Many Christians seem to think that all who believe in Jesus for eternal life will automatically becomes a disciple of Jesus, and if someone says they believe in Jesus but don’t do a good job following Jesus, this proves they are not truly a believer. But this is not what Scripture teaches.
The Bible shows that there is a difference between believing in Jesus for eternal life and following Jesus on the path of discipleship. It is possible to be a believer but not a disciple, and it is possible to be a disciple and not a believer.
The Gospel of John is the gospel of belief. It presents, better than any other book in the Bible, the single condition for receiving eternal life. The Gospel of John shows that eternal life is given to anyone who simply and only believes in Jesus for it (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; etc.).
But the Gospel of John is also great for discipleship. While the Gospel of John shows that eternal life is the free gift of God to anyone who believes in Jesus for it, it also shows that the path of discipleship has numerous other conditions and requirements. The Gospel of John does a great job showing the different conditions and results between eternal life and discipleship.
Over and over we see that after a person believes in Jesus for eternal life, He then invites these believers to follow Him on the path of discipleship. We also see that when some unbelievers have been following Him as disciples for a while, He invites them to believe in Him for eternal life.
Once you see the difference between believing in Jesus for eternal life and following Jesus on the path of discipleship, many texts in Scripture will make much more sense.
Understanding the differences between eternal life and discipleship will also liberate you from fear and legalism. You will see that God gives you eternal life freely. No good works are required to earn it, keep it, or prove that you have it. And you will see that all the passages in the Bible which call for obedience and good works are not conditions for eternal life, but for the path of discipleship and following Jesus.
Several passages from the Gospel of John make this distinction quite clear. Let us look at a few.
Disciples who became believers (John 2:11)
This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.
John 2 presents the first sign in the Gospel of John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-12). At the end of this sign, John records that some of Jesus’ disciples believed in Him (John 2:11).
In this way, John clearly reveals that these men were disciples before they were believers, but now that they had followed Jesus for a time, heard some of His teachings, and seen one of His miracles, they believed in Jesus.
Now, they were no longer just disciples; they were disciples who also believed.
So you see? It is possible to be a disciple of Jesus who has not believed in Jesus for eternal life. Jesus calls all such people to believe in Him for eternal life, and when they do, they continue on the path of discipleship as believing disciples.
But it is also possible to be a believer and not a disciple! John 2:23-25 shows this.
Believers who did not become disciples (John 2:23-25)
Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.
Some look at this text and think that these people who believed in Jesus were not “true believers” because Jesus did not commit Himself to them. But nothing in the text indicates that they were not true believers.
Since John writes that they believed in Jesus, and since John consistently writes that anyone who believes in Jesus receives eternal life, the most logical and straightforward reading of this text is to take John at his word and understand that these people believed in Jesus, and therefore, had eternal life.
But if this is so, then why did Jesus not commit Himself to them?
The reason is stated within the text.
Jesus did not commit Himself to them because he knew what was in men. And what is in men? It is that humans are reliably unreliable. You can trust that humans are untrustworthy.
So when John writes that Jesus did not yet commit Himself to these new believers, this does not mean that they were not truly believers. No, it means that Jesus knew that some of these believers might not follow Him for very long, or might not stand by Him when things became difficult.
Jesus was not yet ready to decide which of these believing disciples would form His twelve apostles. He was not yet ready to trust these new believers with all of His plans and goals for His ministry.
Jesus knew that these people who believed in Him had eternal life. But He also knew that most of them had expectations and ideas about what the Messiah would do, and very little idea about what Jesus actually intended to do.
And so while most of them would have immediately “signed on the dotted line” to become a member of Jesus’ inner circle, Jesus wisely waited. He knew that many of them would stop following Him after they learned a little bit more about Him and what He had come to do.
But again, remember, even though they might stop following Him, this does not mean that they never believed in the first place. The text says they did, and only those who deny what the text says can argue that these people were not “true believers.”
And Jesus was wise to not entrust Himself to these believers, for a few chapters later, some of them do indeed turn away from Him. In fact, John 6:60-66 shows that there are five possible combinations of believers and disciples.
There are FIVE combinations of Believers and Disciples (John 6:60-66)
Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you? … But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. … From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more (John 6:60-61, 64, 66).
As John’s Gospel account of Jesus continues into John 6, we are introduced to some of the hard teachings of Jesus that caused some of his disciples to stop following Him. Jesus taught that His disciples that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood if they were going to participate with Him.
He was, of course, speaking figuratively, but some of His disciples did not like what He said, and so they turned away and stopped following Him.
Yet many of the listening Jewish audience also did not like to hear such things.
We do not know how many disciples were present when Jesus said this, yet John writes that Jesus knew which of them believed in Him and which did not. This means that among this large group of disciples, some of them were believers while others were unbelievers. But they were still all disciples.
However, after the hard teaching of Jesus, many of these people stopped being a disciple. The text says they “walked with Him no more.”
While the reader is tempted to think that it was only the unbelieving disciples who turned away from Jesus, John flips the table on such an understanding by revealing in John 6:71 that Judas Iscariot was among those who stayed. Since Judas appears to be an unbelieving disciple who continues to follow Jesus, it seems possible that there were believing disciples who stopped following Jesus.
Believing in Jesus is no guarantee of ongoing discipleship to Jesus.
So here in the context of John 6, there are five groups of people who relate differently to Jesus:
First, there are the unbelieving non-disciples of Jesus who do not follow Him and do not believe in Him (John 6:41-59).
Second and third, there are believing and unbelieving disciples who stop following Jesus (John 6:66).
Fourth, there are unbelieving disciples who continue to follow Jesus. Judas might have been one of these, though the text does not say if there were others (John 6:70-71).
Finally, there were the believing disciples who committed themselves to following Jesus no matter where He led, because He had the words of eternal life (John 6:67-69).
The reader of this text is supposed to ask which group they themselves belong to. Which group do you belong to?
As He spoke these words, many believed in Him. Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed in Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
This passage is important because it clearly shows the two different conditions for becoming a believer and becoming a disciple.
In John 8:30, a group of people believe in Jesus, and since we know from elsewhere in the Gospel of John that whoever believes in Jesus receives everlasting life (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47) we can know that those who believed in Jesus here received everlasting life (see Everlasting Life).
However, in the very next verse, Jesus speaks to those who believed in Him and says that if they abide in His word, they will also be His disciples (John 8:31). To “abide” means to remain, stay, continue, or dwell (see Abide).
If they stayed with Jesus in this way, they would come to know the truth, and the truth would set them free. The implication is that they were not yet His disciples, but if they remained with Jesus, and followed His teachings, then they would become His disciples.
Of course, the opposite is also true. If they stopped abiding in the teachings of Jesus Christ, then they would no longer be His disciples. They would not learn the truth, and would instead remain enslaved to sin and their rebellious ways.
But would they still have eternal life? Yes, of course!
Abiding is not a condition of eternal life; eternal life is a free gift of God’s grace to all who believe in Jesus for it.
Bob Wilkin says this:
The context clearly distinguishes between being a believer (John 8:30) and being a disciple (John 8:31-32). The former occurs at a point in time and is conditioned only upon believing in Christ. The latter occurs over time and is conditioned upon ongoing obedience and good works.
Many pastors and scholars go on to note, however, that in the following context, Jesus speaks to some Jewish leaders who were there and says that they are of their father the devil, and even says that they do not believe Him (John 8:44-45).
These pastors teach that these nonbelieving Jews are the same as the believing Jews that Jesus speaks to in John 8:30-32. But how can this be? If John says that these Jews did believe, and then a few verses later, Jesus says they did not believe, this is a clear contradiction in the Bible.
There best solution to this problem is to recognize that there appears to be two different groups of Jews in the context: believing Jews and non-believing Jews.
Most of the dialogue in the context is between Jesus and the nonbelieving Jews. Many of them are among the religious Pharisees (John 8:13) who only want to challenge what Jesus says and does.
They do not believe in Him, nor do they follow Him. In the context, they raise one objection after another to everything Jesus says (cf. John 8:19, 22, 25, 33, 39, 41). Charlie Bing says that such objections are “totally out of character with the inclination of those mentioned in John 8:31-32.”
So there are two groups of Jews in the text: a group of believing Jews, whom Jesus addresses in John 8:31-32, and a group of unbelieving, antagonistic Jews, whom Jesus addresses in the rest of the passage.
Admittedly, the pronouns in the text make it appear that Jesus is speaking to one group throughout the entire text, but if this is so, then the Bible has a contradiction within just a few verses, where John says they do believe and Jesus says they don’t.
It is far better to recognize that there are two types of people in a larger group. In this one large group, there are some who believe and some who don’t (this also fits with modern church contexts).
Jesus warns those who do not believe in Him that they will die in their sins (John 8:24) and are of their father the devil who leads only to murder and violence (John 8:44), while at the same time, He encourages those who believe in Him to follow Him further into freedom and liberty (John 8:32, 36).
Believing in Jesus is the sole condition for receiving eternal life, but abiding in Jesus and His word is one of many the conditions of being His disciple so that we can fully experience freedom in Him.
So if you have believed in Jesus for eternal life, what are some of the conditions for following Jesus as a disciple? The Gospel of John includes many of these as well.
Love one another to be a Disciple of Jesus (John 13:35)
“By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In John 13:35, Jesus provides the defining characteristic of one of His disciples. He says that they will love one another.
Love for others is how people can recognize true disciples of Jesus Christ.
It is critically important to recognize that loving one another is not a condition for receiving eternal life, or else nobody would have eternal life, for nobody fully loves all the Christians they interact with.
Many Christians are quite difficult, if not impossible, to consistently love, and so if this were a condition for receiving eternal life, nobody would have it.
So thankfully, Jesus is not talking here about how to receive eternal life, but how to be recognized as one of His disciples.
Note as well that this is not even about saying that you love other Christians, but about being recognized by others for your love.
Far too often, the world looks at Christians and says that we are unloving.
Oddly, the default Christian response to such an accusation from the world is to argue. We say things like, “Well, you only say that because we don’t condone sin. We are only standing up for what is right. It’s not loving to hide the truth. I love the sinner, but I hate the sin. If you come to our church, then you will see how truly loving we are.”
If a non-Christian says that Christians are not loving, and our only response is to argue, we should not wonder why they don’t believe us.
In fact, far from being known for our love, some Christians seem to strive to be known for their hate. They seem to think that a true Christian will be hated.
I overheard two guys in the store the other day who were both wearing Christian t-shirts. One was saying to the other, “Yeah, they all hate me at work, but that’s okay, because I’m standing up for Christ.”
But Jesus says that we should be known by our love, which means that we will not only love others, but will also be loved by others. Just like Jesus was. The only people who hated Jesus were the religious elites. So if religious people love you, but “sinners” hate you, you are probably not following Jesus.
As a side note, the ironic thing about Christian T-shirts themselves is that people often depend on them to tell others that they follow Jesus.
But Jesus says that if you are His disciple, you won’t have to tell people. They will know it by your love. If you have to depend on a T-shirt to tell others that you are following of Jesus, you might not be following Him very well.
Jesus does say, of course, that His disciples will be known by their love for one another. Some take this to mean that love for other Christians is our priority, and we shouldn’t worry about whether or not non-Christians feel loved by us.
Jesus does say, after all, the since the world hated Him, it will also hate His followers (John 15:18; cf. 1 John 3:13). John writes elsewhere that we should not love the world or anything in the world, for friendship with the world is enmity with God (1 John 2:15-17; cf. James 4:4).
The best way to understand these texts, however, is to recognize that the term “world” is referring to the “world domination system” that is opposed to God and His ways. We should love all the people in the world, but not how they are enslaved to the values and domination system of this world.
In fact, religious people tend to be more enslaved to the world domination system than non-religious people. This is why it is mostly religious people, rather than the “sinners,” who hated Jesus during His ministry.
In the Gospels, the only people who really hated Jesus were the religious leaders who had sold out to the world domination system and were using it to control and manipulate others. It was those whom many would consider “worldly” that loved Jesus and were loved by Him. So if sinful, “worldly” people hate you but religious people love you, you might not be following Jesus.
If you are not a friend to sinners, you are not a friend to Jesus.
So yes, Christians will first and foremost be known by their love for “one another.” But this love must overflow into love for “the other,” that is, into love for people in this world.
If we want to tell people we are followers of Jesus, we do it by loving them and loving one another.
The person who loves others unconditionally but doesn’t claim to follow Jesus is closer to the Kingdom of God than those who claim to follow Jesus but doesn’t love others unconditionally.
If love is of God, and everybody who loves is born of God and knows God because God is love (1 John 4:7-8), then it only makes sense that love will be the prevailing characteristic of one who is born of God and know God.
It is not a person’s words that make him or her a Christian, or what they post on Facebook or wear on their T-shirts, or even how many Bible verses they can quote, how often they attend church and Bible studies, or whether they can “take a stand for Christ.”
They will know we are Christians by our love.
If you have not love, they will never know you are a Christian, no matter how much you tell them you are.
In light of John 13:35, then, the question we should be asking is not “Am I a follower of Jesus?” but rather, “Do I love others like Jesus so that they know I am His disciple?” This question leads to related questions:
- Do my words sound like words Jesus might say?
- Do my actions look like things Jesus might do?
- Do I love unconditionally, forgive freely, serve sacrificially, and accept all?
- Do I challenge the religious status-quo for setting up barriers to God and creating groups of us vs. them?
- Do I break down the walls of religion by eating with the so-called ‘tax-collectors and sinners’?
These are the sort of ways that others will know that you are a disciple of Jesus. When we love others in this way, we will be bearing much fruit as a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is what He talks about in John 15:8.
Bear Fruit to be a Disciple of Jesus (John 15:8)
“By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.”
There is a lot of debate over vine and branches imagery of John 15, and whether or not the branches which do not bear fruit are truly Christians or not.
Note that this passage is not about how to receive eternal life, but rather about living as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Those who abide in Jesus Christ and His teachings will bear fruit (see Abide), and in this way, they will show that they are His disciples.
If a person does not bear fruit, all it proves is that they are not His disciple. Nothing is said one way or the other about whether or not such a person has believed in Jesus for eternal life.
Just as both believers and unbelievers can follow the teachings of Jesus and see positive results in their lives (and the lives of others), so also, both believers and unbelievers can ignore the teachings of Jesus and experience negative consequences in their lives as a result. These negative consequences are symbolized by the fire in John 15:6 (see Fire).
So neither good works nor the lack of good works prove anything about whether or not a person has eternal life.
Good works can indicate whether or not a person is following the teachings of Jesus, and while most disciples are also believers, this is not always the case, and so we should avoid trying to determine someone’s eternal destiny based on their works.
Instead, we should invite all people to look to Jesus Christ alone, and believe in Him for eternal life. Once they have done this, we can also invite them to follow Jesus so that they will bear much fruit and live the abundant life (see Abundant Life).
Be a Believer AND a Disciple
For the best experience of this life, it is important to BOTH believe in Jesus for eternal life AND follow Jesus on the path of discipleship.
But we must always make sure we understand the differences between these two.
Eternal life is the absolutely free gift of God by His grace to anyone and everyone who simply and only believes in Jesus for it. There are no strings attached. There is no fine print. There are no ongoing good works attached on the back end.
Eternal life is freely received, and once it is given, it cannot be revoked or taken back.
Discipleship, however, is where the real joy and fulfillment in Christianity comes from. It has numerous conditions, and requires much sacrifice and persistence. It is not free. It calls you to love, serve, and give.
Following Jesus as a disciple is the greatest challenge you will face in life, but also the greatest thrill, and it prepares us for what life will be like with God in eternity.
So for the best experience NOW in this life, and the best foretaste of what life will be like in eternity, believe in Jesus for eternal life AND ALSO seek to follow Jesus on the path of discipleship.
When you understand the difference between these two offers, all of Scripture will make more sense, and you will better understand where you are at with God and as a follower of Jesus.
Questions? Let me know in the comment section below! And also join the discipleship group, where we learn a lot more about these types of topics and questions.
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