What does it mean to BELIEVE?

(image credit to atacrossroads.net)

(image credit to atacrossroads.net)

Belief is essential to saving, Christian faith. No real debate here amongst Christians. Jesus said, Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mark 16:16). Even more famously, he said that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is all Christianity 101.

Here’s the kicker though – what does it really mean to BELIEVE?

I was reminded while teaching Bible Study this past week as well as while watching the recently released Do You Believe? of how much Christians still really struggle with the nature of belief. This is fairly understandable when you consider how the meaning of the word “believe” has changed drastically over time. (NOTE: for our purposes here today, I’m going to use the words “faith” and “belief” interchangeably.)

The best explanation I think I’ve heard of “religious believing” was given by Diana Butler Bass:

Latin used credo, “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to,” as the word to describe religious “believing,” that is, “faith.” … Thus, in previous centuries, belief had nothing to do with one’s weighing of evidence or intellectual choice. Belief was not a doctrinal test. Instead, belief was more like a marriage vow – “I do” as a pledge of faithfulness and loving service to and with the other. (Christianity After Religion, pg. 117)

According to Bass, if someone wanted to give their intellectual opinion in Latin (the language that shaped Western thought) that person would use the word opinor, not credo. Credo is the word from which we get “credit” and “credibility” which carry the idea of trustworthiness and confidence.

Perhaps it would help to see a definition offered right out of a Greek/English lexicon. Notice the description of pisteuo, the word generally translated into English as “believe.”

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So, from a Scriptural standpoint, it is impossible to believe without having functional trust in something/someone.

By the way, while not all of my readers here are Lutheran, many are. It’s probably of note then that Lutheran theologians have always understood this trust aspect as fundamental to faith too. Johannes Andreas Quenstedt said that there are three material parts of faith: knowledge, assent, and confidence (or trust) (TDP, pars IV, cap. VIII, sect. 1, thes. V, p 282).

To summarize then, someone might know a great deal about Jesus and even intellectually agree with most everything he says, but until they put their functional trust in him, they’re still unbelievers.

Let me give you a little more concrete of an illustration. If I was standing in front of you, next to a chair, would it be proper to say that I “believed” in the chair? Most modern people would say, “Well, yes, of course! You can see it right there. You can touch it.” But that is NOT at all the biblical definition of faith. To believe in that chair, in a biblical sense, would require me to put the full weight of myself and my life down into that chair. Until I do that, I don’t really have faith in the chair. blog - tiny chairGranted, as an average sized man, to sit down into a normal chair doesn’t require much faith. Nonetheless, it still requires some functional faith to place my weight in it, because it requires a belief in things yet unseen – i.e. I need to sit down before I can be certain that it will hold me. However, the less likely things appear according to my sensory perception, the more faith is required. So, for instance, for a 400 lb. man to sit down into one of those adorable preschooler “time out” chairs, now that requires greater belief.

There are all sorts of implications to this understanding of functional trust being an essential component to Christian faith. But, the bottom line is that this definition means we likely have a bunch of people in our society who consider themselves believers but are really what Dinesh D’Souza describes as “practical atheists.” He writes:

“Of course my neighbors do not think of themselves as atheist …. they may even consider themselves Christian, either because they were born that way or because they attend church occasionally. The distinguishing characteristic of these people is that they live as if God did not exist. God makes no difference in their lives.” (What’s So Great About Christianity, pg. 4)

Now, I want to be careful here. I fully recognize that only God can see clearly the line separating believers from unbelievers. We all stand on one side or the other of that line. Only God himself can truly discern the heart and know which side. But, if Jesus is accurate when he says, “By their fruit you will recognize (believers)” (Matt. 7:16, 20) then it’s at least a worthwhile endeavor for me as a Christian to examine where in my life I’m currently placing my functional, practical trust. Does my functional hope for the future rest on my diversified financial portfolio or on God’s promises to provide? Does my functional self-image rest on my perceived goodness relative to those around me or on my status as God’s redeemed child? Does my functional happiness rest in material, earthly comfort or in the affection offered me by the Almighty? Does my functional worthiness rest on how many friends I have, whether or not my parents approve of me, or if someone of the opposite sex finds me attractive or on the fact that the God who created them all accepts me? Yes, I recite the Apostles’ Creed along with many others on Sunday mornings, but where do I functionally find my security and identity, my meaning in life? What or Who do I BELIEVE will really deliver the goods in the end?

What does this mean?

There are a number of massive implications to this concept of functional faith. I’ll just share two.

1) Witness to “Christians.” Since the time of European Christendom, I’m not sure there has ever been a period or place as confused about who the Christians really are. I think, however, that it’s fair to say that a high percentage of people who would categorize themselves as Christian believers probably actually need to be witnessed to. I’m finding that this is particularly difficult for parents to accept when it comes to their grown children. The Christian parents did many things right in the upbringing, but the child is still yet to receive the faith as his/her own. The remedy is considerably more sophisticated than “yeah, they probably need to be in church more.” This is because the problem itself is complicated by the fact that those masquerading as Christians don’t consider themselves as having a belief problem – many categorize themselves as believers because they have intellectually offered their stamp of approval to some doctrine. I’m trying to make the case – that’s still not believing yet.

2) Repent for Lack of Trust. The knowledge, agreement, and trust elements of faith necessarily come in that order. In other words, someone will not believe unless they first have knowledge of the truth (Rom. 10:14). But, it’s possible to receive that knowledge and then reject it’s validity. So the next element is equally important. Not only must one have knowledge of the good news of Jesus, but agree that it is true. Most people in the world have heard the outline of Jesus’ saving work at some point, but the majority have also rejected it. For those who remain…many have heard the truth, believe it to be true, and yet still haven’t allowed the gospel to liberate them into a new life – one that is dictated more by God’s promises than man’s conventional wisdom. This last group is the group that many of us struggle in and has been characteristic of American Christianity for a number of years now. What do we do? We repent. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) How on earth am I ever going to love my enemies instead of seeking vengeance? How can I experience joy and contentment when circumstances look bleak? How do I maintain calm when the storms of life brew? Repent for lack of trust and dive back into God’s promises. Trust.


Telling you to trust more won’t actually convince any of you to trust more. Showing you why you can trust Jesus more, however, will.

Before yelling “action”, every good director has to offer the actors their motivation for behaving the way they do in the scene. So what’s your motivation for trusting God?

When you and I held the fires of hell, the wrath of God’s judgment, up against Jesus, he nailed himself in place so as not to run away. You can trust a man who will not only endure hell for you but who also lives to tell about how even that won’t cause him to leave you (Matt. 28:20). You can trust him more than science, which lacks qualitative heart, and more than your feelings, which lack quantitative accuracy. You can sit the weight of your life down into the arms of a resurrected Savior.