Scripture says a great deal about salvation and describes in detail the requirements for sharing eternity with God. And while the Bible illuminates a clear path to eternal life, over time the church has distilled the Gospel message to a dangerous degree. Specifics have been oversimplified (and mangled) to such an extent that many churchgoers now embrace a neutered version of what Scripture teaches. While the church’s motivation may have been (mostly) pure – to attract more people to the Lord and bolster church attendance – the results likely have produced an unprecedented spiritual disaster. So severe is this distortion of foundational, biblical doctrine it risks jeopardizing the eternal destination of many would-be believers.
To fully grasp the issue we need look no further than the most recognized verse in all of Scripture, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness are on full display in those twenty-five words, proclaiming salvation for all who believe. Sounds simple doesn’t it? On the surface, there doesn’t appear any room for ambiguity.
Of course, the crux of this truth hinges on the word ‘believe.’ How we define and interpret that word is critical to our understanding of the Gospel and the prerequisite to ‘everlasting life.’ Many churches teach that ‘belief’ is evidenced by a public profession of faith in Christ, by verbalizing one’s trust in Him, or by reciting some version of a sinner’s prayer. Representing a broad compendium of denominations, traditions, and doctrine, these churches share the view that salvation occurs the moment one orally articulates his or her acceptance of Jesus as Savior, irrespective of whether any life transformation occurs or any evidence of faith is subsequently manifested.
Scripture, however, adopts a decidedly different view on what it means to believe. The apostle Paul articulates a succinct but substantive definition in his letter to the Roman church. “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness and with the mouth confession is made to salvation” (Romans 10:9-10, NKJV, emphasis mine).
Paul declares that the faith that leads to salvation involves two distinct components: professing Jesus as Lord with your mouth and believing with your heart that He is the risen Savior. Belief limited to an intellectual assent of Jesus’ lordship is insufficient. Authentic belief always flows from the heart.
This may sound like a distinction without a difference. What does it matter, some may wonder. Head or heart, it’s all the same isn’t it? The answer, of course, is that they are not at all the same. The distinction is absolutely critical; one yields a transformed life while the other produces only outward change (if any at all) and a religious veneer. The former leads to eternal life, the latter to utter destruction and ruin.
God’s Word highlights this distinction over and over again, from Genesis to Revelation. The Pharisees embodied the attitude of those who verbally proclaim faith in God but do not believe with their heart. Jesus called them hypocrites, noting “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9, NKJV).
Steeped in religion, they commanded respect within the Jewish community. They said all the rights things and appeared to behave in a manner consistent with God’s commands. But they possessed an inauthentic faith, and Jesus quickly rebuked them for the spiritual frauds they were. He informed them that their faith was futile because it was manifested in words without a surrendering of the heart.
On the day of reckoning, Christ will engage fraudulent Christians in a similar manner. These are churchgoers who, like the Pharisees, say the right things and appear religious but have never abandoned themselves fully to Jesus. Despite their claims to the contrary, they don’t possess a genuine faith because they’ve never submitted to Jesus as Lord. The totality of their faith is limited to religious acts and Christian-esque language. In short, they excel at playing church.
This may strike some as judgmental on my part, suggesting that some churchgoers have an inauthentic faith. But the view is not mine, it is Jesus’. He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV).
Like the Pharisees two thousand years ago, Jesus sees beneath the façade of faux-Christians and exposes them as religious charlatans. They have no place in God’s kingdom because they choose to follow a false gospel – one limited to verbal professions and religious antics but never rooted in the heart.
So what does faith look like when it flows from the heart? What evidence can we expect to uncover if we follow the advice of the apostle Paul, who challenged us to, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Prove yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5, NKJV). The short answer is: our lives will look a lot like what we see in Jesus’ followers as captured in the New Testament: flawed men and women who love God, desire His presence, and share the Good News of Jesus with others.
But if that response is too vague and not particularly enlightening, let’s consider a few specific points to help us determine if our faith parallels that of the disciples or that of the Pharisees. Again, these are just a few indicators of authentic faith, according to Scripture. There are others, to be sure, but these will help facilitate some healthy internal reflection.
1] Your treasure reflects the things of God. Jesus informed His followers, “Wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Genuine faith that springs from the heart stores up treasure in heaven by pursuing God’s will, advancing His agenda, embracing His priorities, and submitting to His leadership. It influences how we invest our time, direct our resources, and spend our income.
It is insufficient to simply say we treasure the things of God; the evidence ought to support our claim. This verse, then, represents a critical truth. It asserts that the one true love radiating from our heart is easily identified, because our heart and our treasure are domiciled together. Ask yourself what you treasure in life: the temporal things of this world or the eternal things of God’s Kingdom. What does the evidence show?
2] Authentic faith bears spiritual fruit. Jesus declared, “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit” (John 15:5, NKJV). The form of that fruit will vary widely by individual and may include leading others to faith in Christ, discipling new believers, sowing a seed of faith in unbelievers, watering that seed, or restoring one who has fallen away from faith. Notice that Jesus indicates His disciples will not only bear fruit for His kingdom, they will bear ‘much’ fruit. Is your life marked by production of much spiritual fruit? If not, what does the above verse suggest about your relationship with Christ?
3] Believers obey Jesus’ commands. Those who possess real faith observe God’s commandments and they are not burdensome or a source of resentment. Jesus proclaimed, “If you love Me, keep My commandments… He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me… If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:15, 21, 23, NKJV). Do you desire to keep God’s commands? Is your obedience limited to those commands that don’t inconvenience you or disrupt your lifestyle? Do you pursue Jesus’ words with joy in your heart or begrudgingly, out of a sense of obligation? While we will never perfectly follow all God’s commands, our heart ought to yearn for victory over every area of sin in our lives. Moreover, we ought to observe sure and steady progress over time in becoming more like Christ in our obedience (the process of sanctification).
4] Genuine faith produces good works. While it is true we cannot earn salvation with good works, it is equally true that the absence of good works reveals the absence of genuine faith. In his epistle, James tells us, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead … For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:17, 26, NKJV). The apostle Paul echoes this perspective in his epistle to the church in Ephesus, “For by grace we have been saved, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10, NKJV).
Do you see the relationship between grace, salvation, and works? God’s grace alone saves us, but if we are indeed saved then we pursue the good works God prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Though the substance of those works will vary by believer (just as the spiritual fruit did above), they will adhere broadly to the principles outlined in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (see Luke 10:25-37, and Matthew 25:31-46). Are you pursuing works of mercy, generosity, compassion, sacrifice, and love that help others and bring God glory?
5] A surrendered life manifests true faith. This is no mere throwaway concept but is foundational to authentic Christianity. Jesus communicated this truth on numerous occasions during His ministry and its essence is grounded in substance not superficiality.
He does not call us to express a willingness to surrender our lives or merely claim to do so. Rather, He calls us to actually and substantively yield our lives fully to Him – every nook and cranny, every thought, every dream, every act, every decision. The breadth of Jesus’ expectation in this regard perturbs many churchgoers and flat-out offends others. But Jesus does not make this demand optional for His followers.
He informs us, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it produces much fruit. For whoever loves his life will lose it, but he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25). Jesus’ metaphor is clear. We must set aside our own interests, desires, and dreams, and embrace His instead. Absent an abdication of our rights we cannot begin to fulfill the plans He has for us. Without surrender there is no salvation.
The above verses and biblical truths hardly scratch the surface of what Jesus taught about salvation and discipleship. But hopefully they rebuff the misperception that eternal life awaits those who merely verbalize faith in Christ in a single moment of time, no matter how insincere that commitment becomes. Hopefully the passages illustrate Jesus’ expectations for those who claim Him as Lord and profess their fidelity to Him. Hopefully they reveal that authentic belief flows from the heart and necessarily transforms the life of anyone who professes such faith.
Let me conclude with two critical points. First, the above elements are not requirements for salvation. In another words, God does not demand we bear spiritual fruit, keep His commands, or perform good works to secure salvation. Rather, those behaviors reveal the presence of authentic faith in our hearts, not just on our lips or in our minds. So although they do not precede salvation, they absolutely do proceed from salvation.
Second, don’t assume your salvation is sure and your faith real without looking at the evidence. What is at stake is far too important to trust to casual conjecture. Your heart may try to convince you that ‘you’re good with God’ and dismiss as poppycock the notion that any evidence will be made manifest in the life of a genuine believer. Resist that argument. Scripture makes clear that there will be overwhelming evidence of a transformed life in every believer. Remember, the Bible tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9, NKJV). It is better to trust what Jesus taught and what Scripture communicates than to trust our own deceptive heart on the issue of faith and eternal life.
No topic is of more importance. I hope the evidence in your life supports your claim that Jesus is Lord. If it does not, or you have never surrendered your life to Him, take a moment to do so now. Admit you are a sinner and ask for His mercy and forgiveness. Ask Him to wash away your sin and fill you with the Holy Spirit. Let Him know of your desire to love Him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Place your entire life in His control to be used for His purposes. Inform Him of your desire to begin a lifelong relationship with Him and begin to develop that relationship by spending time with Him in prayer and studying His word. Finally, ask Him to direct you to a local church you can attend regularly and get baptized as soon as possible.
May God bless your decision and commitment to Him.