One of Christianity’s foundational doctrines asserts that a belief in Jesus is necessary for eternal life. Which raises a crucial question: what does it mean to believe? Many of us think it’s nothing more than cognitive acquiescence – if we say we believe, then we believe. We are convinced that on Judgment Day God will simply ask whether we believe in His Son, and if we respond affirmatively then we are whisked away to enjoy eternity in heaven.
Imagine that approach playing out at your local courthouse. The bailiff brings a defendant before the judge and reads the charges. The judge asks the defendant how he pleads and whether he committed the crime. If the defendant replies ‘not guilty’ and affirms his innocence then the judge sets him free. No trial takes place. No evidence is presented. The judge requires no corroborating proof to support the defendant’s claim of innocence.
We scoff at the absurdity of such a scenario and express relief that courts issue verdicts only after a rigorous examination of the evidence rather than simply trusting the defendant’s plea. And so it is with God. He doesn’t ask if we believe and then ignore any evidence to the contrary. Instead, he examines our lives in great detail – every thought, word, and deed. Not to determine whether we are worthy and have earned a place in heaven. None of us are worthy and heaven cannot be earned.
But our thoughts, words, and actions do evidence what we really believe. Authentic belief transforms our hearts and our souls. That’s why the apostle Paul encourages us to, ‘Examine ourselves as to whether we are in the faith,” and to “Prove ourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). He tells us that unless evidence supports our claim of belief then we have become disqualified – Christ does not abide in us.
James addresses this issue with the early church declaring, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble” (James 2:19, NKJV). The demons not only believe in God but tremble in fear of Him. But none of them will spend eternity in heaven. James is not suggesting that belief in Christ is insufficient. We know that by faith alone we are saved.
What James asserts is this: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17, NKJV). Godly works, thoughts, and words always accompany genuine faith. In their absence a fraudulent faith exists – one that cannot withstand God’s scrutiny. James summarizes that view with this rhetorical question, “If someone says he has faith but does not have works, can that kind of faith save him?” (2:14). The obvious answer, of course, is no.
Take time this week to examine your life. Does a growing body of evidence support your claim that you believe? Is your life increasingly marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If not, ask God for authentic faith that transforms your heart and every facet of your life.