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Friday, October 23, 2009

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. 1. God has projected into human conscience that we are dead in trespasses and sin.
  2. 2. God has promised life after death forever to those who believe Him for it.
  3. 3. God has provided a human ransom that will “buy us back” from death to life.
These three tenets presuppose that:
  1. Humans are endowed by God with a conscience capable of at least intuitive awareness of these three basic tenets;
  2. 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
  3. Judgment is according to light [“content” of revealed truth] received
A “Narrative Approach” in John for a 3-D Gospel
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.


Anonymous Bobby Grow said...

Thanks Kc for hosting the venerable, Jim :-).


I look forward to the unfolding of your narrative exegesis of John 3.16.

From the get go I'm encouraged by your points on imputation vs. identification --- I actually like participation (which is more 'Pauline' --- i.e. 'in Christ'. But, I also want to affirm 'imputation' which must be understood in personal terms not primarily forensic as is typically framed. I think your points on the forensic emphasis are discerning; what is clear, is that Paul and the Gospels speak to this category, but not as the primary frame. Ironically, and this is what I am excited about per the intention of your posts, framing salvation 'forensically' or 'juridically' comes from Covenant theologies' covenant of works/grace paradigm; but even for Free Gracers (whatever camp) this has become the sine qua non for discussing salvation (even if this is left 'unstated' --- i.e. by GES types). What I'm excited about is that you're exegesis will show that salvation is framed relationally, trinitarianlly, personally; I hope folks will be sensitive to your points on that!

There is one point of disagreement I have from the outset; and that is the idea of intuitive awareness of God. I think per Jn 1.18 that the only one who has this kind of 'awareness' is Jesus Christ; thus it is imperative for us to ground any knowledge of God in 'His knowledge for us' or in Christ's vicarious life wherein we share through participation by the Spirit. I think John starts with the WORD and ends with the WORD for a reason --- in other words I think, even methodologically, we must ground our approach in Christ (Jn 5.39), which means that His 'being' (ontology) precedes our 'knowing' (epistemology); and apart from participating in His being (which is what the hypostatic union speaks to, theologically) we cannot have knowledge of God or then ourselves. Beyond this, if we start with ourselves (intuitive knowledge) Jesus' life becomes instrumental not pivotal/central for 'salvation' --- i.e. the forensic model takes center place once again, or non-personal. I can explain this further if needed.

Overall, I look forward to what you're doing, Jim; and I hope it fosters a more fruitful discussion than we recently saw elsewhere ;-).

In Christ,


10/23/2009 02:30:00 PM  
Blogger agent4him said...


Thanks for weighing in. I so appreciate your contributions on the notions of participation and union and I largely concur with your sense of "framing errors" in the FG movement.

Regarding your point of disagreement, I'm wondering if you read more into what I was affirming in my "tenets" than I actually did. I am saying that humans are capable of such awareness at the level of conscience, but that the content of such awareness depends on God's revelation, which is consummated in the Word Himself. Of course, no one has "seen" (Jn 1:18) or "knows" God experientially except in Christ, as you have implied.

However, I would contend that there is in fact some form of human "awareness" of God at the level of conscience, as boldly attested in Romans 1:19-20. This awareness operates only to condemn and thus on its own cannot result in the kind of "knowledge" you are alluding to, unless a person "affiliates" ("identifies," "participates") with the revealed Messiah.

10/23/2009 03:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Grow said...


On your last paragraph then, you follow Calvin and his sensus divinitatis. As you know, at least in some circles, there is a huge debate between the analogia entis (analogy of being, which is largely Catholic and scholastic Reformed in orientation); and analogia fidei which is something Karl Barth took over within his theology (although there is debate on this too, of course).

I'm still up in the air here, but I don't think I agree with Calvin's reading or the 'analogy of being' view of things.

On your second paragraph, I may well have read too much in; I'll just shut up and follow what you have to say in your development of the text. Can't wait . . .

10/23/2009 05:05:00 PM  
Blogger Missy said...

I have not yet had to look up any words! I look forward to reading more. Thanks, Dr. Reitman (and KC, too!)

10/23/2009 07:20:00 PM  
Blogger agent4him said...

Hello Missy,

I'm counting on you to "keep me honest" on my use of vocabulary. (Don't know about Bobby, though. ;-) My next post is almost ready, so I'll have to proof it for "esotericity."

(BTW, the only person who can call me "Dr. Reitman" or "Dr. J" is KC. He's the host and is "grandfathered" in.)

You can call me "J" or "Jimbo" (or "Junk-bond" or "Jitterbug" or the ever-popular and seasonal "Jack-o-Lantern"). Or Jim.

10/23/2009 10:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Kitty said...

Long time no 'see' & 'chat' KC. Hope you are well :)

10/24/2009 05:59:00 AM  
Blogger Kc said...

Jim, I’m still re-reading all of your articles and studying but I think I’m ready for some discussion, at least in part. ;-)

I too really appreciate your relational perspective on imputation. I know almost everyone perceives imputation as a forensic act and while it certainly satisfies the law, it is clearly an act of nepotism.

I also consider your perspective on redemption and “life after death” critical to understanding the Gospel in “3-D”.

Another point I think critical concerns the “light received” and I think that is well developed in your next articles.

I’ve accepted that “intuitive” is both grammatically and technically correct. I still prefer “visceral” or some other term primarily because, although it still requires explanation, I think it will be free from prejudice with regard to those who hold some form of Reformed theology (My vision for this goes beyond FG ;-). I agree this doctrine does not lean on Dispensationalism (at least I can’t presently see where it would) and I think that’s important outside of FG circles as well.

Regarding human “awareness” of God, I’m curious about your understanding of Romans 1:19,20. I’ve always considered these verses as referring to the Jews. I would understand that while the “evidence” of God is found everywhere (even the heavens declare His glory) that the “knowledge” of God is found only in Jesus Christ. I consider this an important point with respect to “half-pelicans”. ;-)

11/14/2009 03:17:00 AM  
Blogger agent4him said...

Thanks, KC, for your well thought-out comments. This was the kind of thing I was hoping for.

Your question about Romans 1:19-20 is crucial to the idea of "conscience" as an "intuitive" or "visceral" repository of revealed truth. These two verses are part of a string of logic that takes its major turn in 1:16, which of course is the subject of this series.

There is huge debate as to the central theme of Romans; some take it as "the gospel" (narrowly defined in terms of imputation), others as "the righteousness of God," and then there's the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" that sees everything through the eyes of "second Temple Judaism." My view is that Paul's "strategic intent" in Romans is to see God's 3-D righteousness "revealed" on earth, so that is why he is "not ashamed" of a 3-D gospel: It "reveals" that side of righteousness that God confers on hopeless humanity to transform them into His representatives or agents. They in turn are "commissioned" to reveal His righteousness in their words and deeds on earth. Hence, the final phase of "God's righteousness revealed" (the main theme of Romans) is when His agents are actually transformed into this likeness (12:1-2).

The reason that humanity is hopeless (1:20) is that another side of God's righteousness has already been revealed to all humanity and "known" by means of their inborn conscience; that "side" is the "righteousness of God" as revealed in Creation: (1) His perfect standards of "Good and Evil," which is nothing less than "law." Hence, for all humanity with a mature conscience (= "the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil"), what can be "known" of God is very clear from His Creation (1:19); that is why they "have no excuse" (1:20). And (2) His perfect justice in dealing with man's universal ungodliness in Adam that has totally departed from that perfect standard (1:18).

Now we know why ("for...") it is necessary for another side of His righteousness to be revealed in the Gospel (1:17): Since there is no one righteous, and therefore no one who can represent God to a fallen world as the created image of this other side of righteousness, then the completion (if you will) of the revealing of that righteousness is through the One Man, Jesus Christ, as revealed in turn by faith in those whom God "saves" (1:16).

Romans 4-11 shows how this other side of God's righteousness is revealed in his redeemed Body AND how they are commissioned to participate in this "revealing" through a 3-D Gospel. The sent-ness of this commission is seen in the Gospel of John; the nature of the righteousness they reveal in that Gospel is seen in Romans (though the "sent-ness" is alluded to in Rom 1 and 10).

That's why there has to be a very real 3-D transformation of those same "sent" people (Rom 12:1-2): How else could they actually "reveal" His righteousness in a 3-D gospel (3:20-26)?

So, where do the Jews fit in? They are in double trouble, because they got a more "whopping dose" of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the form of Mosaic Law (3:1-19). At the same time, however, they will vindicate God's righteousness all the more when he finally saves the whole kit-and-kaboodle of them (Rom 9-11). So the "final installment" of the revealing of God's righteousness, if you will, takes place only when His original "chosen people" are all saved AND transformed into His likeness (= righteousness) to reign together with him and saved Gentiles in His Kingdom (8:17)!


(Maybe this could be the start of a new series?)

11/14/2009 06:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Florin said...

Yes I have a question on John 3:20-21.

How do these verses 20 and 21 fit into the contacts of the whole Nicodemaus story.

Florin Email floh@q.com

11/28/2009 11:13:00 PM  
Blogger agent4him said...


Thanks for your question. I have dealt with John 3:20-21 in the post "Receive?" "Believe?" Coming to the Light in this same series on the narrative approach to John 3:16.

Have you looked at that post and the comment thread? The answer to your question has to do with the imagery of light in the Prologue of John and how he uses it at the end of the Nicodemus story. I have revised that post as a result of your question and hopefully the essence of 3:20-21 will be clearer in the revised version, which I will send to you in a Word file by e-mail.

11/29/2009 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

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11/11/2017 05:56:00 AM  

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