Believe or Follow?
Are we saved by believing in Christ or by following Him?
(Written by Dave & Rob Armstrong)
You will sometimes hear a preacher or evangelist say, "Jesus gives forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those who decide to follow Him." This statement is not only misleading, but it is actually contrary to what the Bible teaches about how a person is made right with God. By using the word "follow" instead of the word "believe", the speaker has made a critical error.
Over 160 different times in the New Testament alone, the Bible states that a person receives forgiveness of sins and eternal life, simply by believing in (trusting in) Jesus Christ alone who paid the full price for our sins by shedding His blood on the cross for us. In all of these passages, the word "believe" (and not "follow") is used to explain the only way a person is made right with God. For example, look at what Jesus says in the Gospel of John.
"...the Son of Man must be lifted up [on the cross], that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life... Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." (John 3:14-18)
If we substituted the word "follow" in place of the word "believe" in this verse, it would incorrectly say, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever follows Him will not perish but have everlasting life." The difference may seem insignificant at first glance, but it is actually very, very important!
"Following" Jesus has no specific time designation, i.e., How long do I have to follow Jesus to be saved? A month? A year? A lifetime? (and notice how the emphasis in following is on what I must do, instead of what Christ has already done for me on the cross). "Following" Jesus is not only vague in relation to time, but it is unclear and subjective as to what it actually means. To some people, following Jesus may mean admiring Him or trying to be like Him. To others it may mean going to church and doing good things. To others it may mean reading the Bible and praying, or listening to Christian preaching on the radio or online. When the disciples followed Jesus, it meant giving up their professions, severing family ties, parting with their personal possessions, and ultimately being put to death. What is important to observe is that "following" Jesus always involves DOING something (trying to be like Him, going to church, getting baptized, performing good deeds, being obedient, giving my life to Him, etc.). But, the Bible makes it clear that we can never be saved and forgiven by something WE DO!
"Believing" on the other hand, is putting our trust, not in something we do, but in what Christ has already done for us! Believing is an instantaneous event - a person comes to an understanding that Jesus died as a sacrifice for their sins, was buried and rose from the dead, and then that person believes in (puts their faith in) Christ alone! When this occurs, the person is immediately forgiven of all their sins and declared perfectly righteous in God's sight forever! This is the work of God based solely on the fact that the person has believed in Jesus Christ alone, totally apart from their own good works, obedience or futile attempts at trying to follow Him (or to be like Him). Simply believing in Jesus Christ alone guarantees that a person is saved and will remain saved forever (see John 3:16&18, 5:24, 6:40, 6:47, 10:28-30)!
Following Jesus (or making a promise to do so), does not guarantee someone will be saved. There was a large group of disciples, mentioned in the Gospel of John, who were devoted followers of Jesus for various reasons, but they did not believe in Him (put their faith in Him) as their only Savior. When there came a point when they disagreed with Him, they left and no longer followed Him (see John 6:66). This passage also tells us that Jesus knew which of His followers believed in Him and those who didn't. So, we can see from these verses that a person can be a follower and disciple of Jesus and never actually put their faith in Him alone for their salvation. To them, Jesus is an example and a teacher, but not their ultimate and only Savior.
Judas Iscariot was a dedicated follower of Jesus. He followed Jesus, along with the 11 other disciples, for the duration of Jesus' ministry on earth (it is likely that He even performed miracles in Jesus' name). The fact is however, Judas never put his faith in Jesus for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Judas was never saved, and he betrayed the Lord which led to His arrest and crucifixion. Judas died as a spiritually lost and condemned man, not because of what He did wrong, but because he never believed in Christ alone for His salvation. The Bible tells us that after Judas betrayed Jesus, he was filled with remorse and repented of the sin of selling Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (he felt so sorry for what he had done that he even returned all of the money to the high priest). But He refused to put His faith in Christ alone for His salvation. Instead he was so filled with regret that He went out and hanged himself.
Another passage reminds us that the remaining 11 disciples, who continued to follow Jesus after Judas left, ended up forsaking Jesus and running away from Him. This took place at His arrest, when He needed them the most (see Mark 14:50). Peter, who was the leader of the disciples, not only forsook Jesus, but he also vehemently denied even knowing Him, three different times! In spite of this, Peter, and the other disciples who forsook Jesus, were all saved forever because, in spite of their unfaithfulness and denial, they had previously put their faith in Him alone for their salvation. How wonderful is God's grace! How all-sufficient is the blood of Christ to save us! And, His blood continues to cleanse us even when we are unfaithful and at our worst, like the disciples were when they forsook Jesus, fled from Him and even denied knowing Him at all. Praise the Lord that once we have put our faith in Christ alone, "even if we are faithless and unbelieving, He remains faithful!"
The Bible consistently states that the one and only condition for receiving eternal life is to "believe in Jesus Christ" (i.e., to put your faith in Him alone). Although we may want to encourage people to follow Christ and give their lives to Him, this encouragement should only take place after we are sure that they have already believed in Him alone for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Salvation is the "gift of God" that is given freely and without cost to those who simply believe in His Son. Following Jesus, obeying Jesus, and living for Jesus, are not conditions for getting saved (they are not how a person gets saved). They are the privileges and responsibilities of those who are already saved. This distinction is of the utmost importance!
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