The New Testament urges us throughout to believe in Jesus Christ. The well-known scripture John 3:16 explains that God loved the world and gave His Son so "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Other passages promise that those who believe in Jesus receive forgiveness of their sins (Acts 10:43) and salvation (Romans 1:16). Believing in Jesus is obviously very important.
In recognition of this instruction, many have been told that all they need to do is believe on Jesus to receive the benefit of all His promised blessings. But what many do not understand is what Jesus and the New Testament writers actually meant by the directive to "believe." The vast majority of those claiming to be Christians today assume that this word simply means to recognize Jesus as Savior.
Many well-intentioned yet mistaken teachers have said that nothing else is required along with belief in Jesus. Their reasoning is that if any works are involved, a person is trying to earn his salvation—something that is impossible to do (Galatians 2:16). Indeed, it is by grace —God's favor toward us, including His gift of undeserved, unearned pardon—that we are saved (2 Timothy 1:9; Ephesians 2:5, 8).
But if no works are involved, does this mean one who believes that God exists and that Jesus is His Son and who is willing to receive all God's promises doesn't need to do anything? Does this mean such an individual can live a life of sexual immorality, lying, stealing, killing—breaking every commandment of God—and still receive eternal life?
Human beings have long wrestled with understanding the relationship between believing in Jesus and good works. Human opinions and interpretations abound. Let's lay these aside and see how Jesus and the writers of the New Testament explain what believing in Jesus means.
Believing means accepting all of Jesus' teaching
After miraculously feeding 5,000 men plus women and children with five loaves of bread and two small fish, the disciples gathered up 12 baskets of leftover food (John 6:5-13). "Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did [the miracle of feeding the multitude], said, 'This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world'" (verse 14)—a reference to a great successor to Moses foretold in Scripture. These men believed that Jesus truly was of God.
After Jesus departed from the scene, many of those who enjoyed the miraculous meal came searching for Him. They wanted Jesus to perform another miracle, saying that this would help them believe Him (verse 30).
Rather than perform another miracle at this time, Jesus taught the people. He explained that, unlike the physical bread the crowd had recently eaten, He was the true bread from heaven who would give eternal life to the world (verses 32-33).
He told them that His followers would need to "eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood" (verse 53)—referring to the symbols of bread and wine in the annual Passover service and internalizing what these meant, affirming their covenant relationship with Him. This would ultimately lead to eternal life (verse 54).
Many of those listening to Jesus, including His own disciples, found this teaching difficult to understand (verse 60). Addressing this large group, Jesus then said, "'But there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him." After this, "many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more" (verses 64, 66).
Though many of these same people had said that they believed Jesus was "the Prophet" whose coming was foretold by Scripture (verse 14), they did not believe what Jesus said. What Jesus meant by believing in Him included believing everything He said. It meant far more than just accepting free gifts He was offering.
Believing means conviction to obey
One of the many traditions of the Jews during the first century was to carefully wash their hands in a special way prior to eating food. Noticing that some of Jesus' disciples had started eating without going through this meticulous ceremony, some of the Pharisees and scribes found fault with them and asked Jesus why His disciples had not carried out this ritual (Mark 7:1-5).
Jesus told them that they were hypocrites for asking such a question, declaring that these words from the Old Testament applied to them: "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (verses 6-7).
Continuing, Jesus said, "'For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do . . . All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition'" (verses 8-9).
Today many who claim to believe in Jesus also follow the commandments of men rather than those of God. For example, instead of assembling to worship God on the biblical weekly Sabbath (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) and annual Holy Days as commanded by God, they worship on Sunday and holidays that originated in pagan religious worship, including Christmas and Easter.
In His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:21-23, emphasis added throughout).
In accepting the correct teaching that we cannot earn our salvation through works, many have naively embraced the incorrect teaching that keeping God's commandments doesn't matter. Jesus' own words clearly show that He expects believers to lay aside the commandments of men and keep the commandments of God—even though this obedience will not earn them salvation.
Believing means resolving to be baptized
A popular notion among some professing Christians is that baptism is unnecessary because all one has to do is accept Jesus in one's heart. In this regard, some note Romans 10:9, which says, "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved."
Again, the issue here is: What does it mean to believe in your heart? And once again, rather than letting others define what constitutes believing, let's note what Jesus said.
In giving instructions to His disciples about the work they would do following His return to heaven, Jesus plainly told them: "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:15-16, New International Version).
Jesus clearly taught that genuine belief in Him would be coupled with baptism. Other passages show us that baptism includes repentance—changing from a sinful lifestyle to one of obedience to God's laws (Matthew 4:17; Acts 2:38).
When we look at Christ's teaching and that of His disciples, it becomes clear that when they said we must believe in Christ, this was with the perspective that believing would include baptism. Baptism is an outward symbol of a person's new life based on turning from breaking God's laws to obeying God's laws.
The notion that one can believe in Jesus without obeying His instructions, keeping the commandments and being baptized is a common but biblically flawed perspective. Jesus addressed this same fallacy during His earthly ministry by asking, "Why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46).
To the contrary, He said, "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples" (John 15:8). Genuine belief in Jesus is not a passive experience. Disciples of Jesus will act on His teaching!
When it comes to deciding what believing in Jesus means, why not believe and act on what Jesus Himself said? GN