John 3:14-21 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
If Jesus didn’t come to judge us, why do I still feel guilty when I come to church?
Do you feel guilty when you come to church? Maybe you did something that’s bothering your conscience, and now you don’t want to come here and face God. On one side, that’s a very silly feeling. Jesus is all about forgiveness, isn’t he? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. God punishes sin. So, what’s the answer? If Jesus didn’t come to judge us, why do I still feel guilty when I come to church?
There’s something we need to recognize as we search out the answer in God’s Word: Our sinful natures flee from the light. And there’s a reason for that. We have a very real reason to fear God. We’re sinful. God says, Be holy, because I the LORD your God am holy! (Lev 19:2) And that’s scary! We look at the Ten Commandments, and we tremble because we realize that we have broken them. We have not done as God demands.
And each of us is born with a sinful nature, and that sinful nature within us hates admitting how bad it is. When we step into church, we step into the light of God’s Word. And God’s Word reveals our sinfulness. Jesus said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19) We love darkness. Don’t believe me? Would you like your spouse to know all the bad things you’ve thought about them in a moment of anger? Would you want your children to know about how you really acted when you were younger? Would you want your parents to know how many times you’ve gone behind their backs? We like hiding who we are. We like keeping these little dark things tucked away where no one can see them. And here in church, when you come into the light of God’s Word, there’s no hiding. “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:20) And that’s why we feel guilty when we come into church. We don’t like stepping into the light and seeing how bad we really are. And we especially don’t like God seeing any of that.
But it’s only when we come into the light that we can not only see how bad we really are – but also that Jesus has cleansed us. And our sinful natures hate that thought, too – that we had nothing to do with cleaning ourselves up. It likes thinking that it can do something. It wants to do something! But in the light, we learn something: “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:21) We struggle with that. We want to think we can clean ourselves up. No such thing. When we come into the light, we can plainly see: We had nothing to do with cleaning ourselves up. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:1-3) By nature, we want to do something, but when we come here we realize we can’t. And that leads to guilty feelings, because we feel like we should be doing something. And let’s be honest: We don’t like guilt. We don’t like having our bad things pointed out, and we especially don’t like being told that there’s nothing we can do about it.
There’s a reason that Jesus tells us so many times and in so many ways that he came here to save us. We look at us, and it’s hard to believe that Jesus would want to save us. We’re spiritually dead. But Jesus came to save us. He didn’t come to condemn us! Notice how many times he tells us that he’s come to save us in just these few verses from our Gospel lesson: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14, 15) For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17) Whoever believes in him is not condemned. (John 3:18) And perhaps the most famous verse in the entire Bible: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
We have this natural fear of God because of our sinfulness – so Jesus assures us again and again that he’s here to save us, not to condemn us! He’s here to take away our sins. Remember, God is a just God that must punish every sin. And that’s scary for us – until we remember: Jesus suffered the punishment for every sin already. When he died, he cried out, “It is finished!” The punishment is gone. There’s none left! And so when you come here, you might come in feeling guilty. But I hope you leave assured: Your sins are no more. Jesus wasn’t here to condemn you; he was here to save you.
In fact, if anyone is condemned, it’s because they’ve walked away from what Jesus freely gives: whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18)
I suppose we should take a moment to talk about what this “believing” is. John 3:16 says that “whoever believes in Jesus won’t perish but have life that lasts forever.” What do you have to do to believe? Simply put… Belief is trust.
In the mid-1800’s there was a French tightrope walker named James Blondin who strung a rope across Niagara Falls. Before he’d walk across it, he’d ask the crowds how many of them thought he could make it across. Most everyone raised their hands. Blondin would ask how many thought he could make it across with someone tied to his back. Again, most people raised their hands. Then Blondin would point to an individual with his hand raised and would say, “You, sir. Get on my back!” Of course the individual wasn’t willing, showing that he really didn’t believe Blondin could do it. That’s what faith is. Faith is throwing yourself on Jesus’ back, saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I can’t make it to heaven but you have done it for me!” Belief is trusting that Jesus really did it for you. That he really not only can take you to heaven, not only that Jesus can forgive your sins – but that he really did forgive all your sins and really is carrying you to heaven.
Those who refuse to trust Jesus aren’t carried to heaven. They refuse to “hop on.” And so they’re condemned because of their refusal to trust. They won’t take the free ride.
That’s still hard to get in our heads. You heard how often Jesus says this so plainly in this little section. But did you realize how many different pictures Jesus uses to get that idea across?
In this little section, he talks about how when we used to love darkness, but now we are in the light. We can see and be seen – as forgiven children of God. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21)
Jesus uses words like “judge” and “condemn” and “verdict.” These are courtroom words! Jesus is using the picture of the courtroom to show us the truth: That we have been declared “not guilty!” We’re in a courtroom, and Jesus walks in. Our sinful natures quake, thinking he’s here to judge us. Instead, Jesus leaps to our defense. He’s not here to condemn us, but to save us. He’s the lawyer standing up for us! And when the defense rests, the judge justifies us. That’s a special word that means “declared not guilty.” Because Jesus is your defense lawyer, you have been declared not guilty!
Jesus uses another picture in this little section, the picture of falsehood and truth. Those who love the truth come into the light, he says. Our sinful natures love falsehood. They love the lie that we’re not that bad by nature, or that we can do something to get to heaven. But now, you live by the Spirit. You have faith in Christ. You are in the Truth now! And “whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21)
And those are just the pictures in this little section! God tells us so many times and in so many ways in this book that Jesus came to set us free from sin! Hey, even that’s another picture. We were slaves to sin, but the Son has set us free! We were natural enemies with God, but he has made us friends. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost, but now we’re found. God keeps telling us so that we know the truth: We are forgiven. Jesus came not to condemn, but to save us. And that is the truth we hold most dear.
So, do you still feel guilty? I hope not. Our sinful natures do struggle. They don’t want to be here today or ever. They don’t like admitting that they are sinful. They’ll tell us whatever lies it takes to keep us away from hearing the Law. But Jesus didn’t come here to condemn us. He came here to save us. He came here to take those sins away. If you feel guilty, let me tell you again and again and again: You have Jesus’ full and free forgiveness.
Go back to that second lesson again and hear the amazing news: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:4-10)
Or maybe it would just be easier to go to the Gospel in a nutshell. Let’s all read it out loud together. If you don’t know it by heart, or maybe you learned it by another translation, feel free to take out your bulletins and read along with us. Let’s read John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”