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“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should   but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

*This is a continuation of a earlier post entitled, John 3:16: What Does “Believe” Mean?

In our Life Group we were studying this verse – 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 have 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.

Earlier we had defined “believe in Him” as a surrendered trust in Jesus as our only hope for salvation (eternal life) and a “faith” that suggests following after Christ with a transformed life that includes the desire to be obedient to Him as Lord. In our time together the question was raised: “This verse says that we have everlasting life if we “believe in Him. If so, does it make any difference what we believe as long as who we believe in Jesus?” In other words, is believing in Jesus all there is to saving faith or does what we believe about Him really matter? Or, for clarification: is the most important thing “who” or “what” we believe in? Good question! What do you think?

Karolyn spoke first and quickly said, “You can’t separate the two.” Exactly! History has been filled with those who claim to trust in Christ for salvation (or a form of it) but denied the essence of who He is. Early in the church, the Gnostics come to mind. Today, there many cults, sects, and religions which suggest that faith in Jesus can be central to redemption but cast Him in a lesser light than Scripture itself does. Pluralism does this by saying, Jesus is one way to heaven, but not the only way.” This, of course, discounts Christ’s own claim that He was the only way, truth, and life by which one can know God (John 14:6).

What about believing in a Jesus who wasn’t sinless, really didn’t perform miracles, or was never physically raised from the dead? The latter of these was the constant drumbeat of the early church’s preaching and foundational to true faith. What about a Jesus that wasn’t really God and isn’t the only hope for fallen humanity? Or what about a Messiah who never will return again to rule and reign as He promised?

The core Christian belief is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, sinful humans can be reconciled to God and thereby are offered salvation and the
promise of eternal life. Essential beliefs held by Christ-followers include his divinity, humanity, and earthly life as depicted in Scripture. Adhering to authentic Christian faith requires a belief that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah. As one theologian has said, “The whole of Christian teaching would fall to the ground if it were the case that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were not events in real history, but stories told to illustrate truths which are valid apart from these happenings.” Also, true disciples of Christ believe that Jesus was both human and the Son of God: God in human form—sharing human frailties and temptations but never acting on them, only seeking to do the will of His father in heaven, never once seeking to make Himself happy in any way but willfully submitting to God as a man, never doing what He wanted to do but what He saw His Father in heaven doing.

Beyond this, believing in Jesus means that He, as God, spoke for God. He was both the message and messenger of the way God expects us to live. The Sermon on the Mount is but one example that Jesus claimed His teachings had the very authority of God. What we believe is that His words are truth and life: “…If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

So, just as Karolyn said (and the group concurred), the answer to the question, “who or what?” is, “Yes!” To “believe in Him” is part and parcel of trusting in what the Word of God reveals about Him. “Who” we believe in and “what” we believe about Him are two sides of the same coin. To believe the “what” of Jesus to be something other than what Scripture reveals and He claimed to be is, in essence, a failure to “believe in Him” with the kind of faith that, as Jesus said, allows us to “not perish but have eternal life.”

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“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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