Acts 16:31, after Paul and Silas are miraculously released from prison, the jailer obviously impressed with fantastic occurrences that freed them asks the simple question “what must I do to be saved?” To which they gave an equally simple answer, “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved”. Simple. And isn’t that in line with modern day prescriptions? No need to break down the 10 theological points or the 4 spiritual laws or taking them down the Romans road. For it is a simple belief in Jesus that will unite you to God and that’s all that’s needed. Or is it?
I think we live in a day where it is easy to confess Christianity, to say that I believe in Jesus. When asked “are you a Christian”? Response…yes, I believe in Jesus. One may even go so far as to claim the sinner’s prayer as their rite of passage into Christianity. I believe in Jesus because he died on the cross for my sins and I’ve asked Him into my heart. Well, then it’s a done deal.
But I think a further examination of what believing in Jesus entails and also what transpires in the Acts account of the jailer. For it is interesting that, despite the simple prescription that Paul provides, vs. 32 indicates that they spoke the word of the Lord to him. My Expositor’s Bible commentary indicates that speaking the word of the Lord to him was to explain the good news of redemption in Christ for them in terms they can understand. It sounds like there was more to believing in Jesus than just saying, yes I believe in Him. The had to break it down for him and unpack what believing in Jesus meant.
I think this is significant. It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that in an effort to accommodate seekers of Christianity and not make salvation invitations too burdensome, that we’ve lost this very important explanation process. They just need to know that Jesus died for their sins. Why bore them with details. What is even worse are the “altar calls” that I have heard that doesn’t even include this basic point. Your life is not going right? You know something is missing? You want to get right with God? Come to the altar. Now I am not saying that every situation is going to warrant a long diatribe, but if an offer of salvation goes forth, isn’t it fair for people to know what we are asking them to believe? Are even professing Christians aware of the basis of their belief? Does the simple message of Jesus dying for sins really get the point across, especially to an unchurched, badly-churched or other world-view person? Will it really get to what is being asked of people to put their trust in?
And trust is a key factor in belief. Now I am a lowly 2nd semester greek student, but I find it interesting that the root is the same for both the verb “believe” and the noun “faith” (if would learn to type in unicode I could actually put the greek word here). The BDAG Greek-English lexicon provides these explanations for the verb, believe as the following:
- to consider something to be true and worthy of one’s trust
- to entrust oneself to an entity in complete confidence
So believing in something means that there must also be trust. I think many people are aware of the events concerning Christianity, especially those who have been grounded in church. But giving something a intellectual assent is not the same as believing. I can look at a chair and believe that it is a chair and that it is designed to hold me up when I sit down it. But the use of the chair will not be activated if I don’t have faith in the chair that it will in fact do what it is designed to do. It will not be valid for me unless I place my trust in it. So belief in Jesus Christ must entail an element of trust.
But what are we trusting in? Christianity has gone through 2,000 years of historical development through which many deviations from the central message has occurred. What do you imagine they explained to this jailer of what believing in Jesus meant? I believe the accounts in Acts clearly outline principles that incorporate this element of trust into what believing in Jesus really means. And when reconciled with the whole counsel of Scripture identifies key elements that incorporates a faith in Jesus Christ.
The Person of Christ
Christianity flowed through promises that God made to His covenant with Israel. I think we gloss over that in 21st century from our Gentile perspective and maybe even consider it irrelevant today. Going back to the day of Pentacost, I believe Peter sets the stage. Speaking to a Jewish audience, Peter describes for them this Jesus in Acts 2:22-36. For a Jew this was significant because the Jewish hope for restoration and fulfillment of covenental promises was found in the messiah. The messiah would not be just another king nor one of God’s prophets. The messiah would be God’s anointed king, succeeding from the line of David embodying the spirit of YHWH. The Jews were basically looking for God Himself to come through divine representation.
But Peter had understood this prior to that day. When Jesus asked him, who do you say that I am? You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He was saying, “you are the messiah, the one whom God has sent to fulfill these promises”. Peter recognized Him as deity. Also, consider Stephen’s rather lengthy recitation in Acts 7. Christ was explained. John makes it a point in His gospel to get to this right away. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. God among us, emptying Himself to become a sacrifice, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
In Acts 10, Peter recognizes that the covenental promises of God were not just meant for Israel but for all peoples who would believe in Jesus, which he makes clear in vs. 36 “the word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ. Thus, by appropriating faith in who Jesus was, Gentiles could now be the recipients of covenental promises. So getting back to the Paul, Silas and the jailer, I have to imagine that this explanation was part of the redemption package explained to him, that he was once far off from these promises could not access them through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 11-13) and it starts with recognizing who He is.
I think its fascinating that so much doctrine developed through the work of councils due to heresies concerning the person of Christ. The councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon were critical answering the question of who is Christ. He did not become God at birth nor was he never man, as some supposed, but fully God and fully man. Some thought other details were too nitpicky. What does it matter regarding the substinence of Christ, whether He was 2 people in one, whether He was a whole new 3rd person or had one will instead of two? This seems so trivial. And doesn’t that resound today? Why cause division with details or make much ado about too much. But I think that Irenaeus, Athanasius, Flavin and Leo understood that we can’t put trust in someone who is not. If we get Christ wrong regarding who He is, then the whole thing falls apart.
Would one need to immediately understand all of this to profess faith in Christ? Absolutely not. But if one professes Christ, and in turn is indwelt with the Holy Spirit who bears witness to Christ, would that person then refuse to acknowledge Christ on His terms? How then can we profess faith in Christ and not believe in who He is? So placing faith in Christ would necessitate understanding His person, that He is the Christ, Son of God who descended from heaven, born of a virgin, becoming man, yet sinless to restore humanity to right relationship with God.
The Work of Christ
Paul and Silas had to explain to the jailer the purpose that God became flesh to dwell among people, the significance of His death, burial and resurrection.
What exactly did Jesus do on the cross? Now here is where I think a breakdown can occur today given the diverse soteriological positions. But I think these events have to be viewed in a Jewish context because that is what Christianity flowed out from. And I further believe this is probably how things were explained to the jailer, that he could become part of the people of God, not through enjoining himself with Judiasm and following Torah, but because Christ gave himself as a final sacrifice. He bore the penalty for sins, nailing them to the cross, so the promises of God are now available to those that believe in what He has done. You Mr. Jailer can now be in right standing with God on the basis of what Christ has done. To have access to the promises of God by merely becoming an example of obedience that we follow or that God would not require payment for sins, I believe would have been a foreign concept in a Jewish context.
[Note: I am aware that there are many respected theologians who hold to a governmental theory of atonement. While I do not believe this view adequately addresses the transactions on the cross, it is hard for me to question their salvation and refuting this position is not the purpose of the post anyway…so don’t go there]
Therefore, to believe in Jesus is to entrust in the what He accomplished. I think that is why Paul got so miffed at the folks in Galatia because they were turning from a trust in Christ to a trust in circumcision in order to achieve right standing with God. Paul was harsh and anathemizing the judaizers for preaching “another” gospel. Did they believe in the events of Christ? Sure they did but they were no longer placing trust in what He did since their actions indicated something else was needed. They were not believing in Jesus.
So what does all this mean for us? It means that saying we believe in Jesus is packed with a complete understanding of who He is and what He has done. And I think that at a time when Christianity was so new and not disturbed with 2,000 years of development and deviations, even then the message of salvation was explained. It wasn’t given sound bytes or diluted with a pop-culture, have a better life message. The fact that we can fast-forward to where we are now, and especially having so many deviations and distortions in the message, that an even fuller explanation that what would have occured then is probably even better for creating a real basis in what we are believing in and what we are asking others to believe in. Again, I am not saying that a seeker or a newbie to the faith, needs to recite accurately the complete message of Christ but they at least should be aware of what it is. I’ve heard some pastors reject this idea, that we need to make it as simple as possible. But in that simplicity of one or 2 sentences are we really providing a reasonable basis for belief? Just some stuff I think about.