“The Great Greatness of God’s Love”

25 July 2004

Texts: John 3:16, 2 Chron. 33:1-13


            We are looking at this text, John 3:16, mindful that the entire world, and all the peoples in it are both in need of the excellently great love of God and that they are, whether mindful of it or not, recipients of that great love.  We know that, apart from Christ, everyone faces eternal perdition--that means the endless torment and agony of self-inflicted separation from the Redeemer.  Hence our need of our Savior is unavoidable and immense.  But by the greatness of God’s love, the Redeemer has come, has accomplished our atonement and now lives to intercede and strongly support all whose hearts are towards God.


            Did I say, self-inflicted separation?  Yes, I did.  This sad truth was driven home to me very pointedly in  the most recent issue of the alumni magazine of Bates College.  On the cover was a portrait of Milt Lindholm, the long term, but now long retired dean of admissions.  He received a well-deserved honorary doctorate from Bates.  Mr. Lindholm is a personal hero of mine.  He saw in me a potential that was not evident to all.  He spurred me on to achieve academically in my final year at Fryeburg Academy and because I did well, I was admitted to Bates in the class of 1969.  But, inside the same magazine, there was an article on the “achievement” of an art student who, in a studied and deliberate manner, used her creativity to abase and to dishonor Jesus Christ.  She reduced the exalted standing of our Lord to the miserable, culture bound terms of Hollywood--the theme of Hollywood, and she probably has this part right, is an obsession with sex and romance.  To her it only makes sense to present Jesus for our times in our terms instead of His terms.  This is a huge mistake.  But the artist is hardly as cutting edge as she might presume.  Abasement is the “in” thing these days.  I’m not sure whether or not it’s any worse, in absolute terms, than it has ever been but the torrent of negativity towards any and all in leadership from the president on down is a worrisome index of our lost-ness.  It is also corrosive of the trust necessary for any community to function, including the community of the church.  Scripture specifically warns believers to come out, to not be conformed to the “culture,” or worldly fashions--never has that been more crucial than it is now.


            Illustrations of our lost-ness are legion.  I will focus rather on the divine remedy.  I want to celebrate today that we serve a god who is not in the least dethroned by our patterns of contempt, or disbelief.  There are far too many  poems, and hymns aimed at expressing the deep, deep love of God, and of Jesus to mention here--we are singing two wonderful examples today (#’s 71-72).  But when the singing is over, we must admit that none of them adequately attain the simple majesty of John 3:16.  This most precious and one of the best loved verses of the entire Bible is familiar wherever Christians live.  How can anything new be brought forth from such a common verse?


            Let’s see.  In looking deeper, we may see better.  In most of our modern translations the verse begins, “For God so loved the world.”  We will begin then with God.  God is a noun.  It is the subject of this wonderful sentence.  But God is more than a grammatical feature.  And we can, and must, make some effort to understand how the Apostle intended to use the word.  The God in view here is the living and almighty One.  We must meditate on that some.  The God in view here is sovereign over all that is, all of nature, all of history--nothing is out from under His lordship.  Nothing is hid from Him, not even the secrets of the human heart.  This God is also the Father--uniquely Father to our Lord Jesus and also Father to us who believe on Christ.  He is infinite in majesty, stainless perfect and pure.  The heavens are not vast enough to contain Him and to Him the whole earth, nay, the whole universe taken together is less than a tiny speck of dust.  .

Isa 40:15  Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales; Behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust.

Isa 40:16  Even Lebanon is not enough to burn, Nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering.

Isa 40:17  All the nations are as nothing before Him, They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.

This God has no need of anyone, or anything.  His blessedness is beyond the taint of any creature’s actions, howsoever evil and unthinkably wicked they may be.  Again, consider, we look up and what we call infinite space hardly makes up a speck on God’s map of reality.  What we describe as countless millennia and endless eons, millions and billions of years are, when, they are past, but as yesterday to Him!  This God, robed in inapproachable glory, splendor and majesty, girded with limitless might, power and authority, is entirely worthy of our worship.  His will is the irresistible law of existence and reality and every motion that occurs, on whatsoever level or scale, conforms to His perfect will.  Righteousness and justice, judgment and wisdom, holiness and mercy are the foundations of His everlasting throne.


            So this is the God with Whom we have to do when we begin to explore and expound upon this verse.  To declare that He is Lord of all the earth, even Lord of heaven and earth is to say so little as to say nothing at all!  This is the referent of the word “God” in this text.  Next our text informs us that this great, magnificent mighty Lord of all, this God loves.   And the love with which such a God loves is every bit as vast, majestic, boundless, pure and stainless as He is.  God’s love is immeasurably great, so we say, the great greatness of God’s love.  And, so, this is the love with which we have to do in this verse.  But, again, we must be discerning.  In the original Greek, the word order bears some exposition.  In that original, the verse went thus: “For so loved God the world. . ..”  How are we to understand this?  Following John’s lead, we will realize several things about this great love.  First, we learn that it is extraordinary. 


            Extraordinary?  Oh, yes! Let’s look into this matter.  The love of God is extraordinary in its object, more than in its nature.  Attached to such a God, it only makes sense that His love would be splendid and wonderful.  But, extraordinary in its object?  What is it’s object?  The world.  There are many voices around us that would exclaim, “And why not!”  Why not indeed.  Consider, they continue, how many people are in this world.  Surely seven plus billion of us should move God to love us, right?  Wrong.  Mere uncounted multitudes of human beings do not move God to love.  After all, what finite number, howsoever great, could actually hold sway with our infinitely great God?  It’s not an issue of quantity; but plainly a matter of quality.  The world, not God, is moved by numbers.  There is nothing in this entire world that can move God to love it--not people, not oceans teeming with life, not beautiful landscapes, nothing.  Why?  Because in John’s usage, “world” signifies all that is evil, disgusting and repulsive to God.  The unredeemed world is utterly unattractive and that is what makes the love of God for the world so extraordinary.  Please understand that for John, and by extension for us, the word “world” is an ethical term.  That’s right, it’s not a geographical, or a demographic term.  It carries ethical overtones.  It suggests by its very usage a wrongness that needs, wants and must be somehow set right.  There is no moral neutrality about the “world.”  The marvel and wonder is that the great greatness of God’s love prevails over His hatred of sin!  The world, unredeemed, lay in the thrall of the Evil One so it has to be a great kind of love which can move beyond all that.  God’s great love recognizes the badness of sin and yet reaches our past it to make worthy a worthless thing.  It is the same miracle as envelops the new believer in being born again!


            Therefore, in our meditation upon this verse, we should wonder at the marvel and mystery of this great love, the love of our holy God for a sin-ridden world.  “So loved God this sinful world” that He chose not to ignore sin, but prevailed over it, --reaching both behind and beyond it with redemptive purpose, resolve and power.  God did not capitulate to sin.  He never kowtowed to Satan and is, in fact, in the process of dispossessing him of all things.  He refused to look the other way, but insisted that the penalty of sin be paid in full--only, in His great love, He executed His righteous wrath regarding sin on His Son.  With God, sin is sin--it is never “okay.” We exalt over these things every time we sing “Amazing Grace”! Surely, beloved, the greatest mystery in all of creation, in this entire universe, is this: that this great, good, holy and loving God should so love the world, so love this entire compromised and fallen planet as to offer up His only begotten Son to be the purchase, the ransom, the price of redemption!  The angels at Christ’s nativity marveled, we read, for in front of them, cradle to cross, the miracle of God great love was unfolding.


            God’s love, by His sovereign and free will, set itself upon this lost, ruined and guilty world with nothing to compel love from Him at all.


            It is, perhaps, hard to hear but truly there was nothing lovable in the world.  No fragrance of corresponding love arose to God.  Only the weedy stench of enmity towards Him, hatred towards His truth, rebellion towards His Law.  Nothing and no one on earth merited His grace, or favor, or His love at all.  Every person was rather a compelling reason to detest this world.  And yet, a love, deep, strong and wide. . .a love indelibly great and incredibly vast, so vast as to elude all human comprehension came to us!  Yes, a great love beyond imagination, yes, and beyond human artistic expression--and that, of course, is precisely the dilemma of the artist I alluded to in opening this sermon.  Hollywood’s corruption of the love of a man for a woman is a low, common and contemptible thing compared with this extraordinary love.  That being the point, the artist in question missed it entirely.


            Beyond extraordinary, John would have us know that God’s great love is expressive.  “For so loved God the world that He gave. . ..”  God’s great love necessitated some action on His part--just as the love we are to have for one another must be expressed in loving actions.  Oscar Hammerstein caught the spirit of this when he penned the lines:

            A bell is not a bell unless you ring it

            A song is not a song unless you sing it

            Love is not love unless it gives itself away.


Hammerstein demonstrated that good anthropology is sometimes good theology because God’s love is not love in word alone, but love in deed.  God reached and touched the world.  Hosea, commanded by God, embraced his adulterous wife, Gomer, mirroring the manner in which God embraces us.  God leaned into the discomfort, took hold of a faithless world risking contamination and being misunderstood.  He did this in His Son who associated with sinners.  God loves us enough to do hand to hand combat, so to speak, for the sake of our salvation.


            God’s great love is extraordinary, expressive and expensive.  God gave to us the very best: His one and only begotten Son, pouring Him out unto death for this world of lost sinners.  Let us recall how Mary brought a flask of very precious ointment and breaking the vase poured it out on Jesus’ feet.  It is a kind of parable of what the Father was doing in allowing His Son to be crucified, shattered and poured out for Adam’s helpless race.  The sacrifice of Jesus was costly to the Father.  Our sons are but the sinful sons of men, Christ was the pure, sinless Son of the Father.  It would be unthinkable for us as fathers to even consider offering up our sons for the sake of our enemies. . .and, consider, does it not appear that God loved us better than He loved His own Son?  Some have given their sons in service of their country and as casualties of war, their deaths are held to be honorable.  But Jesus was not even given this, not even an honorable death!  God allowed His Beloved to be subjected to scourging, spitting, buffeting and a crown of thorns . . .and to the most ignoble death then known to man.  For our sakes, at Calvary, God the Father became sonless and God the Son became fatherless--what wondrous love is this?  That God would give His Son to divine abandonment, and to dreadful suffering.


            Yet, there is more than extraordinary, expressive and expensive, God’s great love is extensive.  God’s love is extensive in its offer: “that whosoever believeth. . ..”[1]  This is, as Robert Reymond puts it “a large enough chariot that will carry everyone who is encompassed by it all the way from earth to heaven.”   And God’s love is, at the same time, exclusive in its bestowment.  Whosoever “believes in Him” is a restricting clause.  God did not give His Son for those who obey His law--no one can, or ever has done that.  He does not give His Son to those who believe in Christ and yet try to justify themselves by keeping the law.[2] Whoever would be saved must turn from self-effort and religious works and cast himself in faith on Christ!



            Furthermore, our text does not state that people who have suffered greatly in this world, either deep despair or towering remorse are saved by the Son’s sacrifice as if this qualifies them above others.  Many are those who have not been so agonized will enter in by sheer faith.  Some who have been through such religious struggles are not Christians at all.


            Could my zeal no respite know,

                        Could my tears forever flow’

            All for sin could not atone,

                        Thou must save and thou alone.        “Rock of Ages”-- Augustus Toplady


            Nor does our text say that God gave His Son that every man will certainly and/or finally be saved.  No, despite a huge number of saints who are redeemed, a large percentage of the human race will not be saved and are, in fact, condemned already.  For, apart from Christ, there is no salvation and there is no other Name under heaven by which a person may be saved. 


            John’s declaration does, however, make absolutely clear that God must find one specific condition in all who would be saved: trust.  We need a trust which entirely abandons our self-help efforts, all our pretensions of good works.  The word “believes” excludes works--even works of righteousness.  The love of God is bestowed upon those who trust in Christ alone.[3]   God’s salvation is exclusively bestowed upon those who “believe in Him”--and only Him.  Muslims are not saved by their devotion to Allah.  The Bai’Hai, the Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus and followers of Confucius will never get to heaven by their religious devotion--even Jews who reject Christ will never know God’s forgiveness.  Even professing Christians who erroneously look to the righteousness of Mary, or to the reputed righteousness of other saints, and to the expiation of their sins in Purgatory will not see God because, having made the cross of Christ of no effect, they have fallen from the necessary grace.


            John rightly claims that salvation belongs only to those who trust in Christ alone. John 14:6  Jesus said^ to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.

And Peter declared, Acts 4:12  "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved."  Paul states, 1 Tim 2:5  For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 1 Tim 2:6  who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time.  And John elsewhere reaffirms, 1 John 5:12  He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.  Please, remember, that when these great preachers declares these truth, they were fully aware of the other religions of the world--they were neither naïve, nor ignorant nor old-fashioned.  Still, they declared the saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  Many, many very religious people, many theists amongst them will be going to hell with self-acclaimed atheists because having religious is not enough, belief in some god is not enough. The Apostle’s message is one of singular offense to the world, but that doesn’t make it any the less true. 


            The love of God is extraordinary, expressive, expensive, extensive, exclusive and exceptional.  It is exceptional in its effect, “whosoever believes in Him shall not perish.  What does it mean to perish, to suffer perdition? “It is to lose all hope, all light in the blackness of darkness, all peace, all joy, all bliss after death and all these things forever.”  And it is to lose all these consciously.  It means you will not know any love whatsoever only endless torment alongside the devil and his damned angels.  It is to know the disapproval of God in the consuming fires of eternal judgment.  God’s love saves those who believe in Him from that.  But we do not need to wait so irreversible a moment as that--in this life any person who has turned from the most wretched, sinful and wicked existence you could imagine, that person is, in the moment that he truly trusts in Jesus, is utterly cleansed from his entire defilement.  Even such a man as Saddam Hussein, a remorseless butcher of his own people, a ruthless and depraved dictator, or even Usama  bin Laden, were either of them, on death’s door even, to genuinely repent and trust in Jesus, they would be forgiven and received into heaven.  We are to pray that all would turn to Christ and trust in Him.  God’s love for us in Christ, and only that love, saves us forever from the dreadful end of “perishing.”


            Finally, the love of God is extraordinary, expressive expensive, extensive, exclusive, exceptional and exhaustless.  Exhaustless in its benefits.  This is the eternal glory of our salvation, “but have everlasting life.”  That life outlasts our meager three-score and ten, or our life span even if we live to be over a hundred.  It will be flourishing in us as we are placed in the grave, it will abide with us while we are with Him, separated from these mortal bodies, and in us when our bodies are raised at His return because this life lasts as long as God lasts.  It will last until God dies. . .ant that will never happen.  Now that’s exhaustless.  John 6:37  "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. John 6:38  "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.John 6:39  "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. John 6:40  "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day." And, John 10:28  and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. John 10:29  "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.  And, again, Heb 7:25  Hence, also, He (Christ) is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. This is all to say that by virtue of the exhaustless love of God we are eternally secure.  1 Pet 1:3  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 1 Pet 1:4  to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 1 Pet 1:5  who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.  I will not slip through His fingers, be misplaced and finally lost because of the great greatness of His divine love.


            There you have it, a straightforward exposition of John 3:16.  Dorothy Sayers wrote that even if the gospel story were not true, it is so wondrous that one could wish that it were true.  But it is true, I am staking my everything on it.  Will you?  Have you?  Perhaps there is someone here who has not fully trusted in Jesus and who is wondering could God love and accept such a sinner as I?  How do I know?  How can I know?  Let’s return to our Old Testament  history lesson.  Remember all the wretched things that Manasseh did:


2 Chr 33:11  Therefore the LORD brought the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria against them, and they captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze chains, and took him to Babylon. 2 Chr 33:12  And when he was in distress, he entreated the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.

2 Chr 33:13  When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God.


That is amazing, wonderful and matchless love.





[1] The meaning is whoever--whoever reads, or hears Reymond’s sermon, or mine which follows his closely here--whoever in all the whole wide world!

[2] J Gresham Machen has noted that some folks apparently believe that going to heaven is like crossing a river in a row boat--if you pull only on the “oar of faith,” you will simply go in circles.  To get there, they say, you must also pull on the “oar of works.”  This, Machen notes, would be a fine illustration if we were going to heaven in a rowboat; but we are not. We are saved through grace by faith alone.

[3] Church depends upon trust for its very life.  Christians are to be known as a community of love where people trust God, trust the Son, trust the church, trust the leaders of the church and trust each other.  Those who sow mistrust, or distrust, especially without cause, do harm to the church.  We may not have as much cause to trust each other, however, as we do to trust the Christ in each other!  It is critical at this point to note that John, perhaps intuiting our struggles in this department, asserts that all trust worthy of the name begins with trust in a proper object, namely trust in Him.