A Matter of Life and Death

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 3:36

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.

John 3:36 rsv

I find a certain technique of modern advertising especially offensive. Maybe you do too. It goes something like this. An impressive looking envelope arrives one day in your mailbox. It bears your name in bold letters as a “finalist” in a drawing soon to be held for the prize of $10 million. But you can only collect if you fill out the enclosed materials and mail them in before a certain date. What bothers me is that the plain message of the letter is that you’re already practically a sure winner. It seems to say, just fill out the forms and your dream check will be in the mail. It implies that your response to this is enormously important. But the whole thing, it seems to me, is a monstrous sham. It tries to make you believe that an exceedingly remote possibility is like a sure thing.

The Bible’s message, by contrast, is characteristically understated. There’s an element of reserve about it. Nothing is said to give readers a mistaken impression. There are no empty promises and no worthless warnings. The human situation is never dramatized or exaggerated.

Since the Bible is such a book of truth, it’s vital to listen to what God says through it, especially about matters of life and death. I don’t know of any word ever spoken about human destiny more decisive, more weighty, than this one from the Gospel according to John, chapter 3, verse 36. Listen: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” These words confront every human being who reads or hears them with a choice, a truly momentous choice. We choose life or we choose death.


Look with me first at the choice of life. “The one who believes in the Son has eternal life.” The Son, of course, here is Jesus Christ. He’s described in the passage leading up to this verse as the One who has come from above, from heaven. He has borne witness here on earth to what He has seen and heard. He has spoken God’s Word. He comes as One loved by His heavenly Father and entrusted with all that the Father has. He’s the chief agent of His Father’s purpose in this world. He has lived a life of obedience to God, and of love to others. He has been lifted up on a cross to die and in His death has carried all our sins and sorrows. Now He has risen from the dead, never more to die. He is ascended, exalted, reigning. This is the Son, the living Lord, Jesus Christ.

The pastor of the church I attend preached recently on the theme “One Solitary Life.” It was a description of this Jesus, whose public ministry was so brief, whose surroundings were so humble, whose travels were never extensive. The pastor reminded us that Jesus never wrote a book, never commanded an army, never owned, as far as we know, any property. He told of how Jesus was rejected by His own people, then tortured and executed by imperial Rome. And yet this person has become, beyond all question, the central figure of human history. All the armies that ever marched, it has been said, and all the navies that ever sailed, and all the parliaments that ever sat have not affected the people of this world as profoundly as this one solitary life. He’s the One we’re thinking about today – the Son of God.

When He is proclaimed, when His words are taught, His claims preached, His saving love lifted up, everyone is brought to a place of decision. What do you think of Christ? . . . “What will you do with this Jesus who is called `Christ’?”

There are some, we learn, who believe in Him. They accept His testimony that He is the only Son sent from the Father. They receive His words as coming from God, believing what He says about our need and God’s saving grace. They trust in Him as their Savior. They commit themselves to Him as their Lord. They rely on what He has done in His death and resurrection to bring us pardon and peace with God.

And, the Scripture says, all who so believe, all who make this choice to trust and receive Jesus as He is offered to us in the gospel, have eternal life. They are born from above. They taste life abundant. They begin to know something of the existence that will be theirs in the age to come. It isn’t the fullness of the heavenly life yet, but it is an authentic beginning. They’re alive with a life that will never die.

If you are trusting Jesus Christ in that way today, God wants you to know that you have this eternal life now. He wants you to celebrate that. Or, if you find yourself inclined to make that choice today, to choose Christ and to choose life, the promise is sure also for you, utterly reliable. You have eternal life. You will never perish. Nothing will ever pluck you out of the Father’s hand. Halleluia!


But there’s a shadow side to this, another choice people can make. Listen. “He who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” Notice that the alternative to believing in Jesus is here said to be disobeying Him. Faith and obedience are always close together. We sing about them in the old gospel song, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “Those who truly believe obey, and those who truly obey believe.” There’s no real faith in Jesus Christ without obedience to Him and no real obedience to Him without faith.

It’s just as profoundly true that disbelieving and disobeying also go together. The gospel offer of Christ is never merely the imparting of information. It’s always a call to decision. It’s Jesus saying, “Come to Me, trust Me.” Our answer can never be simply “true or false,” or “that’s an interesting idea.” Such a call, from such a person, demands a yes or a no. And the most saddening mystery in all the world to me is that people can say no, and sometimes do. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose not to follow someone so supremely worthy. How can anyone hold out against such an offer of grace or reject the One who has died to bring us life? Yet, people do.

This Gospel according to John sometimes describes it like this: light has come into the world in Jesus, but some choose the darkness instead of the light. They hate the light. They try to flee from it, or worse, to put it out. To the most love-filled invitation that ever came to anyone, they close their hearts. They say no. They, says the Scripture, will never see life. That new, abundant, eternal life cannot possibly be theirs, because it is found in Christ and Christ alone. Rejecting Him, they push from their own lips the cup of living water. They refuse to taste the living bread. God’s kingdom is closed to them. They cannot enter or even see it. They choose not to welcome the Lord of life. And so, whether they realize it or not, by their choice they embrace death.


Now for the saddest word of all, the most deeply tragic thing that could ever be said of anyone: the wrath of God rests upon that person. What is God’s wrath? It’s His settled and active opposition to everything evil, the reaction of His holiness to everything unholy. It’s not peevishness. It’s not spiteful anger. It’s God’s unwavering refusal to come to terms with sin, to tolerate what dishonors Him and destroys His creatures.

I’ve heard people say, “I don’t believe in the wrath of God.” They cannot bring themselves apparently to think that God would ever condemn anything or anyone. Theirs is a God of love, they say. But what they call love seems to be little more than sentiment. There’s no strength to it, no moral fiber. Theirs is a god of their own making, a god they would like to believe in – not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, not the God of love who is also a God of wrath.

Anyone who reads the Bible seriously soon recognizes that its major theme is salvation – God’s rescue and renewal of His estranged people. That’s what the prophets foretold. That’s what Jesus came for – to seek and to save the lost. That’s why He gave His life on our behalf, to save us from our sins. If there’s no real peril, no danger from which we need to be rescued, no doom to be avoided, the Bible makes little sense and the saving work of Christ is emptied of its pathos and power.

We all have a tendency to hear what we want to hear, I suppose, to believe what we’d like to believe. That’s why the message of God’s wrath against sin, the message of judgment, condemnation, hell, will never be popular. I suppose that if our aim were to fit in with the spirit of the age and to leave everyone’s feelings unruffled, we would never talk about such things. But if we seek to be faithful to God and what He has revealed, and if we love people enough to tell them the truth, it will be different. Then we’ll be constrained to say to them, always with love, sometimes with tears, that there is such a thing as the wrath of God.

Jesus, who is the truth, who cannot and will not lie, has told us that this wrath of God rests, remains, upon all who reject the Son. Notice, He says, the wrath of God remains upon such persons, abides on them. It isn’t that God becomes angry with them because they have rejected Jesus. All of us start out under God’s wrath because of our characteristic sin, rebellion, egotism. Our vain selfish ways, our ungratefulness expose us all to judgment. Here is the verdict upon all of us: “None is righteous, no not one . . . All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Like a giant, ominous storm cloud, the wrath of God hangs over everyone because of sin. Believing in Jesus is the way out. In Christ God’s wrath is exhausted and overcome. The price is paid; the penalty borne. But if we reject our one hope of forgiveness and peace with God, then there is no hope for us.

But wait. Before you conclude that you are hopeless, remember this: the verb translated “not obeying” or “disbelieving” is a present participle. That means it describes a continuing action. The people who remain under the wrath of God, who shut the door of mercy and hope in their own faces, are people who persist in their unbelieving, who go on in their rejection of Jesus to the end of their lives. But sometimes, the most hardened unbelievers have a change of heart. Sometimes those who have been atheists for a lifetime are converted. They embrace the faith which once they scorned. People sometimes come to evangelistic meetings on a dare. They listen to the gospel with the intent of picking it apart, mocking it. But sometimes they remain to pray.

All of that is meant to say to you that this is a day of wonderful opportunity. Even if you have said no to the Lord for your whole life up to this point, you can turn around. You can do an about face. You can say yes to the Lord in spite of all those no’s in the past. And do you know what will happen? When you open the door of your life to Jesus Christ, He will come in. When you put your trust in Him, He won’t let you down. He’ll welcome you back. He won’t turn you away. Because of Jesus and what He’s done for you, it will be as though you had never sinned at all.

Think about that, friends. I know that you’re called to a lot of decisions that don’t amount to much. You’re threatened with some perils that will never materialize and you hear a lot of promises that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. But this is an issue so big, with such enormous and abiding consequences, that it deserves your careful attention. In the most profound way imaginable, it is a matter of life and death. Let me invite you today to choose Christ and choose life.