In this short article, I will explain how a person receives eternal life. I will also explain some of the common misunderstandings in the Christian churches.
First, let's consider John 20:30-31: "30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: 31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name."
In these verses, John is specifically telling us that he wrote his gospel to teach people how to have life. The Gospel of John is the only book in the Bible that was specifically written to teach people how to get saved. It is the book through which we must interpret the rest of Bible in regard to how to have eternal life.
As our first example, let's look at John 3:14-15. "14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life."
From John 3:14-15, we can deduce that believing in Jesus is like looking at the serpent on the pole in the wilderness. Just as it took only one look at the serpent on the pole to be saved, it only takes one moment of believing in Jesus to receive the gift of eternal life. Eternal life is a gift (Romans 6:23, etc.) and it is indeed eternal because Jesus explains it as "not dying" (John 6:47-51).
Before continuing, it is necessary to explain what it means to believe. Believing does not have a special religious meaning. It is not a life-long process. It does not mean "to pledge allegiance" or "to be loyal to." There are many works-oriented teachers in the Christian churches who would like to change the plain meaning of believing into something deep and religious. We have to be very careful to guard against works-based salvation systems. "Pledging allegiance" and "being loyal" are not methods of obtaining eternal life.
The Bible tells us very clearly that believing is simply accepting the words of God as truth. Let's consider 1 John 5:9-11. "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son." Receiving the witness of God is just like receiving the words of regular humans. The only difference is that God's words are much more authoritative. If we compare verses 9 and 10, we see that receiving the witness is equivalent to believing the witness. Next, let's consider John 3:11-12. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?" Again, in these verses we see that believing corresponds to receiving testimony as being true. These verses are particularly important because they tell us exactly what Jesus means by "believe" in John 3:15 and John 3:16. We believe in Jesus by receiving His testimony as being true in John 3:15 and John 3:16. That is all that is required to receive eternal life. Next, let's consider John 3:32-33. "And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true." Here, again, we see that receiving God's testimony means accepting it as being true. Finally, let's look at John 12:46-48. "I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness. And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day." In verse 48, we see that to reject Jesus means not to accept his words. Believing is a passive action. It simply means to accept words as being true. In light of this, are you accepting Jesus' words about eternal life as truth? Or are you calling Him a liar by trusting in your own spiritual progress for assurance?
Okay, let's look at some more passages from the Gospel of John regarding salvation and receiving eternal life. As another example, consider John 3:18: "He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."
Notice how an unbeliever is basically defined as a person who has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. What is important is that the present perfect tense is being used. Jesus is basically saying that that an unbeliever is a person who has not ever believed; in other words, a person who has not believed even once in his or her life. Therefore, the person who is condemned is the person who has never believed even once in his or her life. Flipping this around based on the first clause of the verse, "He that believeth on him is not condemned," we could say that a person who believes even once in his or her life is not condemned. For a more detailed examination of John 3:18 and the importance of the grammar here, please see the article The Significance of John 3:18 as Proof of the Free Grace Position.
Similar to "having believed," being born again is another once-in-a-lifetime event. In fact, "having believed" is indeed being born again. According to John 1:12-13, being born again refers to the moment a person believes. To say it another way, the moment of "having believed" is the moment a person is born again. Once a person is born, he or she cannot become unborn. Likewise, once a person has eternal life, he or she cannot lose eternal life. The process is irreversible.
All born-again people should endeavor to grow in grace and virtue. But growth is not automatic, and there are many examples of born-again believers in the New Testament who were immature and did not grow at all. For example, some of the Corinthians were getting drunk in church, visiting brothels, and not being loving toward others. As a result, God chastised them and some of them even suffered a premature death. But they still remained God's children and were in no danger of losing their eternal life (1 Corinthians 11:30-32, etc.). They were in danger of losing rewards and inheritance when they entered heaven, but their salvation was completely secure (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
The implications of possessing eternal life should be apparent. Something eternal cannot be temporary (2 Corinthians 4:18), and because eternal life is a gift, it is not contingent on our behavior or faithfulness (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:8-9, 2 Timothy 2:13). To be explicit, this means that a believer will never lose his possession of eternal life even if he does not repent of sins, does not abide in the Vine, and does not endure to the end. For sure, an unrepentant believer will suffer chastisement from God during this life and most likely lose a portion of his status and rewards in the kingdom of God, but he can never lose the gift of eternal life. Repentance from sin and enduring to the end have no effect at all on a person's possession of eternal life. According to John 5:24, a believer has eternal life, does not come into judgment, and has already passed from death into life. This means that the believer cannot be cast into the lake of fire (i.e., the second death) at the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-15), regardless of how he has lived.
Let's take a look at some more Bible verse that confirm these observations. In John 4:10-15, Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman.
"10 Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. 11 The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? 12 Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle? 13 Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: 14 But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. 15 The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw."
Here Jesus is teaching that receiving the gift of God is like taking a single drink of water. Drinking means believing in Jesus as described in John 6:35: "And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." The Samaritan woman understood that it only took a single drink in her reply in verse 4:15. Also, notice that Jesus offered her the gift for free with no conditions attached. This reminds us of Revelation 22:7 where it says, "And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." Not repenting of sin is not a hindrance to receiving the gift. As it says in John 3:18 and John 16:9, the only sin that matters is the failure to believe in Jesus. And the reason the sin of unbelieving is so fatal is because it leaves a person lifeless, having not received eternal life. There is a coming judgment (John 5:29, Romans 2:16, Revelation 20:15), and believing in Jesus is the only escape from being condemned by it (John 5:24). On that day, repentance of sins will save no one. The only thing that matters is whether or not you have believed in Jesus for eternal life.
Another important thing about the Gospel of John is John's choice of words. He uses the verb "believe" 86 times, but the words "repent" and "repentance" not even once. John really wanted to emphasize that the only way to receive life is to believe. And we must always remember that the Gospel of John is the only book in the Bible that was specifically written for the purpose of evangelism. When it comes to being saved and receiving eternal life, the rest of the Bible, including the Gospel of Matthew, the letter to the Hebrews, the letter of James, the first letter of John, and Revelation must be interpreted through the lens of the Gospel of John. Books like Hebrews, James, and Revelation were written to people who were assumed to already be believers. They were not written regarding the justification of the unbeliever, but rather, the sanctification of the believer in order that the believer might glorify God, grow in virtue, and receive rewards and inheritance.
For example, consider the opening greeting in Revelation 1:4-6 and notice that it is directed to everyone in the seven churches. The author of Revelation (presumably John) assumes that people in those churches are saved. At the same time, we have many "overcomer" verses in Revelation 2-3, etc. Who are the overcomers? The overcomer is really a special type of believer just as Jesus tells us explicitly in Revelation 21:7. According to Jesus, the overcomer gets inheritance and rewards and receives the privilege of sonship. All believers are children of God, and in some sense, all believers are sons of God, but in the context of rewards and inheritance, sonship is joint-heirship with Christ for special believers, as described in Romans 8:17. This may be surprising to many people, but all of the strict teachings in Matthew, Hebrews, James, 1 John, Revelation, and the rest of New Testament are in regard to the requirements of the law, discipleship, inheritance, and rewards, and not in regard to how to enter the kingdom of God through believing in Christ. Believers are never in danger of losing eternal life, even in extreme scenarios such as falling away or apostasy (a careful reading of Hebrews can confirm this), but they can lose rewards and suffer shame and chastisement during this life and potentially at the judgment seat of Christ. Believers need to be careful not to lose their rewards: "Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward" (2 John 8).
The consequences of receiving a wrong gospel are very serious. For example, let's consider the Jews in John 5:39-47:
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. I receive not honour from men. But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive. How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?
Notice that the Jews were trusting in Moses. In particular, they tried to follow Moses' teachings and boasted about being Moses disciples (John 9:28). However, they did not believe Moses. The same could be said about Jesus. Many people are zealous regarding Jesus' teachings and desire to live as His disciples, but they have never actually believed in Him for eternal life. We can see an example of this in John 6:60-64:
Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it? When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.
Many of Jesus' disciples were offended at His words. But notice that among these many disciples, some of them had not even believed in Him. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is certainly commendable, but discipleship cannot obtain eternal life. Before becoming disciples of Jesus, people need to make sure that they actually believe in Him. Sadly, many people are trusting in discipleship as a way of earning eternal life (John 5:39). Believing in Jesus is the easiest and only way to obtain life, but because of pride and cowardice, many people reject Jesus as their sole confidence. This is because people naturally love darkness more than light (John 3:19).
There is a difference between a believer and a disciple. A believer is a person who has eternal life because he has believed in Jesus (John 6:40). All believers should become disciples, but becoming a disciple is not a requirement of receiving everlasting life. A disciple who is a believer will have an abundance of rewards in heaven (Matthew 19:27). A believer who is not a disciple will be happy in heaven, but will not have much of an inheritance there (2 Timothy 2:10-13). However, a disciple who is not a believer does not possess eternal life, and will not enter the kingdom of God until he believes in Jesus.
Jesus said that we need to receive the kingdom of God as little children (literally, as infants) (Luke 18:15-17).
And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.
Infants have nothing to offer for themselves. They can only receive gifts and can give nothing in return. In the same way, we need to receive God's gift. We have nothing to give in return, so we should not deceive ourselves with ideas about repentance, discipleship, or faithful living. We receive God's gift of eternal life by believing in Jesus Christ. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life" (John 6:47).
*All Scripture verses are taken from the King James Bible.