What Does it Mean to ‘Believe’?

John 3:16 is a magnificent and classic passage dealing with God’s grace and man’s salvation: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”Unfortunately, the meaning of this passage is often taken from its context and used to advance the idea of salvation by faith alone. This is because men often misunderstand the original meaning of the word “believe” in John 3:16. Is Jesus telling us that we can be Christians merely by trusting Him as our personal Lord and Savior, or is there something more involved in His use of the word, “believe”?

Evidence from the passage itself — As we read John 3:1-21, it becomes readily apparent that John 3:16 is not all Jesus had to say concerning salvation. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came by night to discuss the coming kingdom with Jesus (v.1-4), and Jesus explicitly tells Nicodemus that he must be, “born of water and the Spirit” (v.5) in order to enter the kingdom! Later in the conversation, Jesus alludes to an Old Testament story to illustrate His point: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). What is to be made of this statement? The careful student of Scripture ought to take note how the Israelites were saved in Numbers 21:4-9 (the passage to which Jesus is referring). When God sent fiery serpents among the people, many were dying because of the bites they received. God told Moses to create a bronze serpent and put it on a pole: “and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8; emp. added). No one was saved by merely acknowledging God’s power to cure, rather, the person who trusted and obeyed the Lord’s command lived (cf. Numbers 21:9)! Friends, this is the context in which Jesus uses the word, “believe” in John 3:16. It took more than mental acknowledgement and acceptance to save the Israelites in the wilderness, and it will take more than that to save us today. Salvation by “faith alone” is nowhere taught in Scripture, especially not in John 3:16! The word, “believe” in John 3:16 must be understood in light of what Jesus has already told Nicodemus about salvation — Biblical faith involves both trust and obedience.

Evidence from the Greek language — The word “believe” in John 3:16 is a translation of a form of the Greek word pisteuo. Lexicographer J. H. Thayer, an authority on the Greek New Testament, defines pisteuo as being, “used especially of the faith by which a man embraces Jesus, i.e. a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah – the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ” (Greek-English Lexicon, T. & T. Clark, 1958, p. 511; emp. added). Thus, the word “believe” in the New Testament always carries with it the idea of obedience, not just mental affirmation. There is more to salvation than merely trusting Jesus as the Messiah! We must also be willing to obey His command to, “be born of water and the Spirit” to enter the kingdom of God (cf. John 3:5).                                                                                                                         — John Baker