Who Is It That Really Believes?

by Bob Bradley

Texts: John 5: 24; John 6: 53, 54; John 15: 10; I John 2: 4; Ephesians 2: 8-10

One of America’s best-known Christian thinkers is Dallas Willard, a Baptist minister and a professor of philosophy at USC. Dr. Willard has said that one of the greatest mission fields in America consists of the millions of unconverted people sitting in church pews every week. These people have “mental faith.” They believe in the doctrine that Christ died for their sins. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God. For the most part, they consider themselves to be “born again.” Their behavior, however, belies their profession. They find it difficult to consistently attend a 60-minute Sunday service. When on the job, their language and behavior does not set them apart as followers of Jesus. They regularly employ anger, abusive language, and manipulation to get their way when at home with their families. They give sparingly to the Lord’s work. Their chief preoccupation is “getting ahead,” establishing their financial security, and doing the things that our materialistic culture says are important.

If you look for signs that such “professors” of religion are even in some small way living as disciples of Jesus, you will look hard and long for the thinnest of evidence. There seems to be an almost total disconnect between belief and behavior in the lives of these millions of churchgoers. In spelling out the problem, my heart does not judge these people. Their condition in large part reflects the weakness of the preaching and the spiritual leadership to which they have been exposed. I am also acutely aware that if God had not dramatically intervened in my life with sharp correction, I would be a prime example of someone full of doctrine but with an almost total lack of submission to His commandments.

One of our country’s most influential and thoughtful pastors is John Piper. He has recently written a book entitled Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Hedonism is an ancient Greek term for the pursuit of pleasure. In identifying himself as a Christian Hedonist, Piper is not saying that we should pursue the pleasures of the flesh and mind: eating, drinking, experiencing sex, listening to music, developing our mental capacity and our talents, etc. No, he is saying that there is an entirely different kind of pleasure that one obtains in worshipping God and tangibly doing His will. As a Calvinist, Piper quotes the Westminster Confession, which states that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” The Biblical foundation of this concept of “enjoying God” is found in such verses as Psalm 37: 4 (“delight yourself also in the Lord”) and Psalm 16: 11 (“In your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore”).

Piper alludes to a famous paragraph from C. S. Lewis:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

And we must understand that God is not calling us to a life of constant deprivation so that we can “earn” the rewards of heaven. Rather, God is calling us to a life in which the pleasures of our physical and mental existence are subordinated to the values of the kingdom of God. Jesus made this very clear in Mark 10: 29, 30-- “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for my sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time--houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life.” So the issue is not one of “giving it all up now, so that we can get more later,” but rather the issue is one of priorities. Are we willing to put our legitimate pleasures and priorities at risk so that we can follow Jesus and do His will?

John Piper goes on to argue that true conversion, that is, a genuine “new birth” experience, leads the new believer into Christian Hedonism. I know, this sounds a bit strange. But I can assure you that John Piper has his theology straight. Let’s let him defend himself:

Someone may ask, if your aim is conversion, why don’t you use the straightforward Biblical command, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’? Why bring in this new terminology of Christian Hedonism?’ My answer has two parts. First, we are surrounded by unconverted people who think they do believe in Jesus. Drunks on the street say they believe. Unmarried couples sleeping together say they believe. Elderly people who haven’t sought worship or fellowship for forty years say they believe. All kinds of lukewarm, world-loving church attenders say they believe. The world abounds with millions of unconverted people who say they believe in Jesus. It does no good to tell these people to believe in the Lord Jesus. The phrase is empty. My responsibility as a preacher of the gospel and a teacher in the church is not to preserve and repeat cherished biblical sentences, but to pierce the heart with biblical truth

This leads to the second part of my answer. There are other straightforward biblical commands besides ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’….Could it be that today the most straightforward biblical command for conversion (at least in America) is not ‘Believe in the Lord’ but ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’? (Desiring God, Revised and Expanded, Multnomah, 2003).

While I appreciate John Piper’s creativity and I believe I understand what he is trying to say, I prefer to use another emphasis. We simply need to add some definition to what we mean by “believe.”

The Apostle John could be called “the apostle of belief.” If I counted correctly, the word “believe” occurs 58 times in the Gospel of John. However, some form of the word “command” also occurs 13 times in John. And the two terms are closely related in context. Let me show you how they are connected. In John 5:24 Jesus says that “he who hears my word and believes in Him who sent me has everlasting life.” In John 6:53 Jesus says “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” Clearly, God’s word does not contradict itself, so we conclude that the belief that secures eternal life involves eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood. John defines what he means in verse 56, where he equates eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood with “abiding.” And then in John 15: 10 Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments you will abide in My love,” so that John has linked a chain together that goes like this: believing involves eating and drinking, which is equated to abiding--and the condition of abiding is keeping His commandments. And lest we should tend to minimize these linkages because John is the disciple of reflection and devotion (as opposed to Paul’s “objective analysis” of faith), John repeats this linkage of true belief with keeping Jesus’ commandments in I John. Let’s look at I John 2: 4-- “He who says ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in Him.”

John is simply telling us that “believing” in Jesus involves a personal attachment to Him, in addition to believing certain things about Him (for instance, that He is the Son of God). This attachment results in our keeping His commandments. I have to be quick to point out that we cannot keep His commandments and experience this personal attachment to Him until we have acknowledged our sinfulness and have come to Him in childlike simplicity and faith (“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”) But the teaching is clear: genuine belief results in personal attachment and devotion, which in turn results in keeping His commandments.

This is no strange doctrine. Paul says the same thing in Ephesians 2: 8-10. Verse 10 is almost always omitted when this Scripture is quoted, and yet it is an integral part of Paul’s declaration regarding grace. The purpose of God’s saving work in us, which is wrought entirely by the unmerited gift of faith, is that we should exhibit “good works, which God prepared beforehand (predestined) that we should walk in them.” (NKJV, italics mine.) If the believer, who is saved by grace, fails to walk in the good works for which he has been predestined, something is radically wrong with his experience. We’re not talking about perfection, but we are talking about a trend line that goes up over time.

According to John, if someone claims to know Him (to be born again, to be a believer) we can expect to see a tangible change, and a commitment to do what is pleasing to the Lord. If we don’t see this, we have reason to question the validity of a person’s claim to know Him. This discussion does not rule out the possibility of backsliding and of subsequent restoration or reprobation (see I John 5: 16, 17). But when there is no visible commitment, over a substantial period of time, to abiding in Christ and keeping His commandments, we have every right, following John’s lead in I John 2: 4, to question the genuineness of someone’s faith.

There is one more point I want to make, and it is perhaps the most important of all. We are called to faith in Jesus, not to faith in doctrine about Him. He is a Person. He is the Eternal Son of the Lord God Almighty. And He reveals Himself to those who trust in Him. There is a world of difference between believing certain things about Jesus (such as His equality with the Father and His substitutionary atonement), and believing in Him as a Person. Of course, you can’t believe in Him as a Person without embracing His perfect union with the Father and His atonement for our sins. But you can believe a lot of things about Jesus without actually knowing Him and submitting your life to His authority.

Having examined the chain that starts with belief in Jesus and proceeds through eating His flesh and drinking His blood to abiding in Him and keeping His commandments, let me ask you a very personal question. Does it frustrate you that I have used John’s terms “eating His flesh and drinking His blood” and “abiding in Him” without spelling out exactly what is meant? You will note that John himself does not define these terms, except to relate them to each other in a loose sort of way. I believe there are two reasons for John’s lack of definition.

First, we are talking about inner spiritual experience. Jesus makes that very clear in John 6: 63-- “It is the Spirit Who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” Jesus is saying that His comments about eating His flesh and drinking His blood are not to be understood in a physical context. He is talking about spiritual experience. I can hear someone responding, “But that is so nebulous--how can we know what He means when He says “eat my flesh and drink my blood?” And this brings up the second reason why I believe John does not give definition to these terms. I want to suggest that Jesus seems nebulous because He wants the Holy Spirit to personally reveal the meaning of those words to your heart. It is very clear that Jesus is talking about something of ultimate significance. After all, He just finished saying (in chapter 6) that “unless you eat and flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” That’s pretty serious! We need to come to Him with a prayer something like this: “Lord Jesus, it is very clear that eating Your flesh and drinking Your blood is a crucially important part of my spiritual experience. I don’t think I understand very much of what you mean. As I continue to read your Word, and to reflect on it, would you reveal to Me what You mean, and help me to truly experience You in this way.” This prayer, prayed sincerely, will bring spiritual understanding, and it will bring a deeper knowledge of Him to your heart. However, it will only be answered if you really mean business--God cannot give deeper knowledge and revelation of His beloved Son to a heart that is casual in its request.

I want to say it as gently as possible, but if you have never seriously inquired about what Jesus means in John about “eating and drinking” and “abiding” and “keeping His commandments,” and if you have never seriously examined the meaning of the call to discipleship and self-denial in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I question if you have ever experienced the new birth. Why? Because these issues are not optional with Jesus. If you have read the gospels with careful intention, you have discovered the non-optional character of His statements on these matters. Jesus felt so strongly about spelling out the topic of “eating His flesh and drinking His blood” that after teaching at Capernaum He lost a large number of His disciples. He grieved as they left, and you’ll recall He said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” If you claim to be born again, but you have not taken these teachings of Jesus to heart, what does that say about your devotion to Him? And if your response should be, “This isn’t the gospel of grace--all I have to do is believe--‘abiding’ and ‘discipleship’ and ‘keeping His commandments’ are optional,” my response is that you are parroting someone else who teaches an unbiblical doctrine of grace. If you take off the spectacles of ‘cheap grace’ and read the New Testament as it is written, you will understand that every believer is called to a life of practical, tangible righteousness (Romans 6: 14-19) and holiness (Heb. 12: 10, 14).

Now let me take us back to the Gospel of John for a closer look at the way he uses the word “believe,” and some of the implicit content of the word. We have already noted that John has equated believing with eating Christ’s body and drinking His blood, and that eating and drinking are equated with abiding, and that abiding is linked to keeping His commandments. Jesus Himself illuminates the meaning of these great spiritual truths when He says “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me (John 6: 57).” Jesus was obviously continually preoccupied with the Person of His Father. In John 5: 19, 20 He says “the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does….” As Jesus meditated upon His Father’s word (the Scriptures), and as He prayed, He received spiritual revelation of His father’s heart, and what His Father wanted to do to express His heart. Going back now to John 6: 57, Jesus is saying that to feed on Him is to relate to Him as He related to the Father. That is, we are to reflect on His word, meditate on Him, commune with Him, and thus receive a revelation of the intentions of His heart, both for ourselves and for others.

Remember that earlier we looked at John 6: 56: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him.” Many great Christian writers have undertaken to expound the rich meaning of “abiding.” One of the most insightful books on the topic of abiding is Abide in Christ by Andrew Murray. A great revival swept the United States, the British Isles, and South Africa in the late 1850’s. Murray wrote his little book to strengthen the lives of thousands of new believers in his native South Africa. I love Murray’s book, and have dipped into it often over the years. But let me suggest that you make a commitment to focus your attention on the book of John, and ask the Lord to reveal to you how you can respond to His invitation to abide in Him. Even the best of devotional books are in a sense “pre-digested,” but the Holy Spirit wants you to meditate on the Word until you begin to be taught by Him. If you can get Murray’s book, do so, but do not become dependent upon it or any other book. Real spiritual growth starts to accelerate when we seriously pursue Him through His Word.

There is another approach to studying the meaning of the word “believe.” In the book of John, Jesus is the focus of our believing. We are called to believe in Him, in His Person. Jesus gives us a marvelous illustration of the meaning of believing in John 3: 14, 15. “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 everlasting life.” The snake-bitten Israelites were healed as they gazed upon the elevated bronze serpent. I doubt anybody was healed who just glanced at the serpent! But the picture is one of intense looking, of gazing, until the healing was completed. Can you see that Jesus is telling us to “gaze” upon Him as the Lamb of God, as our sin-bearer, until His life and power begins to flow to the point of our need? But that first gaze is just the beginning. The “believing” in John 3: 15 is in the present tense. We continue to believe, to gaze upon Him, all the days of our life. We feed upon Him, we abide in Him, not just once, but as a daily and hourly habit. A life of habitual sin is incompatible with this kind of constant believing and feeding upon Him. I am not teaching “sinless perfection,” but I am suggesting that there is a place of consistent victory through abiding in Him.

Finally, let’s take a look at what we see when we gaze upon this Jesus whom John knew so well.

Following the chronology of the gospel of John, we first see the uncreated, eternal Word of God, who is “face to face” with God, and yet is God Himself. He is the One through whom the universe was created. The first four words in the Greek text of John literally say, “In beginning the Word was existing.” In other words, push the “beginning” as far back in time as you are able to conceive it, and the Word was already existing. He is timeless. As the book of Revelation puts it, He is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. In John 1: 14 the drama really begins, because “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory…” The Uncreated Word, God the Son, became the carpenter of Nazareth. And so the adventure of the book of John shifts to the scene of the Jordan River, where John points to Jesus in the crowd and says to two of his disciples, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God.”

Andrew and John follow Jesus, and Andrew is so impressed with Jesus that he rushes off to find Simon, his brother. The next day Jesus reveals intimate details of Nathaniel’s recent experience. Three days later Jesus’ five new disciples are stunned when He turns 120 gallons of water into rich, premium wine. A few weeks later, Jesus and some of his disciples visited Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus walked into the temple and took great offense at the commercial dealings in the Court of the Gentiles. Acting as if He owned the temple, He drove the hucksters and their animals out of the courtyard. Apparently He also performed a number of miraculous healings, because a key Pharisee came to Him by night, acknowledging that Jesus was “a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

Shortly afterward He takes a shortcut through despised Samaria, and quietly reveals to a tarnished woman that He is the Messiah. Returning to Galilee, he heals the dying son of a nobleman from a distance of 20 miles with a simple statement “Go your way; your son lives.” Returning to Jerusalem sometime later, on the Sabbath he heals a man at the pool of Bethesda. This provoked a firestorm with the Pharisees, who plotted to kill Jesus because He broke their Sabbath traditions. In responding to Pharisees, Jesus points out that He only does what He sees His Father doing--and the Pharisees charge Him with blasphemy. Never to be intimidated, Jesus launches into an incredible discourse in which He claims to be, by the Father’s explicit appointment, the final Judge. Then He states that He has independent existence, just as the Father has independent existence. There could hardly be a clearer statement of Jesus’ equality with the Father than this. And yet this statement is humbly made by the One who minutes earlier had said “the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do.”

After returning to Galilee, Jesus feeds five thousand men with five small loaves and two small fish. In the process, He creates about four tons of food. After walking on water for three or four miles, He gets in the boat with his disciples, instantly calms a violent storm, and then in a split second propels the boat several miles across the lake to its destination. The next day, teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, he launches into his marvelous teaching about eating His flesh and drinking His blood and abiding in Him. That teaching cost him many of his followers. And then a few days later he repeats the miracle of creating bread and fish, and this second time four thousand men are fed, to say nothing of women and children. (John does not tell us about the second feeding, but the other gospels do).

Do you begin to feel the impact of John’s testimony? And we have only covered the first six chapters of the book! Either John and the other gospel writers were the most creative liars in history, or we are dealing with real events that represent what happens when God Himself steps into history. I choose to believe. What about you? And does your belief in Jesus lead you to abide in Him?

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