Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Believe in God or Trust Jesus?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the difference between believing in God and trusting Jesus:

Q:  If a person believes in God, does that make them a Christian, or does it include something more?    

The phrase “believe in God” can be a difficult thing at times.  I think the meaning of this phrase even tends to vary depending on the generation a person comes from.

In the mid-twentieth century, the question, “Do you believe in God?” was synonymous with asking, “Are you a Christian?”  In that era, to be a mainstream American was to be a Christian, and with very few exceptions, such as the Jewish population of New York City, the alternative to Christianity was seen as Atheism.  So, in that context, the question fit the needs of the time in discerning whether one’s conversation partner was a fellow Christian or not.

Today, though, the first response of many people when asked whether they believe in God might be “Which one?”  With the introduction of eastern religions to the American scene by celebrities and popular musicians later in the twentieth century, as well as a shift where immigrants began arriving from Southeast Asia and the Middle East rather than from Europe, many different definitions of god began to reside side-by-side in our country. 

Even though this does not render all of the definitions equally valid, it does mean that one now has to discern which God one is being asked if they believe in, thus complicating the question and necessitating further inquiry before it is possible to answer. 

There is also difficulty regarding the word believe.  Today, this word typically indicates a either the non-factual acceptance of an idea, such as when asked “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” or at least a level of uncertainty about an answer, such as in the reply, “I believe my favorite driver won last night’s race.” 

Instead, the Greek word used in the Bible indicates quite the opposite.  Its definition includes such things as certainty about, reliance on, and trust in the object of belief.  So, speaking Biblically, one does not believe in God the way one believes in the Tooth Fairy or an uncertain recollection of past events.  Instead, one acknowledges God’s existence as factual, reliable, and trustworthy. 

Additionally, even having a proper definition of and certainty about the existence of God does not make one a Christian.  James writes in the New Testament, “You do well to believe there is one God.  Even the demons believe that, but they are terrified!.”  Even believing in one God and knowing who He is does not make one a Christian, since even the demons do that much. 

Believing that God exists makes one a Theist.  Believing that there is only one God makes one a Monotheist, but both fall short of being a Christian.  Instead, what defines a Christian, beyond just acknowledging that God is a Trinity and Jesus is fully God and fully human, is to trust in Jesus to forgive one’s sin and give salvation and eternal life. 

This means complete reliance on Jesus as the one and only way a person can stand in light of God’s judgment.  It includes that one trust that Jesus has both fulfilled God’s law and suffered God’s punishment as a substitute for humanity and that those promises are applied to a person through preaching, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

These things, beyond merely acknowledging God’s existence, are the definition of what it means to be a Christian, and are what the Bible means when it speaks of believing in God. 

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