Gospel Guidebook: Getting and Keeping It Right  

Belief or Trust?

In my beliefs page, I made the following statement:

I interpret the verb "believe" as "accepting or receiving something as being true." This would include the "believe that" expressions in John 8:24, John 20:31, and 1 John 5:1. I construe the expressions "believe in," "believe into," and "believe unto" as being essentially equivalent to "believe that" and interpret them as "accepting or receiving someone as being truthful." These expressions would include John 3:15, John 3:16, and Acts 16:31.

In this short article, I intend to explain my position in greater depth and show that ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (the one who believes in him) in John 3:15 could be interpreted as "the one who believes Him." This would mean that the expression ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (the one who believes in him) basically parallels ὁ πιστεύων αὐτῷ (the one who believes him).

(UPDATE: Several months after writing this article, I learned that the scholar Rudolf Bultmann came to a similar conclusion on page 203 of Volume 6 of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. He wrote, "Particularly distinctive is the common πιστεύειν εἰς (→ II, 432, 31 ff.) in the sense “to believe in,” which is neither Gk. nor LXX.220 This can hardly be regarded as a development of πιστεύειν c. dat. == “to trust.” On the contrary, πιστεύειν c. dat. is used more after the analogy of πιστεύειν εἰς for “to believe in.” The fact that πιστεύειν εἰς is equivalent to πιστεύειν ὅτι shows rather that πιστεύειν εἰς arises out of the use of πιστεύειν for “to regard as credible, as true.” πιστεύειν εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν (Gl. 2:16), εἰς αὐτόν and εἰς ἐμέ (often in Jn.) etc. simply means πιστεύειν ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἀπέθανεν καὶ ἀνέστη … (1 Th. 4:14; cf. R. 10:9) or ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ χριστός (Jn. 20:31) etc. In Jn. esp. πιστεύειν εἰς and πιστεύειν ὅτι are constantly used interchangeably in the same sense." END)

As an initial observation, we see that πιστεύω + a noun in the dative case (e.g., believes him) parallels πιστεύω + the preposition εἰς + the noun in the accusative case (e.g., believes in him) in John 6:29-30 and John 8:30-31. In contrast, we see the reverse in John 14:11-12 and Romans 4:3-5.

John 6:29-30 ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τοῦτό ἐστι τὸ ἔργον τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἵνα πιστεύσητε εἰς ὃν ἀπέστειλεν ἐκεῖνος (you believe in him whom he has sent). εἶπον οὖν αὐτῷ, Τί οὖν ποιεῖς σὺ σημεῖον, ἵνα ἴδωμεν καὶ πιστεύσωμέν σοι (we may believe you); τί ἐργάζῃ;

John 8:30-31 ταῦτα αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος πολλοὶ ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν (they believed in him). Ἔλεγεν οὖν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πρὸς τοὺς πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ (them having believed him) Ἰουδαίους, Ἐὰν ὑμεῖς μείνητε ἐν τῷ λόγῳ τῷ ἐμῷ, ἀληθῶς μαθηταί μου ἐστέ·

John 14:11-12 πιστεύετέ μοι (believe me) ὅτι ἐγὼ ἐν τῷ πατρί, καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ἐν ἐμοί· εἰ δὲ μή, διὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτὰ πιστεύετέ μοι (believe me). ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὁ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμέ (the one who believes in me), τὰ ἔργα ἃ ἐγὼ ποιῶ κἀκεῖνος ποιήσει, καὶ μείζονα τούτων ποιήσει· ὅτι ἐγὼ πρὸς τὸν πατέρα μου πορεύομαι.

Romans 4:3-5 τί γὰρ ἡ γραφὴ λέγει; Ἐπίστευσε δὲ Ἀβραὰμ τῷ Θεῷ (he believed God), καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην. τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ ὁ μισθὸς οὐ λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν, ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὸ ὀφείλημα. τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ, πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ (the one who believes on the one justifying the ungodly), λογίζεται ἡ πίστις αὐτοῦ εἰς δικαιοσύνην.

More importantly, in 1 John 5:10, we see that πιστεύω + a noun in the dative case (e.g., believes him) parallels πιστεύω + the preposition εἰς + the noun in the accusative case (e.g., believes in him), but then we immediately see the reverse where the latter parallels the former. Later on in the article, we will see that this verse is basically a proof-text for my assertion regarding πιστεύω + the preposition εἰς + the noun in the accusative case (e.g., believes in him) paralleling πιστεύω + a noun in the dative case (e.g., believes him).

1 John 5:10 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ (the one who believes in the Son of God) ἔχει τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἐν ἑαυτῷ· ὁ μὴ πιστεύων τῷ Θεῷ (the one who believes God), ψεύστην πεποίηκεν αὐτόν, ὅτι οὐ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὴν μαρτυρίαν (the one who has not believed in the testimony), ἣν μεμαρτύρηκεν ὁ Θεὸς περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ.

In addition to the above, we also see that the usage in John 6:47 parallels that in John 5:24.

John 5:24 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ὁ τὸν λόγον μου ἀκούων, καὶ πιστεύων τῷ πέμψαντί με, ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον·(the one who believes the one who sent me has eternal life) καὶ εἰς κρίσιν οὐκ ἔρχεται, ἀλλὰ μεταβέβηκεν ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου εἰς τὴν ζωήν.

John 6:47 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὁ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ, ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον. (the one who believes in me has eternal life)

In contrast with Classical Greek, Koine Greek uses "prepositions with a particular case" (e.g., verb πιστεύω + preposition εἰς + accusative noun αὐτὸν, meaning "believes in him") more frequently than "cases without a preposition" (e.g. verb πιστεύω + dative noun αὐτῷ, meaning "believes him") in order to improve explicitness and convey subtle nuances. According to Daniel B. Wallace on page 164 of The Basics of New Testament Syntax, "Therefore, the use of a particular preposition with a particular case never exactly parallels—either in category possibilities or in relative frequency of nuances—the use of a case without a preposition" (italics and bold text are Wallace's). However, in saying this, Wallace is speaking of the whole semantic range of "a particular preposition with a particular case" versus "a case without a preposition." This is clear from the chart he shows immediately under this statement. Here is the chart:

Semantic Overlap Between Simple Case and Preposition + Case

According to Wallace's chart, we see that although the entire semantic range never exactly parallels each other, specific use cases certainly do parallel each other.

In terms of what I said above about interpreting ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (the one who believes in him) in John 3:15 as "the one who believes Him," I think it is important to think this through logically. Even if ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (the one who believes in him) parallels ὁ πιστεύων αὐτῷ (the one who believes him) in some passages, such as John 3:15, that doesn't mean that ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (the one who believes in him) necessarily means or always means ὁ πιστεύων αὐτῷ (the one who believes him). It is simply a possibility. However, the opposite is also a possibility, namely, that ὁ πιστεύων αὐτῷ (the one who believes him) could mean ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (the one who believes in him). Finally, it is possible that ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (the one who believes in him) and ὁ πιστεύων αὐτῷ (the one who believes him) are not parallel at all. In such a case, their meanings are distinct and cover different semantic ground. I mention all of this as a disclaimer. Having said that, however, I do believe there is evidence that ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν (the one who believes in him) parallels ὁ πιστεύων αὐτῷ (the one who believes him).

In a couple of my previous articles, I pointed out that the meaning of "believe" is explained to us in the context of John 3:15. More precisely, in John 3:11-12, we read, Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? In this passage, we clearly see that "to believe" is equivalent to "receiving witness." In addition to John 3:11-12, we have a few other passages that convey this same meaning of "believe," including John 3:32-33 (in the context of John 3:36), John 12:47-48, and 1 John 5:9-10.

Let's now take a look at 1 John 5:9-10 because I think this passage is highly relevant to this discussion. In those verses in Young's Literal Version, we read, "9 If the testimony of men we receive, the testimony of God is greater, because this is the testimony of God that He hath testified concerning His Son. 10 He who is believing in the Son of God, hath the testimony in himself; he who is not believing God, a liar hath made Him, because he hath not believed in the testimony that God hath testified concerning His Son;" (I underlined the relevant parts.)

For starters, in 1 John 5:9 we see that the main issue at hand is receiving God's testimony. John compares receiving God's testimony to receiving a man's testimony. They entail the same passive act of accepting a statement as being true, with the exception that God's testimony is much more authoritative. In 1 John 5:10, we see that "believing in the Son of God" equates to "having the testimony in oneself" (i.e., believing in Jesus equates to receiving his testimony as being true into one's heart or mind). This observation alone provides evidence for my assertion. However, we have even greater evidence for it if we keep reading 1 John 5:10. What we find is that "believing God" (without the preposition) parallels "believing in the Son of God" (with the preposition), but then that "believing in the testimony" parallels "believing God." What is especially important here is that "believing in the testimony" follows the exact pattern of πιστεύω + the preposition εἰς + a noun in the accusative case. It is important to notice that "believing in testimony" with the preposition is semantically the same as "believing testimony" without the preposition, and that, according to the Apostle John, "believing in the testimony" is the same as "believing God," which is the same as "believing in the Son of God."

In addition to 1 John 5:9-10, in John 1:11-12, we see that being born again is a passive act of receiving: 11 to his own things he came, and his own people did not receive him; 12 but as many as did receive him to them he gave authority to become sons of God—to those believing in his name, In John 1:12 we see that "receiving" is basically defined as "believing in" (πιστεύουσιν εἰς, as in John 3:15, etc.). Again, this is highly relevant. It suggests that "believing in" is a passive act, not an active act.

Many people regard "believing in" as meaning "trusting," but I suggest that "trusting" is an inferior choice of words. Certainly, "trusting" can be construed to mean passively "receiving witness as being true," but it can also be construed to mean actively "relying on someone." It can't mean both of those things at the same time without partially committing an illegitimate totality transfer, so the danger is that people will understand it as meaning the latter as opposed to the former. Perhaps more dangerous, however, is that people will load the word "trust" with theological bias, causing it to mean something like "committing one's destiny to someone," "becoming a disciple," and/or "pledging faithfulness." It is my opinion that the word "trust" should be avoided in salvific passages.

In salvific passages, "receiving witness as being true" is the only critical issue. More specifically, I believe that "receiving someone's witness as being true" takes precedence over "trusting" (construed as meaning "relying on someone") both temporally and functionally. Temporally speaking, I suggest that it is much more likely that a person passively "receives somebody's witness as being true" before he or she actively starts to "trust" that person. In other words, a person usually trusts someone because he or she has already received that person's witness as being true. It is kind of hard to imagine trusting someone who we deem to be a liar. We trust people we believe are truthful. Functionally speaking, in addition to the passages cited in the above paragraphs, we have Jesus' testimony in John 10:38, But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him. When this verse (as well as John 14:11) is compared with John 5:36, we see that the issue at hand is not trust. The main issue is believing the works that testify that the Father is in Him and that the Father sent Him (see John 5:36). In this case, even if someone does not "trust Jesus" or "receive Jesus' personal witness as being true" (see John 8:13), He is still exhorting His hearers to "receive the works as a truthful testimony." In other words, despite what anyone thought of Jesus personally, all they needed to do was "believe" (i.e., receive the witness of) the works the Father was doing in Him.

My opinion is that "trust" is an implication (although not a necessary one) of "receiving witness as being true." Nearly everyone who "receives Jesus' testimony as being true" goes on to "trust Him." However, I do not believe that "trust" is an essential element of being born again. To be born again, all a person has to do is "receive the witness" about Jesus being the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31) "as being true." And I believe this understanding coincides well with the Gospel described in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. In those verses we read, For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: Notice that the Apostle Paul "received" this message and anyone else who "receives" this message as being true is saved. It only involves passively receiving the witness that Christ died for our sins as being true. It is passive because the work of the cross has already been completed. We just need to accept it as true. There is no need to trust that Christ will save us. He already accomplished our salvation and we simply need to accept it as being true. (And this is where a belief in Christian Universalism really helps to clarify the truth of the Gospel, namely, that the work of salvation has already been actually (as opposed to potentially) accomplished for every single person without exception.) Of course, trust plays an extremely important role in our Christian lives as we grow and mature in sanctification, but it is not an essential element in our justification.