For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.
The selected gospel lesson is one of the most beautiful, most glorious gospels of the church year. But is it also a gospel for Pentecost? We preach now at Pentecost about the Holy Spirit. But no mention of the Holy Spirit is made with any words in this text. Nevertheless, even if the person of the Holy Spirit steps back in this text and is not called by name, the Holy Spirit’s person still just the same stands in the background and gives the same text his stamp of approval. If there would be no Pentecost, no Holy Spirit, then we would also not be able to preach the things, which today’s gospel gives us to speak.
Discussion concerning the acts of the Holy Spirit is in the text. This text of ours speaks in incomparable words about faith, about faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This saving faith is indeed a purely gracious work of the Holy Spirit in respect to its beginning, continuation, and end. This is and remains the most important prayer of Pentecost: that we ask the Holy Spirit chiefly for true faith. One passage of our gospel-“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”-is one of those clear, bright passages of the Bible, which includes in itself the entire Christian faith, all of Christianity. Luther calls this passage a golden gospel, which one should paint on all walls with huge letters, which one indeed should not let pass quickly over his eyes and ears, but should firmly and deeply press it into his heart. This one passage is a brightly shining sun, which enlightens and warms every heart that does not violently shut out its rays. That is the most important act of the Holy Spirit: that he creates and effects faith. And through the gospel, actually through such clear, rousing passages of the gospel, he effects faith. When the Holy Spirit presses this one passage into a man’s heart, when he comforts him with this one word in need and death, then the man can die blessed. Actually it is worth saying about this word, what we say generally about the Scriptures: That is divine wisdom, which is preached and proclaimed not with words, which the human spirit has invented, but with words, which the Holy Spirit has inspired. This gospel for Pentecost is actually full of the Holy Spirit. It is a holy passage. Here the Spirit of God is working, guiding, and enlightening.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which we now ponder at Pentecost, was the last great deed of God before the end. After Joel prophesies about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit over all flesh and of the wonderful acts of the Spirit, he speaks about the great, revealing Day of the Lord. After Christ sat at the right hand of God and gave out his Holy Spirit from there to his church on earth, nothing else still stands to be awaited, than that he come again, as he ascended to heaven, to judge the living and the dead. However, there exists an inner connection between Pentecost and the Last Judgment1. The Holy Spirit exercises a hidden judgment in the hearts of men already now and indeed through the same gospel, which awakens and preserves faith. Concerning this judgment, which the Spirit of God holds through the gospel, our text says, “…whoever does not believe stands condemned already.” Our text portrays light and shadow next to one another. The brighter the sun beams, so much the gloomier the shadow appears. On the comforting, heart-moving gospel, “For God so loved the world,” the Lord has hung in our text an earnest, sharp word concerning unbelief, the judgment of unbelief, and the works of darkness. The unthankfulness and wickedness of the world stands in stark contrast to the inexpressible love of God, which his Son has given to the world. The Holy Spirit is the one who judges, punishes, and condemns unbelievers through the same gospel, which brings one to faith and saves. And this judgment, hidden as yet in the heart, will only become evident at some future time-on that great, dreadful Day of the Lord. Then it will be shown, who stands at the right and who at the left, who has believed and who has not, who has received Christ and who has excluded himself from Christ and his salvation. Thus we see not only the comfort of Pentecost, but also the holiness of Pentecost, the deepest meaning of this gift from heaven, the high responsibility, which this gift lays upon the men who receive it, and which finds a clear, certain expression in today’s gospel. We are stirred in thoughts of Pentecost when we grasp the contrast (so sharp to our eyes!), which our text places before us, the contrast between belief and unbelief. May this be the object of our observance:
The great, irreconcilable contrast between belief and unbelief.
- This contrast rests on the differing position to Christ, the sole Savior of the world.
- This contrast already now decides salvation and condemnation.
- This contrast becomes evident in the works of light and of darkness.
This contrast rests on the differing position to Christ, the sole Savior of the world. Christ stands at the focal point of the world and of the history of the world. When the time was fulfilled, God sent his Son. He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega of all the ways of God. Every judgment, every decision over the blessings and woes of men is given into his hand. The Father judges no one, but he has given all judgment to the Son.
For this reason it is so important, for this reason all salvation and damnation depends on how men position themselves to this Christ. It depends on whether they believe or do not believe. Christ is the gift of God to the world; he is given to the entire world by God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” Christ was begotten as the one and only Son of God before the foundations of the world were laid, born from God in the quiet eternity, from the essence of the Father, born from God and yet born into God, not separated and cut off from the Father through the birth. He is the one and only Son, who is in the lap of the Father. He is the eternal Word, which has come forth from the depths of the divinity. And this Word was and remains with God. Yet we do not search the heavenly majesty of God. We look at the face, which Christ, the one and only Son of God, shows us. Christ, the one and only Son, the eternal Word, is the uncovered heart of God. He is the light, in which God’s will and essence are revealed. In him shines the holiness of God. He is the image of the Holy God. All treasures of wisdom and knowledge of God are hidden in the Son and disclosed to us through him. This eternal, one and only Son is the epitome, likewise the center of the love and mercy of God. On him rests the undivided love, the limitless satisfaction of the Father. This is likewise the picture of all love: that the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father.
This is the gift of God to the world: Christ, the one and only Son of God. God’s gift is for the world. In this way God has loved the world. God has given his Son to the world, to the entire world, to all people. The people were indeed originally created for God and for a godly life. Humanity should be drawn into the love which joins the Father and the Son, and into the fellowship of God. The world has become unfaithful to this purpose. But nevertheless this gift of God is meant for the lost world. The world’s beauty and power are vapor and conceit; the world’s desire is misery and sorrow; the world’s virtue and piety are sin and shame. The world’s light and culture are lying and deception. Yes, the world has entirely fallen from the image of God and the purpose of God, it has put on an ungodly color and form, and it has become God’s enemy. And yet God has loved this world, his enemy, loved it in such a way that he gave to it his one and only Son. Christ is God’s gift for the world. God has made his one and only Son flesh and given him away to the world. When the time was fulfilled, God sent his Son, born of a woman. Yes, he has given him away into death. God has not spared his only Son, but has given him away for us all. Indeed, although Christ died and then was snatched away from the world through his ascension, this gift of God to the world has not been lost. The fruit of his death has remained: reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption. Sin is done away with, the rebellious world is reconciled to God. God’s grace and satisfaction to the fallen race outshines all the misery, wretchedness, distress, and death of this world. Thus Christ is the true gift of God to the world.
Now everything lies on this: that we believe in this Christ, who is revealed to us in the gospel. “That whoever believes in him shall not perish.” These two belong together: Christ and faith. Christ, the gift of God; and faith, the hand which receives this gift. And through the preaching of the gospel the Holy Spirit works faith in Christ. Through that the Holy Spirit enlightens hearts and makes truly clear to us who Christ is, why he has come, and what he has done. Through the gospel the Holy Spirit opens the heart, opens the door and lays Christ, the gift of God, in the soul and awakens desire and satisfaction in this gift, in the one and only Son of the Father. Now whoever gives room to the Holy Spirit and says “Yes” and “Amen” to the preaching of the gospel has Christ. That person grasps the gift of God and has God, the reconciled Father, in Christ. That person has in Christ a gracious God, council, light, wisdom, power, and whatever he needs. He now has Christ completely and perfectly. If one does not always grasp, see, and feel that, which he has and possesses, the fact still remains that whoever believes has Christ. That person says, “What I now live in the flesh I live in the faith of the Son of God, who has loved me and has given himself for me.” Thus we want to ask the Holy Spirit most of all for this true faith.
On the other hand, whoever does not believe but strives against the gospel and the Holy Spirit has no part in Christ. Our text speaks also about those who do not believe in the Son of God. This is the misery: that the sinful, lost world does not believe. Most do not believe. Some indeed hate, blaspheme, and despise Christ, the one and only Son. They blaspheme the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ. And many still preserve the name of Christ and keep up the appearance of the Christian way and the color of Christianity, but no part of the gift, which God intended for the world, lies with them. They chase after other things. Their highest concern is not that they come free of sin, escape from ruin, and obtain a gracious God. They violently and unyieldingly withdraw their hearts from Christ and the Holy Spirit, who would like to force a path for Christ. They also make war against that which they require. They speak loosely about Christ among themselves, have no part in Christ and no part in God. They are without light, grace, knowledge, support, and power. And at another time, after they have become aware of the deception of their kingdom, when they stretch out their hands to that gift and think that they only need to speak the mere outward words and such passages as this-For God so loved the world-they are usurped, during this time their hearts remain cold and dull. Their hearts testify about them that they do not know or understand the Scriptures, that they have nothing, that they have despised the gift of God, and that they are empty and poor. Oh, may God keep us from the most terrible of all evils, unbelief!
And this contrast already now decides salvation and condemnation. The decision of judgment is already present, it is not to come for the first time in the future. God has sent his Son, so that all who believe in him will not perish, but already now have eternal life. God has not sent his Son into the world to judge the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes already bears life and salvation in his heart.
What then is salvation and eternal life? We hope some day to be saved, that is, we hope and yearn for this: to come out of this evil, frivolous world, and to depart the earthly and temporal life.2 When we believe in Christ from the heart, we are taken already from this world. We have overcome sin, the world, and the devil in Christ. The Holy Spirit gives our spirit a witness that the first and old way has passed away, that sin is done away with, that death and the devil cannot harm us anymore. The Holy Spirit has taken out the old, corrupted creature through our faith. When we die and are blessed there (in heaven), and only then does it become evident that the world and earth are really left behind us. Dying proves to the believing, pious Christians that they have not first abandoned the world by dying, but have already inwardly died to it. The departure is not difficult for them, because they have previously and early on departed, and they have broken the bonds which chained them to the earth. Whoever believes is saved and is free from all snares and bonds of sin and vanity. We hope to become saved, meaning, we hope not only on the redemption from all evil, but also on the entrance into the eternal heavenly kingdom. The future blessedness, the eternal life above, is a new order of things-a new, divine life and nature. We will be sharers in his divine nature. And this new, divine life is already now our possession, and is the foundation and ground on which we move. The Holy Spirit gives testimony to the believers that they are God’s children, born from God, that they sit with the only begotten Son and through him sit in the Father’s lap. Their home is above. On that their mind and heart stand. The life of the believers is hidden with Christ in God. We are already now blessed. The eternal, future blessedness is a condition of limitless joy. The blessed ones rejoice over God; they live and move in God. And that is already now our joy. A believer says, “This is my joy, that I am held to God and set my confidence on the Lord of lords.” Only above does the joy, which begins here, become complete; the joy, which sprouts here in a hidden way, becomes evident there. The eternal, future blessedness is peace-eternal, serene peace. But we have already now peace, indeed the peace of eternity, which no sorrow, no temptation, no sin can tear from our hearts. Although the Spirit of Peace is still often spoiled for us here, no one can diminish or rob that possession from us. We have the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit. That is already the beginning and start of eternal life. When we have Christ and believe in the Son of God, we already now boast, “This lot is pleasing to us in a lovely way; it has become for us a beautiful part of the earth. And the Spirit of God seals the future earth for us.”
On the other hand, whoever does not believe will not become condemned for the first time at some future date, but he is already now judged. The world is indeed lost, was lost already before Christ, since sin has come into the world. All people who come into this world lie in ruin. And the natural ruin of natural people is already judgment and condemnation. The Fall from God condemns natural unbelief. All misery of the earth is a curse, a curse of God. Death is the wages of sin, a just judgment. Sin rebukes the conscience. And pain of the conscience is indeed the most fearful judgment. This judgment, which the godless bear in their consciences, is intensified when one strives against Christ and his gospel. Unbelief sets itself against Christ, the only begotten Son of God, the Savior; and it is truly unbelief which judges and condemns. Whoever contradicts Christ and the gospel and remains outside of Christ remains not only in sin and damnation, in the prison in which all sinners were locked with their birth, but is also overthrown through his unbelief and plunged into the outermost prison, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and the people have loved the darkness more than the light. Yes, this is the thorn of unbelievers; this is the fire, which burns in their hearts; the worm, which gnaws at their consciences: they hate the light which has come into the world, which shines so brightly to all people who come into this world. They know and must say to themselves, “God has sent his Son into the world, that the world would be saved through him; this was and is God’s purpose. But we arrogantly frustrate this purpose of God. God has also given us, as to the entire world, his one and only Son; but we have thrown this gift out of our hands. We have thrown away the blessings and treasures of the kingdom of heaven and have spasmodically held firmly onto the trifles and filth of the earth. God has loved us so ardently in Christ, but we have repaid his love with hatred and bitterness. God has offered eternal life in his Son, but we have regarded ourselves as not worthy of eternal life.” This is the verdict, which the Holy Spirit speaks already now to unbelievers through the gospel, that is only confirmed and immortalized in the hellish fire. May God keep us from the horrible judgment of unbelief and preserve our faith!
This contrast becomes evident in the works of light and of darkness. God alone knows who believes and who does not believe. Also, joy and peace of the Holy Spirit is known only to believers. And the judgment, which unbelievers bear in their consciences, is nevertheless hidden to the eyes of people. However, both faith and the blessedness of faith, along with unbelief and the judgment of unbelief, also have an evident side, which springs up before the eyes of all. This contrast, faith and unbelief, throws its light and shadow through its appearance, through life. One recognizes faith and unbelief in the fruits and works of light and darkness. And even if the works are sometimes able to deceive, even if the hypocrisy and pretence of people cannot render a certain judgment for us in every case, even if we do not set ourselves as judge over the conscience of the individual, the works of darkness are so gruesome and horrible that they infuse a disgust in us for the source out of which they come, namely unbelief. The works, which come to the light and are done in God, are so precious and attractive that they summon and invite everyone to faith. Our text says, “Men loved the darkness instead of the light because their works were (and are) evil.” By nature the world does and completes only evil works. And because it is accustomed to evil it shuns Christ, the Holy One of God. The world, which follows its nature, its instinct, eats and drinks unrighteousness as bread and water. Sin is its business. The nature of the world is evil; it contradicts the law, which is written into the heart of every man. Who, then, are the great ones, the noble ones, and the wise ones of the world? They are prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, deceivers, greedy people, and servants of lust and of debauchery of various kinds. There is no one who does good. There is no difference between the aristocratic world and the common masses, between the pious and respectable world and the godless. The works of people are evil and cannot stand before the judgment seat of one’s own reason and morals, namely the judgment seat of the law, which God has implanted into the flesh and blood of people at the time of their birth. But now that Christ, the Light, has come into the world, the wickedness of the world and its works have become truly evident. Our text says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” After the grace and truth of the one and only Son have appeared, then the darkness truly for the first time becomes dark. The works of the world and the works of the flesh are not only rebuked by the conscience of the man, or the law, but also by the Spirit of God, who has his voice resound through Christianity and through Christian preaching. God has loved the world in Christ and wants to heal and purify it from sin, but the world wallows in filth and in blasphemy and shame, and practices malice and wickedness towards its neighbors; one seeks to ruin and corrupt his neighbor. That is a mockery to the holy love of God, to the saving love of God towards sinners. And because the world also sees this stark contrast and must be ashamed of its wickedness, and because it feels rebuked by Christ and the Spirit of Christ, thus it knows no other way to be advised and helped than that it actually makes the shame and wickedness into a solution for the first time and enforces it with violent power. The shame and lust epidemic, which has itself thrown off the mask of modesty; the evident shamelessness, the refined search for satisfaction, the search for personal gain, the most evident villainy, which have become a business, handiwork, and public law; the blood and murder system, according to which one seeks to suck out another’s property and possessions, blood, power, and life; in short, this intentional, forced, despondent wickedness of the world is a proof, that it has sworn war and hostility for life and death to Christ, who is the truth which has extended throughout the world, and to God and to the Spirit of God. It is a proof of its hardened mind, of its irreparable unbelief, and of the judgment which comes as a result of unbelief. The verdict, which the wickedness itself speaks, is a proof that God has given this unbelieving, perverted race over to its bestial mind, to its self-chosen ruin, and to its heart of wickedness. May we be on guard for this condemned race and its condemned works as simple people, and walk our quiet way, the straight path, through the world as wise and clever people.
God be praised, he has yet preserved for himself a seed in this depraved race. Everywhere there are still children of God, believers, Christians. The faith and Christianity of those become public and evident in works of light. Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. Those who believe in the one and only Son of God are saved in this faith; they go along and bear noble seed. The works they do are done in God. With that they deny lust and shame, vulgarity and deeds of violence, and the nature of this world. They keep themselves from being stained by the world which is hostile to Christians and conform in no way to this world, so that they obey God in their class, in their vocation and position, and so that they become like Christ, love their brothers, love sinners, seek to save sinners. With all this they prove whose children they are, that the Spirit of God drives them, that they know Christ, love the Father and already now have peace, joy, and eternal life in God. Everything that a believer does is done in God. For this reason we want to continually ask the Holy Spirit most of all for true faith, that we keep the faith in our behavior, life, suffering, and death. Amen.
1 The German has an interesting way of expressing this idea. Instead of “last,” it says “youngest.” This looks at that day from a different angle. We see it as the last day of this world as we know it, the German sees it as the first day of a glorious (or horrifying) eternity.
2 The German literally says here, “to bless the earthly and temporal.” Interesting that the way to bless this life here on earth is to leave it behind.