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, ESV
My high school had a zero tolerance policy for fighting, so I didn’t see many brawls when I was growing up. Every now and then there would be a fight in the lunchroom or in between classes. Usually these didn’t get very far because one of the football coaches would always just happen to be there to separate the students. They’d stand—broad chested with their arms out wide, creating a gulf between the offenders. But when it was your friend who wanted to fight, you had to be the one creating that distance; you had to be the voice of reason making sure they didn’t beat the tar out of someone else.
For the longest time, I put Jesus in a space like that. He was the friend holding back God the Father, keeping him from destroying me. I knew my sin angered God and, in my mind, Jesus was the good guy, the chill one, the go-between. He had to clean me up first, and then the Father would love me. His sacrifice on the cross would set me straight, make me acceptable, and then I’d be at peace with the Father.
This perspective on the Godhead is wrong for so many reasons. First, it separates the unity of the Father and the Son to where they have different missions, different personalities and different loves. Second, it pits the “Old Testament God” against the “New Testament God.” The love of Jesus is something of a makeover, the transformative result of the old school God getting on his meds and going to therapy. Third—and perhaps the most abhorrent of all of these—it robs God of the affection he has for his children, even in their rebellion.
Such a view of God makes him out to be merely tolerant of these ragamuffin orphans whom his son brought home with a “can we keep them?” kind of hospitality and affection. Out of love for the Son, the Father consents, but only because the son has met certain essential needs of theirs. Understandably, the adopted Christian in this scenario feels their presence in the Father’s house to be a bother. So, they keep their music at a reasonable volume and enjoy the benefits of being a son or daughter, but have to continually silence this nagging suspicion in their hearts: the Father doesn’t truly love them; he only loves them under certain conditions—because of his son.
But that’s not what John 3:16 says.
When read and understood rightly, John 3:16 exposes the heart of God in the most beautiful of ways. Here, we do not see an angry, callous Father who—but for the intervention of the kind-hearted son—would gladly torch those who have disobeyed him. No, the love of the Father is the impetus for the Son’s mission. The Son need not persuade the Father to love us; he already does love us—so much so that he sends the son.
What conditions were met in us in order for God to send his only Son into the world to die for sinners? None. Indeed there can be none… The Scriptures affirm that the love of God for us is the reason for the death of Christ… We must not confuse the truth that our sins are forgiven only because of the death and resurrection of Christ with the very different notion that God loves us only because of the death and resurrection of Christ… A right understanding of the work of Christ leads to a true understanding of the matchless love the Father has for us. There is no dysfunction in the fellowship of the Trinity.
-Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ