“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
What is the meaning of condemnation? In context, the word “condemn” means “to engage in a judicial process; to judge or decide” (BDAG, Bibleworks). John 3:17-21 follows a conversation that could be established as three-part: vv. 1-8 on the necessity of spiritual birth; vv. 9-16 on the necessity of belief and Christ as the object of that belief; vv. 17-21 on the grounds of Christ’s intent. His intent, as it is restated in multiple ways, is not to condemn but to offer salvation.
This passage should really strike at the heart of many messages being proclaimed in our American church culture towards salvation; there has obviously been a growing movement over the years in resisting the concept of condemnation. Churches and entire denominations have moved away from the “negative” message of condemnation and wrath; it will be perceived negatively so long as condemnation is observed with the subject in view (sinful man) rather than the Object (a Holy God). We work backwards when we understand God and all truth tied to Him by starting with people and working our way back, which is exactly how many false gospels are formed. It is appropriate and right to declare that man is sinful and in need of salvation when the Holy God of the universe has been defied and defamed and His holy standards have been broken.
Isn’t everyone a child of God? What sins are too great for God to forgive? Do we even really need forgiveness? Can a loving God really send anyone to hell? Is there even such a place as hell? Those types of questions are often stirred up with emotions and responded to with opinions. How anyone thinks to ask questions only the Bible could answer but then stops short of finding those answers in the Bible is beyond me. Opinions are a terrible source of interpretation and yet it was R.C. Sproul who declared, “Everyone’s a theologian” and wrote a book by that very title. Everyone draws conclusions about everything between God and themselves all the time (even if that means they denounce His existence).
Are people condemned without faith in Christ? The biblical answer, the answer from Jesus Christ Himself, is yes. There is no equivocation to be made, yet failure to even fully read the verse could lead to false assumptions. “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world.” Why is that? This passage is pretty straightforward: “that the world through Him might be saved.” We saw the word “perish” in v. 16 and it was contrasted with “eternal life”; v. 17 contrasts condemnation with salvation.
John 3:18 says further, “he who does not believe is condemned already.” What this means is that the gospel message, often viewed as offensive and belittling, is actually the greatest kindness anyone will receive in their lifetime in the hearing of it. Verse 18 begins, though, by telling us that “He who believes in Him is not condemned.” When it says “is not condemned,” it is saying that in the present tense. Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
When anyone teaches that eternal security cannot be had, they are essentially making the hope of salvation a hope of not being condemned in the future, yet it is a present reality for those in Christ according to Scripture. When this is embraced, it can lead to great joy and freedom in Jesus; when it is not trusted, the fires of legalism are stoked all the more.
It is for this very reason that we must preach the gospel to ourselves daily, because condemnation is not determined by conscience but by God. This works both ways, because feeling okay with where we stand before God doesn’t mean we’re right with God at all, and feeling condemned when we’re not is dangerous, too. Have you or someone you’ve known ever said, “I know God says I’m forgiven but I can’t forgive myself?”
What biblical passage might speak to the role of the conscience in condemnation and justification? Consider the apostle Paul’s affirmation in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord.” Conscience certainly can tell us when we’re doing wrong, but it’s the Bible that will tell us how to inform our thoughts and emotions in light of God’s declarations. In entrusting one’s self to Christ, there is no longer any condemnation; it was dealt with on the cross by Christ, who suffered in that person’s place. The righteous record of Christ is transferred to the believer, making them justified (declared righteous) in the sight of God. Preach that to your heart!
Now, to weave back into the last part of v. 18, we come into the reason for condemnation remaining on all without Christ: “because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The line is drawn once again with the word “because.” There is cause for remaining in condemnation, and it’s the failure to place one’s trust in the Son of God.
Theology Proper, which is the study of God Himself, is very foundational to a good view of soteriology, the study of salvation: misunderstand biblical concepts of God, and you will certainly get off the path with how you understand salvation. God is under no obligation to save anyone; He does not need us, nor is He incomplete without us. He desires to show His kindness and mercy, and to glorify His character as the end result of the action of saving. We are all condemned when we come into this world; the Bible simply says that we don’t have to remain that way if we will believe in Christ.
If anyone says, “No thanks, I’ll take another way,” they are choosing to remain in condemnation. The message may be unpopular to many in this world, but the Bible doesn’t waver in the message it sends. Believe and receive eternal life, because there is no other way to be found acceptable in the sight of God. God loved the world enough that He gave His Son and offered mercy and grace and bid us to believe on Christ.
See salvation in light of who God is, and it makes all the sense in the world; see salvation through comparison or opinion, and it seems unnecessary. Let the Bible inform your view of our need for salvation.
Prayer for today: Jesus’ Prayer from Matthew 6:9-13