Devotional Podcast #24: “Don’t Stop Believin'”

April 13, 2018

What’s the difference between simply believing in Christ for salvation, as John 3:16 implies, and “cheap grace”? That’s what this podcast episode attempts to answer.

Devotional Text: Mark 9:14-26

Hi, this is Brent White. And it is Thursday, April 12, and you’re listening to Devotional Podcast #24.

You’re listening, of course, to “Don’t Stop Believin,’” Journey’s Top 10 hit from their best-selling 1981 album, Escape. Somehow, as popular as this song was—and as popular as it has remained—it only reached number nine on the charts. Journey never had a number one hit song. It’s crazy!

This is Part 4 of my reflection on the Bible’s most famous verse, John 3:16: specifically, I want to focus on that part of the verse that relates to this song—“that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

By the way the “whoever” or, more traditionally, “whosoever,” is not plural; it’s singular. It’s addressed to you and and me and every single, individual person—each person is eligible for eternal life on one condition and one condition only—that he or she believes. This of course means that your parents or grandparents or spouse or family can’t believe on your behalf. No one is “born” a Christian; you can only be “born again” as a Christian, and that happens when you believe… for yourself. But if you can only do that relatively small thing—if you can only meet this one small condition, Jesus says—which is to believe—you can be saved!

Isn’t that amazingly good news?

In his commentary on John’s gospel, Frederick Dale Bruner translates the verse as follows: “You see, God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son, so that every single individual, whoever! who is [simply] entrusting oneself to him would never be destroyed, oh no! but would even now have a deep, lasting life.”[1] He inserts the adverb “simply” in brackets in front of the word “believing” or “entrusting” because, while it doesn’t appear in the Greek, it is implicit. 

As Bruner writes:

I put the word “simply” between brackets because it is not in the Greek text. In fact, not one single adverb or adjective is placed before the word “entrusting,” such as “deeply” or “sincerely” or “completely.” Every such adverb turns faith into a good work the believer does. But the good work of salvation, in fact, is done by the loving and giving Father, the gifted Son, and the transforming Spirit alone. We entrust ourselves to this triune Worker; we “do” nothing but trust Another who has done everything.[2]

We do nothing but trust Another who has done everything. I like that!

Bruner’s words remind me of the incident in Mark chapter 9 of the father who brings his son, who has an unclean spirit, to Jesus for healing. The father describes how the spirit makes his son mute, throws him into convulsions, and causes him to harm himself. And the father says, 

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us. And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.’” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 

“All things are possible for one who believes,” Jesus says. And the father replies, “I believe!”…

But the moment the father blurts out this profession of faith, we sense that he is worried. He probably feels like a hypocrite. “Yes, I believe… a little bit, Jesus. But I can’t vouch for the purity of my faith. In fact, I suspect that if my ‘belief’ depends on me, then I’m in trouble! So please, Jesus, help my unbelief!” Another way of saying this is that the father doesn’t believe—as Bruner would say—with adverbs attached. He doesn’t believe “deeply,” or “sincerely,” or “completely,” or “purely, or “perfectly.” Yes, he believes, but… his belief is mixed with unbelief. Just like the rest of us! The father’s faith is filled with doubt. Yet somehow, somehow… that’s good enough for Jesus. And Jesus heals his son!

That father’s belief—imperfect though it was—was good enough for Jesus to heal his son. And that imperfect faith was good enough to heal the father’s soul—eternally. And imperfect faith is good enough to heal our souls. It’s good enough for us to have eternal life!

Because saving faith isn’t something we muster on our own; it, too, is a gift of God’s grace. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We Methodists are Arminian Christians, which means, we don’t deny that human beings have a free choice in the matter of whether to receive God’s gift of eternal life. But this free choice, we believe, is only made possible because of the prior (or prevenient) work of the Holy Spirit.

Or look at it like this: We don’t have to believe perfectly because Christ has believed perfectly for us!

I like the way Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, describes the human contribution to salvation in his book God Wins.

Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your sense. After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”

Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin![3]

Again, as Bruner said, “We do nothing but trust Another who has done everything.”

But let’s be honest: Do we really believe this? Or do we have a little legalist within that objects to this idea of depending so completely on Someone Else to save us? Don’t we really believe that we’re at least a little bit responsible for our salvation?

Last year, an evangelical Christian writer made a splash with a book about the classic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. He argued in the book that the English word “faith” doesn’t quite do justice to the biblical concept. So he recommended substituting the word “allegiance” in place of “faith”: we are justified not so much by faith alone—or believing alone—but by allegiance alone.

And I understand the author’s concern. As a Methodist pastor, especially, I know so many people—especially young people who are being confirmed or getting baptized in church—about whom I worry, “Do they really get it? Do they really know what they’re signing up for here? Do they understand that this isn’t just a ritual or liturgy or rite of passage—a special occasion to have pretty pictures taken with your family in church—after which their lives can simply return to normal. Because I don’t have the ability to look inside their hearts to know whether or not they are sincerely trusting in Christ. But I know this for sure: this ritual, this liturgy, this rite of passage means nothing apart from the kind of change of heart that is wrought only by the Holy Spirit—we call this change “the new birth” or being “born again”—which only happens when we believe in Christ as Savior and Lord. And this new birth must happen for someone to be genuinely saved.

And how can we know that our faith is genuine? Paul warns in 2 Corinthians 13:5: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” And what are we examining ourselves or testing ourselves to see? Evidence of a changed life—a change in behavior that is consistent with the faith that we profess—evidence of good works, apart from which, the apostle James says, faith is dead.

So when we pastors see our confirmed and baptized young people drop out of church the moment they graduate high school or, worse, get a driver’s license, then we are right to wonder about the sincerity of the faith that they professed when they stood before God and the congregation four or five years earlier. 

Ugh! I don’t know what the answer is, but given how often this happens in our churches, we are right to be deeply concerned!

So I’m sure the author of the book who wanted to emphasize not saving faith but saving allegiance shares my concern: allegiance implies not merely believing but doing. When we pledge allegiance to our American flag, for example, we promise to live in a way that’s consistent with the principles of our country—with our nation’s highest ideals. When these principles are challenged, we will be faithful to our country and all that it stands for. Because we believe in our country, our belief will manifest itself, when necessary, in concrete action.

To say the least, our Christian faith should be like this… but on a far, far deeper level!

You’ll get no argument on any of this from me… But… I still would rather talk about simply having faith in Christ or simply trusting in Christ or—getting back to John 3:16—simply believing in Christ rather than having allegiance toward Christ. 

Why? Because we can’t do anything—aside from confessing that we can’t do anything—to save ourselves. We can’t help ourselves in any way, aside from confessing our utter helplessness. Salvation must be completely God’s doing or it won’t happen at all.

Yes, but… what about cheap grace? Haven’t you just agreed that cheap grace is a huge problem?

Yes, I have… Cheap grace is a problem… but not free grace. And that’s the difference! Do you see it?

If grace is cheap, then it’s already way too expensive! 

So, for example, these young people in our churches who believe that they are saved by standing in front of the congregation and reciting some vows, or having water sprinkled on their heads, or praying a certain prayer after they walk the aisle at the end of a pastor’s sermon—this is something they believe that they must do, and having done it, they believe they will go to heaven, that they are made “acceptable” to God. Even if what they do doesn’t cost them very much, it still costs something. And now, having paid that small price, they believe they will be acceptable to God. 

And they’ll likely grow up to believe, along with most Americans, that simply being a good person will be good enough to earn their way into heaven.

Cheap grace completely misunderstands the gospel: We are not good people, we are helpless sinners apart from Christ. We can do nothing; Christ has done everything. What is it that pastor Tim Keller often says: The gospel means, first, that we’re far worse than we ever dared to imagine, and, second, that we’re far more loved than we could ever dare to dream. This is the starting point, and the middle point, and the finishing point of the gospel! 

Besides, getting back to John 3:16 and the words “whosoever believes”… this “belief” should never be construed as “cheap grace”: the kind of belief that this verse talks about is not a one-time decision or ritual or action that a person takes—that would be cheap grace! 

But the kind of “believing” that this verse refers to is present-tense, not past-tense: it’s an ongoing, lifelong reality: So, yes, we believe when we get confirmed or baptized or walk down an aisle or pray the sinner’s prayer… and we continue to believe when we graduate high school and college or join the service or get married… and we continue to believe when we’re middle-aged and over-the-hill… and we continue to believe when we grow old and when we’re on our death beds.

And at every point along the way, what exactly are we believing? We’re believing that Christ has done everything necessary through his atoning death on the cross—as proven by his resurrection—to make forgiveness and eternal life possible. 

Don’t stop believing that… and you’ll be saved.

I was listening to a podcast recently in which the well-respected Christian theologian and Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas was being interviewed. For better or worse, Hauerwas is well-known for using salty language, for using profanity, in his classroom and in his writing. The interviewer said, “I heard that you stopped using the F-word recently.” And Hauerwas corrected him: No, no… he hadn’t used the F-word for many years now.

And my ears perked up when he said this: I thought, “Wait a second… say more about that! How exactly did you stop using the F-word?” Because I am a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips. And that word passes through my lips all too easily—as my wife, my children, and far too many people can attest. And the primary problem, I believe, is not the word itself but the anger underneath the word that so often gives rise to it! Why am I this person who can be so easily upset that this word so freely slips out! What is wrong with me? Especially when I’m trying—as I’ve been trying for years—to control my temper?

So I would love to know how it is that Hauerwas “stopped using the F-word years ago”! But wait… I do know: It was by God’s grace! He didn’t mention grace, but I’m sure that’s what it was. Just like I am also sure that if I ever successfully stop using the F-word, it will also be by God’s grace. It will not be, in other words, through will power; through trying harder; because even if I could, through sheer will power, stop saying the F-word—which would include, by the way, whispering it under my breath while driving in Atlanta traffic—it wouldn’t mean that I would cease to think it, or that I wouldn’t continue to lose my temper for no good reason. As long as the anger is still in my heart, who cares whether I say the word? The sin is still there.

The sin is still there—even decades after first professing faith in Christ and being born again. What is wrong with me? 

Oh, yeah… I remember. And I remember as well that my standing before God doesn’t depend on me—Jesus was righteous for me. I won’t stop believing that, and I will be saved. Thanks be to God!

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 200.

2. Ibid., 202.

3. Mark Galli, God Wins (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011), 73-74.

7 Responses to “Devotional Podcast #24: “Don’t Stop Believin'””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    It’s all here in this sermon, but you don’t quite go all the way to the Truth.

    “Why? Because we can’t do anything—aside from confessing that we can’t do anything—to save ourselves. We can’t help ourselves in any way, aside from confessing our utter helplessness. Salvation must be completely God’s doing or it won’t happen at all.”

    Now, take that and apply it to your drowning man example. It must be changed. The drowning man does not even grasp the life preserver. Rather, he drowns, and as he drowns he says, “Save me Jesus!” He extends only his admission of helplessness. Then he drowns. Sinks to the bottom. Dead. The Savior reaches down and pulls him out and brings him back to life. (This is the story of Lazarus.)

    Everyone wants to believe that they must “do something” to contribute to their salvation. Romans 9 says otherwise.

    I clung desperately to my “Arminianism” for over half my life before I let go and gave God all the credit.

    • brentwhite Says:

      First, I have no idea what theological bent Mark Galli represents. Is he Arminian? Beats me. Second, even saying “Save me, Jesus” could be construed as “doing something” just as much as grabbing hold of the life preserver. All analogies break down if pushed too far. Third, no true Arminian (as opposed to the caricature that Calvinists, unfortunately, are too often responsible for propagating) would claim any “credit” for their salvation. All the Arminian believes he’s doing is saying “Save me, Jesus”—and that only AFTER God has given him the grace to enable him to do so!

      Whatever the difference between Calvinists and Arminians, it’s not a question (as far as I can see) of who gets all the credit and all the glory. Would Wesley himself disagree with that for even a moment? Not from what I’ve read of Wesley!

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Yep. It’s a fine line indeed. And, I don’t think our salvation depends on our understanding every nuance.

        But, we do each have “some understanding”. My point was how long it took for me to get to where I am. Not to push someone else to agree.

        You and I are a lot closer on this than most of those on each side.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Guys, sorry I have been away so long. Haven’t have time to READ the posts, much less respond to them! I finished the last key brief yesterday evening at 9:30 p.m., so, while still busy, at least I can breathe!

    Okay. Here are my two cents, consistent with the general position I have taken in the past on this issue. I believe God (a) planned the way of salvation, (b) paid the cost for salvation, and (c) seeks us out so we can respond to his offer of salvation. But I have difficulty with the idea that we have “nothing to do” with salvation (i.e., “all of God and none of me”). That’s not the picture I get from reading what Jesus had to say on the subject.

    “If any man will come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” “If any man loves his father, mother, etc. more than me, he cannot be my disciple.” “Count the cost.” “Enter in at the straight gate, for straight is the gate, and narrow is the path, that leads to salvation, and few there be that find it.” “If you will inherit eternal life, give all your goods to feed the poor, and come, follow me.” Etc. This does not sound like “nothing” to me.

    Whatever Paul was getting at in Ephesians 2:8-9, it cannot, consistently with reading scripture in light of other scriptures, “override” what Jesus himself says on the subject. And even Paul says in Acts, “I preached to everyone, everywhere, that they should repent.” Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, and you will be saved.” Jesus and John the Baptist said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Etc.

    So, there is, indeed, something we must do to be saved, in responding to all God has done to make salvation available to us and wooing us to accept it. I’m not suggesting that there is some kind of “percentage,” or that we can “take credit” for being saved. I am saying that there is something akin to “grasping the life preserver” that is, indeed, our “contribution” to salvation, and that this is not “nothing.” Compared to what God does, it is little indeed, but it is not “nothing.” (Indeed, Hebrews 11 says that those listed were “commended” for their acts of faith, and that God was not ashamed to be called their God.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom, I don’t entirely disagree. And you’re right to be more committed to the Bible than to any imperfect systematic theology. I agree that what we do is not nothing. I like the life preserver illustration after all—that’s why I use it. It’s not nothing, but I would say it’s not anything that counts or contributes something to our salvation. You mention repentance, but what is that? The repentance necessary for salvation is simply the turning around toward God through Christ. It’s saying “yes” to the One who’s done everything necessary for our salvation. When Jesus says things like, “You must deny yourself and take up your cross” or “Anyone who doesn’t hate father and mother,” etc., he isn’t specifying by whose power we are able to do these things. So we will “deny ourselves and take up our cross”—however imperfectly—but the power to do this is enabled by the Holy Spirit as we say “yes” to God’s gift of grace.

      But I almost hate to argue about it because, regardless of the extent to which we’re responsible, it shouldn’t affect the way we live. “Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? By now means!”

      • Grant Essex Says:

        I hate to “argue” too, so I’m going to try and quit doing it. We are all really on the same page here, and the difference, if any, is not one we can reconcile. I’ll just stick to the fact that we all believe in Sola Christos – Sola Fide – and, Sola Gratia.

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    (I did not get a “follow” email, so I am clicking on “Notify” again.)


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