What Do We Believe When We Believe in Jesus Christ

What Do We Believe When We Believe in Jesus Christ?

Duane A. Priebe

There are two ways the word “faith” has been used in Christian tradition: faith is the act of believing and what it is that we believe.  The title of this chapter uses “believe” in both of these senses. [1]

To “believe in Jesus Christ” means to have faith in him in the sense of trust in God’s promise in Christ. Faith is the fundamental trust that centers, orients and gives shape to a person’s life. That life-orienting faith can be directed toward created things, which is the fundamental sin of idolatry. For Christians, faith is trust in God grounded in God’s promise in Jesus Christ. It is worked in us by the Holy Spirit through that promise. Faith is centered in a person: to have faith in Jesus Christ is to have faith in God.

The question, “What do we believe?” has to do with the content of the message of the gospel, which is God’s promise to the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through this promise, the Holy Spirit effects faith as trust within us.[2] Creative critical reflection on the content of the gospel and how to articulate it in a way that is faithful to God’s promise in Jesus Christ is essential to the life and mission of the church.

It is through the gospel that the Spirit calls us into faith. That means, of course, that faith as life-orienting trust is always related to the content of the message or promise that is its source and ground. This faith has to do with the whole of a person’s life lived out in response to God’s saving love in Jesus Christ. It opens a new vision of the reality of their world in Christ, and it orients their lives in that world.

We will briefly explore several biblical texts that characterize God’s promise in Jesus Christ.

John 3:16

“God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “God so loved the world”: what people believe when they believe in Jesus Christ is not a message that is about a certain set of people – or even about believers. It is a message about the world. Jesus Christ is the event of God’s love for the world. Those who believe in Jesus Christ do not believe a message that applies only – or primarily – to themselves. They believe a message about God’s love for the world, and therefore also for themselves.

What is the world that God loves? It is the world God created through God’s Word, who is with God and is God, through whom all things were made, who became flesh in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-3, 14). It is the world of human beings, but it is also the whole creation.[3] The focus in John is on the world of human beings, although it does not exclude that wider horizon. What came to be in the Word was life,[4]  and this life was the light of human beings.

While it is the world created by God, it is a world of conflict between light and darkness. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). It is a world created through God’s Word, and it is a world that did not know that Word, which alone is the source of its existence and life. The Word came to his own, and his own did not receive him. The world God loves is the world created by God, that had turned away from God to seek life from created things that have no power to give life. It is a world under the sway of sin and death – a world under judgment.

Following the statement about God’s love for the world, John’s Gospel speaks of the reality of a world under judgment, a world that loves darkness rather than light. God did not send God’s Son to condemn the world but to save it and give it life in place of death. But judgment lies in the reality that the world loves darkness rather than light and turns toward death rather than life.

This is the story of creation, and it is the story of God’s Word, through whom all things were created, who is light and life, who became flesh in Jesus Christ. The created world has become the world turned away from God toward darkness and death – yet it remains the world created by God and loved by God. God’s Wo0rd become flesh in Jesus Christ was received with opposition and hostility, even on the part of some of his disciples (John 6:8). In the end, he was put to death on the cross by religious leaders and by the representatives of Roman justice. The light was in the world, and the world did not know him. The light came into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.

It is this fallen world, created by God and turned away from God, that God loved in Jesus Christ. Those who believe in Jesus Christ believe that he is the event of God’s love for this world. They do not believe in God’s love only for themselves or for those who believe. They live in the light of God’s love for the world. Like Jesus Christ, they are  sent into the world to bear witness to the astounding mystery of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ, not to condemn the world (see John 20:21). The person who believes in Jesus Christ believes in God’s love for the world, and that person bears witness to that love for the world in word and life.

The aim of God’s love is “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This seems to qualify what has been said in the first half of the verse. What is the relation between believing in Jesus Christ and life? It is easy to construe this in the sense that faith is a condition to be fulfilled in order to receive eternal life. In John 5:24, however, the transition from unbelief to faith is described as the transition from death to life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes the one who sent me, has eternal life; that person does not come into judgment, but has eternal life.” That is, faith is not a condition for receiving something else, namely, eternal life; faith is participation already in eternal life.

John here follows an early Christian tradition that characterizes the “already” of eternal life in terms of the triad “faith, hope, and love” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:13).[5]


[1]The words “believe” and “faith” are closely related. They translate the same set of words in Greek. “To believe” is the verb that goes along with the noun “faith,” and it means “to have faith.” The word “faith” tends to accent the aspect of trust grounded in a promise of one sort or another. “Believe” also carries that accent. But the related noun “belief” tends to accent the ideas that we believe, an accent also included in the verb “believe.”

[2] That trust is effected from outside oneself through the power of a promise made to us is not a peculiarly religious idea. Trust always has its source and ground outside oneself in the person promising themselves to us in a particular way.

[3] The creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 displays God’s interest in everything God created, not just human beings. While human beings are created in God’s image and have a particular role within the whole, they are part of the whole. The created world is an interdependent cosmos on all levels. Human beings exist for the sake of the world, just as the world exists for the sake of human beings. Created in God’s image, they are to represent and embody God’s rule in the world and to represent the world before God. It is worth noting that human beings are declared good only in the context of the whole. God’s interest in, and even fascination with, everything God created quite apart from any human interest is reflected in Psalm 104 and in God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38-41). For the cosmic scope of redemption, see particularly Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20.

[4] For this interpretation, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John(i-xii), The Anchor Bible, 29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 6-7.

[5] See

We Live within the Horizon of Mystery

Romans 8:31–39
Funeral for Michele Olson
October 2, 2009

In memory of Michele
A friend in Christ

We all live within the horizon of mystery. Like the universe itself, we are born from mystery— we live in mystery—and we live toward mystery. Why are we here? Why are we this particular, strange, and interesting person? Is there anything that holds us fast in this world filled with joy and wonder, but also shrouded with pain, suffering, and death? Continue reading

On Universalism

Dr. Priebe,
Our pastor’s husband is claiming the ELCA is engaging in “universalism.” Can you address this claim?
Thanks.

So far as I know, the ELCA has no official position favoring anything one might call universalism.

A lot depends on what you mean by “universalism.” Lutheran theology has always believed that Jesus Christ is universal: God’s love for the world in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is for all—not only all people, but all creation. This contrasts with the Calvinist idea of double predestination, which speaks of “limited atonement”: Jesus died for the elect, but not for others. Apart from the most conservative fundamentalists, most Calvinists today would not affirm the strict form of that.

Some important biblical texts are: Romans 5:6-11, 18-19 (in NT times, the opposite of “many” was “one” not “all”); Romans 11:32; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Colossians 1:15-20 (where everything created through God’s beloved Son has been reconciled to God through him); 2 Timothy 2:4-5.

This does not mean the kind of universalism that says that I know all will be saved in the final judgment, or that excludes the reality of judgment. The question of the number finally saved is God’s business, not ours. I do not doubt that there are members of the ELCA and some pastors who hold that kind of universalism. However, this is not the teaching of the ELCA, and I would reject it. There is also another kind of universalism that is culturally popular, which also is not taught by the ELCA and which I would also reject: That is the idea that Jesus Christ is only one of many ways to salvation. That would contradict the fundamental Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s Son, the second person of the Trinity, the one through whom all things were created and continue to exist and who is God’s action for the salvation of the world. Christ is not one among many pathways to God.

The universality of God’s love in Jesus Christ has huge consequences for us. First, we cannot define the limits of God’s love in Christ, and we are absolutely prohibited from passing judgment on others (Matthew 7:1-6; Romans 2:1; James 2:13). This has an interesting relationship with the temptation of Adam and Eve, to become like God, knowing and being able to define the boundary between good and evil (Genesis 3:1ff). In general in the NT the focus of God’s judgment is on those who are sure that they are righteous and condemn others.

Second, God’s grace, God’s undeserved love for sinners, in Jesus Christ is the only source of life and salvation. Nothing can be added to it, as though we are saved through Jesus Christ plus something else. Whenever we pass judgment on others we always do so on the basis of something other than God’s love in Jesus Christ, which is a form of idolatry. That means we are not saved because we are Christians or because we have faith. Grace is the cause and source of faith; it is not the other way around. We believe because we are forgiven in Christ; we are not forgiven because we believe. That is fundamental to the Lutheran doctrine of justification. Faith is not a condition or basis for salvation: instead, faith is our trust and confidence in God and God’s promise in Jesus Christ. It is our participation in the salvation God works for us in Christ—the goal in us for which God created us and redeems us. The deepest promise of salvation in the OT is that God will be our God and we will be God’s people. In his explanation of the First Commandment, Luther asks what it means to have a God. He says that our god (small g) is that to which we turn in every need, from which we seek life and security. The fundamental sin is idolatry, in which we put our fundamental trust in created things to give us life and security—even God’s gifts instead of God. That we live from God’s grace—God’s undeserved love for us in creation and redemption—and respond in the fundamental life-orienting trust that is faith is that communion with God for which God created us and which is salvation. In Galatians 3:23-26, Paul identifies the coming of Jesus Christ with the coming of faith. Of course, in this life, we always believe in constant struggle with unbelief, idolatry. That is what Luther means when he speaks of us as simultaneously righteous and sinner.

Third, this means that apart from faith we do not yet participate in salvation. It does not mean we will not in the future—nor does it guarantee that we will. A common formula in the early church said that “God does not compel faith, God persuades us to believe.” Paul says “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17). It is through hearing the promise of the gospel spoken to us as the message of God’s love and forgiveness for the world and for each one of us that the Spirit works faith in us. This means that evangelism requires Christians who believe in God’s love for the world in such a way that they dare to speak for God to people, promising God’s promise and love in Jesus Christ to them concretely and without condition. It is the Spirit’s job, not ours, to bring them to faith through this message. The most striking biblical example of God’s possibilities in Christ going beyond anything we can imagine is in 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6—one of the passages that is the basis of “descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed.

Finally, it is important to think about what it is we believe when we believe in Jesus Christ. What we believe, as reflected in the list of passages above, is that Jesus Christ is the event of God’s love for the world (John 3:16), not just for us, or for Christians, or for some people, but for the world. This is where the universality of Christ has serious consequences for the kind of world the person who believes in Christ lives in. Every person I encounter or think about, friends or enemies, is someone for whom Christ died. God’s love for that person in Jesus Christ places an absolute claim on my words and actions to speak and act toward them as someone for whom Christ died, to forgive their sins and to give them life. In the Sermon on the Mount we are to live in the reality of God’s love for the good and the evil, seen in the sunshine and the rain and ultimately in Christ’s death for them, and thus to love enemies because God loves and forgives them. Paul develops this in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21. It is also what Luther says in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment. In his 1535 commentary on Galatians 3:13, Luther says that the person who believes in Jesus Christ believes that all the sins of the world have been taken up into Christ in his death. Therefore, for God or for the person who believes in Jesus, these sins are no longer to be seen in the world. The unbeliever, on the other hand sees sins everywhere. Then Luther says that if we see anyone in terms of their sins, we deny the deity of God, because we think their sins more powerful than God. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the difference between the believer and the unbeliever: the believer sees everyone, including the unbeliever, at the foot of the cross, while the unbeliever sees no one in that way.