16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
If you live in America, chances are you’ve heard that if you believe in Jesus you are saved. This is absolutely true, and scripture shows that belief/faith is the only requirement for salvation. We can’t earn salvation through our works, we can’t purchase it, and we can’t just do more good things than bad things and receive it. Faith in Jesus is the only way to be justified before God (John 14:6). Because of this, it’s crucial to determine what faith really is. What is faith in Jesus? What does believing in Him really mean and look like?
This question is especially important to me because my testimony centers around it. I grew up in church my whole life and even had a family lineage in Evangelical Christian ministry. I heard all the right things and checked many of the right boxes, but I don’t believe I truly had faith. It wasn’t until college that something happened inside me. I didn’t know it at the time, but that something was God opening my eyes to Him for the first time. This was simultaneously beautiful and scary. Beautiful because God rescued me (and continues to rescue me) from my wickedness. However, it was also scary to know that I could live my whole life with the assumption that I’m a Christian and not really be one. Jesus says I wasn’t alone.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
These verses are terrifying to me because, among other things, they show that we can completely deceive ourselves into thinking we have faith. So, the question, “What is faith?” is very important, and one of the answers we receive from Jesus is that faith isn’t simply religious performance. Behaviors and good works will be present for sure, but faith goes much deeper than that.
(Note: click here for an in depth explanation of what the Gospel is.)
When diving into this question, I believe it’s important to start with the central truth of scripture, the Gospel. God uses the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to transform our hearts and give us new life.
18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
The good news of Jesus’ rescuing and redeeming love provides the foundation for our faith and compels us to put our trust in Him and seek to do His will. We are being transformed as we behold the glory of the Lord.
14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
The Gospel overwhelms our hearts and overflows into faith and trust in Jesus. Therefore, faith is not just following a set of rules in order to get approval from God because He has already done the work for our approval, and we can’t help but give our lives to Him knowing this.
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
The Gospel (good news) actually begins with bad news. That bad news is the fact that everyone has sinned and the penalty for sin is death (Romans 3:23 & 6:23). This death isn’t just a physical death but also a spiritual death that separates us from God. You can think of it as similar to committing a crime. If someone were to commit a crime in this country, he or she would have to go to trial and, if found guilty, pay some kind of penalty for the crime that was committed. This is similar to what our sin requires. Everyone has sinned against God, and in order for God to be truly just and holy, there must be penalty for sin. However, the really bad news is that our sin is so great (every person’s sin, not just some) that we can’t possibly pay the penalty in order to be made right with God again. We are in a debt that is insurmountable. However, this is where the good news comes in. Jesus paid the price and absorbed the penalty for all our sin “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” He has done this once and for all to where there is no more penalty necessary for those who believe (Hebrews 10).
When we are able to truly see this amazing love that rescued us and how awesome God is, our hearts can’t help but have an overwhelming amount of gratitude and love for Jesus, the One who paid such an incredible debt. Therefore, when we begin to talk about faith, I believe it all starts with the Gospel.
Two of the most common misconceptions about belief in Jesus are (1) simply believing the facts about Jesus means we have faith, and (2) faith means doing a lot of good things in order to get God’s approval. However, what we’ll see is that although knowledge about Jesus and good works certainly characterize people with faith, true faith is so much more than just that. True faith starts with a new, transformed heart that can’t help but pour itself out for the Lord and Savior whose love is indescribable. When we see and understand the debt that has been paid, our hearts are changed, and we can’t help but surrender everything to Him. We believe Jesus is not only our Savior, but also the Lord of our life. He has purchased us, and we are completely His.
Faith is a complete surrender to God knowing that He has rescued us and everything is His, including our lives. We surrender because we trust Him, believe in Him, and have faith that whatever He says is true. We believe He is a perfect, loving Father who has created everything and therefore knows how His creation was meant to operate. We have faith that although we can’t do anything to earn salvation, we can trust that the free gift of God’s grace, through Jesus, is enough to pardon all of our sin. It is finished.
Not just believing the facts
For most of my life, I had the misconception that if you just know and believe the facts about Jesus, then you’re saved. To be clear, it is necessary to have some knowledge of who Jesus is and what He has done.
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
Paul, the writer of Romans, brings up a valid point. How can we possibly believe in something we have never heard of? This is especially true of something we devote our lives to. How can anyone put everything they have into something they don’t know anything about or have never heard of? Therefore, having some knowledge of Jesus seems necessary for faith. However, I believe scripture shows that knowledge alone doesn’t equal faith. We can know facts about something but still not like it and instead actively work against it.
“Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
James takes it a step further.
“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
Here’s another set of verses that can provide an illustration for what James is talking about.
“28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.”
The Demons knew who Jesus was and what He was doing. They knew and believed the facts about Him. However, they definitely did not have faith in Him. Instead, they were actively rebelling against Him. Through these verses, we can see that it is possible to know the facts about Jesus and still not have faith in Him. This is true of many things in life. We can know that something is true, and know a lot about it, but still decide to go against it. Have you ever done something that you knew wasn’t going to end well but did it anyway? I know I have countless times.
Not Just Knowing and Approving
Another misconception that I had for a long time was that if I knew the facts about Jesus and approved of them or agreed with them, then I had faith. Basically, I knew some stories about Jesus, liked what I heard, thought he was a really good guy, and knew it was important to follow Him. But, I don’t think I truly had faith in Him.
27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” 28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
In these verses, Paul says that he knows King Agrippa believed and agreed with the Old Testament scriptures. However, Agrippa himself acknowledges that he doesn’t have faith because he asks Paul if he’s trying to persuade him to become a Christian. Here’s another example from scripture.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The dialogue continues a few verses down.
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. In this time period, the Pharisees were the most morally upright people around. They knew more scripture than anyone else (they memorized large portions of it), they were put on a pedestal by others because of their outward moral actions, and they were the teachers of the law. They were the spiritual leaders of their time. However, the harshest words Jesus ever said were toward these people because although their outward actions seemed great, their hearts were completely sinful.
In the verses above, we can see that Nicodemus knows and approves of what Jesus is doing when he says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” However, it appears that Nicodemus does not actually have faith because Jesus tells him that he must be born again and that he “does not receive our testimony.” Nicodemus was a seemingly “good person,” knew a ton of scripture and facts, but he did not have faith.
Looking back at John 3:3, Jesus tells us the requirement for genuine faith. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Faith starts with a new birth, one that only God can provide. God causes us to be born again, opens our eyes, and gives us a new heart that leads to genuine, saving faith (1 Peter 1:3-9).
Not Just Doing Good Things
Possibly the most common misconception about Christians is that we are “good people” who do a bunch of good things in order to go to heaven. However, that’s not what it’s about at all. First, we are not “good people” because no one is good except Jesus (Romans 3:10). He is the only righteous one (1 John 2:1-2). Second, doing “good things” cannot save us because in the end, our good things aren’t good enough.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
Our good things are nothing more than a “polluted garment.” It goes back to our insurmountable debt. Our sin is so great, that we can’t possibly do enough good things to make up for it. Jesus is our only hope, and that’s why He came to save the world. If we could earn salvation with our own efforts, then there would be no reason for Jesus’ death.
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Let’s take a look at the Pharisees again. They were the most moral people of their time and did tons of things that others considered good. But Jesus knew where their hearts were.
9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him,“Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
I love that Jesus said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” This is huge because it shows that Jesus isn’t about just forced, cold religion. He doesn’t simply desire sacrifice or religious performance. He desires mercy and belief from the heart. I also like that Jesus was referencing Hosea 6:6, an Old Testament book. This is interesting to me because in the Old Testament, we tend to think that God was all about sacrifices because that’s what people did to atone for sin. But, even back then, God didn’t desire sacrifices because it didn’t come from a genuine heart (He also says similar things in Proverbs 21:3 and Micah 6:6-8). We can see that even way before Jesus came, God still desired a heart-level faith over cold religion. Ultimately, the sacrifices back then were just a shadow of the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus. What God desired was heart transformation because it’s through the heart that we believe.
9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
What is faith? Beau Hughes sums it up well when talking about the verse above.
“He is saying true faith…is this: “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” The kind of faith that pleases this good Father who has brought us forth as a firstfruit, James says, is the faith that is bearing the fruit of love…a love for our neighbors (especially the most vulnerable of our neighbors) and a single-minded love and devotion to God, this is real faith. This is true faith, and it’s going to work itself out in a million different ways.”
What does faith look like in someone’s life? That’s a loaded question that is hard to answer because everyone is called to different things, and it really can “work itself out in a million different ways.” However, what Beau hits on is the idea of fruit that frequently appears in scripture.
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Ultimately, true faith bears good fruit. Will true faith be perfect? Not in this world. But over time, there will be a consistent pattern in one’s life that bears good fruit. This makes sense because if we really have faith in Jesus and believe what He says, then it will show in our lives (John 14:15). We can see this is true of many things in life. If we really believe in something, then it will come out in the way we live. For example, if I believe there are certain methods of teaching that are best for my students, then those methods will show up in my classroom. Will I implement them perfectly? Certainly not, but there will be a consistent pattern of use. Similarly, if we truly believe Jesus is God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of our life, it has to change who we are and how we live. How can we say we believe if there is nothing in our life to show for it? Again, I can’t emphasize enough that we will never be perfect at this (or even good really). However, fruit will come, even if just a little at a time.
The book of James hits on these ideas a lot. Genuine heart-level faith can be identified based on the fruit that people bear. Faith is not simply doing good things, but true faith bears good fruit. When I was in my pre-conversion days, this is what I can look to and say I probably didn’t have true faith. The fruit wasn’t there. I said the right things and performed religious duties like the Pharisees, but consistent fruit wasn’t apparent, and I don’t believe I had a truly transformed heart. I had behavior modification but not heart transformation.
Faith is never dependent on the things we do, but the things we do and the way we love and respond to others can be an indicator of whether or not faith is present. It’s similar to the saying, “actions speak louder than words.” Our actions tend to reveal our beliefs. Ultimately, we don’t know the condition of anyone’s heart so we can’t for sure know if someone has faith. But, our fruit is a good indicator. We can talk the good talk, but it’s empty when our actions don’t back it up. We can walk the walk, but that’s empty when our heart isn’t truly in it. People can see through it, and God can see through it. Faith is most apparent when it comes from the heart, and the heart overflows into words and actions. When all three of those aspects align, faith is true and visible.
What if I don’t have faith?
We’ve seen a lot of hard truths, and it’s good to wrestle with those truths (2 Corinthians 13:5). Therefore, if you profess to being a believer, reflect on whether or not you’re bearing fruit. Is there evidence in your life that you believe? Would other people affirm this, or would they be surprised to know you’re a Christian? Is there any chance that you’re deceiving yourself?
It’s possible you’ve already done some wrestling, and it may have lead to doubts and concerns. Or maybe you’re not sure about the answers to those reflection questions. However, I want to be clear that the intent is never to drive anyone into fear, guilt, or shame.
Whenever diving into the topic of true faith, there is always a fine line that needs to be navigated carefully between those who are young or immature in faith and those who truly don’t have faith. If you are a new or young Christian, the last thing I want to do is drop a weight on you that you can’t bear. So, for those who are new or young, encouragement is needed, and it needs to be said over and over that we are never going to be perfect or even good at this. We will constantly have to throw ourselves on Jesus’ mercy no matter how mature we are because He, and He alone, is our perfection.
We also have to constantly remember and understand that God’s grace is a free gift that can never be earned by what we do (Ephesians 2:8-9). We can freely rest in the security of His grace. We will never have perfect faith in this life. If that were possible, then there would be no point for Jesus’ death.
In addition, we will have times of doubt and unbelief (Mark 9:14-29), and He knows this. In those moments, it’s always good to confess and ask for His help. For the young Christian, celebrate and praise God because you are His adopted son or daughter! This is amazing!
But, what if you come to the realization that you’re in the position I once was, someone who may know some things about Jesus but doesn’t have true faith in Him? I want to say again that this isn’t meant to drive anyone into fear, guilt or shame. Instead, I always want us to turn back to Jesus. It’s very possible that God may be doing an incredibly loving thing in your heart right now. If you have come to this realization, God may be opening your eyes just like He did mine. For anyone in this position, the same, free offer of grace is available as well.
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
God is the perfect, loving Father. He loves you and welcomes you into a relationship with Him. One of the ways He welcomes us is by telling hard truths about ourselves. These are not the times to pull away but are instead moments to turn to Him. It’s just like when a good father does something loving yet hard to his son or daughter. In those moments, he’s not pushing the child away but instead showing him or her what’s best for their well-being.
Jesus’ call to everyone is to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Believe in the good news that He really does love you so deeply that He would willingly die a brutal death for your sin. Turn away from your sin and plead for God to take over the throne of your life. Pray for mercy and for God to open up your heart to Him. Pray for Him to cause you to be born again. He doesn’t turn away those who genuinely seek Him (John 6:37). You’re never too far gone, and it’s never too late. Jesus died knowing everything about you, even the parts you want no one to know about. He’s a good, loving Father. Come to Him.
I’d love to hear from you as well because it’s never good to walk through this alone. This is my story so I know first hand how He can work and redeem anyone’s life. My hope isn’t to bring shame but to share the love of Christ who has rescued me and so many others. If you’re wrestling, I’d love to walk with you through it all.
Note: I relied heavily on the following book during portions of this post. It’s an outstanding resource.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000. Print.