“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).

In our Life Group we were studying this passage – probably the best known in all of Scripture. The study breaks down this verse by its critical components: God loved, God gave, we believe, and we live. If this sounds familiar, it is based upon Max Lucado’s 3:16: Numbers of Hope guide. Although admittedly not a huge Lucado fan, the lessons stimulated some lively discussion. And rightly so: this verse is pregnant with meaning often overlooked because we are so familiar with it. The 4th session turned to the word “believe” found in this powerful text.

What doe the word “believe” here mean? Unfortunately, there are masses that simplistically interpret this word as a mere acknowledgement of Jesus, that the phrase “believe in Him” suggests mere intellectual assent and nothing more. But the Greek word used here, and is often translated “faith” in many biblical texts, is much richer than that. Here are a couple of examples of the depth of the word pisteuo:

“To be persuaded, therefore to place one’s confidence and trust, signifies reliance upon and not mere credence” – Vine’s Dictionary.

Lexicographer J. H. Thayer, an authority on the Greek New Testament, defines pisteuo as being, “used especially of the faith by which a man embraces Jesus, i.e. a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah – the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ” (Greek-English Lexicon, T. & T. Clark, 1958, p. 511).

The point of our discussion was that a misunderstanding of what “believe” means is dangerous in our efforts to evangelize, employing the full truth of the Gospel, and detrimental to our walk with God. The word “believe” here clearly indicates something more potent than “head knowledge.” The faith that saves is one of not only placing our hope in Christ alone for our redemption but also one that bows to His lordship. It is dynamic, transformational, and dependant upon Him for our salvation and our sanctification. It is a trust that produces a desire to be obedient to Christ and is compelled by a holistic surrender to who He is and all that entails. The “believe in Him” of John 3:16 changes our hearts because He has changed our minds (repented) about who and what He is. Romans 10:8-10 clarifies this: “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that we are saved based on anything beyond faith. But saving faith changes us. This type of belief is the kind of trust and surrender that inherently alters who we are. Why? Because this faith is the conduit that accesses God’s grace, produces redemption, unites us with Christ, summons the indwelling presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit, and secures our eternal destiny. This faith is a gift from God that triggers all of the promise and provision of God that is found “in Him [Christ].” As Paul shared in Romans: “…Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as  righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” (4:3-5). And this is so that God, and God alone, gets the glory for this miracle of new birth and everlasting life that “believe in Him” secures.

Although this righteousness (salvation) is a gift (just like faith itself is a gift, as you will see in the next  scripture passage quoted), it is a gift that radically alters those who experience it. It is a heart makeover that redirects every aspect of our being. This is aptly tied together by Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,not a result of works,so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:8-10).

So, is this the kind of belief that we possess? Is this the kind of belief that we proclaim as the true gospel? Or have we, in our personal lives or our proclamation of the message of eternal life, watered down “belief” into some kind of clinical acknowledgment of God that doesn’t necessarily change us from the inside out? It’s worth pondering – eternal destinies hang in the balance.

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