A week ago (March 20) I received this excellent email question:
I am re-reading The Ten Most Understood Words in the Bible. I am having a problem reconciling a statement you make in the book with the stance you have on grace alone for everlasting life.
On page 22 you state, “If people have never believed that all who simply believe in Jesus have everlasting life, then they have not yet been born again.”
If all I have to do is believe in Jesus to have everlasting life, why must I also believe this? It seems you have added something to grace alone. I honestly don’t understand, and this has become a stumbling block for my sharing the message of Grace Evangelical Society.
My answer is that the object of saving faith is both the Lord Jesus Christ and the promise He made regarding everlasting life. I hope I can explain this clearly. It is not complicated, but I’ve heard this question before and I know for some it seems difficult to understand.
Jesus told Martha, “He who lives and believes in Me shall never die [spiritually]” (John 11:26). He then asked her, “Do you believe this?”
Note what “this” refers to: He who lives and believes in Me shall never die spiritually. To believe that, we must be convinced that the person who believes in Jesus will never die spiritually.
Martha said that she believed that (John 11:27). If she has simply restated what He said, she would have said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that he who lives and believes in You shall never die spiritually.” Instead, she explained why she believed that. The reason is that “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:27). That is precisely what the purpose statement of John’s Gospel says in John 20:31. To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is to believe that He guarantees everlasting life to all who believe in Him.
So what does it mean to “believe in Jesus”? Does it mean to believe that He existed? That He was born in Bethlehem? That He lives a sinless life? That He is God in the flesh? That He died on the cross for our sins? That He rose bodily from the dead? That He is coming again to set up His kingdom? All of the above?
Clearly, none of that is what the Lord Jesus was talking about in John 11:25-26. Those truths could and should lead to believing His promise of everlasting life to be the believer. But in John’s Gospel and in the entire Bible to believe in Jesus is to believe in Him for what He promises, everlasting life (see John 5:39-40).
Let’s say you believe all the things I mentioned, except you do not believe in the promise of life everlasting. Do you believe the message of John 11:26? Clearly not.
Greek and English can take two direct objects. For example, consider the statement, “I taught Jim math.” I taught Jim and I taught math. The statement, “I believe in Jesus for everlasting life (John 11:26; 1 Tim 1:16).” My belief essentially has two direct objects: Jesus and everlasting life.
Maybe an illustration will help. My Dad was a wonderful man, but he had a drinking problem. He promised many times that he would come to my baseball, basketball, and football games. Yet he rarely came. By the time I was ten (I had started playing at age 6), I had stopped believing his promises. That is, I stopped believing in him. I no longer believed what he told me. I believed he intended to do what he promised. But I also believed it was far more likely that he would not fulfill his promises.
To believe in my Dad was to believe what he said. I couldn’t believe in my Dad and at the same time disbelieve what he said. Sure, I believed he existed, that he was my dad, that he loved me, etc. But that is not what believing in my Dad means.
In the same way, to believe in Jesus is to believe what He said, and in particular, what He promised about everlasting life.
“Do you believe this?” is essentially the only evangelistic appeal in the Bible. Jesus wasn’t asking if Martha believed He existed. He was asking if she was persuaded that what He just said was true.
This message is not “the message of Grace Evangelical Society.” It is the message of the Lord Jesus Christ. We should proclaim the message which He gave us.
Admittedly, this issue has caused some division in the Free Grace movement. Some think that anyone who believes that Jesus is God and that He died for our sins and rose again is born again, even if he believes in works salvation. In that way of thinking Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, and most everyone in Christianity is born again. Other Free Grace people think one must believe in the freeness of the gift of salvation (and hence not in works salvation), but that it is possible to believe that and still not be convinced that salvation is secure. We at GES believe that, as Jesus told Martha, one must believe in the freeness of the gift of salvation and that when one believes that he necessarily believes that his salvation is secure.
The promise of everlasting life is found in John 3:16-18, 36; 5:24, 39-40; 6:35, 47; 11:25-27; Acts 16:31; Rom 4:4-5; Gal 2:16; 3:6-14; Eph 2:8-9; and Rev 22:17. If someone does not believe that promise, then He does not believe in Jesus in the Biblical sense.
I should add that the Lord Jesus taught that at the moment of faith a believer is guaranteed that he will never die spiritually. That means that if someone stops believing the promise later, he remains eternally secure. Once a person is saved, he is always saved. There is no undoing of the new birth. So if a believer loses assurance of his eternal destiny, he retains everlasting life. But if a person has not yet believed the promise of everlasting life (the second paragraph in your question), then he has not yet believed in Jesus in the Biblical sense.
There are some articles that give more details than I can in a blog. For more information, see this 2017 article by Shawn Lazar, this 2010 article by me, this 1991 article by me, and this 2006 article by me.