“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.” (John 3:16)
This is one of the most widely quoted verses from the Christian Bible, and we often use it to summarize God’s requirements for salvation. But is this really an accurate summary? Not even close. In fact, when you really stop to think about it, John 3:16 is a very lousy verse to use to try and help a non-believer end up on the right side of eternity. Now let’s learn why.
The first problem we run into with John 3:16 is that we’re not sure who said it. Some English Bible translations attribute this statement to Jesus, others assume it’s just part of the narrative of John’s Gospel book. Since this verse does not acknowledge the Divinity of Christ, it’s very easy to imagine John saying it, because like all of the New Testament authors, John wasn’t comfortable directly acknowledging the Divinity of Christ. But at the same time, Jesus Himself downplayed His own Divinity—especially in the early part of His public ministry, which was when this statement was made.
Let’s assume that Jesus actually said John 3:16, since that is the popular view among Christians. The next question is, who was Jesus talking to? Well, as is so often the case with one-liners that Christians try to turn into universal guidelines for all people, John 3:16 is part of a private conversation between God and a human. In this case, the human was a Jewish man named Nicodemus. Like the Great Commission, John 3:16 was not a case of Jesus casting out some general command for all believers. We just pretend that’s what it is today because we’re so bad at respecting context.
So what prompted this speech by Jesus? Well, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Pharisees were hot stuff in New Testament Israel—they were the guys who invented the concept of synagogues and they were so smug that they actually claimed to be perfect in the sight of Yahweh. Pharisees viewed themselves as having salvation locked up, and they also taught that salvation was obtained through behavioral perfection. It was how you acted on the outside that mattered—not what your soul was doing with God. In real life, most Pharisees were hardened spiritual rebels who hated God, yet they still claimed to be His favorites because they believed they were succeeding at impressing Yahweh with their phony acts of piety. Imagine a guy marching up to Heaven’s gates, banging on them with his fist and shouting, “Open up! I deserve to be here because I have obeyed Yahweh’s Laws to the letter!” That was the Pharisees. They didn’t submit to Yahweh—instead, they expected Yahweh to submit to them by accepting the rules of salvation which they had invented for themselves. And yet while they claimed to be perfectly obeying the Torah, in real life the Pharisees were ignoring much of what the Torah said. Like Christians today, they just focused on the passages they liked, then they twisted those passages to say what they wanted them to say. It was all a carnal game which boiled down to a bunch of humans deciding that they could control God.
But then Jesus came along. Being God, Jesus wasn’t at all impressed with the self-righteous Pharisees. Jesus saw how rebellious their soul attitudes really were, so He responded to them very acridly. Read through the Gospel books and you’ll discover that many of Jesus’ parables are a direct assault on the Pharisees, including the famous Parable of the Lost Sheep.
Our Gods always respond to our soul attitudes. It is our souls’ response to Them which we are judged by, not our external actions. But among humans, things are quite the opposite: humans judge us by our actions and words because they can’t see into our souls. In New Testament Israel, the Jewish commoners were very impressed with the Pharisees. They believed the Pharisees’ pompous claims to be righteous and they felt hopeless about ever being able to compete with them. So many Jewish commoners believed they had no hope of being accepted by Yahweh, because they knew they couldn’t be as perfect as the Pharisees were. And of course this was exactly what the Pharisees wanted people to think because they hated Yahweh and delighted in making other souls feel like salvation was impossibly out of reach. Though they claimed to be spiritual role models for the little people, the Pharisees were actually invested in blocking people from coming to God and hindering their spiritual progress as much as possible. This is how evil-hearted the Pharisees were, and because of this, Jesus had many hateful things to say about them.
Now once you understand who the Pharisees were, you should find it quite interesting that a Pharisee is meeting with Jesus in John 3, because by now there is already a lot of tension between Jesus and the rulers of Israel. Jesus is doing miracles. In John 2, Jesus just made a big ruckus in the Temple: throwing stuff around, cracking a whip at people, and declaring Jewish leaders to be abusing Yahweh’s House—which they were. It’s unheard of for a Jewish man to act this way—where is Jesus getting His nerve? Jewish commoners are getting very intrigued by Jesus and rumors about Him are filling the countryside. This is all very threatening to the Pharisees, because they pride themselves on controlling the way that the Jewish commoners think. They aren’t used to having their authority challenged by some nobody who hasn’t even been formally educated on Scriptures. The Pharisees were highly educated in Jewish Scriptures and theology. Commoners like Jesus were not, yet when Jesus speaks, He talks like He is some great authority on the subject of God—greater even than the Pharisees. This is all very shocking and quite threatening. The Pharisees don’t like Jesus, and they certainly don’t want to be seen hanging out with Him. So Nicodemus is taking a risk sneaking off to talk to Jesus. To give himself some cover, he waits until it’s night, then he catches Jesus alone.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from Yahweh as a Teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless Yahweh was with him.” (Jn. 3:2)
Notice how Nicodemus is suggesting that Jesus is some legitimate “teacher” who Yahweh approves of. This is like you saying to your pastor today, “I believe you really are called by God to preach.” If you say such a thing, are you suggesting that your pastor is more than just a human? Certainly not, and Nicodemus is not within a million miles of viewing Jesus as being more than human. Old Covenant Jews were strict monotheists—meaning that Yahweh was the only God they recognized. So forget about the Trinity, because no New Testament Jew would ever accept the ludicrous idea that Jesus was just an alternate Personality of Yahweh. No one could be equal to the mighty Yahweh in Jewish minds, because Yahweh says in the Old Testament that He is the only true God and there is no one like Him.
Now here in John 3, Nicodemus is sounding awfully generous to suggest that Jesus could be as legitimate a teacher as the Pharisees claimed to be. Is this really what he thinks? Probably not. In Jewish culture it was quite common to begin a conversation with a compliment, even when you disliked the person you were talking to. So Nicodemus is probably just trying to butter Jesus up by pretending to be His fan. Secretly, Nicodemus probably feels it is far more likely that Jesus is getting His miracle working powers from demons.
New Testament Israel was filled with folks who were dabbling in the dark arts, and miracle working sorcerers were very common. Demonic possession was also a very common problem in Jewish society, which is why we read about Jesus casting so many spirits out of people. Ever wonder why so many folks were inhabited by demons? The prevalence of the possession problem reflects how common it was for these people to fuss around with sorcery. The Jews were very superstitious and very fascinated by miracles. But you have to understand how common miracles were for them in order to understand how logical it was for them to see Jesus as yet another demon possessed sorcerer who was trying to pose as a legitimate prophet of Yahweh. This was not an unusual idea. In Acts, we find the apostles running into Jewish false prophets who are performing many miracles and claiming to be fans of Yahweh when they’re really not. So while Jesus’ behavior would be quite shocking in modern America, it wasn’t nearly as shocking in New Testament Israel. What was shocking was the way Jesus was pairing His miracles with a hatred of Israel’s spiritual leaders—that was strange. Since when does some sorcerer care about Yahweh being dishonored in the Temple? Since when do sorcerers give sermons about the importance of submitting to Yahweh? Jesus isn’t fitting the usual sorcerer pattern. He isn’t fawning over His fans. He doesn’t seem pleased by the attention He’s getting. He’s not charging for the miracles He does. What exactly is His angle? This is what Nicodemus is trying to figure out, but Jesus now throws out a weird comment.
Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of Yahweh.” (Jn. 3:3)
To “see the kingdom of Yahweh” is a reference to eternal salvation. But what does Jesus mean?
“But how can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of Yahweh. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (Jn. 3:4-8)
Old Covenant Jews didn’t recognize the Holy Spirit as being the separate, magnificent Being that He is. Instead, they used the term Holy Spirit as an alternate title for Yahweh. So what Jesus is saying is that somehow people have to be born again of Yahweh. And He says that rather than this rebirth having to be some physical process, it’s as mysterious and undetectable to others as the wind. You can’t track who is born of the Spirit and who isn’t. You can’t predict where the Spirit will move next.
So is Jesus putting out some radical new idea here? Not hardly. Under the Old Covenant, salvation was acquired through sincere submission to Yahweh. That submission was supposed to be a life changing event: a major turning point, a permanent change in who you were living for. To become a committed follower of Yahweh was to embrace a new identity—a new purpose in life. Consider how greatly a man changes his life by proposing to a woman and deciding that he is going to really invest in their relationship so that the marriage will thrive. Before he met that woman, he was living for himself and doing what he wanted. Now he’s focusing on his marriage. Then let’s say he becomes a father: now his identity shifts again. Now he’s focused on being a good husband and being a good father. If we could listen to his thoughts, we’d hear him thinking about a lot of things that he never used to think of when he was single and just living for himself.
When we step into big commitments in life, it changes us—at least it’s supposed to change us. But for a phony like Nicodemus, all of his grand talk about being committed to Yahweh was just a bunch of guff. Nicodemus hadn’t been “reborn” because he’d never really submitted to Yahweh. He was just pretending to care about Yahweh. Here in John 3, Jesus is calling Nicodemus out on the man’s total lack of spiritual commitment. He’s saying, “I know you tell yourself that you’re going to Heaven, but you’re delusional. You haven’t really committed to Yahweh. You haven’t let His Spirit change you. You aren’t even saved, Bro, so wake up and stop playing this game of yours before it’s too late.”
So why does Jesus mention water? Well, at this point in time, everyone in Israel knows that John the Baptist is trying to start a spiritual revival in Israel by urging Jews to get serious about submitting to Yahweh. The man spends a lot of time standing in the Jordan River, urging people to come get baptized by him as a ceremonial way of proving how they are starting fresh and fully committing themselves to Yahweh. It didn’t take long for John to start getting a reputation among commoners of being Mr. Holy. And once the people accepted John as a true prophet of Yahweh who really was sold out to God, the Pharisees were looking like heels for not getting baptized. John was promoting water baptism as a sign that one was serious about Yahweh. The Pharisees claimed to be icons of true commitment to God, so how could they justify not getting baptized? To keep up appearances, some Pharisees were getting baptized. Others showed up to try and get baptized, only to have John verbally shred them for being phonies. John didn’t want the Pharisees to turn his baptism into just another meaningless religious ritual. He was trying to do something new—something that the Jewish people would associate with sincere commitment to Yahweh because John understood how spiritually dark his nation was.
Here in John 3, Jesus is probably bringing up water as a reference to John’s activities, and John is using water because Yahweh uses bathing as a symbol of cleansing in some of His Old Covenant Laws. Priests had to ceremonially wash themselves before performing certain duties. Men and women were commanded to bathe themselves to return to a state of ceremonial “cleanliness” after they were made ceremonially “unclean” through certain activities. As a Pharisee who is always trying to show off how righteous he is, Nicodemus would do a lot of bathing in his life, and he’d flaunt that bathing as a means of demonstrating how he was being made clean in the eyes of Yahweh. But was he? No, because just going through ritualistic motions isn’t good enough. As Jesus says in John 3, Nicodemus needs to be born of water and the Spirit of Yahweh. But Yahweh won’t accept a man based on that man’s outward acts—Yahweh judges Nicodemus based on what’s going on in Nicodemus’ soul, not by how clean Nicodemus is on the outside. Right about now Nicodemus is going to be feeling convicted. He knows that Yahweh cares about soul attitudes, but he doesn’t want to admit that he knows this so he plays dumb.
“How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus. (Jn. 3:9)
Nice try, but Jesus isn’t buying it. He now speaks as a member of the camp of true Yahweh followers, while He accuses Nicodemus of being a spiritual rebel.
Jesus said, “You are an important teacher in Israel, and you don’t understand these things? I assure you: We speak what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony.” (Jn. 3:10-11)
Jesus has already alluded to His cousin John the Baptist by bringing up water. Now He’s likely referring to Himself and John when He says “We speak what we know.” Both John and Jesus are preaching that the only souls Yahweh will accept are those who sincerely submit to Him. This is not a popular message in Israel—especially among the self-righteous Pharisees. Jesus now goes on to exalt Himself as being more than just a human.
“If I have told you about things that happen on earth and you don’t believe Me, how will you believe if I tell you about things of Heaven? No one has ascended into Heaven except the One who descended from Heaven: the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:12-15)
The key zinger here is Jesus’ use of the title Son of Man. At this point in history, the title Son of Man makes religious Jews think back to a very startling vision that the prophet Daniel had—one in which Daniel saw the glorious Yahweh giving some mysterious Figure all kinds of power and authority.
And I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days (Yahweh) and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
When Daniel uses the term son of man here, he just means “the mysterious figure looked similar to a human.” But after the Jews had centuries to mull over this strange vision, the title Son of Man stopped being just a way of saying “human”, and it became a specific reference to “that supernatural figure who Yahweh gives a bunch of power to and makes all humans bow down to.” This is a case when historical context makes a big difference, because Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus after the title Son of Man has acquired this new meaning. So when Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man, He’s saying, “Hey, I am the One Daniel saw—I am not just a human.” That is one shocking claim for some nobody from Nazareth to be making. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He also predicts His coming death on a cross, and He claims that He is going to play some vital role in salvation for human beings. Say what??
Way back in Numbers 21, the snarky Jews who were wandering through the wilderness were having yet another gripe fest against Yahweh and Moses.
Then the people spoke against God and Moses, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food!” (Num. 21:5)
The “miserable food” which they loathe so much is the manna which Yahweh is so generously raining down from the sky to feed the little brats every single day. Instead of making them have to grub through the dirt for edible insects, Yahweh is causing sweet tasting flakes to magically fall at their very doorsteps. You’d think they’d appreciate it. But they don’t, because they hate Yahweh. Well, this is one of those moments when Yahweh’s patience with incessant complaining comes to an end. Suddenly poisonous snakes appear out of nowhere and the whole camp is infested. People are getting bitten right and left. There’s screaming, running, and total panic. There’s also major conviction, because the people know they are wrong to gripe against Yahweh.
So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and you. Pray that Yahweh will take away the snakes!” (Num. 21:7)
Rather than just make the snakes vanish, Yahweh makes these people practice submission by obeying some rules. First He orders Moses to make a metal replica of one of the poisonous snakes. Then Moses is told to mount the metal snake onto a tall pole so that people will be able to see it from all over the huge camp. Yahweh says that anyone who looks at the bronze snake after they are bitten will be graciously healed by Him. Today when you see medical companies using a logo of a snake coiled around a stick, they’re getting that imagery from Numbers 21 (see The Fate of the Bronze Snake).
So what does the snake have to do with Christ? Nothing. Yahweh wasn’t really foreshadowing Christ with the snake thing. It was a separate issue. Jesus only refers to it with Nicodemus because it’s a story Nicodemus knows about and Jesus is alluding to His coming crucifixion. Realize that this isn’t the first time Jesus has hinted about His death. In John 2 when He was going ballistic in the Temple, some Jews protested by saying:
“Show us a miracle to prove You have the right to do these things!”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will build it again in three days!” (Jn. 2:18-19)
The Jews wanted a miracle to prove that Jesus had the Authority to declare what the will of God was. Jesus responded by challenging them to kill Him, then saying He would resurrect Himself in three days. He referred to His physical body as His “temple” in order to be intentionally confusing, since people assumed He meant the actual Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem. It’s very early on in Jesus’ public ministry and He’s not going to be very open about His crucifixion until later. But He is already dropping hints which guys like Nicodemus are picking up on and wondering about. Now in this private conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus drops another hint by likening Himself to that bronze snake and saying that He would have to be “lifted up.” These are references to His upcoming crucifixion, but that’s not the only point He’s making. Far more important is the way He’s saying that, like the bronze snake, He’s going to play some kind of critical role in people’s salvation.
Back in Numbers 21, if you didn’t play by Yahweh’s rules by looking at the bronze snake, then you would die from your snake bite. In Daniel 7, the prophet saw all humans being made to serve the Son of Man. Serving is a form of submission—it means you’re taking the orders, not giving them. In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is saying, “I’m the Son of Man—the superior non-human who all of you normal humans are going to have to serve. I’m also like the bronze snake—you’ll have to come to Me before Yahweh will approve of you. I’m like the Gatekeeper of Heaven. You aren’t getting in without My approval.”
These are some very shocking and blasphemous claims for any Jewish man to make. And yet Jesus now goes on to emphasize how much He has Yahweh’s approval.
“Yahweh loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him may not be lost, but have eternal life. Yahweh did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. People who believe in Yahweh’s Son are not judged guilty. But anyone who does not believe has already been judged guilty, because he has not believed in Yahweh’s one and only Son. This, then, is the judgment: The Light has come into the world, but they did not want Light. They wanted darkness, because they were doing evil things. All who do evil hate the Light and will not come to the Light, because it will show all the evil things they do. But those who follow the true way come to the Light, and it shows that the things they do were done through Yahweh.” (Jn. 3:16-21)
According to Jesus, what are people going to be condemned for? Their soul response to Him. But why should any Jew accept Jesus’ wild and very egotistical sounding claims? Because Yahweh sent Jesus. Here’s how it works when you’re a true follower of Yahweh: you’re listening to Him. You care when He convicts you. You sincerely want to please Him. So when Yahweh says to you, “Jesus is My Peer so submit to Him as a second God,” you’re going to accept Jesus.
But here’s how it works when you’re a phony like Nicodemus. You’re just pretending to care about Yahweh, but you really don’t, and that means you’re not listening to Yahweh’s convictions. You don’t care about pleasing Him. So when Yahweh says to you, “Jesus is My Peer so submit to Him as a second God,” you’re going to blow Him off and reject Jesus.
This is why being truly born of the Spirit is such a big deal: because it is true followers of Yahweh who are going to listen when Yahweh starts convicting them to submit to Jesus as the non-human, super powerful God who Jesus claims to be. By the time Jesus is done shocking the Jews, He’ll have claimed to be Yahweh’s Equal—He’ll even have associated Himself with that sacred title of I AM. There’s no way you’re going to be comfortable with Jesus unless you are sincerely seeking Yahweh’s wisdom and really caring about staying in alignment with His will. Is Nicodemus that kind of Jew? Not at the time of John 3, and we know this because of the way he’s pretending not to understand what being “born of the Spirit” means. The idea of being judged by soul attitude is nothing new—Yahweh’s been talking about soul attitudes from the very beginning, and He’s made it quite clear that just going through a bunch of religious rituals isn’t worth anything when you don’t really care about God.
So now that we understand the context of John 3:16, why doesn’t it work as a way of summarizing God’s requirements for salvation today? Well, for starters, this verse only refers to one God, because Jesus was talking to an Old Covenant Jew. Today we understand that there are three real Gods: Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We understand that Jesus is Yahweh’s Peer, not just His Son. To modern people, referring to Jesus as a mere son of God implies Jesus is a lesser Being than Yahweh. Read through the New Testament epistles, and you’ll find that Yahweh is the only God the Jews recognize, while Jesus is being constantly described as Yahweh’s mere subordinate. For the most part, the early apostles viewed Jesus as nothing more than a regular human who Yahweh chose to exalt by selecting Jesus to be the promised Messiah (see How the NT Epistles Define Christ: Not God, Just Another Flawed Human).
It’s because we all hear a lower rank being expressed by the term Son of God that many Christians today are treating Jesus as a lesser Being. Oh sure, we call Him God—but we then go on to say that He’s also “fully man,” which is the same as saying He’s just a created being. We talk about His struggles on earth. We talk about how He had to “learn obedience through suffering.” A true God doesn’t have to “learn” anything. A true God isn’t some nimrod who doesn’t understand what His own will is. A true God doesn’t feel threatened by His own creatures, He isn’t intimidated by Satan, He doesn’t have to conquer death, and He isn’t taxed by the ordeal of crucifixion. Because we’re calling the entire Bible “God breathed” and “inerrant”, we’re recycling all of the Christ bashing rot that is in the New Testament. Then we’re inventing new absurdities like the Trinity theory, and by the time we’re done, no one is treating Jesus like the all-powerful, awesome, uncreated Being that He is. He’s just the Son of the true God. He’s just some human hybrid. He’s just some Helper who sits at the right hand of the true God’s throne, because He’s not important enough to have His own Divine throne. Well, no, all of this is total garbage.
If all you “believe” is that Jesus is some lower ranking, half-human dimwit, then you are not going to get into Heaven. If “God the Father” is the only God you’re really worshiping while Jesus is just a Name you throw around to try and make supernatural beings do what you want, then you’re not really a Christian. If the Holy Spirit is just some atmosphere to you—some Stuntman who you call on to perform tricks for you when you’re in the mood to see “the fire fall,” then you can forget about your dreams of getting into Heaven. There’s only one way to end up on the right side of your Creators in eternity and that is through reverential submission to all three of Them as the Supreme Authorities that They are.
Jesus isn’t just some Jewish guy. He isn’t some special Son. He’s God Almighty. He demands that you submit to Him as God Almighty. He’s not God because Yahweh made Him a God. He’s always been God. He’s not some angel who got a special promotion. He’s not some human who morphed into something else. He’s the same kind of Being as Yahweh and the Holy Spirit: a totally non-human, all-powerful, eternal God. Together They sustain and control all that exists. They are totally devoted to Each Other and so epically satisfied with Their own communion that They could uncreate us all tomorrow and not even blink. So if you think They need you, think again. If you think Jesus is going to cry big tears over the thought of you going to Hell, think again. If you view the cross as some statement that Yahweh and Jesus just can’t stand the thought of being separated from humans, you really need to ask Them to correct your view of that entire event. Yes, your three Creators love you—for now. But They also demand submission from you, and if you refuse to satisfy that demand, They will enjoy damning you to Hell.
You see, the problem with John 3:16 is that it doesn’t begin to tell you the whole story. It makes Yahweh out to be some loving doormat while Jesus is just some nice “Son” who Yahweh was willing to sacrifice to resolve some epic crisis that had somehow sprung up on His watch. By itself, John 3:16 has great potential to lead you astray into all kinds of arrogance. You won’t see the day that Yahweh chucks Jesus aside for you. You won’t see the day that Jesus tries to talk Yahweh into accepting you when Yahweh doesn’t want to. Our Gods work as a unified Team. They are Each Other’s first priorities. If you want to experience how wonderful They can be, then you must treat Them as the Gods that They are, and that means you fully submit to Them and make no demands of Them. If you want to experience how terrifying They can be, then try just “believing” in the fact of Jesus and tell yourself that the cross gives you an excuse to talk down to Jesus like He’s your Servant who must drive demons off and rain down blessings at your command. Try talking to the Holy Spirit like some weather system that you can get to blow, fall, rain, and move whenever you tell Him to. Try manipulating Yahweh with your tithes and phony worship songs and useless fasting. Or try viewing Him like some mean Judge who sweet Jesus has to save you from. Our Gods work as one. You either submit to Them all, or you will be rejected by Them all. There’s really nothing complicated about how we get saved. But by itself, John 3:16 will never get you there.
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Understanding Salvation: How We Find the Real Gods & The Irrelevance of Titles
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Singing Smack to the Holy Spirit: CONSUMING FIRE by Tim Hughes
Worship Song Analysis: IN CHRIST ALONE by the Newsboys
Songs that God Hates: Holy Spirit Come Fill This Place
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