I find the term believer fascinating. Some of its intriguing facets include its frequency and the obfuscating manner in which people use it.
If someone were to ask you, “What is the most common word Christians use to identify a follower of Christ?” What would you say?
My experience is that “believer” trumps Christian, disciple, saint, or any other New Testament designation for Jesus’ followers. Would it surprise us that in the original language of the New Testament its occurrence, depending on how we reckon it, is at best relatively rare (around eight times) or at worst it never appears?
In the original language, pistos is an adjective that means faithful. When faithful refers to a man or woman, translators might render it as the noun “believer.” Thus, “the son of a faithful Jewish woman” might become “the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer” (Acts 16:1).
What is happening is that in order to achieve an easy English some translations will express pistos as a noun (“If you consider me to be a believer in the Lord,” Acts 16:15 NET). Other translations will adhere to its adjectival nature (“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord” ESV).
Still yet, some translations will insert believer into the text to facilitate an easy flow in the English translation when that idea is absent in the original text. For example, “them” might become “believers” (Acts 16:4; 20:2).
By way of contrast, consider the frequency of the adjective agios (holy) in the New Testament when it stands alone as a reference to those in Christ. Like pistos, it too might be translated as a noun, namely “saint” (Colossians 1:2; Acts 9:13). Whether expressed as “saints” or “holy people” to designate God’s people, agios occurs over 40 times in this manner just within the epistles! Yet, how often have you heard someone call a Christian either holy person or saint?
So why does our usage invert the frequencies of “holy people/ saints” and “faithful people/ believers” as found in the New Testament? I suspect several reasons including that this is a common custom as well as the desire to evade a holier-than-thou criticism play significant roles.
Another fascinating aspect about the term believer is its susceptibility in supporting the fallacy of equivocation. What is equivocation? Equivocation occurs when someone draws a conclusion after shifting the definition of a word from one meaning to another meaning. This method of reasoning can lead to false conclusions.
What does this have to do with the term believer? First, when used in reference to Christ, by definition believer means the designated individual believes in Christ.
Here’s the rub. If someone believes Christ is who he claimed to be, does this automatically make that person a follower of Jesus? No! John 12:42 makes this distinction clear. And let’s not forget that the demons have no doubt about who Jesus is!
To be a follower of Christ involves more than just being confident that certain things about Christ are true. A belief in Christ that results in a person becoming part of the body of Christ requires relying upon Christ. This is so much more than mere belief.
Now notice the sly shift in definition that can occur. Sally recognizes that Jane believes in Christ and thus identifies Jane as a believer. Sally reasons that since a believer is a member of Christ’s body, Jane is a member of the body of Christ. In her reasoning what she meant by believer shifted.
While one theological perspective today equates merely believing with belonging to Christ, scripture provides a different message. The New Testament portrays people becoming disciples, becoming God’s adopted children, becoming part of the body of Christ and being released from their sins as requiring us to rely upon Christ through baptism, an act of faith (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12-13).
Once Jesus rose from the grave, to be a believer required responding to the gospel by believing in one’s heart, confessing with one’s lips and being buried in baptism in order to be raised with Christ into the new life God’s power makes possible. None of these negate the others. Yet today when people assert someone is a believer they might just be obfuscating the biblical understanding.
Believer. Yep, it is an interesting word.