I was heading out to my office, which is behind my house, and my wife stopped me. She said, “Did you take my dongles?" They weren’t dongles, I thought but didn't say. I knew what she was referring to, but I decided to be an annoying know-it-all instead of a helpful husband. That's because as far as I was aware, a dongle is a small device that you can plug into a computer. It acts as a digital access key for either broadband or a specific software package. In the strict sense of the word, neither my wife nor I have ever owned a dongle.
"No, I didn't take your dongles," I said, referring to the strictest sense of the word. If we'd never owned any dongles, how could I have taken hers? though, I knew from the look on her face that she was not asking me if I had stolen something that she had never had in the first place. At this point, I was just playing coy.
“Didn’t you take them the other day?” she asked, clearly referring to items which were in her possession previously. I then had to ask the obvious question.
"What do you mean by dongles?" What's funny about this exchange—maybe not funny to her—was that I knew what she was talking about the whole time. I had taken her flash drive and USB converter. Even though I knew what she was talking about, I was dodging her question because she used a word that I thought meant something else.
It turns out I'm an annoying blunder head sometimes. This kind of thing happens all the time. Whether we agreed on the meaning of the word or not, I knew what she meant because of context. By context, we can learn what a person means even if we don't know what a word means. This is how infants learn a language, and it's how language experts decipher unknown script. We'll use the same context awareness ability to reinforce the meaning of the word believe. We’ll do this by looking at how it is used in the Bible.
Paul, Luke, John, and Jesus all used the word believe as a synonym for being persuaded or convinced. In a fascinating passage in Romans, Paul talks about the belief that Abraham had. Notice from this passage what Paul uses as a synonym for belief and faith:
He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore it was accounted to him for righteousness. (Romans 4:20-24)
Paul is describing Abraham's saving belief. This is the belief that got Abraham saved. The synonym used for Abraham’s belief is fully convinced. Abraham believed that God would fulfill His promise.1 Abraham was saved by being fully convinced that God’s promise would come true. That is what it means to believe according to Paul, being fully convinced.
Paul is not the only NT writer who uses these kinds of synonyms for believe and faith. Note Luke’s words in Acts 17:
[In Thessalonica], some of them, were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas…. [In Berea] many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men. (Acts 17:3-4, 12)
Clearly, Luke is using a familiar formula to explain the outcome of Paul’s preaching first in Thessalonica and then in Beria. It’s of particular note that in this formula he sometimes uses the words were persuaded, and at other times uses believed. This could only happen if these two were proper synonyms. It would be ludicrous to think that those who were persuaded had done something less than those who had believed. In another place Luke writes:
And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved. (Acts 28:24)
Obviously, Luke uses were persuaded as a synonym for believed, since disbelieved is the word he chooses as the opposite of were persuaded. Were persuaded is a synonym for believed. The apostle John uses the word believe in the same way.
Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your son lives.” So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way. (John 4:50)
What could this mean, except that the man was persuaded that what Jesus had said was true? As Earl Radmacher points out, this is not an instance of a belief that leads to eternal life but instead a belief in a simple truth Jesus had spoken.2 There is no ethereal coloring to the word, nor is there an esoteric underpinning. Was persuaded, is a perfectly adequate synonym for believed in this sentence, and in all of John’s writings. To claim that this type of belief is somehow different from saving belief/faith is to skew the intent of the words John used. Thus, what some might call factual belief is of the same essence and nature as saving belief.
Jesus, too, uses the word believe in a way that stands as a synonym to be persuaded or be convinced. In speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar Jesus reveals the simple meaning he employs when he says, believe:
“Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father….” (John 4:21)
Clearly, what Jesus is asking the woman to do is be persuaded that His statement is true. He is encouraging her to be convinced of His words. In this sentence, He's not asking her to do any more than that. This is the way in which Jesus uses this word throughout the Gospel of John.
What changes throughout the Gospel is not the meaning of the word believe, but the content that He expects his listeners to believe. Sometimes He’s convincing His listener of simple facts. Sometimes He’s convincing His listeners of saving facts; that is, facts that if believed would bestow upon the believer eternal life. Whenever the word believe is employed, John or Jesus Himself is attempting to convince the listeners of the truthfulness of a particular statement or claim.
So using the term saving faith or saving belief is a bit of a misnomer since simple belief and saving belief are, in essence, the same kind of belief. The difference between these is not in what kind of belief a person has but what facts are being believed. Distinguishing between simple facts and saving facts would be a more useful distinction than trying to maintain that there is a difference between saving faith and regular faith. Though I don't agree with everything Dr. Clark has written, on this point, I believe his quote is pretty powerful:
Faith, by definition, is assent to understood propositions. Not all cases of assent, even assent to Biblical propositions, are saving faith; but all saving faith is assent to one or more Biblical propositions.3
He admits that faith (and belief) is mental agreement. If Jesus intended to use the word believe differently when He discussed saving belief, then there would be evidence in the text. There simply isn't. I like what David Anderson wrote on this subject:
We have no conclusive evidence in the NT for different categories of faith… Faith is faith, real faith, genuine faith, through and through.4
There is another problem at play in addition to this. No doubt you’ve noticed that not everyone agrees on what it means to believe. In fact, when I was in Bible college, I had a professor who outright claimed, "when you see the word believe in the Bible you have to understand that believe implies repentance.” I was stunned since repentance has a different definition than believe. He gave no more explanation than that, but it always sat like a prickly barb in the pit of my stomach. I never felt right about it during college, and now I know it’s simply incorrect.
Pastors, preachers, and worrisome grandmothers through the ages have tried to connect extra meaning to the word believe or even replace it with the word behave. They often say that believe also means commit, repent, or submit. This is not how Greek literature used the word believe, and it’s not how the Bible uses the word believe.
Think about John 4:10 where Jesus says, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming….” Could commit, repent, or submit be used as a synonym for believe in that sentence? Let’s see. The verse would then read: “Woman, repent of Me, the hour is coming…” Yikes, that doesn’t make any sense. Maybe, “Woman, make a commitment to Me, the hour is coming….” Sounds like he’s pressuring her to marry Him even though they just met. How about, “Woman, submit to Me, the hour is coming…” That’s weird. It sounds like something Darth Vader might say. You get the idea. Commit, repent, and submit are not good synonyms for believe. Asking her to repent, commit, or submit doesn’t fit the context. If you read the Gospel of John, thinking that believe means any of these you’ll miss the meaning of the book.
It should be clear to any fair-minded reader that believe means believe every time it's used and is not a smoke screen for action-focused-submission or good works-oriented-commitment. A long-time Greek professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, Zane Hodges, wrote:
For those [first century] readers, as for us, “to believe” meant “to believe.” Surely it is one of the conceits of modern theology to suppose that we can define away simple terms like “belief” and “unbelief” and replace their obvious meanings with complicated elaborations. The confusion produced by this sort of process has a pervasive influence in the church today.5
Some might accuse this definition of the word believe of being intellectual assent. Despite the fact that intellectual assent is most often used as an insult, it is a perfectly adequate synonym for being persuaded, convinced, and therefore, for belief and faith. It seems best to admit the truth and accept the negative moniker in hopes that it will bring clarity. That is exactly what this section has been arguing. Intellectual assent and belief are indistinguishable from one another. Abraham had intellectual assent that God would fulfill his promise. Paul had intellectual assent that Jesus would remain faithful. Luke shows that he considered belief to be the same thing as intellectual assent, as did Jesus and John. This means that belief is mental assent, to be persuaded, cognitively accept, consider trustworthy, or to be convinced.
Believe is a synonym for be convinced, persuaded, and even intellectual assent. There is not some kind of special faith or belief that is different from regular belief. What makes belief a matter of salvation is what facts are being believed, not what kind of belief is being employed.
1 René A. López, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 645.
2 Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1324.
3 Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith. Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983. 118 pp.
4 David R. Anderson, Free Grace Soteriology, ed. James S. Reitman, Revised Edition. (Grace Theology Press, 2012), 183.
5 Hodges, Zane C. Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation . Grace Evangelical Society. Kindle Edition.