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. 
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. 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.
“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. 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, 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).
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.”
 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.
 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.
 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.