“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
God loves the world in a specific manner. We translate "so" to mean something like "so much!" This sounds like God wants to give the world a great, big, God-sized hug! What this clause actually means is "God loved the world in this way, under these circumstances." So the definition of Love we have in our minds may not mean the same thing as God's. We usually think of love being a romantic love, but God's love of the world is very different. God's love is a self-sacrificial love. It is a love that involves pain and even death. It is a love of giving.
God gave his only begotten son. He gave Jesus Christ as a gift at Christmastime, but he also gave up Jesus' actual life for us. There was an eternal decree where Jesus volunteered himself up for sacrifice, and it was followed through. Now, see that the condition of salvation is belief--faith. It doesn't say that if someone does something spectacular and impresses God, he will save them. No, one only has to believe in Jesus Christ, to put his faith in Jesus Christ. That's it. He doesn't have to prove himself at all. But we want to prove ourselves. We want to show God that we are something special. However, since we are born into sin, everything we do, even if it looks good to the world, is corrupt. Our greatest accomplishment is like a filthy rag to God, because of sin.
It's the difference between eternal life and eternal ruin. Belief is all that is needed. Faith is all that can save you. And it can't be just any faith. It has to be faith in Jesus Christ himself. Even then, it can't be a false Christ. It can't be a Jesus that loves romantically, or anything else that we dream up. It has to be the Jesus that loves in the specific way that is described above. It has to be the Jesus of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
Christ's first coming was not to condemn the world but to save it. He was putting a face on salvation. It wasn't some arbitrary thing anymore. He specifically came to let everyone know that all who put their trust in him would be saved. He did not come to judge the world but to save it. Now, Jesus will be coming again, and the second time he comes will be to judge the world, with fire. And there will be two camps: one camp of people who put their faith in Christ for their salvation, and one who didn't.
Whoever believes in Christ is not condemned. That seems simple and straightforward. However, the opposite is not true. The opposite would be that those who do not believe in Christ are condemned. This is not true. Condemnation is not contingent on believing in Christ. We are not on neutral ground here. We aren't just purring along with life and then we hear about Christ, reject him, and then God puts us in the "condemned" category. No, we have been condemned since birth. Why? Because we are born into the line of Adam, who sinned against God on the first day of his life. God created a covenant with Adam, and Adam immediately broke it. We are Adam's progeny, and so we are guilty of that sin, too. In other words, we are guilty of breaking God's Holy Law. Breaking the law leads to condemnation. Therefore, we are condemned, and have been since our existence.
Now, belief in Christ pulls us out of that condemnation, but unbelief does not put us in the condemnation. We are already condemned. Our unbelief merely keeps our status in God's eyes the same. There is a famous quote from the late Anne Dillard that goes like this: "I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, 'If
I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?' 'No,' said the
priest, 'not if you did not know.' 'Then why,' asked the Eskimo
earnestly, 'did you tell me?'" Well, remember what we said above: he who does not believe is condemned already. The priest in the quote, and Anne Dillard, is incorrect. The answer is actually "Yes! You would go to hell." Let's look at Romans 1:18:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Jesus Christ came into the world, and he cast a light on everything, and everyone can, by the light of Christ, see that all the accomplishments, all the great works, all the earnings of their way to God, to heaven, are actually evil works. The Eskimo was condemned already. His works were evil, no matter how good his intentions were. Christ only exposes the wickedness in men's hearts. Even our greatest accomplishments are worthless and evil in God's eyes.
Now, do you think that the light exposing the evil works would cause the evil workers to change their ways? No! Instead, the evil ones run deeper into the darkness. They hate the light. They hate Christ and actively work to ridicule him and lead others away from him. The devil doesn't want to be destroyed alone. He wants to take as many with him as possible.
Now, those who do have changed hearts, who do put their complete faith in Christ alone, those people are no longer condemned. They are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God. Even their worst failure is made fragrant and pure by the shed blood of Jesus. Look at Colossians 1:13 & 14:
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
God transfers us from one domain to the other. He gives us the faith to believe. What does it look like? Repentance. When we are transferred from one domain to the other, we repent of our sins, we turn away from self, and we turn to Christ as the only source of light and life. Jesus forgives us of all of our sins: past, present, and future. Out of gratitude we do good works, which do not save us, but these works can be clearly seen by others that they are carried out in God. With no faith in Christ, our works are poison, even our best works. When we are in Christ, having put our faith in him alone, our works are blessed, even our worst ones, because they are based on faith. They are based on our trust in what Christ has done for us on the cross. His perfect righteousness is what God counts in our favor.