Taken from chapter 28 of The Glorious Body of Christ by Dr. R. B. Kuiper.
In a great many churches only the gospel of "be good and do good" is proclaimed. To it applies Paul's scathing description: "another gospel which is not another" (Galatians 1:6,7). It is a wholly different kind of gospel and therefore does not rate as a second gospel alongside the gospel which the apostle preached. In reality it is not gospel at all.
The word gospel means good news. That which is preached as gospel in so many churches is not even news, let alone good news. A man has been found guilty, shall we say, of a heinous crime and has been sentenced to death. He is now in prison, awaiting the day of his execution. A friend comes to visit him. This friend calls out: "I have good news for you!' Eagerly the condemned man asks: "What is it?" The answer comes: "Be good." In that message there is not so much as a shred of good news. It is most cruel mockery. Yet many a self-styled minister of Christ holds forth to sinners under the sentence of eternal death a precisely equivalent message as gospel.
The gospel contained in Holy Writ does not primarily tell sinners what they must do, but, contrariwise, what God has done and is doing for them.
To be the bearer of those good tidings -- a few glimpses of which follow -- is the inestimably great honor of the Christian church.
John 3:16 has often been said to be "the gospel in a nutshell." "God so loved the world," we are told, "that he have his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
The term world as it occurs here has often been interpreted quantitatively. Some have said: "The love of God is so great that it embraces all the elect, and they are a throng which no man can number." Others have said: "The love of God is so great that it embraces not only the elect but all human beings that have ever lived on the face of the earth, all that live there now, and all that remain to be born." Still others have said: "The love of God is so great that it embraces not only all men but the sum total of things created, the whole of the universe." But all three of these interpretations attempt to measure the infinite in terms of the finite, and that is something which cannot be done. God is infinite in all His attributes, also in His love. In comparison with the infinite the sum total of finite things is precisely nothing.
Benjamin B. Warfield was, no doubt, right when, in a sermon on John 3:16, he insisted that world must here be interpreted qualitatively. The holy God loves sinful humanity -- that is the amazing truth here revealed. Amazing it is. God is the Holy One of Israel, the Perfection of Holiness, in whose presence the very seraphs cover their faces as they cry out: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:1-3). That holy God looks down to earth and there sees sinful men, veritable lepers, covered with spiritual leprosy from the crowns of their heads to the soles of their feet. And unbelievable though it may seem, He loves them.
How that is possible no mortal will ever comprehend. Only this do we know: divine love differs from human love in that, while the latter is dependent on its object, the former is not. God loves sinners for reasons that reside, not in them, but in God Himself.
An old legend has it that the only thing that can melt adamant is the blood of a lamb. So, it has been said, the blood of the Lamb of God was required to melt the adamant heart of God. But John 3:16 teaches quite the opposite. God loved sinful men long before the blood of His Son was shed on Calvary. It was God's infinite love that moved Him to send His Son into the world that He might die for the ungodly.
God had a son, an only-begotten Son. He loved that Son with all the love of which the heart of God is capable. But so unsearchably great was His love for hell-deserving sinners that He willingly gave the Son of His eternal and infinite love to suffer the anguish and torment of hell in their stead. As we contemplate that truth, it behooves us to bow our heads in adoration and to whisper: "Lord God, we cannot understand; we do not begin to comprehend; but, because Thou sayest it, we believe."
On the ground of the finished work of His Son, God offers everlasting life to sinners everywhere, and He does so freely. Salvation is a gift of purest grace. Man need neither work nor pay for it. He may have it for the taking. Not even by taking it does he merit it. All he needs to do is look away from self and every other creature and look to Christ crucified. In that look there is life, even life eternal, for it is the very essence of saving faith.
Such are the good tidings of John 3:16, and these stammering remarks give but an inkling of the infinite love of God which it declares.
Another summary statement -- and no less profound -- of the good tidings which the church is honored to bring to sinful men is contained in Romans 5:6,8 -- "In due time Christ died for the ungodly" and "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
Christ's death on the cross constituted at once the very nadir of His humiliation and the very zenith of His obedience to the Father, who had sent Him. Paul tells us: "He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8). It was the zenith both of His passive obedience, manifest in His suffering, and of His active obedience, manifest in His keeping the law of God.
Men are ungodly sinners. For such the justice of God demands death in its most comprehensive sense. They are hell-deserving. But Christ "descended into hell" in sinners' stead. When He was hanging on Calvary's cross He bore the curse that was due to the ungodly. When He cried out with a loud voice: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) He was at the very bottom of the bottomless pit, where man deserved to be, and all the waves and billows of the divine wrath against man's sin rolled over His head and crushed His soul. In consequence there is now no condemnation for those who believe on His name. So far as they are concerned, the justice of God is satisfied and His wrath is appeased. God so declared by raising His Son from the dead.
From the beginning God decreed that eternal life would be the reward of perfect obedience to Him. Implicit in His threat to Adam, the representative head of our race: "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Genesis 2:17), was the promise of life as the reward of obedience. Adam became disobedient and thus brought death upon himself and all his descendents. And ever since the fall human nature has been so corrupt that no man is able to keep God's commandments. But, lo and behold, in the fullness of time there appeared upon the scene of history another Adam, the last Adam, even Jesus Christ. He kept the law of God to the point of perfection. And to all who believe on Him God imputes His perfect righteousness as their very own. "As by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" (Romans 5:19). The believer may jubilantly sing: "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels" (Isaiah 61:10). Wearing the robe of Christ's righteousness, he may pass through the gates of pearl into the golden city and enter the palace of the King.
Thus Christ by His death on the cross made provision, not for paying the debt of sinners to the uttermost farthing, but also for procuring for them the riches of eternal glory.
The puny minds of men often insist that the gospel should tell us that in the end all men will be saved. "That," they say, "would be good news indeed." And not a few have distorted Holy Scripture so as to make it teach that very thing. Today we are witnessing a might resurgence in several churches of the ancient heresy of universal salvation. But the undeniable teaching of the Word of God is that only God's elect will enter through the gates into the city.
However, let no one conclude that the Word of God contains good news only for the elect. The same Bible which teaches election also contains an abundance of good news for each and every sinner. As striking a paradox as any in Holy Writ is that the very God who from eternity elected a limited number of men to eternal life invites in perfect sincerity to life eternal all to whom the gospel comes. No theologian has ever succeeded in harmonizing the elements of that paradox before the bar of human reason, but the greatest theologians have humbly accepted both as the very truth of God.
John 3:16 and Romans 5:6,8 were not written for the elect alone. And Scripture tells of a universal love of God which comes to expression, not only in the gifts of rain and sunshine to the evil as well as the good, the unjust as well as the just, but also in the sincere offer of salvation to all who hear the gospel. Swearing by Himself, God says: "As I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ezekiel 33:11). And the apostle Peter assures us that "the Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9).
In the light of such passages of Holy Scripture the greatest teachers and preachers of the Christian church have proclaimed the glad tidings that God will not only be pleased to save all who repent and believe, but also that He will be pleased to have all to whom the gospel comes repent and believe and thus be saved. Commenting on Ezekiel 18:23, which parallels Ezekiel 33:11, Calvin said: "God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who were perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety." The Canons of Dort, which are a precise formulation by the Reformed churches of Europe of the so-called five points of Calvinism, insist: "As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God has most earnestly and truly declared in His Word what will be acceptable to Him: namely, that all who are called should come unto Him" (Heads of Doctrine III and IV, Article 8). Herman Bavinck, that prince of Dutch theologians, has asserted that the call of the gospel "is for all without exception proof of God's infinite love" (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Vol. IV, p. 7).
That, too, is a significant aspect of the glorious gospel the proclamation of which is the glorious task of the glorious church. God Himself charged His church with that task when He cried: "O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid" (Isaiah 40:9).