For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (JOH 3:16)
This passage has been used by many to justify and support the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. However, it only appears to support that doctrine when it is taken out of its context. Our purpose today is to look at this key passage in its context in order to see what it was that the Lord was really trying to teach.
Verses 1-4: There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
The concept of re-birth or regeneration is introduced
How can one re-enter the womb?
There were three main opinions about the life after death in the Jewish Church.
Some believed in reincarnation (which is why that teaching is sometimes called "the Jewish heresy"). The Christian version of this is the doctrine of the bodily resurrection on the last day when Jesus comes to establish His earthly kingdom.
A few believed in "Sheol" which was very similar to "hades."
The majority believed that there was no life after death at all.
The Jews had no knowledge of regeneration or spiritual life. (AC 4904)
Verses 5-8: Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. "Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'
That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit establishes that heaven is a spiritual kingdom. He is talking not about a physical re-birth (reincarnation) but a spiritual one.
Verses 9-16: Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? "Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. "If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven
Jesus was conceived of Jehovah. AC 2798a
Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, the Son of God, is the only expert in the matter, because He is the only one who has actually seen heaven and come into the world to tell people about it.
Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life
This verse is taken out of context to justify the heresy of salvation by faith alone, but this verse cannot be understood without the rest of the ideas which follow. It does state the truth that faith in the Lord is essential to salvation, for unless we are doing for His sake, rather than for some selfish motive, our thoughts and deeds are not saving.
The key idea of motive is illustrated by the first lesson where it speaks of men bragging of their good deeds on the street corners, and how Jesus admonished them to be humble.
The third lesson spoke of how people who want to justify their belief in salvation by faith without deeds point to this parable as a demonstration of how deeds are not saving, but actually cause the sin of merit.
The Writings clearly say that this interpretation "does not at all apply"1 rather, it illustrates that while deeds are required, it is the doing of them, not for the sake of self, but because the Lord has asked it of you that is important.
This is His cross, the burden that he asks us to carry -- that we do good not for praise, or wealth, or other benefit to ourselves, but simply because He has asked us to.
Belief in God is the first of the church. Without it, no one can receive faith or good from heaven. (AC 10083)
Belief in God is the first thing not the only thing.
In less than an hour of research, I collected more than one hundred passages of scripture that speak of the necessity of good works or deeds.
Verses 19-21: "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. "For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. "But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."
And this is the condemnation...
that the light (Jesus Christ) has come into the world, and men loved darkness (falsity) rather than light because their deeds were evil.
Note that the Lord did not say that they were evil because Adam and Eve had sinned in the garden of Eden, although the doctrine of original sin is key to the doctrine of salvation by faith without deeds.
Jesus Christ Himself taught that the reason that people were condemned want not because of Adam and Eve's errors, but because they loved falsity or darkness. He then said that they loved the darkness because their deeds were evil.
The reason for that is when we do what is evil, we have to invent lies and other falsities to hide our evils from others, and to make them seem like good to ourselves.
So, having described why people are condemned, it does not take too much effort to work the other way to see how we are to be saved.
First, we must stop doing evils.
Then, we can learn to love truth, as we no longer require lies to hide our evils.
When we learn to shun evil and to love the truth, the good that you do will be genuine, and because you love good and truth, and since the Lord also loves good and truth, you will be conjoined with Him by love, and so have earned eternal life with Him in heaven.
This teaching is, by the way, fully consistent with everything else Jesus taught regarding the way to earn eternal life.
So often we face the problem of having someone quote a single passage to us to prove some doctrinal point.
Often, we feel inferior because we cannot quote some other, single passage to refute the point, and somehow feel that therefore we have lost.
But, because we have the internal sense, and because of the New Church's way of teaching and presenting the Word, we may not be able to quote single passages, but we do have an overall view of the Word where we see its wholeness, its perfection, its common sense, that others who cling to individual passages do not see.
Context is so important: Think of the movie reviewer who says that a particular film is "an incredible piece of rubbish" and the advertiser quotes him as saying the film is "incredible." It's the truth, but not the whole truth.
So, what does John 3:16 teach in context?
There is a spiritual world -- no earthly reincarnation
The first of the church is to believe in the Lord
He does not seek to condemn us, but to lift us up from our ignorance and sin
We prepare ourselves for heaven by shunning evils so our deeds will be good
And then we will love the truth because we will not need to hide our deeds behind falsities.
"And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. "For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. "But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God." AMEN.
3rd Lesson: AC 4783:2,3
 That by interpretations from the sense of the letter the Word can be so explained as to favor anything, is very manifest from the fact that all kinds of doctrines, and even of heresies, are thus confirmed, as for instance the dogma concerning faith separate is confirmed by these words of the Lord:--
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but should have eternal life (John 3:16);
from which words, and also from other passages, it is concluded that faith alone without works is what gives eternal life; and when those who are in this faith have persuaded themselves of this, they no longer attend to what the Lord so often said concerning love to Him, and concerning charity and works (n. 1017, 2371, 3934), thus not to what is said in John:
"As many as received, to them gave He power to be sons of God, even to them that believe in His name; who were born not of bloods, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (i. 12, 13).
If they are told that no one can believe in the Lord unless he is in charity, they straightway take refuge in interpretations such as these -- that the law has been abrogated, that they were born in sins and so cannot do good of themselves, and that they who practice cannot but claim merit for themselves; and they also confirm these things from the sense of the letter of the Word, as from what is said in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke xviii. 10-14), and from other passages; although these do not at all apply to the case.  They who are in faith separate cannot believe otherwise than that any one can be admitted into heaven out of grace, no matter how he has lived, thus that not the life but the faith remains with man after death. This they confirm also from the sense of the letter of the Word, when yet it is evident from the very spiritual sense of the Word that the Lord has mercy toward every one, thus that if heaven were of mercy or grace, regardless of what the life has been, every one would be saved. The reason why they who are in faith separate so believe is that they do not at all know what heaven is, and this because they do not know what charity is. If they knew how much peace and joy and happiness there is in charity, they would know what heaven is; but this is altogether hidden from them. Amen.