When Belief Is Simply Belief

Christians are entrusted by God with the work of defending the truth from the onslaught of errors that constantly oppose it. We are to be “set for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:17, KJV, NKJV, verse 16 in the ASV, RSV, ESV, NASB). We are to “earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3; 1 Thessalonians 2:2). Truth won’t be defended unless Christians do it.

One such error is the very widespread faith-only or “faith-alone” error. The prevalence of this particular error has forced truth defenders to devote a great deal of time to explaining the active and working nature of true faith. We rightly cite passages like James 2:14-26, Galatians 5:6 or Matthew 7:21 in an effort to teach people that faith must “work” and “do” in order for it to be effective.

While we deeply appreciate the great work that so many have done and are doing in opposing the faith-only error, I sometimes hear and read comments that reflect a misunderstanding about “faith.” While it is true that saving faith involves more than just an act of the mind, the role of the mind in accepting divine truth must not be underestimated. It would be awful if in the process of emphasizing the importance of doing what God says we forget the importance of believing what God says. One must hear, properly understand and accept the truth before he can effectively obey the truth. Faith is strong belief or conviction. It comes by hearing God’s word (Romans 10:17; John 5:47). This basic aspect of faith is actually intellectual. It is a function of the mind. Those who fully believe what God says have no reluctance to obey His commands or follow His instructions.

While some Bible verses, such as John 3:16, do use the term “believe” in the comprehensive sense of active, obedient faith, others use it of the act of the mind in simply accepting (believing) what God has said about a matter. In order to be scripturally baptized the early disciples first “gladly received” the gospel message that they were taught (Acts 2:41). Baptism is based upon “faith in the operation of God” (Colossians 2:12). Certain things must be believed and properly understood in order for one to be scripturally baptized. The “faith” and the “baptism” of Colossians 2:12 are not the same thing (see also Galatians 3:26, 27).

For example, when God makes promises they are to be believed. God has “promised” us “eternal life” (Titus 1:2 and 1 John 2:25). Promises cannot be obeyed but they can be believed. Abraham and Sarah were promised a son in their old age. They acted by faith when they believed God’s promise (Romans 4:21; Hebrews 11:11). Romans 4:17-21 is particularly helpful on this point. When God told Abraham that he would become the father of many nations, “against hope he believed in hope.” He unquestioningly accepted what God said to him. When God told Abraham that he would have a son in his old age, “he was fully persuaded that God was able to perform what He had promised.” So, while Abraham was commended for the working aspect of his faith (Hebrews 11:8; James 2:21-22), he was also commended for believing what God told Him.

Paul was promised by the angel of God that there would be no loss of life as a result of the sea storm and subsequent ship wreck that he and others experienced (not even the loss of a hair from their heads). He told the sailors, “Sirs, be of good cheer, for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me” (Acts 27:25). Paul believed God’s promise. Now it must be noted that the benefit of that promise was conditional. When some sailors attempted to leave the ship Paul told the centurion, “Unless these remain in the ship you cannot be saved” (Acts 27:31). Fortunately, the centurion acted upon what Paul believed from God and those aboard Paul’s ship were (physically) saved from death as a result.

Along with promises there are facts and explanations that are to be believed. One cannot obey facts but he can believe them. For example, Paul reminded the Corinthians that they had “believed” what he had earlier taught them regarding the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Their salvation depended upon their continued belief of these facts. Yes, they were baptized (Acts 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:13-16), but they were baptized upon the basis of their faith (see Romans 6:3-6, 16-18 for an explanation of the relationship between gospel facts and gospel obedience). Without belief baptism is absolutely meaningless (Mark 16:16).

In some passages facts and promises are combined. For example, Acts 1:9-11 describes the ascension of Christ back into heaven. While the apostles stood gazing up into heaven two men in white clothing promised the apostles that the same Jesus who went up into heaven will return in like manner. The fact of Christ’s ascension and the promise of His return can be believed but they cannot be obeyed. Commands can be obeyed and instructions can be followed, but facts and promises are believed.

Acts 17:31 does the same thing. Paul cites a fact and a promise. After commanding repentance (v. 30), Paul said, “Because He has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom He has ordained; whereof He has given assurance unto all men in that He has raised Him from the dead.” The resurrection of Christ was a fact that must be believed if one wishes to be saved. The final judgment of all humans is a promise that must also be believed. What if one chooses to not believe what the Bible teaches about the resurrection of Christ? After all, it is only a point of belief and does not directly relate to one’s moral conduct. Is it really important? Paul answers this question in 2 Timothy 2:16-18 where he discussed the error of Hymenaeus and Philetus. They taught that the resurrection “is past already.” Even though this was only a point of belief, the error overthrew the faith of those who believed it. It does matter what one believes! John 16:9 makes this same point. People would be convicted of sin for failing to believe on Christ.

I mentioned divine explanations. God sometimes assigns reasons as to why things are done and we believe God by accepting those reasons. For example, God says that baptism is to be saved (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21) and “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). It is for the purpose of “putting on Christ” and being added to the universal church (Galatians 3:26-27; Acts 2:47; 1 Corinthians 12:13). True faith accepts God’s reasons for baptism. The divinely assigned purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to remember the Lord’s body and blood (1 Corinthians 11:23-29). Its purpose is not to commemorate or celebrate some other event. True faith accepts God’s purpose for the Lord’s Supper.

A Rule Of Scripture Relating To The Use Of The Word Faith

The term believe (John 3:16) or believers (Acts 5:14; 1 Tim. 4:12) is sometimes used in a comprehensive sense in which it includes both the mental and active aspects of faith. However, it sometimes refers to what one processes in his mind. The rule is pretty simple. When the word “believe(s)” or “faith” is used with some other action it usually refers to the mental aspect of faith and the other stated action proceeds from that faith:

Mark 16:16 attributes salvation to belief and baptism. The belief of this verse is not baptism nor does it include baptism. They are two separate things. According to Mark 16:14-15 one must believe the gospel in order to be saved. According to verse 16 that believer must then be baptized in order to be saved. Acts 8:12; Acts 8:36-38; Acts 16:14-15; Acts 16:30-33; Acts 18:8 and Galatians 3:26-27 also distinguish belief from baptism and teach that both are required for salvation. Many of these passages also mention the teaching and hearing of the gospel message. Faith is not hearing but it is produced from hearing (Acts 15:7; Rom. 10:17).

Acts 2:37, 38 & 41 attribute salvation to hearing, faith, repentance and baptism. The reception of truth was not the repentance or the baptism. These are separate and different things. In fact, without believing the gospel one would not understand the nature and purpose of either repentance or baptism.

Romans 10:9, 10 attribute salvation to belief and confession. Belief is not confession and confession is not belief though the two are closely related. In order to be saved one must confess what he believes regarding the identity of Christ. We know Jesus as “Lord” only from what the Spirit has instructed us in His word (1 Corinthians 12:3). Faith produces the confession. This is well illustrated in Acts 8:36-38. The eunuch’s faith produced his confession and led to his baptism.

Acts 11:21 says that a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. They believed the information that they were given and this allowed them to know how to turn to the Lord. The book of Acts had already defined this action of “turning” in Acts 3:19 and 2:38. Though closely related, the belief and the turning are two different things.


While it remains necessary for us to refute the false doctrine of easy-beliefism (faith-alone), and while it it is necessary that we have an active faith (“walk” and “live” by faith, 2 Cor. 5:7; Rom. 1:17), it is also necessary that we simply believe everything that God tells us. While this may sound absurdly simple, let us remember that billions of people do not believe God — at least in areas where they choose not to. Abraham was awarded the title of the father of the faithful because he believed God even when God told him things that would have seemed illogical, impossible or even unethical (Genesis 12; 15; 17; 22). Genuine faith simply accepts what God says. Those with this faith will not refuse to obey God’s commands or follow His instructions.

—Tim Haile

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