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The Bad News If You Don’t Believe (Part 2)

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No one likes to hear bad news—at least not about themselves. We filter it out whenever we can and prefer to accentuate the positive. But when Jesus delivers the bad news, you should listen.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus told people that the way to be saved was simply by believing in Him (John 3:17-18). Do that, and you’re safe forever.

But when the Lord evangelized, He also warned about what would happen if people didn’t believe. Sometimes His warnings were explicit—at other times, implicit.

For example:

“Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

As I wrote in the previous blog, judgment is an essential theme in John’s Gospel, and you see that here. While believers will escape future judgment, unbelievers are condemned already, which a coming judgment will confirm (cf. John 3:18).

Moreover, while the believer has passed from death to life, the unbeliever remains in a state of spiritual death which has future implications. As Jesus went on to say:

“Truly I tell you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted to the Son to have life in himself. And he has granted him the right to pass judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:25-29).

Jesus refers to two time periods: “an hour is coming, and is now here” (i.e., the present) and “a time is coming” (i.e., the future). In the present, those who hear His voice “will live,” which is figurative language for believing in Him and having eternal life. But in the future, a time is coming when the dead—those in literal graves—will hear Jesus’ voice and be resurrected. At that point, there will be one of two options: the resurrection will either be to life or condemnation. If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be resurrected to condemnation, to experience what John calls the “second death” (cf. Rev 20:6, 14).

“But wait,” you say. “Jesus says this judgment depends upon having done good things or wicked things. How do you reconcile that with salvation by faith?”

Good question. Frankly, I’m not sure. Neither, it seems, are my go-to commentators.

Some take the references to good things and wicked things more literally, as references to works. The challenge is showing how that does not amount to works salvation—

  • William MacDonald says, “Good works are not the root of salvation, but the fruit” (Believer’s Bible Commentary, p. 1495). It is evidence of the new birth, which unbelievers lack.
  • Similarly, though more vaguely, Tony Evans says people do good “because of the eternal life in them” while people do wicked “because of the lack of life in them” (Tony Evans Bible Commentary, p. 1029). Perhaps he’s thinking of 1 John 3:9 and how the born-again part of us does not sin.
  • John Niëmela argues that this refers to works, but is a hypothetical offer. No one can merit eternal life on the basis of their works (see here at 26:40).

Other commentators point out that John sometimes uses works language ironically or figuratively for faith (cf. John 3:36; 6:29)—

  • F. F. Bruce says the good or evil things have to do with whether someone came to the light or loved darkness. “The former group have eternal life already; the others are ‘condemned already’” (The Gospel and Epistles of John, p. 133).
  • Marianne Meye Thompson says the good is hearing Jesus’ life-giving voice, while the evil is refusing to hear (John, p. 130).
  • John Hart and Bob Wilkin say that doing good or wickedness means believing or disbelieving (Hart, “John,” Moody, p. 1622; Wilkin, “John,” GNTC, p. 192; cf. John 3:36).
  • Charlie Bing combines the previous two options (Grace, Salvation, and Discipleship, pp. 120-21).

Which is the right interpretation? I don’t know. But one unclear passage can’t obscure the otherwise crystal-clear message of John’s Gospel: if you believe in Jesus, you have eternal life.

In sum, Jesus is your judge and source of life. There’s nowhere to escape from Him and no one to go to for salvation but Him. The good news is that your judge is for you. Despite all you’ve done and all the evidence of your guilt, He’s ready to give you eternal life now and resurrection life later if you would only believe in Him. Do you hear me?

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


One comment on “The Bad News If You Don’t Believe (Part 2)”

  1. Concerning the interpretation of John 5:28-29, I've found an article by Zane C. Hodges in Bibliotheca Sacra to be extremely helpful and very encouraging: "Those Who Have Done Good -- John 5:28-29" (April-June 1979, pp. 158-166).

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