“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses in the Bible. It’s written on hand-held signs at sporting events, emblazoned on clothing, and plastered on billboards. And we all assume that we know what this verse means: If you “believe in Jesus,” you’ll be saved.
It seems that the word “believe” is central to being saved, so let’s look more closely. What does “believe” really mean?
Is it giving mental assent, agreeing that Jesus was a real person who lived, died, and was resurrected? It certainly seems as if that’s sufficient; consider Romans 10:9—“If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
But then read Acts 19:15—“One day the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?’” The demons also believe. Does that save them? So there’s more to believing than just agreeing something is true.
Rather, the belief the Bible describes is applied belief. It’s one you put your trust in. I can believe the bridge will hold up my car, but that belief becomes trust when I drive out over the chasm. I can believe that Jesus will save me, but until I turn my life over to Him, I’m not trusting Him to do so.
Belief goes hand in hand with faith. I can remember a time in my life when I had no faith in God. Raised an atheist, I didn’t even consider Him to be real. But then there was the day I conceded that I might be wrong. I didn’t believe, but I was willing to at least examine the topic. I didn’t believe, but I agreed that it might be nice if I could. (I was a single college student and there happened to be a cute boy involved—what can I say?)
Over the course of the next week, I could literally feel God infusing my mind with faith. I couldn’t believe that Jesus was God, but yes, there might be a God. A couple of days later I realized that, what do you know, I could believe that Jesus might be God—but that didn’t mean I wanted to follow Him. Or, maybe I did. At the end of that week I prayed to become a believer, knowing full well that the faith I was exercising had come to me as a gift—one I had to decide to accept. Forty-give years later, I’m so glad I did.
Belief is largely a matter of semantics. I think of faith as the ability to believe. God offers us a chance to know Himself. We believe when we reach out, take that chance, and say yes.