The words that flank arguably the most famous verse of John’s gospel—John 3:16—are replete with the effects of the fall of our first parents. From Nicodemus’ “How can these things be?” (v9) to John’s commentary that people loved the darkness rather than the light (v19), this text dives deep into the total depravity of mankind, even as it signals the solemn joy of our salvation that flows from the deep love of the Father.
What holds these two things together—our sobering need for salvation and the solemn joy of the Father’s love through the Son—is the promise that God made to Noah after the flood: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen 8:21-22 ESV). This is one aspect of God’s common grace. He will uphold this world until his purposes are complete. Therefore, even though the total depravity of mankind is inclined to global catastrophe, God restrains evil so that Christ could come to offer salvation to sinners.
That, however, is not the end of the thought. Not only has God restrained evil and maintained seedtime and harvest so that Christ could come, but he continues to restrain evil and maintain this world so that his church may complete the mission that Christ has given to us, namely “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20 ESV). As John has shared the solemn joy of salvation through his gospel, so we share this same solemn joy through our own proclamation of the gospel and our support of those who go to the ends of the earth to do so.
What this means is that our engagement with the world should be governed by the Great Commission. It is not only one way to fulfill the Great Commandment, but it is the greatest expression of loving God and loving neighbor. And what that means is that we are bound, to some degree or another, to engage with the world, even if we don’t want to. Having the attitude that we should let it all burn down is not being faithful to the Great Commission or respectful of the covenant promise that God made to the world through Noah.
Additionally, we do not need to engage with the world alone. We can legitimately work together with those who do not share our faith or values on matters that are generally good and true. Because there is no neutral ground, if there is an area of concern that rightly takes up the interest of God’s children, we shouldn’t be concerned about partnering up with those who, in God’s common grace, are also interested in that concern.
However, all of the above also means that our engagement with the world cannot lack Christ. With respect to cooperate efforts with non-believers, we must be careful to maintain our commitment to Christ and the truth of the gospel. After all, no amount of purely earthly work will profit anyone in the age to come. Sometimes that means we will do different things than the rest of the world, which may leave us on the opposite side of a concern. Other times, we may do the same things differently. In those instances, we should be ready to part ways in a cooperative effort lest we, for the sake of compassion, compromise the truth of the gospel.
In the end, my hope is that as we consider this familiar expression of the salvation of our God, it may stir in us the right desire to share this solemn joy with this world and pray that God would spiritually birth new children through our efforts. After all, you have the most joyful message to share with a dying world: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV).