The first verse in today’s Gospel is a favorite with Christians who say nothing more is needed for salvation than that one accept Jesus as his or her personal savior. There used to be a man whose way of getting noticed was to dye his hair in all colors of the rainbow. He managed to get before the television camera at every major athletic event. You’d see him gleefully holding up his sign: John 3:16.
We must understand what St. John and St. Paul meant by saying we are not saved by good works, but by believing.
In the year 70 A.D. the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, killing or scattering all the moderate Jews, but allowing the Hasidic Jews to pass out of the doomed city. Those survivors assembled on the coast, and they began saying that Judaism, deprived of its temple, would from then on be made up only of all those who would observe the thousands of rules the Scribes had added to the Law of Moses.
It was against that narrow view that John and Paul pushed the need to believe. But, then, when some Christians began saying that if they believed there was no need for them to avoid evil or to help the poor. To those who said faith alone saves, St. James wrote, “What good is it my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or a sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So faith, of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Martin Luther pushed those words of James aside. He said, “James’ is a very strawy Epistle.”
Twenty years ago I had a Baptist boy in my class, and he used to write “John, 3:16” as his answer to every quiz question. I passed him, because he was answering with his conscience. Eight years ago he was in a wedding party at our church, and he thanked me for what he had learned in our Religion class.