Does belief precede salvation?

In John's Gospel, we are told that "whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them" (John 3:36). How we understand this statement from John the baptist will depend largely on the theological lens through which we read (and so interpret) this text. If our lens is a theology of separation, we likely will understand John's statement to mean that God stands separate from and in wrath against all people *until* they believe in Jesus, at which point God (for the first time) enters their lives, ceases to be wrathful toward them, and grants them eternal life. But is that interpretation justified? We answer no, because it is inconsistent with what Scripture tells us about who God is, as revealed in the person of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. According to that revelation, rather than separate from sinners, God is a friend of sinners, the God who is with us and for us, the God of love who, in Jesus, died for us, forgiving and accepting us, and so reconciling us to himself. 

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It is to this God, revealed in the person and work of Jesus, that John bears witness in his Gospel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)
"But," one might reply, "doesn't John 3:36 along with John 3:18 imply that a person *remains condemned* by God *until* they believe?"  Here we must be careful not to misunderstand the point John is making. Throughout his Gospel, John makes it clear that God's action on our behalf *precedes* our personal belief. We don't cause salvation to occur by believing. Rather, what John is telling us is that we receive (and John uses the word "see" as a metaphor for this receiving) what is already true when we believe. John likens this believing to *illumination*---to having our eyes opened to the light (as in John 3:20-21). A person who does not believe cannot see the light that is already present, and thus they remain in darkness (in terms of their personal, subjective experience). By believing, their eyes are opened---they now see what already was there. To not believe is thus to deny what is there and to cut oneself off from its benefits. Though God has forgiven, accepted and included me in his life and love in Jesus, if I don't believe (and thus don't receive) it, I don't experience the benefits.

The "light" that is present with all humans, by the Spirit, is Jesus himself (John 1:4, 9). Unfortunately, not all "see" and thus embrace and so benefit from this light, this Jesus. But to say that some do not benefit, is not the same as saying that God condemns those people and remains separate from them, in a state of wrath toward them. Quite the contrary! In love, God sent his Son to die for all in order to forgive and accept all, in Christ. Of course, not all know that this has happened for them (and all humanity) and some who know, have rejected that truth. However, *all* are invited to reciprocate---to live into the gift God has, already, given them in Christ (see John 1:12).

In all this, we are seeking to do what Christ's apostles were careful to do in their writings (including John in his Gospel)---establish all aspects of salvation in Jesus, not in our action (including our believing). Following their example, we seek to uphold the truth of the gospel that Jesus, the Lamb of God, has indeed already taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The gospel invitation then is to believe (to "see" in John's terminology) this good news---not to obtain forgiveness by believing, but to *experience* our forgiveness through now opened eyes.

As Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12). Here to "have" is not to receive what one did not have before, but to possess/experience/receive---grab hold of what was there all along. In that profound experience, which might come suddenly, or over a period of time, one is "born again" ("born from above" is the alternate translation). John thus summarizes the purpose for his Gospel:
...That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
To "have life" is not to be given something new, but to possess/see/experience/lay hold of, what was granted to all humanity 2,000 years ago through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit. What was universally (objectively) given, must be personally (subjectively) experienced/received. It is toward that end that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, now labors, and invites the church to participate as co-laborers with him, for the sake of the world.

[This post is an edited version of a post that was published here in January 2010.]