What Does It Mean to Believe?

In response to last week’s blog, there was some activity as to what it means to “believe.” This is the really crucial question. I am starting to see more of a connection between the first part of John 3 (“enter the kingdom,” “born again”) and the latter part (“believe”). But while I am thinking about this, let me give you an answer to the question of what it means to believe.

Being a follower of Jesus is not about believing certain facts about God, like the fact that he exists. This is called “theism,” believing that there is a god, any god. Who are some of the greatest theists in the Bible, those with clear insight into who Jesus is? The demons! They see Jesus coming and cry out, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Luke 4:34). But they are not followers of Jesus.

Being a follower of Jesus is not merely a matter of saying that you are. My wife was chatting with a person on the plane once, and she asked him if he had any spiritual beliefs—her normal way to move a conversation to things that matter. Eventually she asked if he was a Christian. His answer was stunning, and sad. “Well, I celebrate Christmas, so I guess I am a Christian” was his reply, and the beginning of a good dialogue as to what a follower of Christ truly is.

While being a follower of Jesus does involve believing certain facts, it is primarily about being a follower of Jesus; a “Christian” is someone who walks in relationship with Jesus. It is about being a friend of God. It is about people walking in the Garden with God. God gave his Son so that if people would believe in him, in Jesus, they would be saved from the consequences of their separation and brought into fellowship with himself.

Biblical belief means that you no longer believe or trust in yourself but rather have moved that trust out of yourself and “into” Jesus. Biblical belief is leaving self-sufficiency behind and embracing Christ-sufficiency. Biblical belief is throwing yourself into the merciful arms of Jesus, believing that he will catch you. Biblical belief is trusting him for everything: forgiveness, salvation, life.

To state it more theologically, biblical belief is believing that Jesus is who says he is, and that he will do what he said he will do. It is to believe that he does for you what you could not do for yourself. What did he do? He provided the means by which our sins could be forgiven and we could be brought into fellowship with God. God’s love and Jesus’ death built the gate at the cross so that by faith the door could swing open and we could walk through.

But the Bible doesn’t just say “believe in,” it says “believe into.” The New Testament was originally written in the Greek language, and one of the frustrating parts in being a translator is that certain things simply cannot be restated in English. This is one of those passages.

John wants to make a point, and to do so he breaks Greek grammar. And he doesn’t just kind of break grammar; he makes a horrible “blunder” that is so bad we have no record of anyone else in all Greek literature making the same blunder. Of course, he is doing it intentionally to make a point. John doesn’t say we should respond by “believing in” but rather “believe into.” It is the “into” with the verb “believe” that is such bad Greek grammar.

Saving faith is a trusting in the person and work of Jesus (who he is and what he has done) such that we move our self-reliant trust out of ourselves, flinging ourselves into the merciful arms of God, believing and trusting that he will catch us, care for us, provide for us, protect us, and eventually bring us home to live with him forever.

So what do you think? How is this as an explanation of “believe”?

6 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Believe?

  1. Hello Bill,
    Appreciated your thoughts about “believing”. Just an observation about this: “Being a follower of Jesus is not about believing certain facts about God, like the fact that he exists.” Well, I think Heb. 11:6 might have something to add to your discussion: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” So I’d say it IS important at the point where one becomes a true follower. He must believe that God exists. Does that add something to your discussion?

    1. I think it adds the good note that conversion does require an element of factual knowledge. Thanks.

  2. I don’t have any Greek to speak of, but the thought occurs that in English, ‘believe’ is either ‘believe in’ or ‘believe that’, the latter concerning a matter of fact … “I believe that this stone is malachite”, and the former a friendly wish with no actual content or intention … “you’re down now, but I believe in you!” The intransitive ‘believe’ is strictly a religious usage, as far as I know, and seems to me a pleading from ignorance, a self-satire.

    In another part of the forest a debate rages about the compatibility of science and religion.I have thought that there is something radically wrong with the question, which seems to have to do with ‘believe that’. Your comment about ‘believe into’ points out that ‘believe that’ is essentially static, as the scientific view is static, whereas the Christian notion is certainly not, isn’t it? A matter of understanding and commitment, rather than a pseudo-epistemic statement about the precise nature of the Unknowable. Which perhaps ‘believe into’ moves towards capturing.

    Anyway, doesn’t anybody have the courage of their Greek to translate as ‘believe into’??? Let an unusual Greek construction move into an unusual English construction. Seems to me.

  3. I think this is an excellent explanation of what it means to believe as a follower of Jesus. If we are truly a follower of Jesus then there’s no doubt that we believe in the existance of God. However, not everyone who “believes in” God is a folllower of Jesus.

    I think one good way to explain this is to turn it around…. I “believe in” the fact that Satan exists, but I am definitely NOT a follower of Satan. We have to put the word “believe” into the proper context. We’ve come to equate the term “believe in” with “have faith in” which is not quite right. It’s not the fact that we believe in Christ, it’s what we believe in Christ.

  4. Hey Bill,

    From your post about the minimum it takes to be a Christian, I was thinking along the lines of simply knowing Jesus. This discussion is quite similar to what I had in mind, in regards to different levels of knowledge, as you’ve specified different levels of belief. Anyone can have factual knowledge about Jesus without giving them weight, or trusting in them so that they enter into a relationship with him. Relational, and even transformational knowledge can only be had by the one who trusts in(to) Jesus.

  5. The advantage of this approach is the verse, I think it is John 17:3, where to know Jesus is to have eternal life. “Know” and “believe” have an obvious overlap.

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