The third chapter of the Gospel of John contains one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture. You can even see it on banners held up by zealous evangelicals at sporting events. It seems to be the “bottom line” of the Gospel, and the universal invitation to faith unto salvation: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (I don’t really have to cite this, do I? Well, just in case, it’s John 3:16).
From God’s side, there are two key verbs: “loved” and “gave.” Both really are needed, because if it wasn’t for the “gave,” by what would we know the love? If God said He loved us, but never expressed that love in any way, the term “love” would be, practically seen, quite meaningless as far as we’re concerned. The giving of his Son is the manifestation of his love, as St Paul clearly points out: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Now, getting back to John 3:16, there’s only one verb on our side: “believe.” Something’s out of balance in this equation, for God both loved and gave, and so far it says that all we do is believe. If God’s love is expressed by giving his Son, how is our faith expressed? The balance to this equation is given further on in this same chapter of John. Our faith is expressed by obedience (3:36).
There’s always a danger that by selectively citing (or reciting) certain texts, we confuse a part with the whole, and thus we focus on one saying of Christ while we ignore others. But if one word of the Lord is true then they all are, because Christ is the Truth. For example we could look at 3:16 or 3:18 (“He who believes in Him is not condemned”) and conclude: I believe, therefore I shall not perish, I shall not be condemned. “Well,” we think, “that’s a relief!” But if we have any honesty or integrity we can’t stop reading there. Let’s at least finish this chapter (not to mention the rest of the New Testament!). We will then see what it means to believe, and we will realize that obedience is an indispensable element of faith. To believe in Christ is to turn our lives over to Him, in all their dimensions, not merely to assent to the proposition that He exists and has died for our sins.
There’s a very obvious parallel in 3:36 between faith and obedience: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (we don’t see that on banners at the football games!). We could rightly expect, if faith meant believing and nothing else, that the parallel would be: “He who believes/he who does not believe.” But instead it is “He who believes/he who does not obey.” That tells us immediately that if we do not obey, then neither do we truly believe. Thus we shall not “see life.”
In The Splendor of Truth, Pope John Paul II reminds us that we cannot have a mere “fundamental option” for God, a sort of general orientation toward Him that is unaffected by the deliberate choices we make to commit sin, especially the sin that St John calls “mortal” or “deadly” (see 1Jn. 5:16-17). The Pope writes: “With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf. James 2:10-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses sanctifying grace… and eternal happiness” (emphasis added). I think here we would have to add that this “persevering in faith” is the maintenance of what one subjectively regards as faith, i.e., mere belief in God and in Christ, and not the authentic and therefore saving faith that is necessarily expressed in obedience to the will of God.
So then, as God loved the world and therefore gave his Son to save it, we must believe in Him and therefore obey Him—if we are to experience and enjoy this salvation unto eternal life in Heaven. It’s not easy, and experience proves that our faith will frequently be tested to make sure it really is faith, that is, to see if it is expressed in obedience. St James writes that faith must be expressed in works and not mere words (James 2:14-17), and St John says the same thing about love (1Jn. 3:17-18). Both give the example of the refusal to help our brothers and sisters in need. For James it manifests a lack of faith, and for John a lack of love, but in both cases it’s clear that mere words don’t cut it. If your faith and your love aren’t put into practice, they aren’t worth the breath it takes to say the words. That’s why when we look back at John 3:16 we realize that God is giving us an example. God loved the world, and therefore He gave his Son. By this we know love. Now the ball is in our court. We say we believe in Him: will we therefore obey Him? If we expect God to show his love for us, can He not expect us to show our faith in Him?
Banners and t-shirts and CDs are all well and good. It’s great to proclaim God’s love-in-action for our salvation. But let’s have some real faith-in-action as our response to God’s offer of salvation. For the ones who will “see life” are only those who believe and obey the Son of God. To such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.