(Answered on 09/26/2015 Program)
This question might be broken into a few questions to help answer it:
- Am I free to believe what I want? (“free will”)
- What specifically am I supposed to believe? (“truth”)
- Does sincerity matters most when it comes to belief? (“consequences”)
There are several examples in the Bible that illustrate people are truly free to believe what they choose. Consider when Joshua prompted the Hebrews to publicly decide if they will choose to follow the Lord who had helped them over many years:
Joshua 24:15 If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (NASB)
In Joshua 24, Joshua had just reminded them of the blessings and curses God had promised to deliver to the those who love and obey Him or to those serving other gods. Though they should have known specifically what the Lord expected of them, Joshua gave them the choice to serve God and live just as Moses before him had invited them in Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
Choice And Consequences
With that freedom to choose what we believe comes the responsibility to make our choice with care. There were consequences for those in Joshua’s time and also in the New Testament period when Paul brought the message of Jesus to the Jews:
Acts 13:44-46, 48-49 The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region. (NASB)
Jews who knew God’s history should have recognized Jesus so were brought the gospel first, yet they rejected the message/messengers. Paul declares their choice to reject the word of God showed them to be “unworthy of eternal life“. Specifically, they were rejecting Jesus as the Messiah whom they should have recognized from the prophecy given to the Jews. The response of the Gentiles to accept the word of the Lord and believe resulted in their being “appointed to eternal life“. All hearing the message had the freedom to choose to believe it or not, heard a specific message to believe, and their acceptance or rejection of the message (belief) had eternal consequences.
The fact that humans have the freedom to choose what they believe and that there are consequences to the choice they make has been true even all the way back to the beginning of our history.
Genesis 2:16-17 The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (NASB)
God’s commands were clear and He warned there were consequences to their choosing to disobey. Notice that belief has a connection to obedience. They had the opportunity to choose to believe/obey God or not. The next few verses in this chapter of Genesis 2 show us that, with the serpent’s encouragement, they decided not to believe God. The consequences that followed show that God’s words were indeed true. Did it matter what tree they ate from? Apparently it did, but they did have the opportunity to choose.
It’s interesting that only in religious matters do we ask “Does it matter what I believe?” In arithmetic or physics or even history, we would not even consider we had the option to believe what was “true”. Though I might not know t = -6 solves the following equation, I can know it is either true of false.
Likewise in religion, there is truth in spiritual matters. Yet, because I believe something, even sincerely, it doesn’t make it factually true (I might believe God is a dolphin). Truth is always independent of belief. No matter how hard I may believe my pick-up basket ball games at the YMCA have prepared me for the NBA, it doesn’t make it true. Certainly, there are matters in the Bible some may believe “ain’t necessarily so” (David sleighing Goliath, Jonah in the whale, Methuselah living 900 years), though the historical accuracy of these being true or false is dependent on if the Bible is reliably the word of God throughout (a topic for another show).
Let’s look a the biblical example of an intelligent and religiously well-educated Pharisee who sincerely believed something that was truly wrong. Saul of Tarsus (later named Paul) was acting in “good conscience” when he severely persecuted the Christians. But he discovered what he believed was true, turned out to be uninformed (ignorant) of God’s purpose for Christ’s church. The following passages show Paul’s actions reflected his believe he was doing was right followed by his realization what he believed was not true.
Acts 8:3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. (NASB)
Galatians 1:13 or you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; (NASB)
Acts 26:9 “So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. (NASB)
Acts 23:1 Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.” (NASB)
1 Timothy 1:13, 15 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; 5 It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. (NASB)
Paul’s expressed his true sincerity when he said “I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God”. Paul concluded “I acted ignorantly in unbelief” when he was shown the truth and recognized his mistrust of the church of God (his “unbelief”) was wrong. Also Paul’s saying “I was shown mercy” indicates it did matter what he believed about Jesus and God showed mercy instead of what consequences he might have been due. The faithful Christians were even warned of some people who would kill them sincerely thinking they were offering service to God (John 16:2).
Jesus Said It Matters
Jesus said what you believe matters. If you choose to believe the Bible is true, Jesus states you must believe in Him (the Son of God) in order to have eternal life.
John 3:36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (NASB)
Here just like we saw in Genesis 2, there is a connection with believe and obedience that Jesus affirms. Whatever it encompasses to “believe in the Son”, we at least known it includes obeying Him in order to not receive the wrath of God. Seeing these eternal consequences of what we believe in, it is a worthy endeavor to seek to understand better what it means to believe and obey Jesus. A few chapters later in the gospel of John, Jesus tells more about what we need to believe about Him:
John 8:24 Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins. (NASB)
Jesus makes it clear what the consequences would be if we do not believe that He is the promised Messiah; that is, the chosen one sent by God to save the world from their sins. Note in Matthew that Jesus even cautions those who say they believe in Him and sincerely thought the things they were doing were pleasing to God the Father:
Matthew 7:21-23 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
- Kingdom of Heaven: from the Greek words basileia and ouranos, indicating “that realm where the Messiah reigns” (See Strong’s number G932 and G3772). This can describe heaven where those believing in Jesus and doing God’s will are given eternal life.
From this, we see believing in Jesus and doing things in His name do not qualify us for the kingdom of heaven. It is the obedient belief in Jesus that understands what it means to do God’s will.
What’s Your Choice?
You are free to choose whatever you’d like to believe and live out your life accordingly. Just like those following Moses and Joshua, God wants you to choose to believe and obey Him, especially considering there are life and death consequences. Paul found he was sincerely wrong in what he believed and concluded there were eternal consequences that God was merciful to forgive based on Paul’s response to the truth. Jesus has let you and I know in the Bible that we need to believe in Him, obey Him and do His Fathers will. I hope you will also conclude, it does matter that you believe there is truth in spiritual matters. Now seek further what you must believe by reading your Bible.