Promise Only? Jesus, the One-and-Only, is the Promise
Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman
I must confess I just don’t get it. Some opponents of the so-called “Promise-Only gospel” seem to fear that just inviting people to “believe in Jesus” somehow blasphemes the Gospel. Yet some of its advocates seem to fear that inviting people to “accept (or receive) Jesus” won’t get the job done, either. The former insist that unless the “promise” is filled out with enough “content,” you don’t have a genuine “offer” of the Gospel. The latter are concerned that the idea of “accepting” or “receiving” implies more than simple belief in the proposition that “Jesus gives eternal life.” IMO Zane Hodges did not help the case in proposing his infamous “Desert Island Scenario,” which left some with the impression that all anyone needed was to believe in some “unspecified” Jesus with no other information available to that person than two verses (John 6:43, 47). Charges of heretical “reductionism” on the one hand are traded with charges of “theological legalism” on the other.
Building on my previous post “The Gospel in the Garden,” I would like to propose in this post that if in fact conscience is instilled by God in all humanity from Adam on as an “internal repository” for intuitive awareness, then there are three “things” or “tenets” that people are at least “intuitively aware” of as soon as they have a mature conscience. Short version:
- 1. They are dead in trespasses and sin.
- 2. There is some form of life after death.
- 3. This life can only be “redeemed” by some external “Source” revealed in Creation.
The “Promise-Only” is the Only Promise worth Believing for Life
The problem I have with both sides of the so-called “Crossless Gospel” debate is that IMO they ignore the Biblical principle of “judgment according to light received,” which is thoroughly intrinsic to the Gospel of John. In my last post I proposed that the “bare minimum” for light received is intuitive awareness of the three tenets above, found in narrative form in the Gospel in the Garden. In that gospel we have a “promise” from God that is not some unspecified “pie in the sky,” but rather the one and only “seed” (Gen 3:15) who can restore access to the Tree of Life through blood atonement. Paul makes this notion annoyingly clear in Galatians 3 with respect to the Abrahamic covenant: For first-century Jews, the connection of the promised “seed of Abraham” to Genesis 3:15 was completely transparent (see Gal 3:8).
Thus, from the beginning we have always had a specified “Promise-Only” gospel as the only viable alternative to idolatry for human access to the Tree of Life. So, Jesus’ allusion to the snake-on-a-stick episode in John 3:14-15 as the narrative conduit for Nicodemus’ understanding of the Gospel was the ideal way to specify a “Promise-Only” Gospel for a devout first-century Jew! For any concerned that the gospel should always present the “work” as well as the Person of that Promise, this work has always been specified in the Gospel from Genesis 3:15 on. We will find that John 3:16 is that same specified promise, even though neither the Cross nor the Resurrection nor the Deity of Christ is explicitly mentioned.
Jesus the One-and-Only
If we “think like a Rabbi” we will immediately see why this is the case in John 3:16. Let me reproduce my own translation here:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one-of-a-kind [or unique, or one-and-only] Son, that everyone believing in Him might not perish but have life everlasting (John 3:16).
We have gotten so used to “born again” (3:3, 7) and “only begotten Son” (3:16) that Jesus’ double entendres in the narrative are all but lost on us. But if we read the terms in John 3:16 against the theological backdrop John has already provided in the Prologue (1:1-18), the confusion over the intended referents is promptly clarified. I posited in the “snake-on-a-stick” post that the notion “born from above” is Jesus’ corrective when Nicodemus misconstrues it as a second “natural” birth. If we recognize Jesus is offering a new birth “from above” by “water and spirit,” then the significance of a “one-of-a-kind” Son begins to make all the sense in the world. Indeed, “only begotten Son” doesn’t make nearly as much sense when we realize that Jesus is offering everyone “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12) by being “born of God” (1:13); if that is true, why then does John represent Jesus as the only begotten? Rather, John 3:16 specifies the unique nature and work of the promised Seed in Genesis 3:15, so that those who “receive” him—who “believe in His name” (i.e., his specified identity)—can also become “sons of God” (1:12).
Seen in this light, using this verse alone is anything but a “reductionistic gospel.” Even if the evangelist is clueless about narrative theology or first-century Jews, they are offering the promise of life in a specified—indeed unique—Person. That’s why the best translation of the Greek adjective monogenēs is “one-of-a-kind.” But even if we say “only begotten,” how can any rational person come away thinking anything other than that this “Son” is one special (read “unique”) dude? This is not some “Jesus” you can find on the streets of Mexico city (or Laredo, Texas, for that matter, where I was born and raised with lots of Jesus’s around), as feared by some who oppose the so-called “Promise-only” Gospel from single verses in John. Rational people are not as stupid as they are willfully ignorant, and sincere evangelists will be attentive to people misconstruing the message, clarifying as much as they themselves understand and time allows. Plus, the Holy Spirit must be involved, so those who think we send people to hell if we mess up out of ignorance are just “half-pelicans” (with a tip-o-the-hat to KC and our very own Little Miss Missy :-). I will deal with “half-pelicans” later; it is seriously disturbing.
In what respect then is this Person “one-of-a-kind”? (An excellent resource for the ensuing discussion is Köstenberger and Swain, Father, Son, and Spirit: The Trinity in John’s Gospel, IVP 2008.)
The Deity of Christ
When I began to study John 3:16 in light of the so-called “Crossless Gospel” debate I was surprised to find that the most explicit thing about the verse is not the Cross but the Deity of Christ. In context, the Greek specifier monogenēs is essentially framed in neon lights, making it unambiguously clear that Deity is what John is alluding to with that term. Right off the bat, the Prologue equates the Word with God (1:1-3) and concludes, “the one-of-a-kind God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained Him” (1:18). That this is exactly the same person as the “Word made flesh” is undeniable, since he is also described as “the one-of-a-kind from the Father” (1:14). Wow. So anyone familiar with Biblical narrative (e.g., any first-century Jew) who read or heard the Gospel of John from 1:1 to 3:16 would have absolutely no doubt that John depicts Jesus first and foremost as God incarnate and Son of the Father. Will they believe John…that is to say, John’s testimony about Jesus? This is the whole basis for the imagery of the Light in 1:4-12 and what people do with Him—the subject of our next post.)
The Cross of Christ
Where then is the Cross? We have already broached this in the “snake-on-a-stick” post, where I suggested that the notion of blood atonement inheres in the imagery of 3:14-15 as it taps into Torah from a Rabbinic mindset. Now in 3:16, the specifier monogenēs makes yet another unambiguous connection to Torah. Why did John use that pesky word anyway—one that takes four English words to translate accurately? The answer is rooted in the narrative of Genesis 22. Any first-century Jew worth his salt would have been intimately familiar with the sacrifice of Isaac, where God tells Abraham to “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering….” And any first-century Jew would have known that “There Will Be Blood” (with a tip-o-the-hat to Easygoer), because that’s how Torah describes the preparation for a burnt offering (Leviticus 4—not for the faint-hearted!). The point for original readers is not that Isaac’s sacrifice foreshadowed the Cross (which it did), but that he was to be a ransom of blood atonement for sin.
It would be obvious to any first-century Jew that Isaac was not Abraham’s “only” son. The word translated “only” in Gen 22:2 literally means “unique” in context—he is the unique son of promise (21:12), exactly like Jesus. There is simply no other OT image one could conjure up as an appropriate referent for the descriptor in 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18. John used the one word in 3:16 that could designate Jesus as both God and the unique Son of the Father, while also setting apart that same unique Son, who is in the “bosom” of the Father (1:18, a clear image of deep paternal love for the Son, cf. 13:23) as a blood sacrifice with the same tangible sense of foreboding conveyed in Genesis 22. The same love of Abraham for his unique son is attested in the Greek (LXX) of Gen 22:2, which reads “beloved” instead of the Hebrew “only.” There can thus be no doubt that John intended 3:16 to scream both Deity and blood atonement with the monogenēs Son. But what if the evangelist using 3:16 doesn’t know this?
What We Do with “Half-Pelicans”
My facetious allusion to Semi-Pelagianism is only partly tongue-in-cheek. There are plenty of “half-pelicans” on both sides of the so-called “Crossless Gospel” controversy. What I mean by invoking this theological “label” is the pejorative sense it implies: A Semi-Pelagian is someone who allegedly diminishes God’s sovereignty in determining the destiny of humans of by over-emphasizing human responsibility within God’s sovereign decree. (Please correct me, KC and/or Bobby, if I am not less than completely accurate in my definition, but it won’t matter to the point I’m attempting to make here.) I like “half-pelicans” for this reason: They are not very likely to underestimate the importance of human free will in the saving transaction that occurs when someone believes in Jesus for eternal life. But here is the problem, as I see it:
On one side of the controversy, they tie heavy loads on people who don’t get the Gospel “exactly right” because “we are sending people to hell.” This is absurd. What they are claiming is that someone’s eternal destiny is contingent on including exactly the precise elements of Person and Work in the Gospel presentation, because people can’t be saved unless they know the details of Christ’s Deity and/or the Cross or Resurrection. Other than terribly confusing the object of faith with the basis of salvation, the faulty logic here is that “God can’t use that” and it completely ignores the importance of the drawing efficacy of Jesus (John 12:32) and—after his ascent—the Holy Spirit (16:8-11)! People are still held accountable by conscience for what light they have received, regardless of “how good a job” the evangelist has done. God does use this routinely, as his megaphone, the Holy Spirit, speaks into human conscience. People are either willing or they are not—God honors human free will, and his sovereignty is never jeopardized by any “failure” of the evangelist. This is the subject of my next post.
On the other side, we have people who bite their nails out of fear that a three-dimensional gospel (“receiving” Jesus) will lead to Lordship Salvation in one form or another. This is equally absurd. If we preach a “real” gospel, the message will be faith alone in Christ alone, no works of our own. That means no works. Even if the evangelist is an Arminian, a hyper-Calvinist or some other kind of “LS-er,” the person who trusts in [the Biblical] Jesus alone by faith alone has eternal life. I believe they should hear a 3-D gospel, but that depends on where the person is who receives the message. I believe our focus has been heavily skewed towards imputation by the legacy of the Reformation and that the clear responsibility of the Body of Christ is to present a 3-D gospel in line with all the iterations of the Great Commission, which is rooted in identification with Christ. Why not immediately present the implications of our identification—Christ “working” in us by “mutual consent”? What did Jesus offer?
So, when confronted by “half-pelicans,” try to assuage their anxiety, keep telling people about Jesus, and let the Holy Spirit do his thing with God-given conscience. In what may be the most important guide to evangelism in the NT, we hear this regarding the “heart” of the evangelist: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17).