process we’ve hidden the light of Christ under a bushel because we’re too often embarrassed by our identification with Him. All sorts of other identities are acceptable and may be spoken of openly, even with approbation. But our identity as followers of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures is best kept to ourselves, as it might be perceived as being extremist, fundamentalist, narrow-minded, judgmental, sexist, homophobic and isolationist. We fear those labels far more than we fear the compromise of our faith.
And what does God think? What should we think? One of the most mis-quoted and mis-applied verses in our day is not John 3:16 but the following verse, 3:17: “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” I cannot tell you how many times in recent years I have heard evangelical Christians quote a few words from that verse and stop. They quote, “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world.” There they stop quoting and start adding non-Biblical words to the effect that since God did not condemn the world, neither should we. Yet all the subsequent verses in our passage go on to say exactly what it is about the world that God does in fact condemn! And the final verse in this chapter says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Note that faith is coupled with obedience!
How much of the Bible are we actually reading when we say our “enlightened” things? Can we really think that God tacitly condoned the ways of the world when, in sending His Son, He is thought not to have condemned them?
John 3:17 does not say that God did not condemn the world. It says, quite clearly, that God’s purpose in sending His Son was not for condemnation but for salvation. Salvation from what? Salvation from all those highly condemnable things about the world that cost the Son of God His very life. They were the same things that our society now celebrates, embraces, incorporates and accepts. They were the very things to which Paul said we have died when we were made alive in Christ Jesus.
We still cling to some of those things, especially the ones that are our personal favorites, somehow excusing ourselves because we believe we’re not saved by our good works nor are we condemned for our not-so-good ones. Is that really what we think Scripture teaches? On the contrary, Jesus said that “men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” Those are the deeds Paul had in mind, the “good works that God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” How would our deeds stand up to exposure in God’s light?
What should it mean for us to be John 3:16 people? For starters, it means that we should put the verse back into its context. Then we’ll see that the lifting up of God’s only Son on the Cross for our salvation was so that we might fix our gaze on the crucified Christ, a very Lenten thing to do, and examine our lives in the light of His sacrifice. And having done that, we must move on to the following verses that inform us as to how that fixed gaze ought to change the way we live from day to day. When we do that, we discover again that both John 3 and Ephesians 2 are all about good works, works “prepared beforehand” for us by God Himself, deeds that “may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
Here’s what I would like to ask you to do this morning: I would like to ask every one of you to take your page with today’s lectionary readings, fold it up and put it in your purse or pocket; then take it home with you and commit to a daily reading of these passages as one of your Lenten disciplines from now until the end of Holy Week. Read John 3:14-21 and Ephesians 2:1-10 once every day. Read and absorb the larger context.
Then spend some serious time doing the most important Lenten task of all: self-examination. It’s an exam you take with only one handbook, the Bible, and only one mentor, the Holy Spirit. It’s serious hard work. Measure your life against what Jesus and Paul are saying in these passages. Figure out whether you are trying to serve both God and earthly gain, something Jesus said was impossible. See what things from your former life you still might be trying to retain versus what things you are doing that might qualify as “good works that God prepared beforehand” and deeds that have “been wrought in God.” Remember the words of James, who wrote, “to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (4:17).
Pray about these things. Open yourself up to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Remember that conscience itself is a gift from God, decidedly not our favorite gift, but one He’s given to every human being, Christian or not. Acknowledge that anything we do that offends our own conscience, even just a little bit, is defined by Scripture as sin. Remember Paul’s words: “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:27). See whether the faith you profess comes only from God’s Holy Word or whether you have allowed what our permissive society preaches to distort your faith.
Self-examination is seldom fun. But not only is it the most important Lenten task of all, it also is the only one that reaps eternal rewards.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.