Does believing in Jesus get you on the bus to heaven? Or does God require some good work as a demonstration that you really mean it? This question is clouded by the fact that the words we use can mean different things in different contexts, as well as by the simplistic thinking of some who insist on basing their theology on a single verse. Consider this well-known sentiment:
"When Paul and Silas were asked by the Philippian jailer 'what must I do to be saved?' their answer was simple: 'believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved!' So if that's good enough for Paul, it's good enough for me."
Before looking more carefully at Paul's statement, it will help to consider a few things, and in doing so, lay out a model for making sure we do justice to all applicable biblical passages before coming to an answer.
First, let's look at the words that factor into this discussion. There are several biblical texts that speak directly to this issue, and they all use the same word group. The Greek words for believe, belief, and faith are all forms of pistes (belief, faith) or pisteuo (believe). Here are some key texts:
John 2.23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed (episteusan) in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust (episteuen) himself to them, because he knew all people.
Acts 16.31 And they said, “Believe (pisteuson) in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Ephesians 2.8 For by grace you have been saved through faith (pisteos). And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
2 Thessalonians 2.13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief (pistei) in the truth.
What do we learn? Perhaps the most apparent thing is that the "believe, belief" word group don't mean the same things in all these verses. It is very interesting that in John 2:23, 24 the apostle relates that many "believed" in Jesus' name, but Jesus did not "entrust" himself to them. That is, he was not "believing" in them, in their belief. The text goes on to explain that Jesus' knowledge of people was behind this. There is a sense here that their "belief" was something less than saving faith.
We see this same thing later in John 8:30, 31: As he was saying these things, many believed in him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,
What is especially insightful is what happens as Jesus continues to instruct those who had believed him. By the time he finishes, they will be taking up stones to stone him for blasphemy (vs. 59). What hits us in this episode with the crowd is that whatever they were believing about Jesus (vs.30, 31) it was something other than who and what he really was. They had a belief about him that fell short of true saving faith.
On the other hand, both Ephesians 2:8, and 2 Thessalonians 2:13 align with Acts 16:31 in declaring that it is belief or faith that is required for entrance into a saving relationship with Jesus. On the one hand believing proves insufficient, while on the other, it is all that is needed. The only conclusion we can come to is that the Greek word group being used in all these texts has a larger range of meaning than we usually think.
But, the same is true in English! For example, I can say "I believe in God; I believe in fairies; I believe in the Dodgers; I believe in my marriage." In each case, the idea of "belief" is different. The same is true of the Greek word group in the Bible. Merely latching onto one meaning of believe in one passage won't allow us to understand the concept of faith in the New Testament. And, given its vital importance to our understanding of right standing before God, we'd better continue in our study to try and understand it as the biblical writers meant it to be understood.
Second, having looked at the word group, now we need to ask how we are to understand the kind or level of belief that we can rightly say is saving faith. To do this we turn to Paul's writings in Romans where he sheds light on his own understanding of what it means to believe unto salvation.
In Romans 10:13-15 Paul lays it out: "For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?" (emphasis added).
Notice that I have highlighted three words that give us Paul's expanded understanding of saving faith. John Calvin was among the first to see this text in this way, and he assigned some helpful labels that can help us today as well.
First, recognize that Paul is intending to further define what it means to "call on the name of the Lord." And so he works backward from calling, to believing, and ultimately to hearing.
Let's start at what seems to be the first word in the sequence: hear. Calvin assigned the Latin term notica to this first element in the sequence of saving faith. It sounds like our word "notice" and I've found that a helpful word to remember that the first stage of any belief is to "hear" or "notice" some facts, or assertions. Before I can believe something I have to hear it! The first step in faith is to hear the things about Jesus that I will later be asked to believe. This is extremely important, both to us and to Paul's argument here. His goal is to show why Christ-followers need to be involved in sending the message of Christ far and wide. In vs. 17 of this chapter he makes the bold statement that "faith comes by hearing a word about Christ!" The Gospel is God's mechanism for granting repentance and faith, and we must never forget that it is the vehicle on which the Spirit rides into the heart and does his transformational, life-giving work.
The second element in saving faith is believing. First, we hear, and then we believe. Of course, not all who hear continue on to this step. Sadly, many hear the story of Jesus, and perhaps even join a church or Bible Study, but they never give their intellectual assent to what they've heard. This "assent" or "agreement" is what Calvin was thinking of when he used the Latin word assensus to describe this element. After we hear it is necessary to agree, to believe what we have heard is true.
In the case of the crowd in John 2, and 8, they had heard and seen Jesus' words and works. And they had come to agree with them, and also probably had come to believe that he was the Messiah whose arrival they were awaiting. But, there was a fatal flaw in their thinking. What they heard and saw, they also misinterpreted to fit into a view of the Messiah that was not the same as God's. They were looking for a political deliverer. So, their belief wasn't really assent to what Jesus was saying and declaring about the Kingdom of God. This explains why, after hearing and believing their belief was found to be invalid.
But, those who first hear and then believe (agree) what they've heard must go further. But at this point we should ask "why is anything more necessary? If we hear the truth and believe the truth (unlike the crowds of Jesus' day who believed something other than the truth about Jesus), then why is more necessary?"
The simple answer is found in James 2:19: "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!" It may come as a surprise to know that the demons believe the truth about Jesus. In fact, as a great theologian once said "The demons may be the most orthodox theologians ever since they know firsthand the reality of God, his power, and his plan." They know Jesus is God, and they know the plan of redemption expressed in the Gospel perfectly. But their belief, even though accurate, falls short of saving faith. Why?
The answer comes in understanding Paul's third element in saving faith as expressed in Romans 10:13-15. Notice that both hearing and believing are preparatory to calling on the name of the Lord. Here we get to the crux of the issue. Some who believe fail to go the next step. They don't act on their belief in what we would call saving faith, or trust. Remember, Paul started out intent on explaining the statement that "all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved." Whatever call means, it is essential to becoming right with a holy God.
Calvin assigned another Latin label to this third element in saving faith: fiducia. It may remind you of the English word fiduciary, which speaks to trust that is placed in someone. When I was in the banking world, we were told over and over that we had a fiduciary responsibility to take care of people's money that they had entrusted to us. When Paul says we are to call he is talking about acting on our belief by trusting, or better, entrusting our lives to Christ on the basis of the truth we have heard and believed.
Maybe an old illustration will help. I'm not sure this is a true story even though generations of preachers have told it as though it were, but here goes: It seems there was a man who stretched a tight rope across part of Niagra Falls. He preceded to walk across that tight rope and began to draw a crowd. First he walked across with a long balancing pole. Then he pushed a wheelbarrow across, and back. Finally, he put a wine barrel in the wheelbarrow and made the trip across and back. By now the crowd was swelling and cheering him on. He came down from the tight rope and stood up on the barrel to address the crowd. "How many of you, having watched me make several successful trips across and back, think I could put a man in the wheelbarrow and make the trip again safely?" Immediately hundred of hands went up. "So ... who wants to be first?" His question was treated with profound silence.
What this illustrates is mere intellectual belief is not the same as trust. Many believed in his ability, but no one was willing to entrust their life to the man on the basis of what was believed.
So, if we take what we've learned and head back to Acts 16:31, we can see Paul's answer to the Philippian jailer in a different light. And if we look closely, we can see what kind of belief Paul was talking about when he said "believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved."
The key word here is not believe but Lord as defining the position the Philippian jailer was to have in relationship to Jesus. He needed to see him as Lord, as master, as the One in charge of his life, and willingly and joyfully entrust his life to this Lord Jesus. What we find then, is the faith that brings us into right relationship with almighty God is more than intellectual agreement to the facts about Jesus. It includes our heart's willingness to entrust our lives to Jesus on the basis of God's promise to accept and forgive us because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished.
So, how do we answer the question? Is believing in Jesus enough? We've learned that we simply have to define the belief we're talking about. If it is intellectual acceptance of some facts regarding Jesus, then no, for even the demons believe on that level. But if it is the willing entrustment of the life to Jesus on the basis of belief in the message of the Gospel, then yes, that is saving faith.
One further point needs to be made as well. We sometimes think that saving faith originates completely in the human heart and mind. But actually Scripture is clear that is is a "gift of God" according to Ephesians 2:8. It is "not your own doing" Paul goes on to explain there. This means true, saving faith, given by God and exercised by the sinner's heart, will always succeed in securing a place in the family of God, for it is God that has initiated it in the first place. That is the beauty of God's grace, and the very foundation of our confidence that the Gospel we carry will transform the lives of all who believe.