Monday, 17 August 2020

John 3:16 vs Micah 6:8 - How do you sum up the Christian faith?

 

Through my growing-up years, if I'd asked someone which Bible verse summed up the Christian faith, I'm pretty sure they would have responded with John 3:16.

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16 NIV)

It was the verse; if you could quote one bit of the Bible from memory, this would be it.  Those of us in UK Sunday schools in the 1990s can probably still sing John Hardwick's musical setting, with its acrostic chorus: "L is for the love that he has for me, I am the reason he died on the tree..." (it finishes with F and E, in case you were wondering).  And while no one would argue that it represented the totality of God's revelation to us, I think most evangelical Christians reckoned it was a good start.

Nowadays, I rarely hear anyone quote John 3:16.  But everywhere I turn, people seem to be leaning on Micah 6:8.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8 NIV)

The Lectio 365 prayer app uses it as one of their key verses.  I have recently heard several talks using it as a central text, and anything referencing racial justice, environmental issues, poverty or slavery is quite likely to include it.  Again, no one is using it as the be-all and end-all of our faith, but as a guide to living a Christian life, many people count it as a good place to start.

Looking at the two verses together, the difference in emphasis between the two is quite striking.  I think there has probably been a corresponding change in emphasis among many UK Christians, which is why we now hear Micah 6:8 quoted more than John 3:16.  So let's look at each of them more carefully.

John 3:16

This starts with that great statement of what God has done: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.  The fact that our faith rests on what God has already achieved for us is front and central in this verse - and as I've previously argued in my post about teacups, this is quite an important thing to remember.

that whoever believes in him... Our response, then, is to believe in someone not to do something.  In my experience of how this verse has been used, the emphasis is often individualistic (you yourself must believe) and prescriptive (this is the set of ideas you must believe).

...shall not perish, but have eternal life. So we wind up with the ultimate threat/reward: are you in or are you out?  The understanding of this phrase was definitely that it referred to your "eternal destiny" i.e., whether you went to heaven or hell when you died.  So the bit between believing (as a one-time individual decision) and salvation (as a specific thing which happens when you die) is left unsaid if you use John 3:16 as a summary of the Christian faith.

Micah 6:8

This verse also starts with a statement of what God has done, but in a much vaguer way.  He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. Does this mean the giving of the law, or a reference to God's character, or to our own consciences?  No one seems too bothered about the exact meaning, and it's usually glossed over in order to get to the "live justly" bit.

And what does the Lord require of you? In contrast to the verse from John, the focus here is on what we do in response, not what we believe.  This is used to declare that our faith comes with a strong responsibility to the world around us, and that responsibility is not just making sure other people know what to believe.

To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. Well, this firmly fills in what John 3:16 leaves out - and avoids any mention of eternal salvation.  Although Micah's text is addressed to "You, O mortal", it tends to be interpreted in a more corporate way - we, as a church, are called to work for justice and mercy in the world.

So if there has been a shift in emphasis from John 3:16 to Micah 6:8 to understand what Christianity is, what might we have gained?  And what might we have lost?

I think there's been a shift from belief to action.  

This is one of the clearest distinctions between the two verses; John is about believing, and Micah is about acting.  We are less likely to say, "To be a Christian, you must believe this," and more likely to say, "Come and join in with what we're doing as Christians".  We're more likely to talk about bringing God's kingdom to the world around us, and less likely to make firm statements about heaven and hell.

Is this a gain?  It has the benefit, hopefully, of giving our churches fuzzier edges - people can join in with what we do, without having to decide whether they agree with every article of our faith.  It also reflects the wide variety of beliefs within the church itself.  It's less important whether a church is Baptist or Pentecostal or Anglican, and more about whether it's an active part of the community.

If we're not careful, though, it has the danger of making it more about us than about God.  We lose that joyful affirmation of a historic event - God loved us and sent his Son! - as we rush around trying to figure out the best way to do justice and love mercy.  Again and again, we need pulling back to the good news of what God has done, not just good advice about how to live.

I think there's been a shift from love to justice.  

"Love your neighbour" often turns into, "Be nice to those who you naturally associate with," or at least, it does for me!  I find talking about justice much more challenging, as that requires me to pay attention to people I wouldn't naturally associate with, and answer questions about whether they get the same consideration that I get.  Which, really, is what loving your neighbour means.

Framing things in terms of justice also gives us a different set of expectations for people.  We can work for justice - and indeed mercy - for everyone, regardless of whether we agree with them, because we believe that justice and mercy are good ideals in themselves.  Whereas Christian love has sometimes become conditional.  "Of course God loves you, but he only really welcomes and loves you if you're doing the right thing."  As I write that, I realise how ridiculous that is - we should be able to say exactly the same about love as we do about justice and mercy.  But I still find myself trying to justify it.

So it's not that justice overall is better, but that it gives us a fresh perspective.  Our concept of love has got distorted, so that it's easy to persuade ourselves that if we are nice to those like us, then we are being loving.  Asking ourselves whether we are promoting justice makes us look again at how we are living.

I think there's been a shift from individual to societal.  

Interestingly, John 3:16 is the verse that talks about "the world" and "whoever", whereas Micah 6:8 addresses, "You, O mortal".  On the other hand, in John's gospel, Jesus is talking to one man, Nicodemus, whereas Micah is prophesying to the whole nation of Israel.  

At any rate, the model of Christianity built around John 3:16 tends to emphasize doing mission by bringing individual people to a definite point of belief in Jesus.  The model built around Micah 6:8 tends to emphasize being missional by influencing the society around us.  Some of that comes out of different ideas about the main point of following Jesus - is it to save us from eternal damnation or is it to bring God's kingdom to the world?  Some of it is a reaction to the growing individualism in our culture, and a recognition that many people need a community to belong to.

Of course, individuals are society, and vice versa.  We can't separate the two, and maybe that's useful to remember - that when we talk to one person, we talk about the world, and when we speak to our nation, we say, "You".  We can't just have lofty ideals about changing our culture, and we can't just deal with the person in front of us and ignore the larger picture.  We need both.

How do you sum up your faith?

A post like this reminds me just how difficult it is to make generalisations.  I'm pretty sure these shifts apply to a larger group of Christians than myself, but I'd struggle to define who they are and what labels they might give themselves.  Evangelical?  Post-evangelical?  Liberal?  Progressive?  Hopefully it's less about the labels and more about realising some of the weak points in our previous understanding, and trying to address them (without over-compensating the other way!)

So, has your faith shifted?  Would you sum it up differently now to how you would have done in the past?  And what have you gained or lost in the process?