'John 3:16' Not Just a Clever Sign by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus said to Nicodemus: "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their words were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
You've probable seen it at least once in your life: a football spectator sitting in the stands behind the goalposts during a field goal attempt holding a sign that reads, "John 3:16." If you've ever wondered what that verse is, it's the center piece of the Gospel passage for the fourth Sunday of Lent: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so everyone who believes in him might have eternal life." The person who holds up this sign at football games in almost always a Bible-believing Christian and for them, the implication of the passage is simple: if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and savior, you are already saved.
Catholics, of course, have a different understanding of the role of faith in one's salvation vis a vis one's works. While Catholics believe that faith is necessary for salvation, they also believe in the indispensable value of exterior works that manifest interior faith. We cite passages such as James 2:18 where the apostle writes, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith." Our Lord himself described the significance of works in relation to personal salvation. In Matthew 25:32-46, we find the Gospel narrative that depicts the final judgment. We observe that a significant reason why the sheep are saved and the goats are not is because of the corporal works of mercy the sheep performed in this life. Time and again, we see that it is not faith or works that save. Rather, it is faith and works together that cooperate with God's free gift of salvation.
Furthermore, Catholics believe that one cannot merit eternal salvation merely through their works in the same way that one would merit a performance bonus at the office. After all, salvation is a free and gratuitous gift and cannot be merited in a strict sense. Nevertheless, one's actions and moral choices remain a crucial part of how one works out their salvation in this life. It would be rather convenient to claim faith in Christ and yet make moral choices contrary to Christ's teachings. In this "faith alone" model, such a person could still be saved. Catholics hold the more balanced approach: faith is necessary for salvation and so are works that demonstrate that faith, all the while acknowledging that even our merits due to our good works are themselves God's gifts (cf. CCC 2009).
The Catholic understanding, then, regarding the relationship between faith, works and merit should draw us into a deeper awe and reverence for exactly how much God really loves us. He loves us so much that he gave his only Son to die for us. Only God could do this. And as if that were not enough, God continues to pour our his grace upon us so that even the good we do has God himself as its source and end. Without God's grace, our good works would have no reference point. With God's grace, we participate in the very process of how we will be saved and come into the everlasting light and glory of heavenly bliss. This idea moved St. John to write the last line of the Gospel narrative for this fourth Sunday of Lent, "But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God."
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