What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14, ESV)
About 20 years ago, I was pastoring a small, older church. In the church, there was an elderly couple, both of whom attended faithfully, but she was a believer and he was not. One evening service, I clearly remember her pleading with him, “Just say it, just say ‘I believe.” In her mind, as in the mind of many Christians that I have met over the years, salvation is merely a profession of faith away.
But is that really all it means to be a Christian? I think most believers would rightly say “no,” but consider the following situation:
A missionary shares a passage of Scripture with a Muslim man. After hearing the passage, the Muslim replies that he now knows that Christianity is true and Islam is false. When the missionary asks if the man will now become a Christian, the Muslim laughs and says “no.” The man explains that any decision of that magnitude would have to be made by the community elders.
The above situation is not hypothetical but was a real story that I read about a missionary in Africa. But the question I would pose is this:
Is this man, who identifies as a Muslim, actually a Christian because he claims to believe the Bible?
Of course not. Yet many Christians continue to teach that if a person will merely intellectually acknowledge certain truths about Jesus (e.g., that Jesus is God’s Son, that He rose from the dead, etc.) then that person is saved.
But here’s the problem: The devil would also affirm all of these facts.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder! (James 2:18–19, ESV)
But what about John 3:16? Doesn’t the verse say that all we have to do is believe in Jesus?
Notice that in this verse Jesus does not say “whoever believes certain facts about Him” shall have eternal life. In fact, in this passage, Nicodemus (the religious leader with whom Jesus was speaking) had already acknowledged that he believed certain things about Jesus.
“This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2, ESV)
Yet Jesus made it clear that this statement alone was not enough to save Nicodemus or the other religious leaders.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19, ESV)
What does it mean to Believe?
Just acknowledging Jesus’ authority was not enough. Jesus said “whoever believes in Him” would not perish. The word “in” (εἰς, “eis” in the Greek) is most often translated “into;” whoever “believes into” Jesus. To understand what Jesus meant by this expression, we should consider how Jesus spoke about being his disciple in other circumstances.
“And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19, ESV)
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24–25, ESV)
“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22, ESV)
In Luke 9, Jesus actually seems to turn people away from following Him because they seem to lack the commitment to follow through.
“As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57–62, ESV)
In fact, Jesus expected that his followers would prioritize Him above every other earthly relationship.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37–39, ESV)
In other words, for Jesus, believing “into” Him meant a complete surrender of one’s life to His control. It meant that Jesus was their Lord and greatest commitment.
Faith is not merely an intellectual acknowledgment of facts about who Jesus is, but a giving of oneself to His control, whatever it costs and wherever it leads. My life is irrevocably tied to His life.
How we share the Gospel
The message of the gospel has not changed. We are sinners, guilty before God, and our sin has separated us from a relationship with God and will eventually condemn us. Because God was unwilling to condemn all mankind, He sent his Son Jesus, fully God and fully man, to pay the penalty of death for all who follow Him through his death on the cross. Jesus verified our salvation and conquered death through His resurrection from the dead.
The question that some may ask is what to tell people about how to respond to this message. I will usually use terminology that reflects saving faith:
- Are you willing to follow Jesus by giving Him control of your life?
- Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and commit to serving Him?
- Have you made a decision to give your life to Jesus Christ?
In presenting the gospel this way, we make it clear what it means to be a Christian and believe in Him. Such a presentation is not overcomplicating the message, rather it returns to Jesus’ simple call, “Follow Me.”
Live for Jesus.