Belief and Mercy

The Gospels speak often of how belief in Jesus is needed for a person to be saved. For example, consider John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Or John 6:40: “For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” There is also Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” And John 11:25-26: Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” So it is clear that belief in Jesus is needed. But belief in what about Jesus? What are we supposed to believe about Jesus to believe in him?

It’s not as simple as figuring out what facts about Jesus to believe, because belief in facts is not something in itself that saves. James 2:19 points out that when it comes to facts about God, “even demons believe that, and shudder”. But of course demons are not saved. A clue to the answer is found in the internal construction of the word “belief”: a combination of “being” and “living”, the essence of belief is who you are (being) and how you conduct yourself (living). It is this sort of constitutive belief that saves. Jesus describes it in terms of deeply committed friendship. Before giving up his life on the cross, Jesus said this to his disciples:

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. [John 15:13-15]

In other words, to believe in Jesus is to be a friend for whom Jesus lays down his life, and who in return does what Jesus commands. This is a rather committed sort of belief, much more than accepting some facts.

This degree of commitment leads to a problem. While as the Gospels show, Jesus did his part, dying on the cross on Good Friday and rising again afterwards on Easter Sunday, what if we have not done our part? What if we have not done what he commands us? Then we are not his friends? Are we unsaved?

Well, technically, yes. To be Jesus’ friends means to do what he commands. He is quite clear. This isn’t a matter of Jesus being unreasonable. He gives up his life for his friends: it seems only fair that his friends take his friendship seriously and do their part in return by keeping his commandments, especially since his commandments are for their good, not his. If we have not done this ourselves up until now, we have not done our part to be his friends: we are sinners, not friends. Yet all is not lost. Jesus knows we are sinners and yet he wants us as friends anyway, not because he likes our behavior, but because he wants to save us, so much so that he dies on the cross to make it possible. This is not the character of someone who sits idly by when it comes to securing our friendship.

I wrote recently about God’s mercy, shown when someone in distress calls out to God for help, and God responds generously. Jesus knows very well when people have not been friends to him. Yet instead of condemning them, rejecting them as unsaveable, he calls them to repentance:

And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” [Luke 5:31-33]

When sinners repent, God’s reaction is not condemnation, or “I told you so”, but joy:

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. [Luke 15:7]

In fact, Jesus wants his call to repentance and his offer of forgiveness to be made known to everyone:

Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. [Luke 24:44-47]

To understand a little better Jesus’ attitude that he expresses here, I think it is helpful to look at a private revelation approved by the Church, one where Jesus appeared to St. Faustina almost a century ago. Jesus, as St. Faustina knew him, spoke to her quite a bit about his mercy. What Jesus says to her is highly consistent with what we read of him in the Gospels. To St. Faustina, he says this:

Write this for the benefit of distressed souls: when a soul sees and realizes the gravity of its sins, when the whole abyss of the misery into which it immersed itself is displayed before its eyes, let it not despair; but with trust let it throw itself into the arms of my mercy, as a child into the arms of its beloved mother. These souls have a right of priority to my compassionate heart, they have first access to my mercy. Tell them that no soul that has called upon my mercy has been disappointed or brought to shame. I delight particularly in a soul which has placed its trust in my goodness. [Divine Mercy in My Soul, 1541]

This is something quite remarkable: Jesus wants us as friends so much that if we simply ask him for mercy, in sincerity and humility of heart, he will grant it. He is still willing to be our friend, even if we have behaved very badly. For this reason, when we come face to face with the reality of our shortcomings, we should most certainly not despair, thinking we are irredeemable. We are not! Our way forward is, as the Gospel says, to repent and believe in Jesus, trusting in his love and mercy for us. Humbly and without delay, we should throw ourselves upon his mercy. He will forgive us and make us his friends, even if we have not behaved as friends before. Yes, our shortcomings may be great, but Jesus’ mercy is greater. If we repent and go to him, we can yet become his friends, believing in him so that he can save us.

Agapios Theophilus

Agapios Theophilus

Agapios Theophilus is the "nom de plume" of a catholic layman who has loved Jesus from when, as a young boy in the 1970s, he first learned about him. His First Communion, at the age of seven, was the happiest day of his life, and he celebrates its anniversary each year. He lives in a large city with his beloved wife, two wonderful children, and an affectionate orange and white cat. He has no formal qualifications whatsoever to write about Jesus: he writes only because he has been given the great gift of knowing and loving him, and he would like others to come to know and love him too. See Agapios' posts at and follow Agapios on twitter at

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