Faith (not Belief) is Saving
"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16 (Revised English Bible)
The text of John 3:16 is known to us all, but probably not in the translation of the Revised English Bible. We are more familiar with the Revised Standard Version: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." In translating this text, the RSV Bible follows the King James Bible and uses the English verb "to believe" to render the Greek verb "pisteuo" for having faith. But the Revised English Bible uses the noun "faith" to translate the Greek noun pistis in John 3:16, because the verb "to believe" is misleading.
More precisely, we may misunderstand John 3:16 if we believe that having certain beliefs about Jesus is what brings one to eternal life. It is not beliefs but faith in Jesus-trusting in him and in the kingdom of God-that is saving. Faith and belief are clearly distinguished in the New Testament. The word "belief" appears only once in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (2 Thessalonians 2:13). The word "faith", however, occurs more than 200 times. Moreover, the gospel of John, which does not contain the Greek noun "faith," uses the Greek verb for faith more than 90 times. In English the verb for faith is "to believe," as faith does not have its own verb. Thus, when we read about "believing" in John's gospel, we may misunderstand this to mean affirming certain beliefs. In Greek, however, the gospel of John is clearly about having faith, not having the "right" beliefs.
Once the English verb "to believe" commonly meant to have faith, to have trust, to entrust oneself. Today, however, it has come to denote having a belief about something. The English translation for the Greek verb for faith is always "believe in," but modern readers do not necessarily distinguish "believing in" from "having a belief." The difference is crucial. A belief is a matter of the mind, whereas faith is an orienting of the whole person in trust. Belief is conceptual; faith is a matter of character.
Beliefs are important, of course, in so far as they turn us to God and our neighbor in faith, hope and love. Many beliefs may do that: "God is love." "There is salvation and eternal life." "Jesus points the way to the kingdom of God." "Faith is saving." "We can trust in God." "Death is not the end of life with God." "God loves us." These beliefs, and others, may well turn and tune our minds to God and thus help us to "follow Jesus" and live "in Christ." But the beliefs do not bring us into the kingdom of God, unless we have faith-unless we trust in God and live out our faith. Faith is not believing certain things but living a certain way.
The gospels make this absolutely clear. Jesus calls his followers to have faith, to trust in the kingdom of God. The first three gospels are filled with the Greek noun for faith, and John's gospel is marked by the use of the verb for faith. Taking the gospels together we see that faith is an action not an idea, that it is an orientation toward life rather than one or more beliefs about life. Similarly, the Acts of the Apostles narrates the preaching of faith in Christ, and to make sure we understand this the Revised English Version at times translates the Greek verb for faith as "trust" (Acts 10:43, 16:31).
We all know that Paul's letters emphasize salvation by grace through faith. We may not, however, have thought of the implications of his argument that Abraham is a model of this faith (Gal. 3:6-9). After all, Abraham did not have all the beliefs we associate with being a Christian. He trusted in God, but clearly he did not believe in a trinitarian God or the incarnation of God in a man from Galilee who had yet to be born. Abraham was saved by faith, we might well conclude, despite his inadequate beliefs. More carefully, we might say that his salvation did not depend on having the beliefs about Jesus that seem to most Christians (especially in our time) to be necessary for salvation.
If Paul were the only one to understand faith as trust rather than as belief, we could perhaps conclude that he was in error. But the Jesus of the gospels has exactly the same understanding of faith. More often than not the persons he points to as having great faith are not Jews, and thus do not embrace the beliefs of Jesus and his disciples. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus explicitly recognizes a Roman centurion (Mt. 8:10, Lu. 7:09), a Canaanite woman (Mt. 15:28), and a Samaritan women (Lu. 17:19) for their faith, but he says nothing about their beliefs nor does he require any specific beliefs of them. They trust in him, and that is all that is necessary.
The disciples, on the other hand, are criticized for their "little faith" (Mt. 8:26, 14:31, 16:08; Mk. 4:40), which is noteworthy because they might well be expected to understand and share the beliefs of their master. But because they fail to trust Jesus, he chastises them for their lack of faith. As for Paul, faith for Jesus is not a matter of having the right beliefs but of following the way into the kingdom of God. Beliefs may point us in the right direction, but they are no guarantee and may even become an impediment to faith-as the history of reformation in the church suggests.
Christians tend to accept that beliefs are not saving, if we are talking about those who have (we believe) the "wrong" beliefs-Jews, or others who are not Christians, or perhaps certain movements or denominations within the Christian church (depending on one's beliefs). But this is to miss the point of the New Testament. The good news is not that certain beliefs are saving and others are not. It is that faith and not belief leads to eternal life. This is the good news that the church is called to share with the world in its worship, teaching and ministry.
The gospel proclamation is that we are saved by faith. It is not that by joining a church we will be saved. It is not that we will find eternal life by embracing the "true" religion. The good news is that those who trust in God, as Jesus did, will be saved. Trusting in Jesus, because he reveals in faith the way to God, is a way of trusting in God and thus is saving. In this sense Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:06). He shows us the way to live together in faith.
There is a grave danger today of misinterpreting the gospel, because in English "believing" is understood generally to mean having certain beliefs. This is why the editors of the Revised English Bible changed the well-known words of John 3:16 and other passages in the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament. The meaning of the Bible in Greek is clear. Entering the kingdom of God is saving, not having certain beliefs about it. Loving God and loving one's neighbor is the way to eternal life, not "believing that" such love is God's will (even though, in faith, we know it is).
The creeds of the church are affirmations of faith and not statements of belief. This is a true reading of the Apostles' Creed, which is the basis for all later creeds. In the original Greek the Apostles' Creed says "I have faith in God . . .." The rest of the Creed summarizes how we know God and have come to faith. The Apostles' Creed does not say (as we tend to think when we recite it in English) that we hold to certain beliefs, which seem to appear in the Creed as a series of propositions. The Creed (in English) says, "I believe in God," which is a translation of the Greek affirmation meaning "I have faith in God." Everything after the word "God" in the Apostles' Creed describes that in which we place our faith-the God in whom we trust.
The Apostles' Creed does not say: "I believe that God is the Father, and the Almighty, and I believe that Jesus Christ is his son . . .," etc. Perhaps we do believe that God is the Father of us all, and that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, and that he will come again to judge the living and the dead. But the Apostles' Creed is not a test of whether or not we assent to these beliefs. It is rather a means of reaffirming our trust in God, whom we know through the Bible and the community of faith inspired by it. The Apostles' Creed (and every creed) should not be used by the church as a way of dividing "believers" and "non-believers," as if agreement with propositions about God and Jesus is saving. Therefore, it would be best if, in English, we began the Apostles' Creed (and other creeds) with the words "I have faith in God" or "I put my trust in God."
The church is called to share the gospel story, to nurture the life of faith that is God's gift of grace to those who accept it in trust. The gospel story points the way to the kingdom of God. We can choose to trust in it, even if we find some of the beliefs extrapolated from it to be unbelievable. Our beliefs about God and the Bible may change (and the beliefs of Christians over the centuries certainly have changed), as our knowledge and conceptualization of the world changes. It may well matter what we believe, and it does matter what beliefs the churches teach. But faith remains the way to eternal life. This is the "good news" of the gospel.
Paul and the Jesus of the gospels reject the belief that keeping the Jewish law is necessary for salvation. Through the witness of the New Testament God asks for more than belief in law, more than belief in good works, more than belief in Jesus as the Son of God, more even then belief in God. It is loving God and our neighbors, in faith, that matters. It is following Jesus, who loved God and his neighbors that matters. Faith, hope and love are possible, the gospel tells us, as gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 13), because God loves us and has forgiven us. Amen.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer