This will be the unpopular answer.
Suppose we consider the person who, by all accounts, professes faith in God. They are convinced that they are in a right relation to Him, that they have done all that is necessary to achieve everlasting life. They have been convinced that all they must to do is 1) believe in God with all their heart: “grace through faith/belief alone,” and 2) recite a “sinner’s prayer,” something along the following lines:
A “Sinner’s Prayer”
"Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I’ve done some things that were wrong; I am a sinner, and I am sorry. Please forgive me. You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I plan to change my life for the better now and follow You as my Lord and Savior. Amen.”
The unsuspecting believer has been assured that they have accomplished all that God has asked, despite the fact that the Bible nowhere states that a person is saved either by faith alone or by a “sinner’s prayer.” In reality, those who teach such things are rejecting the truth of the Gospel, instead substituting their version of salvation, irrespective of the sincerity with which they deliver the message. That seems to be what is happening here with John 3:36. The KJV is a terrible rendering of what constitutes true belief: faithful obedience. Take a look at the NASB:
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” (emphasis added).
The conscientious believer has bought into false teaching: “Believe, and you are saved! And, just in case, make sure to recite a ‘sinner’s prayer’.” The problem is that 1) no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are “born again” through water baptism (Jn. 3:5), and 2) there is no “sinner’s prayer” to be found in the Bible. Here is what is meant by "belief": adherence to what has been communicated. The Letter of James seals the matter with the following two pronouncements:
James 2:19: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (emphasis added.)
James 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (emphasis added).
What can we learn here? James has just told us that 1) even demons believe in God. He then further elaborates that the faithful of God are 2) justified by works, and not by faith alone. That is the only instance of “faith"- or "belief-alone” in the Bible.
Perhaps we should ask these questions: Could Noah have survived the Flood if he had not obeyed God and built the ark? Or, could the Israelites have been saved from Pharaoh by belief alone? Or, rather, did they not have to leave Egypt as God instructed through Moses? Proper belief encompasses action. What is missing while trying to divide the word "faith" in John 3:36 while dismissing the word "obey", is the significance of belief in its scriptural definition.
Some will adamantly object to this: Obedience is unnecessary because it is a work: We are saved by faith alone!” That claim is absolutely false. Why? Because faith in God is itself a work (Jn. 6:28-29). If “works” are unnecessary, then faith is unnecessary. Surely, no one really believes we are saved without faith in God? In the Gospel of John, we read:
John 6:28-29: “Therefore [the Jews] said to Him, ‘What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’” (emphasis added).
Christ has just told us that belief is a work. Indeed, faith, repentance, confession, and baptism are all works. Many are confusing the works of the Law of Moses, with the works of the Law of Christ (or the Law of Liberty), which makes certain demands on Christians. We do not live under the Law of Moses; the Old Covenant was "nailed to the Cross"(Col. 2:14). But this does not excuse us from our obligations to the Son of God. And those include belief, repentance, confession, baptism, and a sustained life of godliness.
Is this difficult? You better believe it is! We allow our pride and hubris to delude us into believing that much of Scripture simply does not apply. We have convinced ourselves that we know better, and we have concluded that: “We’re just fine. Besides, we’re good people!” (Really? cf. Mk. 7:21-22) Besides, obedience is inconvenient! Consider what God has to say about such sentiments:
Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
The “death” mentioned here is eternal separation. The believer is convinced that their friends would never deceive them about something so serious. After all, one’s eternal destiny is at stake! But one's own pride won't allow them to admit they might be led astray: “I would know right away if someone lied to me! I’m not fooled so easily.” Well, just who, do you suppose, are the false teachers in Matthew 7:
Matthew 7:15: “[Those who] come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves."?
Often, false teachers are themselves blinded. They have allowed this because they refuse to accept some very clear scriptural mandates. In doing so, they are propagating biblical disinformation that will mislead many.
Here is a foundational "belief only" question: Can the new believer ever point to a single moment where they obeyed the Gospel? Just how did they become a child of God in the first place? It begins to look very much as though this person may fall into and out of Christ at the drop of a hat. They asked God for forgiveness, but were they ever willing to obey God’s Word as a necessary condition of salvation? Of course, the one person they may have obeyed was their friend rather than God. Parsing John 3:36 and many other passages to read "believe" is a perilous errand.
The fledgling believer is convinced they are a child of God. But they have done nothing to become a child of God through water baptism and obedience to Christ. They don’t demonstrate their faith because they regularly “forsake the assembly” (Heb. 10:25). They have chosen to refuse worship to God, something that is absolutely crucial, according to both the Old and New Testaments. In what sense, then, is the person saved?
God tells us that we must be “washed in the blood of the Lamb” (1 Pet. 3:21, Acts 2:38, 19:3, Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12, Rev. 7:14, 22:14). When was this person ever “washed” at all? What does God have to say about the “sinner’s prayer?” There is no such thing. Since that may have been what they were told – rather convincingly – as we see here with John 3:36, they feel it must be true. Are they really willing to bet their eternal fate on what someone “told them,” rather than the unalterable words of Holy Scripture? Have they so little faith in God’s Word that they are willing to sacrifice everything by ignoring what they are commanded to do?
While many seem to believe that it is perfectly reasonable to dismiss what God has communicated, there are plenty of examples throughout history where that has proven disastrous (cf. Numbers 3:4, II Samuel 6:7, Hebrews 2:2, etc.). Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, told His disciples:
John 14:15: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn.14:15).
Keeping Christ’s commandments can only be accomplished by doing what He and the apostles have said. Later, in John’s first epistle, we read:
I John 2:3-4: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
The apostle uses very strong language. So is “keeping [Christ’s] commandments” not the same as obeying His Message throughout the New Testament? In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told:
Hebrews 5:9: “And having been made perfect, [Christ] became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation...”
Is faithful obedience to Christ unnecessary? The fact is that God has little sympathy for those who disobey or ignore His Word. This has not changed since the Law of the Old Testament. Christ/God hasn't merely "gone soft" since then. In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (10:1-2), Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, offered “unauthorized fire” to the Lord, something that God had not commanded. As soon as they did this, they were both incinerated (Lev. 10:1-2). Does God mean what He says, when He tells us something?
In another Old Testament Book, II Samuel, a man named Uzzah, one who was not a Levite, reached out to touch the ark of God (II Samuel 6:7). God had commanded that only a Levite was allowed to touch the ark (I Chron. 15:2), but Uzzah wanted to prevent it from falling to the ground as the oxen pulling its cart stumbled. He was killed instantly by God, despite his sincerity and intentions. His momentary disobedience cost him his life.
James again reminds us of obedience using Abraham as an example. Once Abraham believed God, he then had to obey Him. Had Abraham not done this, he would never have been “the father of many nations” (Rom. 4:18). (Of course, God knew what Abraham would do: this scenario was likely for Abraham’s benefit). The Lord’s brother relates to us that faith without works (repentance, confession, baptism...) is useless. He demonstrates this fact by pointing out that Abraham believed God and, in an act of profound obedience, he began to offer Isaac, just as God had commanded him:
James 2:20-22: “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected..."
Similarly, our faith, our belief is perfected by our works of obedience. That is the central point of these passages, just as it is in John 3:36. In a debate over baptism, Dr. Jerry Jones stated the following:
Because of one’s faith and belief in Jesus Christ, he turns away from his sins (the Bible calls this “repentance”), he acknowledges that Christ is the Son of God [the confession], and upon baptism – according to Romans chapter 6, he’s brought into union with the death of Christ. You see, it’s the death of Jesus Christ that saves us, and it’s baptism that brings us into union with Him. Therefore, the death of Christ may be appropriated to our lives.
Every time you find the words “baptism” and “salvation” (or their equivalent terms) in the New Testament, baptism always comes first: there are no exceptions.
Only six passages meet this qualification:
Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 refer to the baptism of John the Baptist “for the remission of sins”;
Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, for the remission of sins”;
Acts 22:16: “Arise and be baptized… and wash away your sins”;
Mark 16:16: “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved..”, and
1 Peter 3:21: “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you…”
The last verse, 1 Peter 3:21, is clearly differentiating baptism from the removal of dirt from the body. -- Dr. Jerry Jones
This is what is meant by "believe" in John 3:36:
|Plan of Salvation
|Hear the Word
||Romans 10:17, John 6:44-45
|Believe in Jesus as the Son of God
||Hebrews 11:6, John 8:24, 20:30-31
|Repent of sin
||Acts 2:38, Acts 17:30
|Confess that Jesus is the Son of God
||Acts 8:36–37, Romans 10:9,10
|Be baptized for the remission of sins
||Acts 2:38, 8:12, 8:16, 8:36, 10:48, 16:15, 16:30, 19:3-5, 22:16, Mark 16:16, Romans 6:3, Titus 3:5
|Live a life of obedient faith
||1 Peter 2:9, Colossians 1:22-23
Note: Even demons satisfy the first two conditions (Jas. 2:19). Belief alone is insufficient, and this cannot be avoided by misinterpretations of John 3:36.
This all seems straightforward enough. We first hear the Word of God. As we do this, we reflect on what Christ did to purchase our salvation. We must then repent of our old habits. We must separate ourselves from the world by abstaining from alcohol, drugs, sex outside of marriage, adultery, murder, lying, gambling, cheating, stealing, and so on (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9, Gal. 5:19-21, 1 Tim. 1:8-11, etc.). We are commanded to be “lights to the world” (Acts 13:47), to set an example for others to follow. Having repented of those old habits, we then confess that Jesus is the Son of God.
We do this when baptized, immersed in water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are being “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” dying to our old, sinful selves as we then arise from the water in newness of life. At that point, we have become priests and saints of God (1 Peter 2:9).
If we do not do these things, we are neither priests nor saints, which means God does not hear our prayers. If we persist in our disobedience, we have forsaken our salvation in Christ. That is what Christ meant when He said,
John 3:5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Immersion in the Bible is internalizing the Mind of God: the Spirit, which becomes part of our psyche. The crucial point is that, without living a life of obedience, one is not born again, and no amount of prayers will alter the fact. We must, therefore, abide by Christ (and the apostles') commandments through faith. That is what "belief" -- "obey", means in John 3:36.