Oftentimes there are particular passages of Scripture that stand out above the rest. I regularly confess when standing to speak that it’s quite ironic for a preacher to have a “favorite” verse or portion of the Word. But, to be sure, I think it’s a very good thing that we let the Bible affect us, to the point where specific verses or chapters stick with us. We often call these “life verses.” Perhaps, though, the most famous verse in the entire Bible is none other than John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This, of course, comes from the well known dialogue between Jesus of Nazareth and Nicodemus of the Sanhedrin. This verse is everywhere — popular to the point of being colloquial, where even unbelievers are at least familiar with the words, notwithstanding the meaning behind them. I’m sure you’ve seen this reference at sporting events, on athlete’s shoes or those black things under football player’s eyes.
Nevertheless, despite the timeless weight and truth of verse 16, I believe that this isn’t the most significant of all the verses in this popular discourse in John’s Gospel. We routinely stop at “should not perish but have eternal life,” and forget that Christ continues to say, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:17–18). You see, we often have an incorrect view of God, as if he’s just a crotchety old man who’s just waiting for us to fail. In fact, in light of recent societal circumstances, he’s seemingly making it impossible for us to succeed.
But that’s not who God is, nor is that his Son’s ministry. The mission of Christ wasn’t to make us fail but to free us from our failing systems of salvation. The thing to remember is that we don’t become failures at righteous endeavors, we’re born that way. We don’t gradually condemn ourselves the more we fail, the more we sin, the longer we live. We’re condemned at birth because of original sin, because of the intrinsic trespass we inherit from the first Adam (Rom. 5:12, 18).
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus isn’t your judge — he’s your attorney. He didn’t come to condemn and convict you of your misdeeds and failures. The law does that on its own. Christ came that “the world might be saved!” He came to be the life, death, and resurrection for those who’ve implicated themselves in the universal fall (Rom. 6:4–5). Christ came to be your Advocate, your Substitute!
If you remain, still, an unbeliever, the sentence over you is “condemned already.” But if you see and recognize that, it’s actually good news. For you who are condemned are the prime suspects of God’s condescending grace. If you stand guilty of sin, a criminal of God’s holiness, despair no more, for you’re the target of the Son’s mission, you’re the precise objects upon whom he wishes to tender his rescuing, redeeming, restoring, transforming grace!
The name, the nature, the office of grace enthroned, loudly attest, that the greatest unworthiness and the most profligate crimes, are no bar to the sinner in coming to Christ for salvation . . . the unworthy and sinful are the only persons with whom grace is at all concerned.1
You see, this is the good news of condemnation. If you deem yourself above condemnation and worthy of God’s favor, you’ve just outed yourself as the sort of self-righteous profligate that Jesus passes by. But seeing yourself as condemned, as justly and rightly found guilty by the law, means you’ve just been outed as the person upon whom the gospel comes.
The mercy of God and the gospel of Christ, were never designed to assist and reward the righteous, but to relieve the miserable and save the desperate — to deliver those who have no other assistance, nor any other hope.2
Take heart, rejoice in your Righteous Representative, believe in him and you’ll stand under the banner of “no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1). Give Jesus your life and he’ll impart his death to your account — thereby giving you solid foundation upon which to stand as saved and sanctified.
Abraham Booth, The Reign of Grace, from Its Rise to Its Consummation (Philadelphia: Joseph Whetnam, 1838), 23.