09 – A 17th-century kind of belief

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It’s hard to accept the idea that a believer who quits enduring isn’t a believer any more.

After all, ‘believe’ means “to accept something said or proposed … as true,” according to Chambers 21st Century Dictionary. A person can believe in Christ, and even if he doesn’t live like a Christian ought to, that doesn’t change the fact that he believes, right?  Doesn’t John 3:16 promise that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”? (KJV)

The problem is that ‘believeth’ meant something very different 400 years ago when King James’ scholars were translating the Bible into English. Back then, ‘believe’ didn’t have anything to do with agreeing a statement was true. The word meant “to cherish” or “to hold dear.” It was rooted in a German word that meant “to love.”

More importantly, the meaning of the Greek word those men were translating stood even farther from the idea of 21st-century belief. That word, pisteuo, means “to entrust.”

The problem the translators faced was that pisteuo is a verb. They translated the noun form, pistis, as ‘faith.’ But English didn’t have a verb form of ‘faith’ like Greek did, so they chose the English word that came closest: ‘believe.’

Not a bad choice – for their day. But today “believing” means something far different than the depth of emotion and determination it stirred in 17th-century English souls – and from what it meant to early Christians to “faith” Christ.

When Romans 10:9 (NAS) says “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” it isn’t telling you to agree with a factual assertion about the resurrection. It’s telling you to “faith” God to keep his promise to you, just like he kept it for Jesus when he raised him from the dead. It’s telling you to trust God so much that you take the risk of living life his way, instead of continuing to live the way you are inclined.

Churches – evangelical and otherwise – are full of people who sincerely agree that what the preacher says about Jesus is true, but they aren’t “faithing” Jesus – living their daily lives by the challenges Jesus laid down. In the sanctuary, they may call Jesus “Savior” and “Lord,” but when they step out the door, they go back to living like the rest of the world.

That’s one reason many “Christian” people aren’t any different statistically from the “lost” people around them when it comes to sinful behavior. Their pastors have told them all they have to do to be saved is sincerely agree with a proposition about Jesus.

Jesus has a somewhat different idea: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7:21 NAS)

Going to heaven is connected to doing, not sincerely agreeing.

This isn’t about being saved by works. It’s about the kind of “perfected” faith described in James 2 – a lived-out faith that saves, as opposed to a “dead and useless” faith even demons can have.

Living that kind of faith involves making godly choices, and not just one choice, but a lifetime of choosing God’s way over your own.

It’s not a faith derailed by one or two bad choices, however. James says “we all stumble in many ways.” (3:2) Hebrews 11 cites a long list of decidedly imperfect people who nevertheless “received God’s approval because of their faith.” That kind of faith compels us to “run with endurance” so we receive “the prize at the end of the race.”

And what a prize it is: “If we continue to endure, we shall also rule with him.” (2 Timothy 2:12a TEV) Now that’s salvation!

But the “if” is a big one: “If we continue to endure.”

The “believer” is the one who runs the race of faith with endurance, all the way to the finish line. The one who quits enduring denies Christ – he stops being a believer. For him, there is another “if” – “If we deny him, he also will deny us.” (v.12b)

The reward for enduring in obedience is what every human heart yearns for – and the consequence of disobedience is the most nightmarish of terrors: “All who believe in God’s Son have eternal life. Those who don’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life, but the wrath of God remains upon them.” (John 3:36)

Believers are the ones who endure – finishing the race and receiving the reward – but it requires a 17th-century kind of belief, not the 21st-century kind.

Next installment

Chapter 10
‘Stumble,’ ‘fall,’ and ‘fall away’

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Copyright © 2007, Kainos Press. All rights reserved.

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