Three impulses have shaped this message. One is that we are in the midst of a series of messages on the Apostles’ Creed, and I had it in my mind from the beginning of the semester to speak into that historic statement of faith. Second, about eight weeks ago, I finished the first draft of a book entitled What Is Saving Faith? Reflections on Receiving Christ as a Treasure. And I wanted to tell you some fresh insights that I got while writing this book. Third, we soon will learn who was elected the president of the United States — an election which put significant stress on “the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3; Colossians 3:14) that holds Christian brothers and sisters together in love. And I thought I should say something about that.
So, is it possible to build a coherent message, based on God’s word, that incorporates all three of those impulses? You will have to be the judge. But I am going to try.
One of the most provocative observations about saving faith is that the book of the Bible that talks more than any other book about the saving effect of believing never uses the noun “faith” or “belief” (pistis), but uses the verb “believe” (pisteuō) 98 times. That book is the Gospel of John. That cannot be an accident. What was John communicating to us by never using the noun “faith” or “belief” but instead using the verb “believe” 98 times?
I’m going to suggest what I think is at least part of the answer to that question — and an important part, because it reveals the nature of saving faith in a way that is often overlooked, or minimized, with the effect of weakening the church and her radical witness in the world. I don’t claim to have the whole answer as to why John wrote this way. I am sure, given how many layers there often are in John’s thinking, that this is not the whole story of why John always used the verb and never the noun. But I think it is an important layer — indeed, essential to our life of faith, or as John might prefer, our life of believing.
“Jesus is eternally satisfying bread and water, the two staples of life — in this case, eternal life.”
Often you will read in those who comment on this question something to the effect that John wants to communicate that faith is not passive but active. That sounds right. But regularly those commentators go on to imply that what they mean is that faith causes us to be active, and to do things, like obey Jesus and love each other. But when they make the move from saying “faith is active” to saying “faith brings about actions,” they have made a move that overlooks and minimizes one of John’s intentions.
I don’t think that John chose to emphasize the verb “believe” because believing causes other actions besides believing. I think he chose the verb “believe” because believing in its very nature is a kind of acting — an acting of the soul or the heart, before this acting of the soul produces any other kinds of actions. And the kind of acting of the soul that believing is reveals something crucial about the nature of saving faith itself.
And keep in mind that we really are talking about saving faith — or saving believing — in John. Over and over John says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” — that’s saving faith, saving believing (John 3:36; 3:15–16; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25; 20:31). The issue in John’s Gospel is how to have eternal life, and not remain under the wrath of God (John 3:36), and the answer is: believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
What is the nature of such saving believing? What kind of soul acting is he talking about? Let’s begin with John 1:11–13, where John shows us that believing in the name of Jesus is virtually interchangeable with receiving Jesus.
[Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
So, John chooses his words to make plain that receiving Jesus is what believing does. John interprets for us the action of the soul in believing; namely, the soul is believing in Jesus when the soul is receiving Jesus. And we shouldn’t limit receiving Jesus to the first act of conversion. Believing that saves is an act that the soul does forever.
Now, a double question arises: Receiving Jesus as what? And what is this soul act of receiving? What is the heart or the soul actually doing when it is receiving Christ? I’ll mention two answers to these questions in John’s Gospel, and then we will look at the texts.
- Receiving Jesus is the soul’s drinking the living water that Jesus is — drinking with sweet soul satisfaction.
- Receiving Jesus is the soul’s eating the bread from heaven that Jesus is — to the soul’s satisfaction.
So, believing in Jesus, in a saving way, is like eating the best food, and drinking the most satisfying water when you are desperately thirsty. John 6:35 shows that Jesus is eternally satisfying bread and water, the two staples of life — in this case, eternal life: food and drink that we must eat and drink to live forever. Jesus says,
I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
“If your soul finds its thirst and hunger satisfied in Jesus, you will never thirst, never hunger, never die.”
The parallel between coming so as not to hunger, and believing so as not to thirst tells us that Jesus saw this believing as a coming to drink and a coming to eat. This is the acting of faith — the act of believing. There is no spatial, or physical, or geographical movement at all in this “coming.” That’s not what coming means. What is moving is the heart, the soul, the will, the affections — the capacities of the soul to drink and eat and taste and savor and be satisfied.
This coming to water is the movement of thirst. And this coming to bread is the movement of hunger. These are soul movements, not body movements. They are the heart actions of desiring, longing, drinking, feeding, embracing, treasuring, tasting, feasting — on Christ.
And then notice the implication of the two phrases in John 6:35, “shall not hunger” and “shall never thirst.”
Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and
whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
The words “not” and “never” imply that coming to Jesus for soul-food and soul-drink issue in eternal life — not temporary refreshment, but eternal life. If your soul finds its thirst and hunger satisfied in Jesus — and all that God is for you in him — you will never thirst, never hunger, never die. John 6:58, “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
So, what is believing in the Gospel of John? It is receiving Jesus. And what do we receive him as? We receive him as “living water” and as “bread from heaven.” This Jesus-water and this Jesus-bread are the two staples of eternal life — food and drink. If we do not eat this bread and drink this water, we perish. That is what it means to receive him and to believe.
And so it goes throughout the Gospel of John. Believing is receiving — receiving the manifold treasures that God is for us in Jesus.
- It is the motion of God-given thirst putting its lips to the fountain of received water.
- It is the motion of God-given hunger placing its tongue on the richness of received bread.
- It is the motion of an embrace going out to enclose the received Savior (John 10:9).
- It is the soul movement of leaning into the light of received glory (John 3:18–19).
- It is the action of the glad and eager soul, opening the door for the friend (John 15:15), and Helper (John 14:16), and Lord (John 13:14), and teacher (John 3:2), and shepherd (John 10:14).
So, when I ask, “Why does John never use the noun ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ but uses the verb ‘believe’ 98 times?” my partial answer is: John loves to foreground believing as the spiritual act of the soul in receiving and coming to and drinking and eating and loving Christ. This is not yet the movement of the body in acts of hands-on obedience and love. What is moving in the act of believing is not the body, but the affections — soul hunger toward Christ, soul thirst toward Christ. John loves to speak of believing not so much as a condition or a state of the soul, but as an act of the soul — a spiritual imbibing, ingesting, embracing; savoring the all-satisfying glories of Christ.
Believing is not even a state of satisfaction in Christ or a state of pleasure in Christ. Rather, John wants to emphasize that we never put down the cup of living water, as though we’d had enough. We never lay aside the loaf of heaven’s bread, as though we were stuffed. “Believing” doesn’t do that.
“Believing is receiving — receiving the manifold treasures that God is for us in Jesus. ”
Believing is receiving constantly, and coming constantly. Christ is ever giving himself as drink and food for our souls. We are ever putting our lips to the cup, and our tongue to the bread. Life in Christ is like a branch in a vine, not like a full cup sitting on a table beside a full pitcher. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5). Believing is what a branch does in the vine. It drinks. It eats. It never stops. It abides. Forever.
There is, no doubt, more to be seen about why John loves the word “believe” more than the word “belief.” But this is one reason: he wants you to be saved, to have eternal life. And you do not have eternal life if you are not receiving Jesus as the satisfying water for the thirst of your soul and as the satisfying bread for the hunger of your heart.
This has implications for the Apostles’ Creed and for the relational stresses of the present presidential election.
When we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty. . . . I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son . . . and I believe in the Holy Spirit,” the phrase used in the early Greek forms of the Creed for “I believe in” was pisteuō eis. It’s not just I believe that; it’s I believe in — implying that our hearts are moving into these realities. And if John were our guide, he would say, “If your recitation of these realities is to be an act of your saving believing, then your believing in them must be a soul-satisfying receiving of them as an expression of all that God is for you in Christ.” When you recite, he would ask, is your soul eating and drinking with satisfaction?
John uses the phase pisteuō eis (“I believe in”) 34 times. For example, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36). This is the language of believing that saves. But at least three times, this phrase “believe in” does not signify saving faith (John 2:23; 8:30; 12:42). For example,
Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and . . . knew what was in man. (John 2:23–25)
The point is this: saying we believe in God the Father; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; and in the Holy Spirit, may not be an expression of saving believing. If it’s not, what’s missing? What’s missing John would say — and Jesus would say — is that you are not receiving, welcoming, eating, drinking these greatest of all realities as satisfying nourishment for your soul.
Finally, what about the stresses that the presidential election has put on relationships in the body of Christ? Jesus said to the woman at the well in John 4:13–14,
Everyone who drinks of this water [in this well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
Then add to that what Jesus says in John 7:37–38,
If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
“We never put down the cup of living water, as though we’d had enough.”
In other words, when we turn from the broken cisterns of this world (including politics) and drink from Christ, our hearts not only become deep, tranquil reservoirs of satisfaction in Christ; our hearts also become outflowing rivers of living water. The sweetest experiences of being filled with the fullness of Christ are those moments when the rivers of affection carry all obstacles before them in love to our brothers and sisters.
Last Sunday, I stood over there with Noël in our usual spot as Rene and the others led us to Christ in truth-saturated, worshipful singing. And as I drank from Christ in those songs, waves of affection broke over me — affection for Wayne Grudem, and Eric Metaxas, and Doug Wilson, and Al Mohler, and John MacArthur — all brothers whose perspective on this election is very different from mine. The disagreement is sharp. But what can I say? The more deeply I drink from the fullness of Christ, the more deeply I love these men.
So, I commend Christ to you as soul-satisfying living water and the soul-satisfying bread of heaven, for the sake of your eternal life, for the sake of your authenticity in affirming glorious creedal truth, and in the hope that from your Christ-satisfied heart will flow rivers of living water for the sake of unity in Christ’s body.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.