When Jesus said, "Believe in me," did he mean "believe in me" or did he mean "believe in me"?

There is a subtle difference, but it is, in my opinion, what separates the three main strands of Christianity.

Jesus could have been saying, "Believe that I exist," or he could have been saying, "Believe that I will not lead you astray." Evangelicals define "belief" as the former and devote their lives to getting people to believe that Christ exists and is the Son of God. Catholics define "belief" as the latter and although they believe in the existence of Christ and that he is the Son of God they place the following of Christ's commandments above all else. Liberals may believe in the existence of Jesus and that he is the Son of God, but their belief in Jesus as a reliable paradigm of how they should live their lives is not dependant on his reality or divinity.

So when a Christian says to other Christians, "We all believe in Jesus Christ, don't we?" the answer he receives will be most likely, "Yes." But the chances are that such a response contains at least three different interpretations of the word "believe." This is fine when Christians are just trying to exist in the same organisation as each other, but it is extremely problematical when Christians try to work together, especially when it comes to mission. This is because the objectives of the participants will be completely different.


WHAT IS BELIEF? — 11 Comments

  1. The word we translate as ‘believe’ is most commonly ‘pisteo’ –which is better translated as ‘trust’ –so, one shouldn’t ‘believe in’ Jesus, but trust Jesus…

    When I was a kid, we were taught to believe in Santa Claus, and were told when we reached a certain age, that if we stopped believing in Santa Claus we wouldn’t get presents from him. For most folks, I have no doubt that is what belief in Jesus is really like….

  2. Sorry, but that’s totally false. Evangelicals could more justly be caricatured as people who are always going on ‘about having a personal relationship withJesus’. The idea that we are characterized by simply trying to persuade people that Jesus exists is ridiculous. In fact, if any strand of the church believes that, it’s traditional prayer book people, as witnessed by the fact that when the old catechism talks about belief, it jumps straight to the creed.

  3. Or there’s a universalist interpretation (Full-disclosure, mine): “Believe in me” means “Live in me”. It’s an invitation, but also a description (paradox!).

  4. Evangelicals could justly be caricatured as people who are always going on ‘about having a personal relationship with Jesus’. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about different understandings of Christ’s instruction to “believe in him” and how these different interpretations result in different primary concerns across the churchmanship of the churches. I’ve had enough arguments with evangelicals in my life about the Letter of James to know that I’m right. Hopefully, the reason you disagree with me is because after six years we are finally leading you away from heresy and converting you to the true faith.

  5. Well, I’m glad you think you know more about evangelicals than we do ourselves, but I’ve been listening to sermons about how head knowledge is not enough – heart knowledge is needed too – since I was a lad, and they were all from evangelical pulpits.

  6. I’m not talking about knowledge. I’m talking about the definition of the word belief.

    I probably do know more about evangelicals than you do, Tim. I’ve spent a lot of time with them and I’m not one. My wife says she knows more about me than I do and she’s probably right.

  7. P.s. your main point is well taken though, Jonathan. But don’t get big headed about my conversion to obedience to Jesus’ commandments – it’s the Anabaptists who are to blame for that!

    Seriously, though, I suspect we’re all selective literalists when it comes to obedience to Jesus.

  8. I’m not for a moment suggesting that evangelicals are less obedient to the commandments of Christ than anybody else. I’m certainly not suggesting that catholics and liberals are any better at it than evangelicals. I’m saying that we understand the word “believe” differently and that this makes us emphasise different primary concerns when it comes to mission. We all talk the talk better than we walk the walk.

  9. But the homophobe will have had to have spent a lot of time getting to know gay people very well (living and studying with them for three years would be a good start), before he could say anything valid about them. Asking a lesbian about gay men might result in some interesting insights that a gay man would never tell you.

  10. Jonathan, re. your main point, I do see where you’re coming from with it (belief as obedience contrasted with belief as cognitive assent) but I still think you’re not quite right. Remember that evangelicals tend to see justification by faith as the theological centre of Christianity. In other words, when we say ‘I believe in Jesus’, what we tend to mean is ‘I have faith in Jesus’, in the sense of trusting Chirst to bring us forgiveness,and salvation by his grace, ‘not by works lest anyone should boast’. I do think you’re right in putting your finger on the theological weakness of a suspicion of obedience (we tend to think of it as ‘salvation by works’, and the Anabaptists have convinced me that we’re quite wrong here). But I don’t think our characteristic misunderstanding is ‘belief as intellectual assent’, as you suggest. I think it’s ‘belief as trust’, in a relational sense. After all, some of the greatest 20th century books trying to persuade people of the truth of Christianity in an intellectual sense were not written by evangelicals but by RCs (G.K. Chesterton, Frank Sheed) and Catholic-minded Anglicans like C.S. Lewis.