What does it mean to believe in Jesus?

Since I require my Advanced Homiletics students to preach either John 3:1-13 or John 3:14-21 as their third sermon, I’ve heard 7 messages on both passages within the last 2 weeks.

The frequent occurrence of the verb πιστεύω in John 3:1-21 has caused the issue of what it means to believe in Jesus to resurface in my thinking. The key phrases are
• Everyone who believes in him [the Son of Man] (John 13:5)
• Everyone who believes in him [the Son] (John 3:16)
• The one who believes in him [the Son] (John 3:18a)
• The one who does not believe has been condemned (John 3:18b)
• Because he has not believed on the name of the only Son of God (John 3:18c)

Theologically, I know that for faith to be saving faith it must bear the fruit of obedience to Christ (James 2:22-26). There is no Lordless salvation (Matt. 7:21). But “believe on Jesus” seems so cognitive, so cerebral, so non-heartish … it almost seems to lend itself to a religion of the head apart from the heart.

A common answer to my question—you must mentally affirm that Jesus is God’s Son, that he died for your sins, and rose again for your justification, and that He will save you from your sins if you ask him to—has in many parts of Christendom yielded a harvest of orthodox heads and adulterous hearts and lives.

Today I had a breakthrough. Baptism helps explain what it means to believe in Jesus.

Many Christians don’t realize that baptism is not a uniquely Christian rite. In the first century, baptism was a common practice among both Jews and Pagans. It was an initiatory ritual by which one signified one’s commitment to become an adherent to a religious sect. John the Baptist is the prime NT example of this (John 4:1). However, we find descriptions of similar rites from Qumran, in Josephus, and in Greek literature.

When one was baptized in the name of X, the one baptized was announcing his intention to be with and learn from X. In other words, it was common knowledge that getting baptized was a public declaration that you were becoming a disciple of someone or something.

Immediately following the calls to belief in John 3:1-21, John states that “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing” (John 3:22). In other words, people who “believe” in Jesus get baptized in his name, thereby signifying that they are becoming His disciples, apprentices, followers—people who were going to pattern their whole lives after Him and His teaching.

“Believing” is a mental affirmation, but it more than mental affirmation. It means staking my whole life on Jesus’ claim that He is the way to God and there is no other way. It means willingly yoking myself to him so that I can learn how to do life His way (Matt. 11:29). It means decisively abandoning my old way of life and being baptized into apprenticeship to a new way of life—His way.

It means being willing to forsake father, mother, sister, brother, wife, houses, lands, and even my own life, in order to pattern the totality of my existence after Him (Mark 10:28-30). It means believing that Jesus is the Master of every facet of life, so I must be his disciple in every facet of mine.

That’s what it meant to the Philippian jailer when Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). He recognized that belief required baptism in Jesus’ name, and baptism in Jesus' name symbolized his entrance into a brand new life of learning to think and act and react like Jesus.

That is what it means to believe in Jesus.


Randy said…
Thanks for this, Phil. Well said.
I am curious how you might understand this in light of the common view affirming the value of infant baptism, coupled with the idea that grace is conveyed in some way. As you know, Wesley held to infant baptism as a "means of grace" in some sense. I could view it as means of grace in a 'non-mystical' way, but I think the churches [and Wesley] meant more than that.

Any thoughts?

Will said…
Thanks for this, Phil. Not only should we "re-think" what it means to believe but also the weightiness of baptism as the symbolic act of obedience to Christ. I guess I "adhere" to the Reformed psychology of faith as posited by John Murray: intellectual, emotional and volitional (which isn't too far off from what you posted). Thx for your blog. I subscribe to it. Oh! and by the way, ironically, I ordered the Hebrew REader's bible today (before I even saw your post!). Have a good one, brother!
Will Pareja (willpareja [at] gmail.com
Keith Bailey said…
... or perhaps in english the concept of belief is an inadequate representation of the intended meaning of the greek word.

Philip Brown said…
Hi, Will,

Great to hear from you! I hope ARHB will be a blessing and deepen your delight in our Father who reveals Himself there.

Where does Murray discuss his view of the psychology of faith?

Philip Brown said…
Hi, Randy,

I don't currently share either Wesley's or the Reformed's view of infant baptism, nor do I view baptism as a means of grace, except in the sense that all obedience is enabled by grace (Phil. 1:5-7) and positions us to continue to have God working in us both the willing and the doing of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).

Will said…
I believe Murray's article on the psychology of faith is found in his 4 vol, Collection of Writings (Banner of Truth). I don't own the work, but I wrote a sem paper on Faith a few years ago. I can go dig that out and look up the footnote. stay tuned...
Randy said…
Hi again, Phil,
I appreciate your response and though I am very warm to a more 'mystical' view of means of grace with regard to Baptism, I think you statement based in Phil. gives substance to the idea of baptism being a means of grace intrinsically. Be that as it may, I wanted to suggest you follow up with Keith, if you haven't already. He has pondered this for a long time and interaction on the subject with him would be helpful and light-giving, I think.
Philip Brown said…
Thanks for stopping by, Keith. I tried to post a response to you earlier, but it didn't take for some reason.

In essence, I think we're stuck with the word "believe" / "belief" despite their inadequacies. My goal is to explain their biblical implications so that fellow saints appreciate their richness.

I welcome your comments on the topic.

Keith said…
Dear Phil,

Thank you for your posting, your many insights and magnanimous spirit.

And to Randy… there is nothing like a friend who sets you up and then leaves you to fend for yourself :)

The question posed by your posting is without a doubt in my mind “the” question that must be answered in the effort to truly understand the message of Christianity. To hear what Jesus meant by pisteuw is to hear the gospel.

Phil I am a cautious person. I try to be sensitive as well. I know you have experienced a sense of breakthrough by the insight of honing the meaning of “belief” with the inherent implications of baptism. My intentions here are not to diminish the value of your point.

I am very much in sympathy with your concern (Jesus intends more by pisteuw than no-cost, no-consequences mental assent), and I am very much in harmony with your conclusion (what He does intend is to create a relationship which puts Him on the throne of our heart).

My question is: is the baptism connection the only way to get to this conclusion? … is it the best way? … is it the way Jesus had in mind?

What if there is something that is meant by pistis that inherently has the qualities you have described and produces by the very nature of things the type of relationship you’ve outlined.

You noted in your post that you were moved to think along these lines by the frequency of the usage of pisteuw in John 3. Consider for a moment ( which you probably already have) on the wider scale of the whole NT, the combined usage of the noun and verb forms of this concept (pistis/pisteuw). While the numbers themselves don’t prove anything, their relative size is cause for pause … the nature of the usage is cause for undivided attention.

Briefly, without trying to define what Jesus meant by the concept (pistis/pisteuw), let’s consider its use and denote it as “Π”.
1. Jesus makes “Π” toward himself the basis for forgiveness of sins.
2. Jesus makes “Π” the means of accessing the power of God.
3. Jesus makes “Π” the basis for receiving healing.
4. Jesus makes “Π” the means of escaping destruction.
5. Jesus says that “Π” is the work of God for man.
6. Jesus says it is the basis for resurrection from the dead.
7. Jesus says that the withholding of “Π” is a means of protection against false prophets.
8. Jesus makes “Π” the unique identifier in defining our connection to himself.
9. John says that “Π” was the ultimate purpose of the ministry of John the Baptist.
10. John connects “Π” toward the name of Jesus with being given authority to become a son of God.
11. John says that “Π” is the basis for receiving the Holy Spirit.
12. Paul says that Abraham‘s “Π” toward God “was accounted to him for righteousness”.
13. Paul says that our “Π” in Jesus Christ is the means of our justification.
14. Paul redefines sin as “whatsoever is not of “Π”.
15. Peter said that “Π” was the means by which the hearts of the gentiles were cleansed.(Cornelius’ household).
16. Paul quoting the OT says “the just shall live by “Π””.
17. The Hebrew writer says it is impossible to please God without “Π”, and then goes on to characterize most of the most notable holy men from the OT as having accomplished what they did (not by “grace” interestingly enough) but by “Π”.

Any one of these uses is of a type that demands our serious attention. The fact that there are this many weighty issues connected by a common concept boggles the mind ( at least mine).

Phil this is your blog and I’ll stop here.

Do you think there is any chance that this concept “Π” deserves perhaps even a more comprehensive reexamination, or am I just trying to connect dots that are purely coincidental?


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