About Jesus   Steve Sweetman

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First Century Faith


If I tell you “I believe the world is round”, there’s a good chance that you’d reply by saying that you believe that the world is round too.   Can you believe that?  I’ve finally come up with something that you can agree with me on, and it’s due to the fact that we both give “mental assent” to something that is true.  By this I mean that in our minds we’ve come to understand that the world is really round.


Giving mental assent to something that is true is the most common and simplest definition of the word “believe”  in modern North American culture.  We use the word in all sorts of ways.  We may ask, “do you believe in evolution”?  Or, “I believe the Toronto Blue Jays won’t win the World Series again this year”.     Or, “I believe that one plus one equals two”.


We may also ask, “do you believe in God”?  Or to be more specific, “do you believe in Jesus”?  Some people may answer, “yes I believe in Jesus”.  If their answer is based on the understanding that the word believe means mental agreement or assent to the truth about Jesus, then we may have a serious problem.


I’ve done some research concerning the words faith and believe over the years and I’ve found that there has been an evolution in these words throughout  the centuries, especially between 1150 and 1400 AD.  For example, during this time period the word believe came to mean mental assent, whereas prior to this evolution it meant a commitment or loyalty to something or someone who is true, something more meaningful and different than mere mental assent to  the truth.


Nevertheless, no matter how these words have evolved in our English language we need to understand how Jesus and the New Testament writers understood the words believe and faith.  Did they understand believing  as giving mental assent to the truth about Jesus and then you’d be saved”?  Was Jesus asking people to agree with what he was saying in order for them to be saved, or was He asking something else?   


The Greek word “pistis” is the word that is commonly translated as faith and believe  in the New Testament.     “Pistis”  means “to be fully persuaded that something or someone is true and once being persuaded, you give yourself to that truth.   There is an emphases on the word “persuade”.  It’s not a quick, off the top of your head decision.   Once you’ve  been persuaded of a truth,  you then give yourself to that truth with all of your heart.  That’s a lot different than mere mental assent to the truth.


So when we ask someone if they believe in Jesus, depending how they understand the word believe will determine whether their answer is Scripturally acceptable for the purpose of salvation.  If they understand believe to mean mere mental assent to the facts of salvation, then there’s a problem because I don’t think Jesus understands the word believe this way.  We thus have a serious communication problem between the way Jesus understands believe and the way our modern culture understands believe.


Part of our  gospel message should be to explain that the word believe does not mean mental assent to the truth.  It means to give ones self to the truth.  Of course  agreeing with the gospel message must precede giving yourself to the truth of the gospel,  but they’re not the same. 


I think we as Evangelicals have done a disservice to the gospel at times when we fail to make this distinction in our preaching.  You may understand the Biblical concept of the word believe, but if those you preach to don’t understand this, you’ll have a communication gap.  They’ll  respond according to their understanding of the word believe which is  simple agreement with what you’re saying. This understanding falls short of true faith.   I hope I’m wrong on this point, but mere mental assent to the truth doesn’t save you.  I think there’s many people who think they’re saved because they’ve given mental assent to the truth of the gospel but actually haven’t given themselves to the Lord of the gospel.  If this is the case, then they’re deceived into thinking they’ve been saved, and it’s all because we haven’t explained things properly.  They think of the word believe from a 21st century understanding, when in fact they should understand the word believe from a 1st century Biblical understanding.


I think we’d do the gospel, the Lord and those we preach to a great service by preaching  John 3:16 in the way 1st century people understood it.   This is my paraphrase of John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever should give his life in return to Jesus in true faith will receive eternal life”.


I’ve recently watched the movie entitled “Luther”.  In the movie Martin Luther is tired and exhausted with his sinful condition.  With deep conviction he cries out to Jesus His Saviour by saying, “I am yours, save me.  I am yours, save me.  I am yours, save me”.    These heart felt words of conviction demonstrate true faith and not mere mental assent to the truth.   


To believe or to have faith in Jesus means to give yourself to Jesus in a trusting relationship.  


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