What Does it Look Like to ‘Believe in Jesus’?


John chapter three is one of those chapters that most Christians love to read. It is very familiar to most of us and contains the most well-known verse in the Bible (John 3:16). The truth is that John 3 is chock-full of glorious Christian doctrine. Here is a list of some of the themes of this one single chapter:

  • Regeneration (vv. 3-8)
  • Sovereignty of God in salvation (v. 8)
  • Love of God for sinners (v. 16)
  • Love of the Father for the Son (v. 35)
  • Atonement (v. 14)
  • Saving faith (vv. 15, 16, 36)
  • Eternal security (v. 15, 16, 18, 36)
  • Judgment of God (vv. 18-19, 36)
  • Salvation in Christ alone (vv. 16-18)
  • Superiority of Christ (vv. 28-31)
  • Divine nature of Christ (v. 34)
  • Lordship of Jesus (v. 35)
  • Triune Nature of Salvation (the Father sends the Son, the Son is lifted up, and the Spirit regenerates those who will believe)

As you can see, the third chapter of John’s Gospel is theologically rich and full of many themes that are worthy of our time and attention. I recommend you go back through John 3 with these themes on your mind. However, there is one theme that can be seen at the end of the chapter that I want to spend some time with here. The rest of this post will be an exposition of verse 36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” In this verse I want to attempt to unfold the essence of faith in Jesus.

Eternal Life in the Son

John has written in verses 15 and 16 that it is believing in Jesus that warrants eternal life. When one believes in Jesus, he or she will not perish, but will have eternal life (v. 16). Not only will believers in Christ have eternal life in the new age to come where sin and death will be no more, but in a real sense all believers in Jesus already have eternal life. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (v. 36, emphasis added). This is a hard case for eternal security and the doctrine of perseverance of the saints.

This is a vital doctrine of the Christian faith and the best news for broken sinners. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). It is not through any good deed that you do and it is not based on any level of obedience that you are made right with God. Our works are like filthy rags to God (Isa. 64:6). The answer to the ancient question of Job, “How can a man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2) is “And to the one who does not work but xbelieves in1 him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). It is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone that we are saved by the blood of the Lamb who was slain (Eph. 2:8)! Trust Christ and your sins will be forgiven! Trust Christ, and your debt will be canceled! Trust Christ, and he becomes your propitiation! When Jesus died, he died in your place. He took on your sin, though he knew no sin, and clothed you with his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Or in the words of John, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36).

Believing in Jesus is the only way to obtain eternal life and this is a free gift from God that none of us deserve and none of us could earn (Rom. 6:23; cf. Rom. 3:20, 23). Another way to say it is that the only way for us to be counted righteous before God (justification) is for us to exhibit saving faith in Jesus. Faith in Christ is the only hope for guilty sinners. But the question that I want to try to answer here is, What does saving faith look like? I think an answer can be found partly, but very significantly in John 3:36.

Whoever Does Not Obey? the Son

The first half of the verse reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” The second half reads, “…whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” This is not what we would naturally expect to see. Based on the flow of John 3, we would expect John to write something along the lines of this: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not believe in the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Since it is believing in the Son that warrants eternal life, it would follow that it is not believing in the Son that leaves one in their condition of guilt before God and they will ultimately be eternally punished rather than eternally blessed. It would make sense for John to have written it this second way because the reconciliation between man and God is Jesus Christ. So, not believing in him should cause someone to not see life. However, this is not what John wrote.

Why did John write “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life?” I think this shift that at first seems like a mistake tells us a lot about what this kind of faith looks like. John has almost over-emphasized the truth that it is belief in Jesus alone that leads to eternal life. Before he leaves this point, he gives us a clear picture of what saving faith looks like and what it doesn’t look like.

Challenging Parallelism

The parallelism in John 3:36 between believing in the Son and obeying the Son is very interesting. It is disobedience rather than disbelief that is contrasted with belief. This is a clear indication that disobedience is a vivid expression of unbelief. Believing in Jesus and obeying Jesus are tied together in such a way that it is impossible to have one without the other. Simply put, you cannot believe in Jesus and unrepentantly disobey him. Likewise, you cannot obey Jesus without trusting in him. Faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Saving faith is not merely cerebral submission to facts. Saving faith in Jesus is highly practical. Tom Schreiner writes, “Faith obeys Jesus…John cannot conceive of those who believe in Jesus but fail to obey him.”

This is so challenging. This means that you are eternally sadly mistaken if you think for one second that you can believe in Jesus without obeying him. Believing or reciting certain facts about Jesus means absolutely nothing apart from obedience to Jesus. Faith viewed in these terms makes total sense of the final judgment. All believers and unbelievers alike will be judged according to their deeds (Eccl. 12:14). What will matter is if these deeds flowed from a heart trusting in King Jesus or a heart trusting in “king self.” Trusting Jesus means that you keep his commandments (John 8:51, 52; 14:15, 23, 24; 15:10). Refusing to obey Jesus is a demonstration of your lack of love and trust in Jesus. I can say that I believe that my wife will not poison my supper, but I really do not believe in her if I do not eat what she cooks. John brings this same point out later in his first letter when he writes,

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (1 John 2:3-6; cf. 3:22; 5:3).

The best way for me to love my wife is to tell her and affirm my words by my actions. It is the same with saving faith. Saving faith is evidenced by obedience to Christ. Love for Christ is evidenced by keeping his word and commandments. Schreiner is again helpful on this point:

Another way of putting this is that those who believe in Jesus “abide” or “remain” in Jesus (John 15:4-5). Those who do not continue in Jesus will be cast aside and perish forever (John 15:6). True disciples continue in Jesus’ words (John 8:31; 15:7); they remain in Jesus’ love by keeping his commands (John 15:9-10).

Trust and Obey

If the faith you have in Jesus is not serving, or leading to obedience to Jesus, it is valid to question whether the faith you have is true saving faith or a mere cerebral submission to facts. Knowledge of facts is the beginning of saving faith, but it is not saving faith. It is inconceivable for belief in Jesus and obedience to Jesus to be severed. The latter fuels the former as both serve your affections in God. Saving faith is a total distrust of self and a total trust of God in Christ. Saving faith is delighting in Jesus above all other fleeting pleasures. You exhibit saving faith when Jesus is your supreme treasure. And this is not legalistic. God’s grace is highly powerful and practical. The only way for you to obey Jesus is to believe in himBut, if your faith in Jesus does not produce good works, then your faith is dead and so are you, still dead in your sins.

I pray that if you personally realize that this dead faith is the kind of faith you have been holding, that this post would be a means of grace to call you to truly believe in Jesus for eternal life. The essence of saving faith according to John 3 is seeing and savoring Jesus for who he is and as a result abiding in him, resting in him, obeying him and keeping his word. Saving faith is not dead because the Object of saving faith is not dead. He is alive. Believe in Christ today. Live.

Trust and obey, for there's no other way 
	to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
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