The only book of the Bible that has the specific and stated purpose of preaching the message of eternal life is the Gospel of John. He himself tells us:
Now Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these were written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and, that, by believing, you may have life in his name.JOHN 20: 30-31
John repeatedly reiterates the only condition to obtain eternal life: to believe in the One whom God has sent (cf. Jn 6:29). In fact, the Greek verb pisteou (to believe) appears 98 times in the Gospel according to John , almost a third of all biblical occurrences.
In the first letter of John the verb appears 7 more times, and the noun also appears once, in one of the most beautiful verses of the epistle:
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.1 JOHN 5: 4
The emphasis on doing
The following sentences, many of which you have surely heard, give us an example of how the church today is focused on doing:
You will have eternal life if …
- … Give your life to Christ
- … You have a relationship with Jesus
- … (Take up your cross and) follow Jesus
- … Commit your life to Jesus
- … Make a choice for Jesus
- … Become disciples of Jesus
- … Accept Jesus
- … Receive Jesus in your heart
- … You have been invested in power by the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues
What do they have in common?
- None resemble John’s message.
- None talks about believing , but about doing or feeling
- All imply that belief is not enough , implying — intentionally or unintentionally — a salvation by works
For example, just a few days ago I heard the phrase: “you will not go to heaven by following the Law, but by following a person: Jesus”. Though uttered with the best of intentions, the emphasis is once again on doing and not believing .
False assurance and false “tests”
Many say that if you do not persevere and progressively sanctify yourself , you have not truly believed (typical is the out-of-context use of Matthew 24:13, where enduring to the end guarantees escape alive from the tribulation). Others believe that failure to persevere indicates a loss of eternal life. Still others believe that “a visible transformation” or “a concrete commitment” must necessarily follow, otherwise one has never really believed (similar to the first group). Some others teach that one must have a spiritual experience, such as the Pentecostal view of the gift of tongues, to be “true believers.”
One could continue with similar examples, but the concept is clear: belief is not enough for any of these groups.
Systematically, when saying these things, I am accused of offering people a licence to sin. I welcome this accusation, which comes to those who preach the same message of justification by faith alone that Paul preached (Ro 6: 1-2). As Michael Eaton says
When you preach the gospel properly you are likely to be misunderstood. Someone is likely to say, “You are preaching grace too much. You are preaching that we can just sin.” […] If you are preaching what Jesus and Paul preached, you will get misunderstood in the same way.(MICHAEL EATON, LIVING UNDER GRACE, P. 17)
The fact that Paul receives this objection shows that the apostle preached a message that left open the possibility of carnal believers (1 Co 3: 1-2) who, never maturing, are virtually indistinguishable from unbelievers. But the fact that there is this possibility does not mean that Paul was teaching people to continue in sin! Far from it. But Paul (as well as others) never uses a believer’s perseverance in sin as proof of his alleged non-genuine faith.
Therefore, I do not mean at all that we should not try to imitate our Master, far from it. But you have to discern the context correctly and understand that “following Jesus” is not how you get the gift of eternal life. Following Jesus is what makes us disciples , not what makes us believers.
But the real question is: shouldn’t we also imitate Jesus in his preaching? And imitate Paul too, as he imitated Christ (1 Co 11: 1)? And what did they say?
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; On the other hand, those who refuse to believe in the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.JESUS (IN JOHN 3:36)
The jailer, asked for a light, jumped inside and, trembling, threw himself at the feet of Paul and Silas; then he led them out and said, “Gentlemen, what must I do to be saved ?” And they said, ” Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you and your family will be saved.”PAUL (IN ACTS 16: 29-31)
That said, two questions remain for us to discuss; one legitimate, the other not.
Legitimate question: what is one to believe?
Since believing is the only condition for obtaining eternal life, it is legitimate to ask what to believe. According to John, for “you to have life in his name” you must believe that ” Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God ” (Jn 20:31). This is not an isolated statement; for example, John reiterates this in his first epistle:
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.1 JOHN 5: 1
Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?1 JOHN 5:5
This would be sufficient as an answer, were it not for the fact that John wrote about 2,000 years ago, meaning very specific things that his audience had no difficulty in understanding, but which could leave us a little perplexed: is it too simple to say just “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”? No.
The things that John’s audience had no difficulty in understanding from that simple statement are the same things that John wrote in his Gospel, “that you may believe” (Jn 20:30). Therefore, believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, means believing the things that John presents to us in the first book of him. And thank God, such things can be summed up in two categories , which John himself provides us:
He is the true God and eternal life .1 JOHN 5:20
Jesus is the Son of God: he is divine. Jesus is the Christ: he gives eternal life. To corroborate this, the conversation with Martha comes into play. Jesus said to her:
“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, he will live; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? “JOHN 11: 25-26
What did Martha say to Jesus?
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ , the Son of God who was to come into the world”JOHN 11:27
Note that Martha did not simply answer “Yes, I believe it”, but “Yes, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,” clearly equating what Jesus had just said about himself with the fact that He was the Christ and the Son of God. Note that in this exchange Jesus emphasizes only the fact that he is the resurrection and the life, not his divinity. Yet Martha’s answer makes us understand how the two are inextricable for a believing Jew of the first century.
For Martha, as well as for John, the fact that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God was equivalent to the fact that He was the True God and that in Him — and in Him alone — is found Life and Resurrection.
But why was it so clear to them? Have we not been told that the Jews of the time had a distorted view of the Messiah? Of course, those who ended up rejecting the Messiahship of Jesus certainly had a distorted view of the Messiah, having in mind only a Mashiach ben David (Messiah son of David) without the corresponding Mashiach ben Yosef (Messiah son of Joseph). But those who believed clearly had a correct idea of the Messiah; the sheep that the Father had given to the Son (Jn 10:29) believed in Jesus because they had already believed in the Father, or the Scriptures, and not the religious leaders.*
That the Messiah was the one who would give them resurrection and life was clear from Isaiah 53 (cf. Is 53: 11-12). And that the Messiah was Divine was evident from innumerable passages (e.g., Zc 12:10).
This is why John opens his Gospel with the famous prologue which openly and clearly declares that Jesus is God in the flesh. The rest of his Gospel cannot be read except in the light of the prologue (which is why sectarians such as Jehovah’s Witnesses alter the first verses of this book), and therefore we see Jesus repeatedly described as the author of the resurrection and of life, roles reserved for the living God.
This is why John continually emphasizes that to have eternal life one simply has to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Paul does the same when he says “believe in the Lord Jesus” to be saved.
It is wrong, whatever the reason, to change this message into something that involves doing and not believing.
Illegitimate question: what does it mean to believe?
This is the illegitimate question; let’s see why.
First of all, I want to clarify that asking “what it means to believe” is not the same as asking “what John meant when he said he believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”. Why? Because the texts must be analyzed in their Sitz im Leben , or in the light of the original historical-cultural context. And John used clear words in his time. Not only that, but his texts alone explain what he meant.
In light of this, let’s talk about the verb translated “to believe”. This is still clear today, which is why it is always translated that way. The Strong Concordance clearly tells us that pisteuó means ‘to believe, to trust, to affirm, to be persuaded, to entrust’. This is also confirmed by the BDAG dictionary .
Yet, too many times I have heard pastors ask themselves rhetorically from the pulpit “but what does it mean to believe?” and then go on to explain that it means something “more” than believing (and obviously, this “more” implies, in one way or another, doing ).
One of the problems with asking what “believe” really means is that the question takes us into Gnostic territory . When one wonders if there is something more behind the clear meaning of a word, then, like the Gnostics, one believes that the true meaning of something is hidden (and usually reserved for a select few).
In the case of the Bible in general, this attitude directly attacks the just and equitable character of God, who intends to “give mercy to all” (Ro 11:32). And in the specific case of the Gospel of Eternal Life, the Gnostic investigation directly undermines the sola fide : once again, the attack is on the sufficiency of faith to obtain the grace of eternal life. Once again, people who are rhetorically asking this question from the pulpit are declaring to their audience that “believing” is not enough.
*For reasons of time and space, I will not go into detail, but the Dead Sea Scrolls and the various commentaries found among them confirm that the expectation of the believers of the time was that of a Divine Messiah and Redeemer.