Is Believing the Gospel Enough?
Confusion over the gospel abounds. I hear it from people all over the country and around the world. They don’t know what to believe. They aren’t sure what God requires. Is it turning from sins or commitment of life? Inviting Jesus into their hearts? Obeying the Golden Rule? Confessing their sins? Being baptized?
There is only one true gospel. The key is to discover and believe it. However, that isn’t necessarily easy to do, because many different gospels are being preached and it is hard to determine which one is correct.
Most forms of the gospel being preached today are what I call faith-plus gospels. These say that faith in Christ for eternal life is necessary, but that it is not enough. Works must accompany faith, according to faith-plus gospels, in order for a person to make it to heaven. There are two versions of the faith-plus gospel.
- Salvation by faith plus works. Some say that one must have faith plus works in order to obtain salvation. A person lacking sufficient good works, or guilty of major sins, will not make it to heaven, even if he believes in Christ.1
- Salvation by faith that works. Others say that one must have faith that works. They claim that one is saved by faith in Christ plus nothing, but that true faith in Christ results in commitment, obedience, turning from sins, etc.2
There is no real difference between saying that to be saved you must turn from sins, commit your life to Christ, and believe in Him, and saying that believing in Christ necessarily results in turning from your sins and committing your life to Him. Both insist that turning from sins and commitment of life is necessary to obtain final salvation. This may sound significantly different than salvation by faith plus works. However, it is actually another way of saying the same thing.
- Salvation apart from faith or works. In addition to faith-plus gospels, there is one gospel requiring no faith at all! That is the gospel of universalism, which teaches that all are already saved, or will ultimately be saved. According to this view no one will spend eternity apart from God, even those who never believed in Christ. This view can surface anywhere, even in very conservative, evangelical churches. The motive may seem to be good—an abhorrence of people going to hell—but it is a direct contradiction of God’s Word. The way to keep people from hell is by proclaiming the true gospel that they might believe it and be saved, not by distorting the gospel.
The Bible Is the Only Reliable Guide to the Gospel
Understanding the gospel is not a matter of taking a poll. The majority is rarely right and that is especially true in terms of the gospel. Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13 -14). Jesus unequivocally said that the majority of people are on the wrong road. Many are on the broad way. Few are on the narrow way. The gospel is contrary to our expectations. Very few things in life are received simply by believing. (Actually, I can’t think of anything, other than eternal life, which is received by faith alone.) Thus, the gospel seems to be “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
To be saved you must resist the impulse to follow the crowd. There is only one reliable guide to spiritual truth and that is the Bible.
When the apostle Paul went to the city of Berea , he began teaching in the Jewish synagogue. Paul’s traveling companion, Luke, reports that the Bereans “were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Every person should study the Scripture to see whether the gospel they are hearing is correct. We should all be like the Bereans, searching the Scriptures, so that we will know what to believe.
The only condition of eternal salvation is faith in Christ. Even a casual reading of the Gospel of John, the only book in Scripture whose purpose is evangelistic (John 20:31), 5 makes this clear. “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). “He who believes in Him is not condemned” (John 3:18). “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24). “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die [spiritually]” (John 11:26).
The Bible is God’s Word. As such, it is without contradiction. We can be sure that if these and many other passages list faith in Christ as the sole condition of eternal life and freedom from condemnation, this is indeed true. There are no other conditions.
What Is Faith in Christ?
Let’s begin by considering what faith is. Once we determine that, we will consider what faith in Christ is.
Faith is the conviction that something is true.
We all exercise faith every day. For example, most of us believe that George Washington was the first President of the United States because we have recognized that the evidence is convincing.
Do you believe that you exist? That is, are you convinced that you are alive? I once met a college student who doubted his existence and that of everything in the universe. I was tempted to pinch him to give him some tangible evidence! Most rational people are certain they exist, no doubt about it. The evidence is overwhelming.
Though long past her childbearing years, Abraham’s wife Sarah believed that she was going to have a son. God had said she would: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11, italics added). Ninety-year-old Sarah was positive that God would keep His promise, and would do what He said. Abraham too was “fully convinced that what [God] had promised He was also able to perform” (Romans 4:21, italics added). Faith is being convinced or persuaded (the KJV has “fully persuaded” here) of the truth of something—in this case, the promise that a son would be born to an elderly couple.
The key to believing something is the proof in favor of it. Thus, despite popular opinion, faith is not really a choice. You don’t “choose” to believe that George Washington was the first President, that you exist, that two plus two equals four, etc. Similarly, Sarah and Abraham didn’t “choose” to believe that God would keep His promise to them regarding a son. When the evidence that something is true persuades people, they believe it. When they aren’t persuaded, they don’t believe it.
Let’s say you were on a jury. After listening to all of the evidence, you concluded that the defendant was guilty. Could you choose to believe that he was innocent? Of course not. You could vote not to convict, but that would be acting dishonestly, contrary to what you believed. The only way you could move from belief to unbelief or the other way around is if you came to perceive the testimony differently.
Doesn’t this mean, then, that the evidence traps us? In a sense, yes. However, two people can look at the same evidence and draw different conclusions because they have different opinions on whether the evidence is trustworthy. We are guided by our perception of the evidence. We believe evidence that we perceive as true. We don’t believe evidence that we perceive as false.
Therefore, faith is not a decision. It is the conviction that something is true. It is especially important that we understand this, for much confusion about the gospel has resulted from the mistaken idea that we can be convinced that the gospel is true and yet not be saved until we decide to believe it.
Faith in Christ is the conviction that He is the Guarantor of eternal life for every believer.
Faith in Christ is sometimes called saving faith, since the Bible teaches that all who believe in Him have eternal salvation. There are many things that Jesus promised. When the Bible speaks of “faith in Christ,” it is talking about believing a specific promise that He made. Jesus explained that saving promise to His friend, Martha:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” —John 11:25-27
“Do you believe this?” Jesus’ question to Martha cuts to the heart of the gospel. While Jesus promised many things in the course of His ministry, this one promise is the key to gaining eternal salvation. Jesus is claiming to be “the resurrection and the life.” Anyone who believes that has eternal life and will never die.
First, as “the resurrection,” He guarantees, “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” That is, He insures bodily resurrection from the dead to all who believe in Him. Since we know from other Scriptures that both believers and unbelievers will be resurrected (Daniel 12:2; John 5:29 ; Acts 24:15), this must refer to the resurrection of the righteous, also called the first resurrection (Revelation 20:5-6). Jesus is promising that death will not keep a believer from bodily participation in His eternal kingdom. All believers will live eternally in glorified bodies in Jesus’ kingdom.
Notice that this promise has no other conditions. Many add to what Jesus said and end up with this distorted gospel: “He who believes in Me and turns from His sins and perseveres in good works, though he may die, he shall live.” That is not what Jesus promised. A person who believes this altered message does not believe what Jesus said.
Second, as “the life,” He certifies, “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” This is another way of reinforcing what He has just said. In verse 25 He confirms that physical death cannot keep the believer from bodily participation in the eternal kingdom. In verse 26 Jesus affirms that no believer will ever experience spiritual death. As “the life,” Jesus is the Guarantor of eternal life: “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” He guarantees the believer will never lose eternal life. All who believe in Him are secure forever.
Some say, “Yes, He is the Giver of eternal life; however, to be saved takes more than just believing. You must also commit your life to Him, turn from your sins, confess Him, obey Him, be baptized, etc., etc., etc.” Once again, if a person is convinced that this distorted message is true, then he doesn’t believe what Jesus is saying. Jesus made it clear that the only condition is being convinced that He guarantees eternal life to all who believe in Him. Add anything to that and you have a different gospel.
Martha believed Jesus’ promise. In answer to the question, “Do you believe this?” she said, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” She then went on to acknowledge Him as “the Christ, the Son of God, who is come into the world.” She knew that Jesus was the Messiah and as such, He certainly fulfills His promise to give eternal life, life that is forever secure, to every believer (compare John 20:31). Martha understood that there were no strings attached. She knew that she had eternal life and that she would never lose it because Jesus, as the Son of God, was trustworthy.
The apostle Paul sums up what Martha, and every Christian, believes when they come to faith in Christ: “However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:16). In order to be saved, we must believe on Jesus for everlasting life. On the basis of His death and resurrection, He always fulfills His guarantee to give everlasting life to all who believe in Him for it.
Martha did not decide to believe in Jesus for eternal life. She was convinced of the truth of what Jesus said and hence she believed in Him in the biblical sense.
Faith in Christ does not erase every problem.
It greatly saddens me when I hear some evangelists tell the unsaved to believe in Jesus for benefits other than eternal life. “Believe in Jesus and He will heal your broken marriage.” “Believe in Him and He will turn your finances around.” “Become a Christian and all your depression will vanish.” People who believe in Jesus for a better marriage, for financial prosperity, or for emotional well being, are not guaranteed eternal salvation.
Many today think they are saved because they went forward at some meeting and gave Jesus their life, believing in Him for something other than eternal life. While it is true that He can help us with all issues in life, that is not the promise of the gospel, and the help He gives is not necessarily the deliverance we want. He doesn’t guarantee a happy marriage, good finances, or freedom from depression to every believer. There are many factors other than faith in Christ, which influence these things. However, the only condition of eternal life is faith in Christ!
What Saving Faith Is Not
It is sometimes helpful to consider what something is not. This is particularly true of saving faith. Contrary to popular understanding, none of the following are a part of or a synonym for saving faith: believing general Bible truth, promising to serve God, praying, walking an aisle, being sorry for your sins, turning from your sins, inviting Jesus into your heart, believing with a special kind of faith, doing good works, or having heart faith.
Believing general Bible truth.
You can believe many biblical concepts and still miss the one truth that is saving—the truth of the gospel. For example, you can attest to Jesus’ deity, His virgin birth, and His bodily resurrection, and yet not believe Jesus’ promise to give you eternal life freely if you just believe in Him for it. There is only one truth that will save: Jesus’ guarantee that anyone who believes in Him for eternal life has it.
Promising to serve God.
Promises, promises! Almost every child who goes to a Christian camp makes some sort of commitment in front of a campfire. If all the young people who promised to become missionaries had done so, there would never be a lack of workers on any mission field in the world. Many have vowed to serve God in the hope that their commitment would cause God to save them. Because it is possible to promise sincerely to serve God, and yet not be convinced that Jesus freely gives eternal life to all who just believe in Him, commitment isn’t an absolute indicator of saving faith. (Many cult members are radically committed.) Pledges to serve God in hopes of gaining salvation actually become a stumbling block, for to be saved one must believe in Christ alone for eternal life, not Christ plus commitment.
A very popular evangelistic technique today is to ask unbelievers to pray to become Christians. However, there is not one biblical example of anyone ever praying to be saved. Jesus never led anyone in a prayer of salvation, nor did any of the apostles or evangelists mentioned in the Bible. A person is saved by believing in Christ for eternal life, not by praying.3
Walking an aisle.
Asking unbelievers to come forward—to walk the aisle or come to the front of the auditorium—in order to be saved is another popular evangelistic practice without biblical precedent. A person may stand before others with complete sincerity and with a strong desire to be saved and yet return to his seat not having believed in Christ for eternal life. Coming forward will not save. Only believing in Christ will save.4
Being sorry for your sins.
A popular song of years past contained the phrase, “Cry me a river.” You may indeed shed many tears, be extremely sorry for your sins, and yet not believe in Christ for eternal life. No amount of anguish over sin can open the way to heaven. Only believing in Christ alone can.
Recognition of one’s sinfulness shows a person that he needs a Savior, and this acknowledgment may result in tears. But the presence or absence of tears is not the point. Nowhere does the Bible say that being sorry for your sins is a condition of eternal life. There is but one requirement: believing that Jesus is the Guarantor of eternal life to all who just believe in Him.
Turning from your sins.
Can someone undergo radical changes in his or her life without believing the gospel? Of course. Often, for example, unbelieving alcoholics give up drinking. Moral reform is certainly possible. And it is a good thing to do in the sense that it is always best to follow God’s blueprint for living, whether or not you are a Christian. Yet, moral reform will not save.
In fact, if people think that turning from sins is a condition of salvation, their faith in moral reform can actually prohibit them from being saved. To be saved, a person must believe that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who believe in Him.
Inviting Jesus into your heart.
Another very common and unfortunate evangelistic appeal is telling people to invite Jesus into their hearts in order to be saved. The problem here is that they can invite Jesus into their hearts and yet not believe in Him for eternal life.5
Some individuals have invited Jesus into their hearts hundreds of times. Whenever they doubt the efficacy of what they did (with good reason), they just repeat the invitation, thinking: Maybe I didn’t invite Him in sincerely enough the last time.6Jesus enters the lives of people the moment they believe in Him for eternal life.
Believing with a special kind of faith.
Some pastors today teach that saving faith is different than everyday faith.15 This, however, is just not true. All faith is the conviction of the truth of some proposition. What makes saving faith saving is not the uniqueness of the faith, but its object. Saving faith results instantly in eternal salvation because it believes in the right object: the guarantee of life made by Jesus Christ to every believer.
Doing good works.
Saving faith should not be confused with doing good works. In their zeal to call people to godliness, some pastors and theologians today mingle the two.
A desire for godliness is admirable. However, it is simply not true that in order to believe in Christ for eternal life you must also do good works and forsake bad works. Works have no place in saving faith. Saving faith is based solely on what the Lord Jesus has already done and promises to do for us. It is not based even in part on what we might do for Him.
The thief on the cross was a terrible sinner who was at death’s door. He had only hours left to live. He couldn’t offer Jesus any good works, any service, any moral reform. He could only believe in Him, and that he did. Even though Jesus’ own disciples were disheartened and had lost faith in His return to set up the kingdom, the thief boldly said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus’ response shows the freeness of the gospel for all who believe in Him: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Head Faith, Heart Faith, and Mind Games
How do you convince someone that saving faith is not just faith in the gospel, that it includes commitment, turning from sins, perseverance in obedience, and the like? Since there is no verse in Scripture that identifies saving faith as anything other than believing the gospel, you’d have a hard time proving your view from the Bible. However, there is an easier way.
The best way to sell the idea that saving faith includes the kitchen sink is through the use of pejorative terms like intellectual faith or head faith. Some preachers and teachers tell people that just believing the facts of the gospel is intellectual faith or head faith. Then they espouse the idea that the Bible teaches that the faith that truly saves is heart faith.
Heart faith can include almost anything. However, heart faith raises potential problems. How much commitment, turning from sins, obedience, and the like is enough? The biblical evidence demonstrates that this supposed distinction between head faith and heart faith is really a mind game.
First, the Scriptures never refer to the head as the source of thinking and feeling. In addition, the word head is never associated with faith in the Bible.
Second, of the two remaining words, heart and mind, the Scriptures often use them interchangeably. Both refer to the inner self where one thinks and believes and feels.
Third, the mind is not viewed as being inferior to the heart in Scripture. In one of the most famous verses on sanctification in the Bible, Paul exhorted the believers in Rome , “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Similarly, he exhorted the Ephesian believers, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23). Paul spoke to the Corinthian believers of having “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Luke said that the Lord “opened [the disciples’] understanding [literally mind in Greek], that they might comprehend the Scriptures,” that is, the Old Testament Scriptures, concerning His resurrection (Luke 24:45).
Fourth, while the words believe and faith occur approximately 450 times in the Bible, only a few passages specify where belief takes place.7They speak of believing as though the reader of Scripture knows what that means and where it occurs.
Believing in Christ is the sole condition of eternal life. There is no such thing as special types of faith called heart faith and head faith. Saving faith doesn’t include commitment, obedience, or turning from sins. It is merely the conviction that Jesus is speaking the truth when He says, “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47).
There Is No Additional Step
Many well-meaning people unintentionally introduce a lot of confusion when they say something like this, “Do you believe that Jesus, by His death and resurrection, freely gives eternal life to all who believe in Him? Great! Now would you like to trust Him?”
This two-step approach to saving faith is confusing. How does a person who already believes something choose to trust it? Say, for example, that you believe that Jesus is God. Do you also need to choose to trust His deity in order to really believe it? Of course not. You believe in Jesus’ deity if the evidence convinces you that He is indeed the Second Person of the Trinity. What you believe, you trust to be true.
The same is true with the gospel. If you believe it, you are saved. Jesus guarantees it.
Sometimes this supposed distinction is illustrated by means of a chair and belief in its ability to hold one up. The illustration goes as follows.
“Do you believe that this chair will hold you up if you sit in it?”
“Yes, I believe it will.”
“Okay, then have a seat.”
“No, I won’t do that.”
“Then you don’t really believe the chair will hold you up, for to truly believe it, you must trust that it will hold you up. And you only trust it when you take a seat.”
The illustration is patently false. Only a masochist would sit in a chair he didn’t “really believe” would hold him up. You sit in a chair because you already believe it is dependable, not in order to believe it is.
The only condition of eternal life is belief in Him for it. Once you do that, you have eternal life. There is no additional step involved.
Yes, Believing the Gospel Is Enough!
Saving faith means believing the gospel, believing in Christ alone for eternal life. Nothing else is saving faith. Not only is believing the gospel enough, but it is the only way to salvation. Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who believe in Him for it. Do you believe this?
1One evangelist who has been in the ministry for 51 years recounted his testimony by quoting from a letter he wrote shortly after his conversion: “It has been over nine days since I smoked a cigarette…I am now taking part in all the church work I can…I have been born again. You may think I will get over this in a few days and be back to normal but I will never be the same again. I had not been born again before now. I did believe but I did not have the love of God (emphasis added). Clearly for this evangelist, believing, while necessary, is not enough. One must also love God by living an obedient life.
2This is sometimes called Lordship Salvation. It is the view that to be saved you must not only believe in Christ for eternal life, but you must also yeild to His Lordship over your life. While Lordship Salvation typically refers to Calvinists who believe in salvation by faith that works, it applies equally well to Arminians who believe in salvation by faith plus works.
3If a person came to believe the gospel while he was praying a prayer, he would be saved. However, it is not a good idea to ask a person to pray something he doesn’t already believe. And, if he already believes it, then he is already saved, without the prayer.
4Of course, if a person comes forward and a counselor is used of God to convince him that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who believe in Him, then he would end up being saved. However, coming forward is not a condition, any more than coming to church in the first place is a condition. A person can be saved at school, at work, in her car, in a foxhole, on a basketball court, or anywhere, with or without an aisle or a preacher!
5In my early days in evangelism I used this appeal. I remember one student at my college who invited Christ into his life. I gave him some material to read and scheduled an appointment for the next week. When we met for follow-up, e told me that the material I had given him said that Jesus was the only way to God, but that he didn’t believe that. “Really,” I said. “Then why did you invite Jesus into your heart?” He told me that he was a Bahai and that he had invited Jesus into his heart because he wanted all of the prophets in his heart.
6Of course, this approach is futile. Each time the person doubts, and invites Jesus in “one last time,” it becomes more difficult to do this sincerely because it seems so hypocritical. The only way to be sure that Christ is in your life and that you are eternally secure is to believe Jesus’ promise that all who simply believe in Him have eternal life.
7One passage, Romans 10:9-10, directly speaks of “believ[ing] in your heart.” That is set in contrast with “confess[ing] with your mouth.” The former is internal; the latter external. The former is by faith alone. The latter includes works.
“Confessing with your mouth the Lord Jesus” is the action that involves commitment, obedience, and turning from your sins, not “believing in your head that God raised Him from the dead.” Nor is believing with your heart defined as some special kind of faith that might rightly be called heart faith. Paul is merely indicating that saving faith takes place internally, as opposed to confessing Christ in word and deed, which takes place externally. Romans 10:9-10 is dealing with salvation from the wrath of God, both eternally and temporally. Believing the gospel is the condition of escaping the wrath of God eternally (“with the heart one believes unto righteousness”—all righteous people go to heaven; hence, the only way to escape the eternal wrath of God is faith in Christ). Confessing Christ is the condition of escaping the wrath of God here and now (“with the mouth confession is made unto salvation [from God’s temporal wrath]”).
Four other passages, none of which is dealing with saving faith, indicate indirectly that belief takes place in the heart (Mark 11:23; 16:14; Luke 8:12; 24:25). However in each of those verses the point is just that belief takes place internally. And, as we have already seen, in the last of those passages believing in the heart is equated with believing with the mind.
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