How best to explain “Belief”?


(Rachel Shields) #1

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the word “pisteuw” which we bring into English as our word “believe”. Last week I was in conversation with an elderly man who is an elder in his local church and a true, life-long Christian. During the course of the conversation I commented that our English word “belief” doesn’t capture well what ”pisteuw” means because in the west we tend to think of belief as head knowledge and not as “trust”. So, when Jesus says we are to believe and be saved, he isn’t primarily saying we are to accept his words at face value as head knowledge but that instead we are to place our total trust in him and in his words. It’s the trust that saves us, although obviously the two aren’t mutually exclusive because we can’t trust something we don’t rationally know about. The man I was talking to was completely taken aback, saying he’d never had anyone say that to him before. So, since that conversation, I have been wondering whether I was wrong to emphasise the more relational, trusting aspect of belief? Is mere belief enough to initially save and then the trust comes as a secondary development?

So my question is, do you feel it is instinctive for people to equate belief with trust? I’m just curious to know how you all go about explaining the concept of “belief” to seekers, and would be really interested to learn from your experience as to the most fruitful way to explain this concept.

Thank you in anticipation!


(SeanO) #2

In Genesis 15:6 when it says “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”, the belief is connect to a promise made by God.

In the west, when we say we believe something we are often talking about propositions. I believe that 2 +2 = 4 or I believe that it will rain today. Those beliefs are not connected to a promise, but rather a statement related to a proposition.

I think Biblical belief is based in promises made by God and is therefore inherently relational. While the word ‘belief’ is often associated with a proposition rather than a promise in daily usage.

So one approach you may use with seekers is having a discussion about the difference between believing in an abstract proposition and believing in a promise made by a person. Proposition vs Promise.

I do not know that this idea of promise is baked into the Greek word pisteuw as much as it is built into the narrative of Scripture itself. The Greek word ‘pisteuw’ may not contain the idea of promise, but the Biblical narrative is God’s story and therefore belief is associated with trusting God’s promises to bring that story to a beautiful ending in accordance with His Word.


(Rachel Shields) #3

Thank you for your thoughts Sean. I like your way of differentiating a belief by its object, be that preposition or promise. Certainly believing a preposition to be true, such as 2+2=4, is cognitively different from believing a promise to be true, because believing a promise is more nebulous. Maybe one of the reasons we more easily accept propositions is because they have either been shown to be true to us ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ or they have already been personally experienced as true. Most of us know 2+2=4 because we have experience of this truth mathematically and so there is little trust involved in the statement.

Did Abraham’s belief in God depend primarily upon his acceptance of the promise, or was it his trust in the person behind the promise that ultimately motivated his acceptance? Every promise presupposes a promise-giver. I believe it was because Abraham deemed God was trustworthy that he believed the promise, and so this brings me back to the importance of trust as a logical prerequisite for faith. Sometimes I feel we don’t emphasise this aspect of biblical faith enough in our presentation of the gospel message.

Thank you for your thoughts- appreciate them!


(SeanO) #4

@Rachel_Shields I think you said it wonderfully - “his trust in the person behind the promise”. That will preach! I agree it was the Person behind the promise whom Abraham trusted.


(Melvin Greene) #5

Hi @Rachel_Shields,
I’m reminded of an illustration I once read several years ago that I think relates to your topic. The story takes place at Niagra Falls. A tightrope walker was going to walk across a cable that was strung across the falls at the point where the river dropped over the edge. A large crowd had gathered to watch this hair raising spectacle. The performer heads out over the falls and makes it to the other side. Then, he turns around and comes back. Next he walked over backwards. After that he repeated the feat blindfolded. He rode a bike across, and then he pushed a wheelbarrow over and back. After he did all that, he stood before the crowd and asked them how many believe he could go across with someone in the wheelbarrow. Everyone raised their hands and cheered the performer on. Then he asked for someone to volunteer to ride in the the wheelbarrow. As you can imagine, all you could hear was crickets chirping. Finally, an older man stepped forward and volunteered to ride in the wheelbarrow. The trip over and back was a success.

The story was an illustration of the difference between belief and trust, or faith. The crowd had believed that the performer could make it across with a volunteer, because they had just witnessed him make several trips over and back, but when it came down to it, only one actually put his trust in him to do it. So it is with a lot of Christians. We say we believe God can do anything, that he’s all powerful, all knowing. But, when He asks us to step out in faith and trust Him, we suddenly find all kinds of excuses not to. Abraham believed God, and acted on that belief. It was accredited to him as righteousness. Peter believed Jesus and acted on that belief and stepped out of the boat. Of course, it was a bit short lived and he sunk like a rock, but Jesus was right there to pull him back up.


(Jimmy Sellers) #6

@Rachel_Shields, spoken like the beneficent of a great gift from a great benefactor who is able to deliver not because of who we are but who He is. I think that we can proclaim with the saints, great is His faithfulness!!


(Katherine Anderegg) #7

Rachel, this topic fascinates me. In th e contemporary West, modernism has separated head and heart belief. In the ancient world, this was seldom the case. To trust someone required that you believe him or her and conversely, if you believed, you trusted. So to respond to your question, I believe that while in pre-Enlightenment times little distinction was made, this has not been the case at least since Descartes. In both periods the understanding of the terms was learned and not instinctive, more correctly in the pre-Enlightenment period, then distorted by modernism and humanism. I believe that you were entirely correct to emphasize the relational, trusting aspect of true, saving belief. With relationship, the Holy Spirit makes trust grow, but without some minuscule level of trust (think mustard seed here) there is no relationship–and no salvation. That is why salvation, and the faith required for it, are gifts of God.

I hope I’m not getting in over my head here, but that’s my understanding, based on a lot of study of Francis Schaeffer who wrote extensively on this topic.


(Helen Tan) #8

Hi @Rachel_Shields, thank you for raising this discussion. There have been great contributions so far from which I have learned much. I’m not sure if this adds anything to what has been said but I had a look at Romans 10:8-10, the template for salvation:

Looking at the 2 components:

  1. Believing in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead leads to righteousness.
  2. Confessing with your mouth the Lord Jesus unto salvation.

Perhaps one way to express the relationship between belief and trust is this:

Trust = Belief (in our heart) + action (confess with our mouth)

While heart (kardia) can mean the physical heart, it also denotes the centre of all physical and spiritual life, or what is central or inmost part of anything. It was a timely reminder for me that belief for salvation is not just head knowledge but something that comes from the heart, the place from which a man brings forth good or evil things (Matthew 12:35). It is when the entire story of Jesus, culminating in His Resurrection, drops into the very centre of our being with the help of the Holy Spirit that we are able to understand His righteousness that’s imputed to us in salvation, and confess Him as our Lord.

In Matthew 13:19, Jesus talks about the person who hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, and the wicked one comes and steals what was sown in his heart. It is important that as deliverers of the Gospel to remind ourselves that we are sowing into hearts and that ensuring understanding is an important component of the process. It is also a timely reminder to guard our hearts - Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”


(Rachel Shields) #9

vHello Everyone,

Thank you so much for your thoughts, all of which are particularly helpful. I couldn’t agree more with your insightful analysis of the modern breakdown between head and heart, Katharine. I’ve not read a lot of Schaeffer but Jonathan Sachs (chief Rabbi) has also written extensively about this in his book “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning” in which he emphasises the modern break down between right and left hemisphere thinking, particularly as it influences our modern notion of knowledge. His basic premise is that left-hemisphere (logical) thinking is unhealthily preferenced over right-hemisphere (aesthetic) thinking.

I wonder if the breakdown was first introduced by the classical Greek schools of philosophy, where knowledge was prioritised over the baser, physically human aspects of living, which I presume would have included feelings and yearnings?

That verse in Romans, Helen, is a particularly poignant one for me, as it was the verse that awoke me to the necessity of something far deeper and more profound than simply head knowledge in salvation. After all, “how does one believe with their heart”? It’s actually logically impossible, and indicated something much more profound than I had hitherto been attributing to belief. I love your wording of the resurrection being “dropped into our hearts”!

Melvin, I’ve heard that story before and it’s a good one. I always feel a bit jaded though, as I lived for ten years in Ontario, Canada and yet never managed to get to Niagara - so I guess I’ll have to take the story by faith! Yes, amazing grace Jimmy. I wonder if we need to think through our evangelism methods to incorporate it more? There are times when I hear the call to believe and I wonder if the call is fully understood by those receiving it.