Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.

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Perhaps the most publicized verse in the whole of Scripture is John 3:16. In all of the nationally televised sport events, as the camera pans the baseball park, football stadium, or hockey or basketball arena, you can see a sign which simply reads: John 3:16. Protestants, of course, know this chapter and verse by heart, and nod approvingly and say, “Amen, brother.” The Catholics wonder, “What in the world is this? What are they trying to say?” And they scramble for the Bible to see what it means, and discover, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

This is a good example of the necessity to define our terms. Often in a discussion people are using the same word to mean different things. Here the problem word is faith. What do you mean by faith? Taken in its proper context it really is a summary of the good news of the Gospel. Unfortunately, those who publicize it in this way take it out of its proper context to mean: we are saved by faith alone. Faith alone recalls the old Reformation debate: Are we saved by faith or works? The answer is neither and both.

We are not saved by faith alone. “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17) “If I have faith to move mountains and do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) The essence of Christianity is not faith, but love. And love is not found in words, love is found in deeds. Sacrifice is the language of love. It costs to be a lover.

On the other hand, we are not saved by works alone, either. Politicians, philanthropists and secular humanists do many good works for purely worldly reasons: to be elected, to create or preserve an image, for power, for prestige or simply to feel good.

We are saved by faith, working through love, producing loving deeds. This is the virtuous circle which is the dynamic of Christianity. Faith generates hope, faith and hope generate love, and love produces loving deeds. And the loving deeds are the sign that I really do believe, that I do have faith.

The crux of the matter, of course, is that the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, although mentally distinguishable, are practically inseparable. Conceptually we can distinguish one from the other. Faith is not hope, and hope is not love. But in the concrete world of reality it is not possible to have one without the other, at least in some degree. It is difficult to see how anyone could believe in Jesus and not trust him. And the expression, “to know him is to love him,” surely applies to Jesus.

Knowledge precedes love. We cannot love what we do not know. But it is in loving that we really get to know that person. Many theologians, for example, know a lot ABOUT God. But it is the mystic, who in the union of love really knows God. We know ABOUT Jesus through faith, but it is in loving Jesus that we really get to KNOW him. Love is not found in words, love is found in deeds. “If you love me keep my commandments.”

Understood in its proper context, John 3:16, deserves to be on national TV, because it is a summary of the Good News of the Gospel. We are saved by faith working through love to produce loving deeds. The loving deeds are a sign that we have faith, that is, loving, trusting faith. Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived in faith, hope and love, which produces loving deeds. And the deeds are a sign that we have the faith that saves.

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