“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSVue)
John 3:16 is a summary of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ in a single verse. It captures the essence of God’s motivation by beginning with his love, “For God so loved the world….” Then, because of God’s love for the world and all the people he created, “[God] gave his only Son….” Another way to look at this part of the verse is that God gave of himself, which is fitting because we give ourselves to those we love—sometimes even sacrificially. Finally, God gave “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” If I were to create a formula for this verse, it would look something like this:
God’s Love + God’s Gift = Eternal Life
It’s a simple message that sometimes may seem too simple. We do better with complicated concepts, especially regarding religious faith. We think it’s supposed to be hard to “get in.” Sometimes, when I present the Gospel to someone, they have questions about God’s requirements for eligibility to receive the gift of eternal life. They envision all kinds of hoops they will need to jump through to qualify for the “free” gift from God. It’s as if they’re asking, “What’s the catch?” Who can blame them for their skepticism because we’re all accustomed to quid pro quo relationships where “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” arrangements are pervasive? In whatever way we describe the Gospel message, it’s not quid pro quo, for God desires a relationship with us, and he’s already fulfilled all the requirements, so we need only to accept his offer of love and grace, no strings attached.
At this point in my presentation of the Gospel, someone (usually another Christian!) objects to my “no strings attached” assertion. They argue that we must repent and turn from our wicked ways to receive eternal life. Otherwise, we subscribe to “cheap” grace—the idea that if we remain unrepentant, we’re cheapening the sacrifice of Jesus by receiving the benefits of his grace without having demonstrated any demonstrable worthiness on our part. If we follow the logical thread of their argument, it will seem that God’s free gift of grace does NOT save us unless we do something to earn it—thus, negating the “free gift” part. This logic leads to righteousness not by faith but by our works. That’s not Good News!
I defend my position that there are no strings attached using Ephesians 2:8-9, with a caveat.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSVue)
Salvation is the free gift of God for all who believe. We are “saved by grace” (God doing for us that which we cannot do for ourselves) “through faith” (the act of accepting the gift God offers). We can’t save ourselves—only God can do that for us, yet God won’t force salvation on us—we receive it only if, through faith, we choose to accept it.
Here’s the caveat: Love changes people. When we receive God’s love and live in a relationship with him, God’s love reshapes us and re-forms us at successively deeper levels. Once we receive God’s love and grace, repentance is a natural response whereby we grow more and more like the One we love—Jesus Christ! We don’t have to change to start our new life in Jesus Christ; however, once we’ve started, we can’t help but be transformed by the power of God’s love and grace. True repentance flows out of our gratitude for what God has graciously done for us. It’s that simple! This truth describes how we can get the most out of our Lenten disciplines—thank God for saving us with his love and then focus on how his love changes us daily.
I hope to see you Sunday, and don’t forget to bring a friend! — Senior Pastor Dale Cohen
Note: John Wesley wrestled with Ephesians 2:8-9 in his sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” Specifically, he explored the role of repentance in salvation and came to some interesting conclusions using the story of the thief on the cross who died next to Jesus. If you would like to read Wesley’s sermon, go here. (The part of the sermon to which I refer is Section III.2)