Is John 3:16 the Best We Can Do?

Is there a danger in quoting John 3:16 apart from the gospel of the Kingdom of God? It reduces the good news to something Jesus never intended.

John 3:16

I hate bumper stickers, even when I agree with them. How can anything important be reduced to so few words? Our media soaked, marketing driven age has generated a sound-bite generation. We have been trained to reduce life and death thoughts into catch phrases and slogans.

It’s even true in the church, where for the last 60 years the most popular verse in the Bible has been 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.” It’s been the go-to verse for outreach because it speaks of God’s sacrificial love, our need for faith, and the promise of eternal life. I’m in favor of all those things–they are all true. Still, is there a danger in quoting John 3:16 apart from the gospel of the Kingdom of God? It reduces the good news to something Jesus never intended.

Is it time to stop using John 3:16 apart from the gospel of the Kingdom of God?

If Jesus commissioned us to announce the Kingdom and make disciples of the King, we should give people the full story. Anything less is dishonest. John 3:16 isn’t even the full story of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, why have we tried to shrink the Kingdom call into those 26 words?

Here are four drawbacks of shrinking the gospel into John 3:16:

Our use of John 3:16 means we have distorted God’s love, and his call for us to love in return. Make no mistake: God is love. Who could be against love–especially the perfect love of the Father? But the love of God goes beyond his sacrifice and empowers us to respond. His love teaches us to love. His love is modeled in the life of Jesus–not just his death. Most important, when we use John 3:16 for outreach we fail to communicate the first and greatest commandment, that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Our use of John 3:16 means we have distorted the life-changing responsibility of belief. Faith is vital to our entry into the Kingdom of God, but in our day “belief” has been reduced to “agreement.” True faith is a dangerous, life-changing force that causes us to die to ourselves and the old way of life. True faith causes us to count our lives as lost for the sake of gaining God’s Kingdom. The “faith” presented in the bumper-sticker application of John 3:16 asks simply for the nodding of our heads.

Our use of John 3:16 means we have traded the promise God’s vast Kingdom for simply living a long time. I’m so glad I will live forever. I’ve bet my eternal destiny on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Yet when we reduce the gospel to everlasting life, we have presented a false reward. Imagine someone who attained everlasting life apart from the love of God or transformation into Christlikeness–what would this do someone’s soul? What if we got to live forever but didn’t like the life we got to live? Jesus has a different definition of eternal life than simply beating death: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Eternal life is relationship with our Creator, knowing him and being known by him. To be present with God is to leave this life behind.

Finally, our use of John 3:16 means we have failed to make disciples. The Great Commission has become the Great Omission.

We have taken the methods of salesmanship and used them for an evangelism that misrepresents the gospel Jesus announced. It is a bait-and-switch, without the call to switch. We should ask ourselves what kind of disciples have we made. For the last 60 years in North America the answer is that we have fallen short of the Lord’s commission to us. What if we chose Matthew 11:28-30 for their outreach verse instead of John 3:16? What kind of disciples could we make? Or Luke 9:57-62? Or the entire Sermon on the Mount? He calls us to come and follow.

It’s not a drive-by gospel. The Kingdom of God doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.


This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission.

Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His devotional book "Deeper Grace" is available at He currently lives in central Kentucky. He's also the author of of "The Impossible Mentor", a deep dive into the foundations of discipleship.