God so loved the world

Presidential Address to the Yorkshire Baptist Association, 1985

Allow me first one personal remark. What I have to say may sound like a lecture; I ask you to hear it as a testimony. It describes something of what it has been given to me to discover, to imagine, to think and to seek for, in the course of my life, and especially as a Christian theologian working in a pluralist secular university. I work there happily and hopefully because God loves the world and the world there takes a form which is not totally inhospitable to the love of God.

This is testimony, not a lecture. Nor is it the Word of God, though it might be that God will speak for himself in the conversation generated between my words and your listening.

1. John 3.16

The basic miracle of Christian faith is that these words really hold together: God loves the world. Change, or drop, any one of them and Christianity dissolves.

I take these words from John 3.16. What a text for getting people started in Christian life. I grew up with it, like many others. I knew it by heart at an early age. It was given me as the promise of life and the greatest thing in the world. Going over this text as a child, I learnt the rudiments of biblical exegesis and theology, intertwining intellectual, practical and spiritual activity. When I was a child I thought about this text as a child. That means I thought mostly what I was told, sometimes without its making much sense to me.

I heard talks about God’s loving, about his special (‘only begotten’) son Jesus, about ‘whosoever’ (which meant I was in the middle of the text), about ‘everlasting life’ (a hazy concept that, but clearly preferable to ‘perishing’). But I cannot recall that we ever spent much time on the ‘world’, said here to be loved by God.

When the ‘world’ cropped up it was treated as nothing more than a geographical expression for the whole extent of the earth; and it seemed that we were not much interested in it except as a sort of basket for all the ‘whosoevers’. It was really all those individual ‘whosoevers’ that God loved; since there are so many of them there has to be a conceptual basket, a collective term, to put them in. And, of course, if the subject of the world was pursued any further, 1 John 2.15 came down like a veto: ‘Love not the world ….’. I shall return to the interpretation of that text later. Here I want to note that, as a result of the veto on the world, we read John 3.16 – maybe some still do – as saying, ‘God so loved, that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on him, should not perish but have everlasting life.’ It still sounds like a good text, but when the world goes missing where is the Gospel?

The language of love must be rescued from the sentimental and emotional. God’s love of the world is not sentimental but creative. It is not as though God found the world, ready made, floating in space and was captivated by its beauty or moved to pity by its distress. God’s love of the world comes from the depths of his own will; the world is his idea, his project. He creates the world in order to realise the vision of his love.  So when you hear that God loves the world, you should not be surprised. You might say: He would, wouldn’t he? He creates it, so we may presume he loves it. He puts himself out to give the world being and to push its vast unfinished process along until ‘it is finished’ in its true end. God does not have to create the world. He chose it because he wants it. It is not for him a throw-away world. Since God is love (1 John 4.8) the world comes from love and is loved by the love it came from. Even if it takes a long hard time, being brought to believe this makes a happy person.

God, according to the Fourth Gospel, not merely creates the world, giving being to it out of love, he comes to it and lives in it. The Logos, the Word or Reason of God, was with God in the beginning. Through the Word all things were made (John 1.1-3). And the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1.14). God does not desert his world; his love is its source, and his personal presence within it is his faithfulness to the end, through Christ and the Spirit of Christ.

Whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. Believing, I was taught as a child, is the empty hand that receives a gift. What do we receive when we believe? We receive Jesus, the Word of God, given by the Father as the fullness of his love in the world he loves. By faith, we receive God who so loves the world.

And now, the text says, believing, we have eternal life. Whatever is that? It is too simple to be helpful to say it is living for ever and ever. We want to know what we will do for all that time without getting bored. I think the clearest clue John gives about the nature of eternal life is in ch.17 v 3: ‘This is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent’. This only God we know is the God who loves the world. To know him is to know the world is loved and to be drawn into actively sharing that love. We do not know the love of God simply by being loved passively; we also need to love actively. ‘He who does not love, does not know God: for God is love’ (1 John 4.8; 3.17,18).

So John 3.16 is not to be read as though it were a straight line. If it were, when we get to the end – eternal life – we would have left the beginning far behind. It is more like a circle or a spiral: having eternal life is living and sharing actively in God’s love of the world. What we get out of the text at the end is a share in what God puts into it at the beginning: His love for the world.

In the world God created, human being has a crucial function in caring for, managing and directing other parts of creation. Human being is equipped to do this – we are given hands, not paws; brains, language and capacity to extend ourselves into computers; we are made creatures of time, of memory and imagination, able to plan, to learn and to grow. When God created the world he affirmed human being in its potential. He created human being in his
image, to be his representative in and steward of the world. In short, he loved us into the responsibility of loving the world for him.

The ecological vision and crisis of our times is bringing us back to understand the biblical view that God loves the world and that he will have human beings love the world for him and with him. When they do, they will get closer to the human being he creates and recreates in Christ.

2. The Church in the perspective of God’s love for his World

We are all born lay-people and most of us die lay-people. That is God’s norm; and it is no accident, because he loves the world. He scatters us into the world’s life so that our lives are shaped by sharing in its activities and our best energies consumed by it.

Many of us work in ‘secular’ occupations out of necessity: daily bread has to be earned somehow.  We do not love the world as we experience it; we find it hard to thank God for it, or to believe deep down He loves it. For us it is like being expelled from the Garden of Eden, thrust out from God’s presence into exile. We come to Church gladly as a refuge and a release from the world. The Church is a place for recuperation.

However, the Gospel promises more than personal recuperation. It calls us to hope for the recreation and fulfilment of the world in and through God’s love. How are we to hold fast to such hope?

People who find themselves in exile in the everyday world must be helped to follow the Lord’s advice, given to exiles in Babylon through the prophet Jeremiah (ch.29.7): ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’

Following this advice, we have to look to the balance of subject matter and the method of our praying. In our exile we shall find ourselves praying about matters which confuse us. It is not always obvious what counts as the welfare of the city. If we take such matters seriously, we may find them divisive. For example, the realities we come across in our lives in the world are, sooner or later, political. Very often, however, to save the unity of the Church, we leave politics at the Church door: which means we leave substantial aspects of the world God loves outside the door.

We need to find forms of corporate prayer which accommodate honestly the perplexity, disagreement and the pain of making choices which the reality of the world involves for us. I think it means we should not pray without the open detailed discussion of issues. Indeed, we need to learn to see and practise such discussion as being, in itself, prayer, for in it we lay out before God some of the major elements of our being.

Such a discussion in itself recognizes and responds positively to the presence of God who loves the world, because discussion is a method by which we bring out into the open and accept who we are as people enmeshed in the world. Such a way of praying together by discussion may be a step on the way to a life in which work itself is prayer.

Many people these days go to places like Taizé in France, weary with life in the world, seeking refuge and renewal. They want to get away to find themselves and God again. A worker at Taizé said: ‘Our purpose here is to help people to say “Goodbye” to Taizé’.  So it is with the Church generally. The task always is to help people to say ‘Goodbye’, and to go back into that bit of the world where they are exiled for the sake of God’s love for it.

The test of evangelism and nurture is whether people come to share in God’s love for the world. Merely adding them to the Church is not enough and it might be a cul-de-sac.   Yet churches like ours today are under pressure to survive or to grow or to make themselves interesting. So they tend to suck people into themselves, to make them busy in a churchy way. However, unless making people churchy makes them freer to live in accordance with God’s love for and in the world, it is a questionable achievement. So we ought to ask ourselves this question, in the household of God where judgment begins: What is really happening to people here?

We must stop giving people with secular occupations the impression that they are second-rate Christians, ranked below those who are ‘serving the Lord full-time’. We need to recognize that all good work is God’s work. And work is good, whether it is in manufacturing or service industry, by hand or brain, material or spiritual, so far as it fits in with God’s love for the world and builds up the world as the embodiment of God’s loving. Churches need to take an intelligent and hopeful interest in the worldly work done by lay-people and to help them to find how their work may be done as a credible participation in God’s life-giving love for the world. If we try to love people, while treating their major work in life as not worth taking seriously in God’s presence, we withhold the Gospel from them.

In Church we tend to notice and give worth to what will build up the Church. Naturally we want to be where the Kingdom of God can be seen, where things are happening. We want to bring these things into the visibility and vitality and statistics of the Church, so that we have something to celebrate.

God’s love for the world, however, often scatters people into exile. It sends them out beyond the range of what is visible and measurable and appreciated in Church. It requires people who can live lonely and unrecognized in the world, hidden like seeds. Many people live lives that cannot be measured in any terms available to us in churches, however clever our charting of spiritual progress may have become in our culture, dominated as it tends to be, by  measurement and achievement. There are quiet people, happy or sad, good or not so good, getting on living quietly, doing what God has given them to do in some corner of his world, more or less faithfully, living in his love hiddenly.1 I am revising this paper in 2021.  Had I known in 1985 what I do now, I would have referred at this point to Frances Young, Arthur’s Call (2014) We cannot know. We should be slow to judge. Reverence and faith should be the Church’s primary attitude towards the mystery of other people, scattered in God’s world. A passion to co-opt, to incorporate, to manage, to use, even to care, has its dangers.

To live in God’s world, in his love, people will have to go out into loneliness, into frustration at the perpetual incompleteness of all our achievements, into failure, into not being understood, into perplexity and responsibility: in short, into being human.

The freedom to go is not given to those who have been sucked into active or passive dependence on the Church but to people who have been helped to say ‘Goodbye’.

Only people who believe God loves the world – all the world – will say ‘goodbye’. Only churches which witness truthfully to God who loves the world and live gladly in the world loved by God, will help people to say ‘Goodbye’.

3. But what about worldliness?

The same world given being by God today is the world where his creation is frustrated (Rom. 8.20).

The world Christ lives in with us is the world where he died and is still being crucified.

The world is terribly wrong. How can we love the world? Surely 1 John 2.15 makes sense: ‘Do not love the world or the things in the world …. all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father …’

To pretend the world is well, when it is not, is worldliness of the wrong sort. To accept the world as it is, to use it for ourselves, our party, class or church, and to be happy so long as we do well in the jungle, letting the devil take the hindmost, is worldliness of the wrong sort.  Worldliness of the wrong sort makes its own world out of lust, selfishness, pride and fear. A world made from perverted sources is no world to be loved.

But the answer to worldliness of the wrong sort is not otherworld­liness. The answer is not to try to make the Church a complete alternative society, over against the world and its ways and communities. The Church can never be such an alternative society, though it can and must witness in word and deed that there is an alternative to any society which says the only world we can have is made out of selfishness, pride and fear.

The answer to worldliness of the wrong sort is worldliness of God’s sort. Then we recognize that the real world is created by God’s love and so we live by tenacious faith that there is a world loved by God. So we do not give way to the despair and fantasy of otherworldliness, nor to the exploitative contempt of unloving worldliness. In the worldliness of God’s sort, we understand that the world which sinful humanity makes and then treasures is not the real world, but a perversion of the real world. So in our struggle against worldliness of the wrong sort we look for the real world of God’s creating beyond the perversion.

Our response to worldliness of the wrong sort must not be otherworldly, because God’s response to his world gone wrong was worldly. God the Creator does not desert his creation. The creative word was made flesh and lived among us. He showed his glory in signs, turning water into wine, blindness to sight, death to life. Everywhere the world was valued, enjoyed, sustained, restored. The world has its limits, but within its limits it is filled with the glory of God, recovered by his affirming life‑giving love. The limits of the world are no reason for refusing to love it, as otherworldliness does.

The worldliness of God in Christ had dire struggle with the worldliness of sin and death, but he lived positively – how John especially emphasises this in his passion narrative – right down into the jaws of death, and beyond. Worldliness of the wrong sort makes its world out of sin. God’s worldliness in Christ dies for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2). ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29). Beyond its perversion, the world is established in God’s self-giving love.

4. Bread for the world

So, finally, I ask you to think about the Communion Service we are sharing in.

All churches have tended to make the Communion a churchly event. The world is not admitted. The table is fenced. Here we believers want a private table with the Lord, the upper room, the deep spiritual experience. Some make communion churchly by ornament and ritual, others by religious style and intensity. If we are not careful, the way we celebrate God’s love for the world can turn us into otherworldly people. Or worldly in the wrong way, as we make a private religious world for ourselves out of God’s love for the world.

In the New Testament, there is evidence that, from early days, the Communion was being cocooned in the Church. There is also evidence of apostolic resistance to that tendency. So Paul told the Corinthians it was not the Lord’s Supper they ate. Why not? Because what they did was in practice an unchristlike celebration of the difference between the well fed and the hungry. (1 Cor. 11. 20,29). It is, therefore, appropriate that in this service our prayers take up what we have been talking about this afternoon, the issue of poverty in Britain today. Talking and praying is not enough: we still live as the well fed amongst the hungry. We have to cast ourselves on the forgiveness of God for our social sins if this Communion is to be real.

John, in his own way, tells us about the Lord’s Supper in the context of the worldliness of God. In chapter 13, where you might expect the story of the Last Supper, we get nothing but the washing of the disciples feet, as an example. And he puts his major treatment of the meaning of Communion out in the world, in the open air, when he tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus feeds the hungry: that is the sign of what God wants and what his Kingdom means. In Jesus is the true bread from heaven, which gives life to the world. ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven… and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ (John 6.51) Bread given for the life of the world: that is what we receive here from God. We cannot take bread given for the life of the world just for ourselves. How can we receive the life of one who gave his flesh for the life of the world without being drawn into his love for the world?

So, at the heart of its life, God turns his Church inside out. He offers and gives us life, as we practically share in his love for the world of which we are part.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.


  • 1
    I am revising this paper in 2021.  Had I known in 1985 what I do now, I would have referred at this point to Frances Young, Arthur’s Call (2014)

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