In this chapter we are going to look at the difference between the two phrases, believe in Christ and love Christ. This issue is the exact one that changed my life. The moment I understood 'believe in Jesus' is different than 'loving Jesus', the Bible suddenly started making sense.
I grew up in an academically minded Bible Church. We studied the Bible like our lives depended on it. Even with that rigorous research mentality, I totally missed this vital distinction between believing and loving. Whether others had misunderstood or not, I do not know, but I assumed that believing in Jesus and loving Jesus were simply two ways to say the same thing.
I went to Bible college and didn't catch the distinction. I was in church ministry for nearly a decade, studying the Bible and teaching every week and I still didn't see the difference. Originally it was my wife that pointed it out, while we were still dating. I wrestled with the idea for a few months, but the light finally came on while attending a Bible Conference in Dallas in 2009.
A great Bible teacher gave a talk that stirred my guts like a boiling soup. I rushed up afterward to ask this simple question.
"Can someone believe in Jesus but not love Him?", I said as if my hair was on fire. The answer to that question changed the course of my life. His simple, "yes," was almost unheard, because I already knew the answer. The light had already dawned, and there was no way to put the sun back below the horizon. Once I stepped into the brilliance, I could never go back.
Believing in Christ is about salvation. We learn the simple plan of salvation by belief in Jesus in the third chapter of John.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.1
Much ado has been made about this verse, and you should be able to see why. If this verse encapsulates the entirety of the salvation plan, then popular evangelists and TV preachers have some explaining to do. If someone can have everlasting life by believing in Jesus, which is a synonym for faith alone, then why do evangelists give a five, six, or seven-step plan to get saved?
The answer is that most, even those slick haired pulpit pounders have mixed the message of salvation with the message of discipleship and made the whole thing a muddy mess.
As you can see from the above verse, which hardly needs to be explained, eternal life comes by believing in Jesus. There are loads of other verses in the Gospel of John that say essentially the same thing.2 Most also incorporate the term ‘Christ.' So, to believe in Christ is the way to salvation. However, what does it mean to love Christ?
We don't have to guess; in fact, Jesus tells us in the plainest way possible in John 14:15-21.
“If you love Me, keep My commandments… He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”3
In this chapter, Jesus is talking to His disciples who had already believed in Him for everlasting life. It's interesting that He waited until Judas left to give this speech since Judas was not a believer4 and was not saved.5 Apparently, this message is not for unbelievers. To love Christ is not an expectation we should place on the unsaved. In fact, it's my opinion that we do a disservice to the effectiveness of evangelism if we try to convince someone to love Jesus before they believe in Him. Jesus shows that you can't love Him unless you obey Him, and unbelievers can't obey God's law.6 So, it's impossible for an unbeliever to love Jesus, or in His words, 'keep My commandments'; this is likely why the Bible calls unbelievers ‘enemies of God.’7 Telling someone they need to love God, is not an instruction that leads to salvation, but to discipleship.
All this leads us to this very simple point: loving Jesus is what disciples do. Obedience to Jesus is love for him. We, therefore, are not saved by loving Jesus. We are saved by faith alone, but our love for Jesus comes alongside our discipleship. As we grow in our ability to obey Him, we show that we love Him.
1 John 3:16.
2 John 1:12, 3:36, 5:24, 6:47.
3 John 14:15–21.
4 John 6:64
5 Acts 1:25
6 Romans 8:7
7 Romans 5:10, Colossians 1:21