Believing On Christ or In Christ: Which Is Correct?
I recently had a conversation with someone who asked whether believing “on Christ” for salvation was more correct than believing “in Christ.” The topic was the discussion between Paul and the Philippian Jailer in Acts 16:31. The King James uses the terms “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” and the newer translations use the terms “believe in.” The concern was that the phrase “believe on Christ” seemed to be the correct one. The phrase “believe in Christ”, to this person, seemed to only denote mental ascent to the possibility of His existence and not saving faith. They also referred to James 2:19 about the demons, which, they said, “believed in God but not on God.”
So I searched the Greek texts and the English texts, including the good ole King James. First, I found that James 2:19 it does not say that the demons “believe in God.” In fact I could not find these words in any of the 15 English translation I examined. But I looked in the Greek and it is certainly not there in the original. It simply says the demons believe that there is one God, and shudder at the thought. The issue then comes down to just two factors: the common biblical phrases and the translation of Acts 16:31.
Theologically and grammatically which is correct? The New Testament gives both, and, in fact, believing “in” Christ is more commonly found in Scripture. For example, John 3:16 clearly states “whoever believes in him,” eis auton in Greek. The same preposition was used in John 1:12, with the words tois pisteuousin eis ton onoma auto, or “those who believe in his name.” The preposition eis is specific in meaning, used with the accusative, and means motion toward an item. For example, to say, en tw oikw, using the dative would mean something is in the house. If, on the other hand eis were used, eis ton oikon, motion would be intended, as though someone was entering into the house. Those who believe in Christ’s name believe really in Him, not just His name, and that was precisely John’s point. Christ Jesus was either rejected or accepted.
The concept behind “believing in His name,” since eis was used, would indicate a commitment to Christ as the future King, and to accept His rule in someone’s life today. It is the act of someone’s will to choose sides in the midst of a spiritual conflict. The Name of Christ tended to depict His future kingdom and rule. Those who believe in His name have invested their spiritual stock in His ultimate victory believing Him to indeed be the Lord. This realization can only be grasped as the work of the Spirit convicts and convinces the human heart of His Lordship, as Paul wrote, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).
In Paul’s writings the words “in Christ” are more commonly used. In Romans 8:1, for example, we read, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” The Greek preposition Paul favored was en which can also be translated “of” or “by”. With the dative the word emphasized location, indicating here in whom we place our faith, namely in Christ. This is the word Paul used repeatedly in Ephesians 1, commonly translated “in.” Ephesians 1:6 we read, “In him we have received redemption through his blood,” describing our salvation being found in Christ. In Ephesians 1:12, however, he stressed that the initial faith of the converts had also been invested in Christ, “We who were the first to hope in Christ might be for the praise of his glory.” Since the conversation with the jailer took place in Philippi it is important to note that Paul wrote to them, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). Here Paul used eis as opposed to ev indicating as John did of the faith that is invested in Christ, even emphasizing more strongly believing in Christ.
I confess that this person who raised the question had some validity to the point on Acts 16:31, that the Greek used the words pisteuson epi ton kurion Iesoun Christon and a literal translation would be “believe on or upon the Lord Jesus Christ.” The problem is that though the main meaning of epi in Greek is “on” or “upon” this is not the only meaning. Prepositions are unique to each language and translating them into another language is normally as much an art as it is a science (as anyone bilingual would understand). The majority of recent English translations use the phrase “believe in the Lord…” and they do so for a reason: to emphasize that the appeal from Paul to the Philippian jailer was a personal appeal for him to invest his faith in Christ. The choice of the word may have had some specific meaning for the jailer but the Bible never expounded upon it, and Paul in writing to the Philippians emphasized belief in Christ.
So from a biblical point of view, we are encouraged to believe in Christ. In fact, though I may be wrong, (I have to do more research on this when I have more time) Acts 16:31 is the only place I can recall off hand where the words “believe on” are used. This all reminds me of a story I heard from another pastor who got into a conversation with some people in his church about “the sinner’s prayer.” Someone had convinced them that there was only one true sinner’s prayer and they wanted to make sure that they had prayed the right prayer for salvation. The Bible never gives such a thing as a “sinner’s prayer” for all people to pray. Any educator learns very quickly that the surest way to insure that information will not be understood is to capsulize it into a formula from which there can be no deviation. The Bible does not do this with the gospel, rather it gives it in different places in different wordings but with the same message and the same meaning.
Whether the word “in” or “on” is used the biblical message is that this faith must be personal, that is, that it must be from person to Person. Saving faith is not mere nominal ascent to the reality of the existence of Christ – it must begin here but it must also transcend this to believe in the benefit of faith. As the inspired author of Hebrews wrote, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). The saving work of Christ on the cross is central to the gospel message, as is His resurrection and Lordship. Paul wrote, “If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10:9). This requires a connection with the One in whom we believe. Otherwise we might imagine that we are doing God a favor by believing in Him, helping His credibility and popularity in the world, so to speak. Expecting a reward for my faith brings me to the conclusion that I need Him and I must invest my faith in Him personally.
I heard a story of a wealthy woman a few years back who every Christmas sent very generous personal bank checks to her children and grandchildren. Rarely, however, did they come to see her, saying that they were all too busy, or even too busy to thank her. One Christmas it was different, however. She sent the checks out as usual, wrote a very generous amount on each one, but she did not sign them. That year, surprisingly, each of her children and grandchildren found time to personally come to visit her and to thank her for her gracious gift, and, of course, ask her if she wouldn’t mind signing them as well.
The difference in this life experience and our spiritual salvation is that with us it is God who has come to us, He has loved us first and has drawn close to us through the gospel and the inner witness of the Spirit. The Spirit moves in our hearts convicting us of sin and convincing us that Jesus is God’s answer to our sin. He urges us to respond to God in such a way, not with mere ascent that He exists and that He provides for us in a general and vague sort of manner, but that He takes a personal interest in us and invites us to know Him personally and connect with Him through faith.
The center of the gospel response is not only faith but it is also repentance, and in most cases of biblical example, it is repentance from sin that is more emphasized than faith (Acts 2:38; 3:19; and 8:22). Christ described the preaching of the good news in these terms: “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed” (Luke 24:47). There is another wealth of New Testament writings that use neither “in” or “on” but simply state the fact of the “believing that” Jesus is the Christ, as John wrote, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”