Lent 4.18 “Snake-bit” John 3:14-21
So with this famous Gospel passage we see the heart of the Christian Faith—how it works. And while the words are simple and familiar and the message entirely straightforward, most of Christendom does not seem to get it, throughout the previous centuries or in our day. The great fathers of the Church: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther are great because they are exceptions to the rule, lights shining in darkness and not comprehended by the darkness really, much at all, then or now. All four of them were very much outsiders from the consensus of the “Christian Majority” in their day. Yet the theology of all four corresponds exactly with the words of our Lord here in John 3.
The cornerstone of that theology (for it was not theirs but Christ’s—they were great because they said back what Scriptures say to them, no more and no less) is that Jesus is God and we are rebels, slaves of sin who have no place in His House. But it was not God’s will that we should perish, so the Son of God, equal with the Father and the Spirit in every way and yet truly Man, our brother according to the flesh, came down from heaven, took on our flesh, bore our sin to the cross and by His death destroyed sin, death, and hell.
Being God means you need no help, from anyone. This salvation God gives us through Christ is an entirely free gift. Looking to Him, trusting in Him, believing into Him, His death and resurrection becomes ours through such Faith alone, with no works of our own. To suggest that we have to do something to make salvation active for ourselves (or others) is to reject the notion that Jesus is God and thus saves us purely by His own work needing absolutely nothing from us. Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, and Luther all fought intense battles with opponents within Christendom over the issue of whether we have to do something or not for our salvation. It really is that simple. Either salvation is a free gift God grants through the instrument of Faith with no works or deeds or goodness of ours required, or it is something we earn by some act, work, deed, or disposition of our own. And it really can’t be both ways. Salvation is either free or it is not.
And yet Christendom, from the time of James till now, has been mostly on the side of works righteousness—that Christ did the hard bits, but you have to do your part too! It’s Smith Barney theology: you have to earn it. Irenaeus contended against Gnostics who insisted salvation came from mastering a body of secret knowledge by rigorous intellectual efforts. Athanasius contended against the Arians who insisted that Jesus isn’t God the way the Father is God, but more an example than pure Savior. Augustine contended against Pelagians who insisted we have to do good works (monasticism being the highest and best!) in order to be saved. Luther contended against later day semi-Pelagians who also insisted on good works but in a more convoluted way. In each case, the heretics insisted there was something people had to do to become righteous before God, and the orthodox upheld salvation as a totally free gift of God in Christ received by the faith that God alone grants with no works of our own.
Today, legalism wears the mask of “missional” theology (of which Billy Graham was high priest): I know only one man who is tough minded on Billy: Prince Philip in the Crown! I like Prince Philip in the Crown. Missional theology talks a good game about Jesus and faith in Him. But, crucially, they direct most of their rhetoric to decisions we make, works we do instead of pure receiving of Christ’s free gift. Instead of saying we can save ourselves directly they direct our efforts toward saving our brothers and sisters by diligent efforts to get out and convert “the lost” (despite the clear words of Ps. 49:7 that no one can save his brother!). This is the theology of the Pharisees. They insisted they were so righteous themselves that they could spend their time on crusades, helping God convert sinners. Jesus rebukes this missional theology directly in Matthew 23:15 when He says “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
It sounds pious and noble to say the mission of the church is to save others. (The mission of the Church, by the way, is simply to be saved ourselves from this crooked and perverse generation as St. Paul tells the Philippians plainly). Missional theology pushes salvation by works indirectly, persuasively, by JFK theology: “Ask not what Jesus can do for you. Ask what you can do for Jesus!” I don’t think Prince Philip cared much for JFK either. As my old teacher Norman Nagel used to say, you can spot bad theology simply by looking at “Who’s running the verbs?” Am I the subject of the sentences of salvation? Bad! Am I the passive object, the unworthy recipient of the Lord Jesus’ magisterial work for me? That’s all Good!
I don’t expect this message goes down any more smoothly today than it did in Irenaeus’, Athanasius’, Augustine’s, or Luther’s day. It wounds our pride. Augustine was right: the heretics are clever and more ingenious than we are in coming up with ever new, more appealing ways to make anti-Christian nonsense sound spiritual, pandering to sinful pride, the will-to-power.
However, in our Gospel, it is quite plain what the Truth is. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man was lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” And how did the Bronze Serpent convey salvation to snake-bit Israelites? “Look and live!” is Moses’ simple word. Look and live. Not: “look and change your life to be more like the image of what you look at. Not: “look and come up with an intricate and clever theology that you can retail to others.” Not: “look and go out and make others look too so that they will be as good as you are.” No. “Look and live!” Look yourself at what God has lifted up; and by the looking will come the seeing that saves, as God’s entire doing and utterly free gift…
We’re all snake-bit. The serpent in the Garden got his fangs into all of us. The poison of pride and self-justification flows in all our veins, mine included! The Serpent whispers in all our ears: “It can’t be that easy! Surely you have to do something to make God accept you! You don’t want to be a beggar, a charity case, a bum, do you? What would mom say?!” Luther’s last words show his life-long struggle, reminding himself with his last breath: “It is true: we are beggars after all.”
So, look and live. Look first at the snake bite on your ankle—the poison’s already made its way to your heart! Admit you find the message of good works appealing. And then: fix your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Giver and Perfecter of our Faith! There are worse things than being snake-bit, falling to the ground, writhing in our death-throes. The worst thing is to deny this is our state! Light has come into the world (through the darkness of the cross of Jesus!) but we love darkness more and look away…
I get how you’d want to look away from Jesus hanging on the cross. It is not a pretty sight—as we count Beauty. But whoever looks to Him will never be put to shame; and in the looking will come the seeing that is believing that is Peace surpassing understanding, guarding your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.