The Bible says in John 3:16 that whoever believes in God’s Son will have eternal life. Jesus Himself spoke those words.
The Gospel writers sprinkle evidence throughout their books that Jesus was that Son. Consequently, we would be accurate to say that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life. But what exactly are we to believe about Jesus? That He existed? That eternal life is in Him? That He is God’s Son?
Perhaps we should start by saying what this phrase does NOT mean.
We are not to believe that Jesus was a good example. Yes, He was, and we are to follow Him, to live as He lived, to obey what He said. But doing all that is 1) not possible apart from supernatural power; and 2) not going to give us eternal life. We know this from the totality of Scripture.
Let’s use a sobering example. Say a married man is unfaithful to his wife just once, but in that one act of infidelity, he contracts a venereal disease. No matter how faithful he acts from that time forth, he will not cancel out his faithless act. His fidelity is what he owed his wife all along, and giving it to her before or after his adultery does not scrub out the faithless act or its consequence.
So too, if someone says he believes in Jesus as a model for how to live, good for him. If he could actually do so, he would now be living as he should have all along. But this new behavior would not scrub away the life lived in contradiction to Jesus’s example. In other words, living as Jesus lived cannot bring that eternal life John 3:16 promises.
Believing in Jesus also does not mean believing that He will make this life more comfortable for us or that He will fix our heartaches, keep our loved ones safe, help us to get a better job, or make us better wives or husbands. He may do those things. But the truth is, He wants to do more.
Two missionary couples were killed some years ago by Somali pirates. If their belief was in Jesus making them happy, they must have been sorely disappointed when their yacht was captured. I suspect they were not, because their chosen mission was to distribute Bibles. I suspect, therefore, they believed the Bible and knew that their lives were more than comfort and ease.
In 2011 an LA fireman who died in the line of duty was buried, and his funeral was televised for all the area to see. His pastor, among others who spoke, gave a stirring testimony of this man’s faith—not in Jesus who would give him a comfortable life, but Jesus who assured him of eternal life.
Believing in Jesus is also not taking to heart His teaching. Like the challenge to live as He lived, this one is also impossible and insufficient.
What, then, does it mean to believe in Jesus?
First it means to believe in who He is—God’s Son, the promised Messiah, the suffering Savior, the risen Lord, the soon to return King.
Second it means to believe in what He has done—while we were yet sinners, He died for us, bearing the punishment we deserved for our wayward hearts and willful rebellion; then He rose again that we too who were dead in our sins could be alive to God. We also must believe that His sacrifice as our substitute is sufficient to reconcile us to our Holy God. That, after all, is the point and purpose of the promise—eternal life means life with God, enjoying his abiding love and fellowship and presence, here on earth, in part; after this life, in uninterrupted fullness.
With some small revisions, this post originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview Of Fiction 9n February 2011.