“Christianity in a Nutshell or Not”

Kurt Jacobson
6 min readMar 10, 2024


March 10, 2024

John 3:14–21

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

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John 3:16 is one of the best-known verses in the Bible. Like none other, this verse has been displayed on tattooed arms and legs, wristbands, billboards, t-shirts and coffee mugs. It has been flashed on screens at major sporting events. The verse first leapt into popular culture in the 1970s, when born-again Christians started holding “John 3:16” signs at stadiums as a way to spread the Gospel. Somewhere along the years, you probably memorized it. Do you recall when and why?

Martin Luther called 3:16 “the heart of the Bible, the Gospel in miniature.” Some assert it is essentially Christianity 101 — a perfect summary of Scripture’s salvific message, and a great evangelism tool.

And so it is. In just twenty-seven words, the famous verse from John’s Gospel describes a loving God, a cherished world, a self-giving Son, a universal invitation, a deliverance from death, and a promise of eternal life. Christianity in a nutshell. Yet, there is a problem with this verse, and it has always unsettled me.

It is not the verse itself, but what people sometimes do with it. In our well-intentioned efforts to make the Gospel message simple and accessible, we Christians sometimes reduce salvation to a formula: God loves us + we believe in God = we will gain eternal life. Neat. Easy. Simple. More in a moment.

But first, getting context is important when considering any passage of the bible. When Jesus spoke the words of John 3:16 he was in a conversation with Nicodemus, an educated fellow, a ruler of the Jews who came to Jesus by night. This night, Nicodemus was searching to believe something more about God. He came looking for answers: “‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2) He knew Jesus was good and he suspected that what people were seeing was an attestation to the presence of God. Nicodemus had checked his references, but as a seeker he wanted more information. He wanted Jesus to say something that would take away his doubts and make it easy for him to say yes to this belief about God. But Jesus would not oblige and his words to Nicodemus resulted in bewilderment, not salvation.

Keeping this in mind, I wonder what a formulaic approach to John 3:16 leaves out. What does it prevent me from seeing about the Christian life? Do we lean so heavily on the second half of the verse, the importance of individual belief, that we minimize the stunning truth of the first, that God loves and longs for all of creation? What unsettles me is that this verse can be used as a litmus test, not to communicate God’s all-encompassing compassion and mercy, but to threaten those who do not believe. A danger is that we can interpret this verse and use it to flatten and distort the meaning of “belief,” reducing its nuance and complexity to mere intellectual assent. What does it mean, after all, to say, “I believe in Jesus?” Why is “belief,” of all things, so important to God?

Let’s admit that our early education in Christianity meant affirming the right things. The Ten Commandments. The Golden Rule. That Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. For some affirming the right things included accepting Jesus and being “born again.” These too, necessitated agreeing to a set of doctrines about who Jesus is and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection. And somewhere along the way we memorized John 3:16.

“Christianity in a nutshell” for some. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It sounds so preciously precise, so deceptively simple. But does all of Christianity really come down to accepting certain propositions about Jesus to be factual? Is that really it?

For some, this way of believing — this way of defining faith as an intellectual assent to precisely codified doctrines — comes up short. Not because we cannot assent, but because assenting, in and of itself, has not fostered anything close to the meaningful relationship desired with God. If anything, intellectual assent too often functions as a smokescreen. A distraction. A substitute.

In her 2013 book, “Christianity after Religion,” independent scholar of American religion and culture, Diana Butler Bass points out that the English word “believe” comes from the German “belieben” — the German word for love. To believe is not to hold an opinion. To believe is to treasure. To hold something beloved. To give my heart over to it without reservation. To believe in something is to invest it with my love.

And this is true throughout the scriptures. When ancient writers wrote of belief and faithfulness, they were not writing about an intellectual surrender to a factual truth. They were writing about fidelity, trust, and confidence. As they saw it, to believe in God was to place their full confidence in God. To throw their whole hearts, minds, and bodies into God’s hands.

The fact is, I cannot think of any significant human relationship in which doctrine matters more than love and trust. So why should our relationship with God be any different? When you ask friends or family to believe in you, you are not asking them to believe certain facts about you. Rather, you are saying, “Trust me with your heart. Trust me with your love, your faith, and your vulnerability. Allow yourself to treasure me as I have come to treasure you.”

Conversely, when a human relationship falls apart, the breakdown is never merely intellectual. What breaks between two people is not facts; what breaks is vulnerability and fidelity. What breaks is the deep, abiding trust that makes love and safety possible.

What does it mean to believe in Jesus? To hold onto him? To trust him with your life? For Nicodemus in that nocturnal conversation with Jesus, it meant starting anew, letting go of all he thought he understood about the life of faith. It meant being “born again,” becoming a newborn, vulnerable, hungry, and ready to receive reality in a brand-new way. It meant coming out of the darkness and risking the light. None of this could be reduced to an altar call or a litmus test. The work of trusting Jesus was mind-bending, soul-altering work — it was hard, and it took time, and it involved setbacks, fears, and disappointments. No wonder Nicodemus walked away baffled that first night. Jesus was calling him to so much more than a rote recitation of the sinner’s prayer; he was calling him to fall in love, and stay in love. Why is belief important to God? Because love is. To believe is to be-love.

“Christianity in a nutshell” sounds catchy, but in the end, I do not think it exists. John 3:16 is a beautiful passage of scripture, and we are right to recite it, memorize it, and cherish it. But the way of faith it points to goes beyond the billboard, tattoo or the stadium sign. It is as vast and mysterious as all the workings of a human heart reaching out for God’s. That is why we can trust it; its challenge corresponds to reality. No love as rich, demanding, costly, and free as God’s love for us can ever be reduced to a formula. For God so loved …

Image: Rebecca Brogan JTbarts.com



Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.