Recently I wrote a blog in which I said that before faith in Christ can occur, a person must understand the promise of everlasting life which the Lord Jesus makes to the believer. This led to an interesting question from a reader: “Where does it say in the Bible that understanding is a condition for saving faith?”
My initial reaction is to answer that one cannot believe something unless he understands that something. That seems reasonable. For example, do you believe that Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States? To believe that you must understand what the words Washington, D. C., capital, and United States mean. Let’s say you were a member of a remote tribe in the Brazilian rainforest. You had never heard of the United States or Washington, D.C. You did not know what a capital is. If someone managed to get into your remote area and ask you in your own language this question, you would say, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
However, on further reflection, it seems I should do more than appeal to reason. After all, once we go down this path, many will say they find it reasonable that saving faith requires not only understanding and acceptance, but also a willful submission and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, Gordon Clark has shown that it is illogical and unreasonable to say that. But not everyone accepts logic. Many people base their views on what seems reasonable to them.
The Scriptures do teach that understanding is necessary for faith to occur. (And they also teach that submission and commitment are not necessary for faith to occur, but those are separate issues.)
John 11:25-27. The Lord is in conversation with Martha, whose brother Lazarus had died four days earlier. Jesus then says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He then explains what He means: “He who believes in Me, though he may die, yet he shall live.” That is the promise of bodily resurrection into the kingdom of God for believers. He adds, “And he who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” That is the promise of everlasting life which can never be lost. Then the Lord Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?” The answer Martha gives is filled with the content of her faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Martha could not believe what Jesus said without understanding what He was promising.
Luke 16:30-31. The rich man is in torment in the bad part of Hades. He looks over and sees Abraham. He asks Abraham to send someone from the dead to cause his brothers to repent. Abraham speaks not of repentance, but persuasion: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Abraham speaks of persuasion. And what is persuasion? It is being convinced. In this case, it is being convinced from the writings of Moses (the Pentateuch) and the prophets that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah of Israel. Ultimately such belief includes believing the promise found in Moses and the prophets that Messiah will establish His kingdom and will reign over those who believe in Him.
It is impossible to be persuaded of the truth of something if you do not understand what is being said.
But someone might say, “I believe in electricity, though I do not understand how it works.” Believing in the existence of electricity means you have been persuaded that electricity exists. You could not believe in electricity without being so persuaded. Knowing how something works is not the same as understanding that it works.
Here are some additional Bible verses that show that understanding is required in order to believe: Matt 27:20; Luke 20:6; Acts 13:43; 14:19; 17:4, 5; 18:4; Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 2:4; Gal 5:8; Col 2:4; 2 Tim 1:12.
Some today view saving faith as devoid of any content. For some, saving faith is merely a positive encounter with Jesus. That is not correct. It is important to recognize that in the Bible saving faith, like all faith, has content. Pardon the double negative, but you cannot believe nothing. That is, whenever you believe, you are persuaded that something is true. A feeling is not belief. Love is not faith. Joy is not faith. Remember, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17).