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Belief Without Confession?

As John closes out the public ministry of Jesus in his gospel account, John inserts the words of the prophet Isaiah in explaining that many who heard the teaching and seen the works of Jesus, both would not and could not believe in Him. Yet, John adds a note in verses 42 and 43 that there were some, even among the religious authorities, who did indeed believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but remained quiet to protect themselves from synagogue excommunication. John ends with a word of judgement stating that, “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). We can remain within the gospel of John to find one such person: Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee that “came to Jesus at night” (John 3:2) as to not be seen speaking to and sitting at the feet of Jesus. As we hear of these among the authorities that kept their belief a secret, we understandably question their sincerity of belief. For we rightly think of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 10:9 that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

This question, of whether one who does not confess Christ in a public manner truly believes, has been a part of the church’s history. At various stages, particularly during times of persecution, the church has questioned what to do with “the lapsed” as they have been coined. One such period happened during the short reign of Decius, emperor of Rome from 249-251AD. Decius was a convinced pagan who persecuted any who did not offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. In fear of violence and death, there were some Christians who would either (1) not confess Christ publicly, (2) get a false certificate of pagan sacrifices, or (3) offer sacrifices in lackluster fashion and offer repentance to God. During this period, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, would reinstate lapsed Christians into the church after a time of repentance. But there were others who disagreed. Men such as Novatian were much stricter as to who was considered repentant and who had utterly rejected the gospel with their pagan sacrifices. As Justo Gonzalez surmises: “the issue was whether purity or forgiving love should be the characteristic of the church…the Western church was repeatedly embroiled in debates regarding how that purity should be sustained while still having the church be a community of love.”1

I dare not judge the saints of old who felt the threat of death and remained silent. I do not even judge the religious authorities in John’s gospel who believed but remained quiet to avoid excommunication. I do not judge, as I sit writing this in the comforts of a nation with religious liberty. And yet, I am aware that we can even remain silent at times due to the consequences that may come. We do not fear death, but we may fear ridicule, disrespect, or being ignored. And yet, we are still called to ask ourselves whether we are more concerned with the praise of men versus the glory of God. And we are also called to ask for help from our great God, through the work of His Spirit to empower us to be His witnesses in this world. A prayer that seeks the Spirit to give us not a spirit of fear, but one of “power, love, and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).


1 Gonzalez, J. L. (2010). The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperCollins.

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