John 3:16: A 3-D Gospel for a Promised 3-D Redemption
Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman
I love the name of Tim Nichol’s blog, Full Contact Christianity. As Tim has alluded to on numerous prior threads, the Free Grace (FG) movement has for several years been involved in some “full contact” intramural disputes (Tim calls them “food fights”) over the nature of the gospel. From my perspective, a major pitfall in these debates has been the tendency of the more vocal advocates on several sides to reduce the good news to an issue of having “enough” or “the right” information to be “saved,” and this usually boils down to “How can I get to Heaven when I die?” I will show my hand right off the bat and agree with Tim that the Gospel has always been more about a Person than information per se or, as various FG advocates would express it, the so-called Content of Saving Faith, the bare minimum, or the bulls-eye of “belief” out of a “laundry list” of propositions one can scavenge from various loci in the Bible. So, I invite you to join me in a different kind of “full contact Christianity,” one that grapples mano-a-mano with the related narratives of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation until—like Jacob wrestled with the “Man”—our FG “names” are changed, :-) and we begin to fathom the remarkable three-dimensional nature of the life God has planned for us since the beginning.
A New (Old, really) Orientation to Life after Death
I don’t intend to dismiss any of the prevailing concerns about the importance of propositions in so-called “saving faith,” but I contend that the Biblical focus on these propositions has never been for them to become the object of our faith. Rather, these propositions were revealed for the purpose of progressively specifying the nature and work of that Person who, since the Fall of Man, God has always promised as the One who would deliver man from sin and death to a fully redeemed life after death.
I further contend that this “life after death” is not usually specified in the Bible as “getting to heaven” per se, but rather as a quality of life that characterizes our intended destiny in God’s Reign in righteousness over the created world. Just as we die in Adam in three dimensions—positionally in immediate separation from God the moment we become aware of our inability; progressively in our ongoing struggle to survive the consequences of sin in this life; and prospectively in eternal separation from God in the age to come—so also in the same three dimensions God has always promised redemption to deliver us from death to life.
Finally, I contend that the Scriptures which deal with God’s promise of life after death rarely if ever address the goal of legal justification alone but rather look “through” justification toward God’s three-dimensional redemptive goals for those whom He chose and commissioned to govern His Creation. These redemptive goals are almost invariably framed in terms of identification or affiliation with Christ rather than the mere imputation of his righteousness to our account. The latter is presupposed but not typically the Biblical focus of attention.
In the process of developing this more full-blown view of our salvation in Christ, we will of necessity be exploring a number of closely related theological concepts that not only have direct bearing on how we view our redemption but should also directly affect the way we “evangelize” and then “treat” our brethren and “sistren.” As a result, our theology grows increasingly practical as an orienting “map” or “compass” for our behavior toward one another and the world. The main theological categories that keep resurfacing in the metanarrative of salvation include the nature and purposes of: law, conscience, guilt, atonement, belief/trust, free will, grace, imputation, identification, baptism, and righteousness. For the theologically “faint-hearted,” I don’t see how I can avoid discussing these theological categories, but “be of good cheer”: We will be developing them straight from the “stories” of Scripture as they relate to the full, three-dimensional life of faith God has invited us to enter. My hope is that in dialogue with Tim and others on the comment threads, we may eventually frame these theological categories in a very different way—a much more holistic and “purpose-oriented” way—than our thinking has been compartmentalized by more traditional systematic approaches.
The Basic Thesis
My view of three-dimensional salvation is a fundamentally dispensational approach (theologically speaking); however, I do not find this is at all inimical to other ways of thinking about the issue. What I do see is that none of us will emerge from this “wrestling match” (if we enter it with integrity) without having “our names changed.” What I mean by this is that our traditions and even our staunchest theological convictions will be laid out on the table for reframing and, if need be, total overhaul. Of one thing we can be sure: Jesus will not change, nor will God’s offer of life through Him.
Taking John 3:16 as our starting point, here is what I hope to show is consistent about the Gospel in the narratives of Scripture from Genesis on:
- 1. God has projected into human conscience that we are dead in trespasses and sin.
- 2. God has promised life after death forever to those who believe Him for it.
- 3. God has provided a human ransom that will “buy us back” from death to life.
- Humans are endowed by God with a conscience capable of at least intuitive awareness of these three basic tenets;
- The available content of truth that specifies the “identity” and “work” of this human “ransom” has progressively increased by God’s revelation with each dispensation; and
- Judgment is according to light [“content” of revealed truth] received
In my next post I will tap the narrative literary context of John 3:16 in order to flesh out how these tenets are realized and have been realized throughout salvation history by grace through faith in Christ alone. The first couple of sentences of the Introduction to Leon Morris’ long revered commentary on John says a mouthful about my choice to discuss the 3-D Gospel in Scripture by starting with the fourth Gospel, and with 3:16 in particular:
“I like the comparison of John’s Gospel to a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim. It is both simple and profound. It is for the veriest beginner in the faith and for the mature Christian. Its appeal is immediate and never failing.” (The Gospel of John, Revised Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 3)
But Morris promptly goes on to cite a typical, almost intuitive reaction of modern commentators on John’s Gospel that the more one “applies himself to the close study of this book” the more it remains “strange, restless, and unfamiliar” (ibid.). It is my contention that this is because we tend to read John “one-dimensionally” when it has always presented a three-dimensional Gospel, and modernist commentators tend to aggravate this problem by engaging in verse-by-verse exegesis rather than adopting the narrative approach that the author intended “from the beginning” (one of John’s favorite phrases). Please join me as I explore such a narrative approach to this Gospel; we will quickly discover that this approach will take us on a journey all over the canon of Scripture, even if we limit ourselves to a closer look at John 3 for the purposes of our Gospel discussion.