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Most Americans have seen the image of a man, wearing a multicolored wig, stand- ing in the grandstands of a football stadium, holding up a sign that states merely: JN 3:16. Is the man trying to tell the person with license plate number JN316 that his headlights are on? Hardly.
Most modern American Christians, at least, know that when they see this placard—or a similar message on the back of someone’s t-shirt or on the side of a barn—it’s there because some sincere Bible-believing Christian is trying to help some individual come to know Jesus and be saved. They believe that all that is necessary for salvation is for any individual—apart from any connection to any institutional church—to turn in a Bible to John 3:16, read the words of “the gospel”—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”—fall on his knees, pray some form of “sinner’s prayer,” and, by the work of grace on his heart and mind, accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. At that moment in eternity, the person is then saved. If the person never becomes a member of a church—if he is never baptized, never receives any sacraments, practices any form of liturgy, submits to any leadership, or believes any list of dogma—it doesn’t matter eternally: he has accepted Jesus, and is saved.
This idea of individualistic salvation seems to be a growing, if not the majority opinion, at least among modern American Christians. This is true even among those who are members of denominational churches, who practice some set of sacraments or ordinances, participate in some form of liturgical worship, and hold to some credal statements. An underlying suspicion has emerged that, when all is said and done, all that is eternally necessary is faith in Jesus alone. Even though the sixteenth-century Reformers assumed that a person needed to belong to some church, hold to some creed, gather for worship, follow their leaders, celebrate at least two sacraments (Baptism and communion), and live by some set of rules, yet, the resultant divided denominational streams differ to such extent that the composite conclusion in this age of tolerance, at least among Evangelicals, is that all that is necessary for salvation is “Jesus and me.”
As an Evangelically convicted Presbyterian minister, I admittedly taught and preached that my form of Evangelical Calvinism was the clearest permutation of the Gospel message, yet I never believed or taught that one had to be a Presbyterian, or in fact anything, to be saved, as long as one had surrendered to Jesus Christ. What I did not realize, though, was to what extent this individualistic salvation was a purely modern assumption, and a dangerously truncated gospel.
It was difficult, among compatriot believers and pastors, to identify and agree upon what was missing in this simplistic version of the Gospel that is so pervasive across our country, broadcast on television and radio, preached from innumerable pulpits, and shared on park benches or in the African bush by well-meaning missionaries. I have come to believe, however, that a correct biblical as well as historical understanding of salvation in Jesus Christ involves a whole lot more than an individual’s intellectual acceptance and heart-felt prayer of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior; that salvation involves far more than a mere personal relationship between “Jesus and me.”
I realize that most Christian ministers would say they agree, yet in the indifferentism that by necessity exists in our modern Christendom of thousands of separate Christian denominations, I believe that this simplistic “Jesus and me” the- ology undercuts the core of what it truly means to be a Chris- tian. Most critically, this may leave thousands of sincere, yet misguided souls lost in groundless presumptions—and it may leave those who have led them the “least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:19).
What’s Missing From John 3:16
So to begin, let’s again consider that simple summary of the Gospel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
As concise and important as this verse may be, is it not obvious how inadequately it defines salvation if interpreted apart from its context or without sufficient explanation?
What does this verse preach alone? “Whoever believes in him…”—but who is “him”? Take, for example, the limitless opinions of who Jesus was and is: the meaning of His sonship; His relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit; the question of His divinity and humanity; or the claim that He was nothing more than a good but terribly deluded teacher. There’s not a whole lot of theology in this one verse. There’s no mention of church, sacraments, rituals, holiness, or ministers, or any of the things that most Christians take for granted as somehow “essential” aspects of any particular Christian tradition—the things that set them apart from other Christian traditions.
Assuming the traditional, creedal, and orthodox understandings of Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, Savior, and Lord, this verse then states that anyone who believes in Him “will not perish but have eternal life.” And so, does this mean that when a person says some form of believer’s prayer, he has arrived—that he will not perish but be saved, guaranteed of heaven? As an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor, I would have answered that if one day that person finds himself standing before the gates of heaven, and God asks why He should let him enter, all the person needs to do is point to Jesus and claim the salvation he has in Him “by grace through faith”—because at some specific moment, possibly fifty or more years before, he had accepted “Jesus as his Lord and Savior.”
A Biblical Interpretation of Discontinuity
Behind this assumption of individualistic salvation in Jesus Christ is a biblical hermeneutic or interpretation of discontinuity. Essentially, there was an original Plan A for salvation, followed by a new and different Plan B. The original Plan A of salvation, for the Old Testament Jews up until the death and resurrection of Jesus—before Christ freed mankind from sin and death, and before the Holy Spirit and grace was given to open hearts and minds for faith—was through works of the Law. In this Plan A, individuals had to earn their entrance into heaven through works, and it was to these Jews that Jesus targeted His mostly moralistic preaching and parables.
However, since this means of salvation was never truly possible, due to sin and mankind’s totally depraved will, God provided a new Plan B in Jesus, which began after His resur- rection. Salvation through “works of the law” was replaced by salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The laws and demands of the Old Testament ceased, and the New Testament Church emerged as a new thing, established out of necessity when the Jews rejected the Gospel and Christians were expelled from the synagogues.
Like most modern Christian ministers, I admittedly had a limited knowledge of how the Church of the first few centuries operated or worshipped. Assuming this biblical interpretation of discontinuity, I thus assumed that the Church (or churches) was a new beginning, a “new wineskin”—and not a direct continuity of the Jewish faith and covenantal Family of God. Like most, I presumed that in Jesus Christ, the New Testament was a fulfillment of the Old Testament, which denoted a distinct break between the Testaments: any similarities between Christian worship, ecclesiology, and praxis were purely unnecessary remnants that had not been adequately purged.