We’re going to talk about something today that will hopefully give you some categories to think through some of the conversations you’ve likely had and hopefully will have in the future. We’ll also come to understand some of the different ways in Scripture belief and trust in God is talked about.
Language is such an important thing for the Christian to understand. It’s how we share the gospel. The gospel is communicated to us through language. We share it with others through language. It can be very difficult just to have a conversation about normal things that don’t have 2000 years of history and language development behind them. We’re often times in conversations about nonreligious things and we’ll realize that we’re talking past one another. We’re using the same terms in different ways or we’re using different senses than the other person is expecting. That just gets compounded all the more when it comes to Christianity.
Some of the largest disagreements in church history revolved around language. Now, not, “Oh, you’re being too picky and you’re using the wrong word,” no, because language and words convey ideas. That’s what we’re interested in. We’re not interested in bickering about language and word choice and things like that, except in as much as it helps us communicate accurately what the Bible actually says. We need to be aware of how words are used today in culture and in Scripture.
What I specifically want to talk about is the difference in “believing God” and “believing in God.” Believing God versus believing in God. What we also might say is “believing things about God.” I would actually say all of these are different potentially. You’ll find some people who know things about God, they believe things about God, maybe even correct things, things that you would only learn maybe at church, and yet they would not be a Christian. For instance, there are people who know God’s name, know the right way to address him, would say that, “Yeah, Jesus was a real person and he died on the cross.” They might know different Biblical facts. That doesn’t mean they’re a Christian. Believing things about God doesn’t mean that you are a Christian.
We look at James. James is talking about how the mark of a person who has saving faith is actions, good works. He says, It’s not just believing right things. Even the demons believe that God is one. It’s not simply correct propositional intellectual content that makes one a Christian. Now, the Christian should believe things about God. There is what we might say kind of a minimal set of things that you would want to believe and need to believe. That set should be growing all the time for the Christian. Christians should be learners.
To go on a little bit of a tangent here, it’s sad to me that Christianity is one of the few things that people commit their lives to and after 30 years often don’t know much more than when they started. If you were in a career for 30 years and someone came to you and said, “Hey, can you train me up in this and teach me the history of this profession and how to teach other people and how to grow in this craft?” you’d be able to yes, in your career.
If people do that when it comes to Christianity, often what the reply is, “Well, I’m not a pastor.” No, all Christians should be learning and growing to be able to pass on to the next generation and to those around them. But all of that to say, yes, believing things about God is good and essential to some degree, but that doesn’t make one a Christian.
I think of Matthew seven where people come to Jesus and say, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name?” He’s going to say, “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” To that specific group of people, that was said. Now, they knew who he was. They were even kind of shocked that he was casting them out. They knew the right things about God, but they didn’t actually have a saving faith in God.
That takes us to our second category: belief in God. Now, what’s the difference in believing things about God and believing in God? Well, language has evolved over the years, over the centuries, and “belief in,” when we see that phrase in Scripture, is really trying to capture “trust in.” Belief in is a trust in a person or a thing. If I say I believe in you, what that means is I have a confidence in you. Now, that confidence is based on something, some set of things I know. It’s also a confidence that you will do something. I could actually have a confidence in someone that’s not well-founded, it’s not based on correct facts about that person. This is where our first point and our second point come together. What we trust God to do should be based on believing the right things about God, but sometimes we trust someone to do something that they can’t do or shouldn’t do or aren’t equipped to do.
Someone very well may trust that a young child is going to clean the whole house when they’re gone. That’s just not a well-founded trust. It’s not the type of thing that that person is going to do or can do. Some people trust Jesus to do things and they’re the wrong type of things for that person or in that relationship. Let’s look again at Matthew seven. The person had a legitimate trust. They believed that God would save them and Jesus turned them away because he says they’re workers of iniquity. They did not have saving faith. They had a trust in God. Not all trust in God is saving trust. Not all faith in God is saving faith. I can have faith in someone, have a trust in someone that’s not well-founded or trust them to do something different than that person is equipped to do or says they’ll do. That’s the case with Jesus.
Some people want to trust that Jesus will save them and not come to Jesus on his terms. Jesus’s terms are faith and repentance. There’s a change of mind about sin, a change of direction, that sort of thing. That is evidenced by good works, but fundamentally what it is is a heart change that the Spirit works in a person’s life. If there’s not repentance, some people might still say they’re trusting God for salvation, but that’s not a saving type of trust, because if it were, it would be evidenced by good works and by growing in Christian life and doctrine. Now, I’m not saying growing in good works and doctrine make you saved. I’m saying it’s an evidence of that. That’s really key for us to understand. We need to believe correct things about God, that’s true, so that when we trust in God, we are trusting in the right God. Some people believe some very bad things about God to where we’re using the same word but we mean different things. I need to believe the right things about God so that I’m trusting in the right God, but I also need to believe the right things about what he will do and the terms he sets for how I come to him.
We look at the Old Testament. There were people who were well-intentioned to do good things or at least it seems like that on the face of it, but they didn’t come to God in the right way. They interposed their thoughts about how God should be approached and God rejected that type of worship and approach. That’s kind of all through the law and the circumstances of Israel not following it or trying to do their own thing or thinking God needed help. They still trusted that God would do something. I think of Moses trying to bring water out of the rock. God said, To hold his staff and speak to it. He hits it with the staff twice. He trusted that God would still bring water out of it, but he didn’t do it on God’s terms. It was an ill-founded trust in some ways. Now, God still worked through that circumstance as he often does through sinful people in circumstances, but, nonetheless, what we believe about God will fuel and inform how we trust God.
The last category I want us to look at is: believing God. Now, this might seem very close to the first one. Believing things about God, believing God, what’s the difference? I think categories two and three really go together. There are people today who are trusting God to save them, trusting Jesus to save them, but they don’t actually believe what God says. Why do I say that? There are people who will say, “I’m trusting that God will save me. I’m a Christian, but I think we can actually participate in holy same sex relationships. I don’t think all same sex behavior is wrong.” Now, what does God say about that in his word? Well, Romans one is very clear. He calls it against nature. It’s the example he gives of denying the truth in unrighteousness. It’s the example, one of them, Paul gives in 1 Corinthians six of a group of people that will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
There are people today who have a trust that God will save them and yet don’t believe God when he says that the actions they’re participating in put them in a category where he will not save them. That’s really important for us to understand. We come to God on his terms. We can trust God. We can have a belief in God, but if we’re not believing God, we often have an unfounded trust. This is really important. There are people who will trust Jesus for their salvation and say, “You know, I’m not so sure that Jonah was actually swallowed by the fish.” Well, what does God’s word say? What does God say and do I believe it? The Bible, which is God’s word, says that Jonah was swallowed and lived in a fish. I’m trusting God for my salvation. Can’t I trust what he says in other places?
Or, “I don’t believe God actually created life. I think it was a naturalistic, unguided process.” Well, what does God say? Now, we may differ on how we interpret Genesis one and two, but the theological point that is unmistakable is that God created life. Now, how did he do it? In what time period? I think all of that, we can have great conversations about. (The conversations today, sadly, aren’t always that great. They’re marked by a lot more heat than light. That’s a sad topic for another day.) But nonetheless, the theological point that we all should be able to agree on in Genesis one and two is that God created everything and specifically he created man and woman in his image. That is a theological point, but it’s also not less than a historical point. Will we believe God when he says that?
If we’re believing, if we’re trusting in him for salvation, will we believe him on things where we maybe have to exercise more trust than I would like because current culture and scientists point us a different direction? Will I believe God? My pastor, Dean Inserra, likes to say, “Will I believe God that there’s more to be gained by going to God than around him?” The second point he often makes is, “Will I believe that the way to find happiness and fulfillment and joy is going to Christ rather than by going around him?” We could expand those questions out and not just put them in moral categories, though I think those are some of the most important questions a Christian can ask. Do I believe that God’s way is better?
I can also ask the question when it comes to other things. Will I believe God even when the world says something else? Will I believe God even when my science textbook says something else? “I’m trusting him for my salvation, for my “get out of jail free card” (some people look at it that way) but I’m not going to trust him on areas where culture contradicts in other ways. I’m going to hold my religious belief as a private, personal matter that’s a spiritual type of thing.” We relativize it in that way sometimes instead of realizing that, no, it’s the same type of truth claim as “the sun rose this morning” and “the earth is made of material, gravity pulls things down, and Donald Trump is the President of the United States.” It’s the same type of claim. Am I going to believe those types of claims when I read them in Scripture? Will I believe God?
It used to be where we had to flip it around, where we had to say, “Well, people are believing things God says, but they don’t believe in God.” I think objectively sometimes that’s true. People do not have what we would call a saving faith in God, even though they believe things about God. That is James’s point among others, but now I think we also need to be equipped to talk about the flip side of that. People who are saying that they trust God, they have a belief in God, but they aren’t actually believing God. Maybe it’s on matters of sexuality or morality or science or faith or ethics. Will we believe God? Will I believe even the more fundamental claim of the Bible, that the Bible is God’s word? It must start there. Will I believe that life has dignity and is fully valuable from the moment of conception and fertilization until natural death? Will I believe that even though my culture is trying to train me differently?
Those are the questions we must ask ourselves. We must be equipped to ask those sorts of questions to someone in conversation. Just because someone gives evidences of seeming to be Christian, if they’re not living like it, we can legitimately ask the question, “Do you believe what God says about people who do these things? You’re believing God in, you say, for salvation, but are you believing what God says?” If someone is consistently an adulterer, is it right for us to give that person confidence that they’re a Christian or hold them up as an example? I don’t think it is because that’s one of the categories in 1 Corinthians 6.
Will I believe God and work in the categories he has revealed or will I make my own and still go on trusting him? When we don’t confront people with that sort of question, we leave them set up for the fall that’s described in Matthew 7, to have a confidence that Jesus will save them and to be deluded, to ultimately one day potentially hear, “Go away from me. I never knew you, you worker of lawlessness.” That’s not what any of us should want to hear. We should check our beliefs against Scripture. We should submit to what Scripture has to say, not just believing in God, but believing God when has spoken and when we speaks in his word.