Would it surprise us to learn that within the New Testament’s original language, the label “believer” (pistos) is rather rare? I did not expect this. Did you? Or how surprised would we be if we discovered that perhaps the most common usage of believer today differs from what the New Testament meant by believer?
Regarding the first surprise, our Bibles might insert “believer” at many points where the New Testament in its original language did not. A nearly exhaustive verse list where pistos might possibly be understood as believer includes: Acts 10:45; 16:15; 2 Corinthians 6:15; 1 Timothy 4:3,10,12; 6:2; 1 Peter 1:21./1
In such verses, “believer” is a term identifying those who belong to Christ. Everyone will agree with this and scripture concurs. However, this might be where the consensus ends.
Today it appears that many people apply the label of believer to everyone who believes in Jesus. Thus this term functions both as identifying who belongs to Jesus as well as providing an exhaustive explanation of how they became disciples. They simply believed in him.
However, it may be that this is not how scripture uses the term believer. It could be that when the New Testament designates people as believers it identifies them as followers of Christ, without making any claim they only believed in order to become disciples.
It is at this point that our values and theological biases might predispose us to either reject or accept this possibility. Fortunately, scripture offers some evidence.
For starters, scripture also uses several other terms or phrases to identify those in Christ, including “Christian,” “disciple,” “saints,” “sons of God” and “anyone belonging to the way.” Do any of these inform us how people became followers of Christ? Not at all! They are simply descriptive expressions that identify someone as belonging to Christ while highlighting a significant characteristic. It is at least possible that the word believer might function in this same manner. However, does it?
We find some clues in Acts. After Lydia had responded to Paul’s message by being baptized, she said, “If you consider me to be a believer in the Lord …” (Acts 16:15). Similarly, the Philippian jailer after hearing the word of the Lord and responding to it by being baptized “rejoiced greatly that he had come to believe in God” (Acts 16:34). In both of these cases, baptism preceded becoming a believer.
Space does not permit examining all of the evidence here such as whether Luke would substitute believe for other conversion details or observing narrative characteristics and his use of believe. I would suggest that the New Testament’s perspective identifies believers/ sons of God / disciples as those who have relied upon Christ in baptism (Galatians 3:26-27; Matthew 28:19; Acts 16:33,34). If this is accurate, then people today are applying the term believer more freely and with a different perspective than we discover in scripture.
1/ Pistos can function as both a noun signifying believer or as an adjective conveying faithful or trustworthy.
Note: The following article explores in more depth whether Luke used “believe” to summarize trusting in Jesus, as opposed to being an exhaustive explanation of how they responded to the gospel. You can access that article here.