Friday, 26 July 2013

New Testament "Believers"

     The New Testament was initially written in a language that is generally more expressive than English tends to be, and sometimes our English versions do not fully convey the depth or the clarity communicated in the original Greek text. This is not always a weakness of translation as much as a limitation of the English language itself.
     One of these translational challenges concerns the pisteuō word group. The standard rendering of the verbal form in most English versions is simply “believe,” which effectively limits the sense to an intellectual assent to a perceived fact. It fails to communicate, however, the wider range of nuances the term would normally express to a Greek speaker in the Hellenistic world.   
     The verb pisteuō has various shades of meaning, including the following: to believe in or be convinced of something (Acts 13:12; 1 John 4:16), give credence to (Luke 1:20; John 2:22), have confidence in (Matthew 8:13; 9:28; 21:22), be assured of (John 9:18; Acts 9:26; Romans 14:2), accept either tentatively (1 Corinthians 11:18) or without doubt (John 5:38, 46), assent with conviction (Romans 10:10) or without conviction (James 2:19b), trust in and/or rely on (John 6:29; 8:31; 2 Timothy 1:12), and entrust to (Romans 3:2; Galatians 2:7). Even though the same Greek word appears in all of these passages, it is clearly not employed in the same way and its usage must therefore be determined by the context.     
     Closely related to the verbal form is the articular participle ho pisteuōn. Although typically rendered “he who believes” (denoting one’s mental assimilation), the expression is more precisely translated “the believing one” (identifying who the person is). In other words, the participial form describes more than just someone who has accepted something in his heart. It categorizes a person who is receptive to the will of God, with the attendant requisites of commitment and obedience.
     Consider John 3:16 as an example. Does this frequently acclaimed “golden text of the Bible” include or exclude an obedient response to the Lord? The passage reads in English: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV). It is not uncommon in today’s religious environment to hear this verse cited in an attempt to establish the widely held Protestant doctrine of salvation by “faith alone” and to further discount the essentiality of associated acts such as baptism. However, is it legitimate to separate a single verse from its context in order to constitute one’s entire system of faith? 
     If we take the time to read the whole paragraph (of which verse 16 is only a small part), it is hard to divorce obedience, including baptism, from the discussion. Jesus had already stated in verse 5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There is a twofold condition here for entering God’s kingdom, and the very next reference to water in this chapter is in relation to baptism (v. 23). Moreover, if we keep reading beyond verse 16, we see that the same Jesus, speaking to the same person, goes on to affirm in verse 21: “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God” (emp. added KLM). Is fulfilling the divine will contingent upon merely believing without doing, or is saving faith inclusive of an active, obedient response? By reading the Lord’s entire discourse, the answer is clear.
     The statement in John 3:16 does not actually employ the verbal form “believe” (as in most English translations) but rather the articular participial form: “all the believing ones in him.” The focus here is not on what these believing ones have done (as in v. 21) but rather on who they are in relation to where they are. They are believers, as opposed to the unbelieving world, viewed within the redemptive sphere of God’s Son (compare Galatians 3:26-27).
     Further, if one is willing to read even more of the text, John goes on to declare at the end of the same chapter: “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” (v. 36). Although some English versions fail to disclose this fundamental distinction, the contrast here is between the believer (literally “the believing one [who is] in the Son”) and the one who does not obey (literally “the one disobeying the Son”). Note that believing and obeying are not mutually exclusive in the Bible but are inseparably linked.
     Elsewhere in the New Testament this teaching is equally clear. In Acts 2:44 those simply described as “all the believing ones” are in fact the penitent baptized believers of verses 37-41. Obviously these so-called “believers” had done more than just “believe” in their hearts. Their internal acceptance of the truth was accompanied by and demonstrated through outward, observable action. 
     Who are “the believing ones” in Hebrews 4:3 who enter the heavenly rest? They are contrasted with those who are characterized by disobedience (vv. 6, 11). In fact, since “unbelief” and “disobeying” are synonymous in the context of this discussion (see 3:18-19), it follows that saving faith, as biblically defined, is more than a mere intellectual acquiescence to something but also entails one’s active compliance to the Lord’s directives (compare chap. 11; also James 2:14-26).
     Biblical faith is no more devoid of associated action than the Bible’s recurring emphasis on obedience can be understood apart from faith (see Romans 1:5; 6:16, 17; 15:18; 16:19, 26; 2 Corinthians 10:5, 6; Galatians 5:6; etc.). The concept of “believers” in the New Testament is indicative of much more than what these persons have done, i.e., they have done more than just believe. Rather, the descriptive terminology signifies who Christians are as distinct from the unbelievers who resist God and reject his will (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:22; 1 Peter 2:7; 1 John 5:10). In other words, believers are those who have accepted and obeyed the gospel and continue to faithfully adhere to the teachings of Christ – citizens of God’s kingdom and members of the household of faith. 
--Kevin L. Moore

First appearing in the Gospel Advocate 152.8 (2010): 26-27. 

Related PostsA Closer Look at John 3:16Are You Sure the Thief on the Cross Wasn't Baptized?

Image credit:


  1. Believing in Jn. 3 certainly includes obeying (with 3:36 making this clear best of all, in most translations). But whether Christian baptism is part of this obeying in Jn. 3 is not so clear. In 3:23, where water is next mentioned (after 3:5), it is about John baptizing; this is the baptizing the reader is familiar with from Jn. 1. In 3:22 Jesus and his disciples are baptizing also, which is associated in 4:1 with making disciples--with 4:2 clarifying that Jesus himself did not baptize.

    Jesus' baptism has already been described by John the Baptist has a baptism with the Spirit (1:33), a contrast with John's baptizing with water (1:26,31)--a contrast found also in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Later, Jn. 7:39 says Jesus will give (baptize with) the Spirit after he is glorified (by death and resurrection). So this baptizing in Jn. 3 (by John and Jesus' disciples, which included former disciples of John) is still like John's baptizing; it is not baptizing with the Spirit. In 7:37-38 Jesus uses the metaphor of living water to portray the "drink" or Spirit he will give to those who come to him and believe in him (and alludes to this "water" he can give in Jn. 4 with the Samaritan woman).

    So it is possible that the water of Jn. 3:5 is another use of metaphor for the Spirit, to help Nicodemus understand this "begetting" from above, which Jesus also portrays in 3:8 with "wind" (pneuma), and then speaks of the Spirit (as what the wind portrays). In 3:6 Jesus again focuses on the Spirit as the begetting from above, after his words about water and Spirit in 3:5.

    The use of water as a metaphor for the Spirit (from above) should have been understood by Nicodemus ("the" teacher of Israel) from such passages as Isa. 32:15 ("until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high"), Isa 44:2-3 ("the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb . . . will pour water on the thirsty land . . . will pour my Spirit upon your descendants"), and Ezek. 36:25-26 ("I will sprinkle clean water upon you . . . a new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit will I put within you").


  2. Thank you for your observations. Jesus affirms in John 3:5 that the requisite for entering God’s kingdom is twofold: “born of water and spirit.” Jesus does not describe the new birth as “water, which is the Spirit” but rather “born of water AND spirit.” There are two elements here, not just one.

    At the time of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, water baptism is clearly integral to the ministries both of John the baptizer and of Jesus and his disciples (John 3:22-23; 4:1-2). You say that John’s baptism “is the baptizing the reader is familiar with,” but when the Fourth Gospel was penned, Christian baptism was a firmly established practice with which the reading audience would certainly have been familiar. The baptisms prior to Christ’s death, burial & resurrection were preparatory for the approaching kingdom (Matt. 3:1-6; John 3:1–4:2); thereafter baptism remains a fundamental component of the Christian system (Matt. 28:18-20; Rom. 6:3-5). Incidentally, this baptism is administered not by Jesus himself but by his disciples.
    Irrespective of how one might interpret “baptizing with the Spirit,” water baptism cannot be divorced from the gospel scheme of redemption (Acts 2:38-41; 8:12, 36-39; 10:47-48; etc.).

    The Greek word pneuma can also refer to the human spirit, which is how Jesus uses the word in the next chapter (John 4:23-24). The balance of inward conversion and outward obedience has always been necessary in one’s response to God (Matt. 15:8-9; Rom. 6:17; Jas. 2:22; etc.). One’s spirit or heart must be born anew with the accompaniment of doing what the Lord says; and even if pneuma in John 3:5 is a reference to [the Holy] Spirit, this is in conjunction with (not instead of) water baptism (cf. Acts 2:37-41; 1 Pet. 1:22-23; etc.).