Every televised sporting event includes two things that are guaranteed to happen. First, there will be beer commercials. Second, at some point during the game, when panning the crowd, we will see a sign that says John 3:16. It is perhaps the most recognizable verse in Sacred Scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” It is in many ways a perfect summary of the Gospel containing both the importance and simplicity of the message. Despite its simplicity, it has also become a source of confusion and contention for many Christians that centers around what it means to “believe in Him.”
As with many questions like this, it helps to begin with what it is not saying. First, it is not saying that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Paraphrasing St. James, “even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19). Jesus’ true identity is something worthy of belief, but only in the sense that we believe other historical realities. They either happened or they didn’t. Jesus either really rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven or He didn’t. This is not to believe in Him but to believe about Him. This is not what Jesus had in mind in addressing Nicodemus.
This is also not a call to believe in Jesus the philosopher or ethics professor. This is often the way the world views Jesus and we inadvertently adopt this view to defend Christianity. This is simply to believe Him. Our Lord is not asking Nicodemus to become one of His pupils or to follow His moral code. The invitation is for something deeper and more personal. Instead we must treat Christianity as, Pope Benedict XVI said in his first encyclical, “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
What Christianity Is
In this, the Pope Emeritus captures the true meaning of what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus, and by extension, us, to. We do not believe in ideas, principles or philosophies. We believe in another person. In short Jesus is inviting us not to follow a way of life, but to enter into a love affair. It is an invitation to trust. Until we accept that this is the invitation, we will remain fixed in viewing our Christian life as a moral or philosophical journey. Until we love Christ and not just Christianity we will not have the encounter we so deeply desire.
The doors of trust are opened when we come to realize that the “Word became flesh” for no other reason than because “God so loved the world,” that is every person in it. It is no encounter with a man who died long ago and left us some teachings, but a man who is alive and waiting for me. It is not a generic love for me, but a deeply personal love for me. It is the assurance that Christ did not die for mankind, but that “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).
Like all relationships founded on trust, once the trust is in place, we are willing to do whatever Christ tells us. Notice how Nicodemus keeps returning to Jesus throughout John’s Gospel so that his trusts grows to the point that he even defends him before the Sanhedrin. Once I know that He has only my best interest at heart, once I know the lengths He has gone to prove this and the power He has over all that can harm me, I will do whatever He says, no matter how crazy it seems, I will do it.
Even the devil knows how foundational this trust is. Deep down, all sin is a matter of not trusting God enough. “Maybe he doesn’t really have my best interest at heart…” As the Catechism says “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (CCC 397). Jesus, I trust in You!
Faith and Works
Call it “works flowing from faith” or whatever you like, but it is summarized in one word trust. The whole faith vs works controversy that separates Christianity is simply semantics. It is about trust. “Trust,” Our Lord says, “that I can save you” and you will be saved. Trust not, and you are already condemned. There is no other way to be saved.
We can readily see that this confusion over the word believe is related much like the confusion over the word faith. That is why the Church has always made the distinction between the act of faith and the content of faith. The act of faith is the trust that we have in God. The more we trust, the greater our trust becomes. The content of faith is what we believe. In both senses we will use the word faith. We have faith in the Person and so the content of what He has revealed, i.e the Faith, is altogether reliable.
While the act of faith is primary (in the sense that it is first in time), the content of faith is indispensable. The content of faith, that is things like the Creed, are the reasons why we believe. They are motives of credibility.
In his biography on St. Francis of Assisi, GK Chesterton seems to capture the spirit of John 3:16 perfectly. He writes of the world’s fascination with God’s Troubadour because of his love of nature and mankind, but his religion was always a stumbling block (especially the Stigmata). Chesterton says the interpretive key for Francis is that “A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this, or pretty like this, under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love.”