Why does it matter what I believe?
The answer to that question really has to start with God rather than with us.
There is a God, and he made everything
The very first verse in the Bible tells us:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
This is God's world we are living in, he is our creator, and the Bible grounds our accountability to God on this fact. We are accountable to the one who made us.
This is not a popular viewpoint in a society which wants to remove God from the equation. Ideas about how the universe came into existence which deny the existence of God are understandably going to find favour with us if we do not want to be accountable to anyone but ourselves.
Sometimes it is assumed that modern science has disproved the existence of God and disproved the idea that God created everything. This is too big a topic to deal with adequately on this page without going off at a tangent, but there are highly qualified scientists and academics who most certainly do believe that there is a God, and that God created the universe and everything in it. Science has not disproved the existence of God. Our perceptions of reality are always going to be determined by the presuppositions we bring to the process of considering the evidence, and atheist scientists do this just as much as anyone else.
The atheism delusion
Sometimes people assume that all highly educated scientists would follow Richard Dawkins in mocking religion and denying the existence of God. This is not so at all. In 2007 Dawkins was engaged in a public debate with an Oxford colleague of his, Professor John Lennox. The debate was in front of an audience, and has been released on DVD as The God Delusion Debate. John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, Fellow in the Philosophy of Science at Green College, Oxford, and he strongly disagrees with Dawkins' atheism. He studied at Cambridge from which he holds the degrees of MA and PhD and was subsequently Reader in Pure Mathematics at the University of Wales where he was awarded a DSc. He also holds an MA in Bioethics.
And for an example of a scientist who takes the creation account of the Bible literally, I would point you towards Professor Andy McIntosh BSc, PhD, DSc, FIMA, CMath, FInstE, CEng, FInstP, MIGEM, FRAeS, who is a Professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Theory.
Neither John Lennox nor Andy McIntosh have any connection with this website, and I am not suggesting they would necessarily agree on all matters of Bible interpretation. But the point is that there are scientists, as highly qualified as Richard Dawkins, who believe that Dawkins is wrong in denying the existence of God. In fact there are many such scientists.
The Bible tells us about the God who created us
God is love. God is infinitely wise and knows all things. God is all powerful. God is infinitely good. But his goodness includes the fact that he is morally perfect. Anything short of God's moral perfection is what the Bible calls sin.
The Bible is clear that when God created this universe and everything in it, it was good, even very good. God himself said so. When God made man, he made man good too. Man enjoyed an unspoilt relationship with God when God first made him. God gave Adam, the first man, one commandment that he must not disobey, or he would die. But Adam chose to rebel against God and broke God's law. Man became a breaker of God's law by nature, a rebel against God, what the Bible calls a sinner. Ever since then, we have all been born with a nature that is in rebellion against God.
Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment in all of God's law was, and Jesus' answer points back to the heart of the law that God gave through Moses:
Jesus said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second, which is like it, is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hangs the whole law and the prophets.' (Matthew 22:37-40)
We are all guilty of breaking God's law
A moment's honest reflection ought to reveal to us that we do not obey these commandments. If we are in any doubt about this, consider something else Jesus said about sin:
Jesus said, 'That which proceeds out of a man is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickednesses, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man.' (Mark 7:20-23)
'You have heard that it was said, "You shalt not kill, and whoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment," but I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment...' (Matthew 5:21-22a)
Jesus made it very clear that sin is not just a matter of our behaviour but of what is going on inside our hearts. And this was not some new interpretation that Jesus was giving, for the Bible tells us throughout that our sinfulness lies in the condition of our very hearts. Even if we do not act on some sinful impulse, to want to commit sin is itself sin. The Bible tells us that man looks at the outward appearance, but God sees our hearts.
There is a popular idea in our society that our feelings are what they are, and what we feel cannot be wrong. But according to the Bible, that entirely depends on what those feelings are. Even our thoughts and feelings are capable of being sinful.
There is a terrible penalty for breaking God's law
The penalty for sin is death:
The soul who sins shall die. (Ezekiel 18:20)
This doesn't just mean physical death, but spiritual death, and ultimately eternal destruction. Jesus himself warned us of hell many times in the gospels:
'And do not fear those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear God who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.' (Matthew 10:28)
Out of God's great love and mercy, he provided a way of rescue from the terrible condition we are in
The most famous verse in the Bible may well be John 3:16. Below is that verse, and the two which follow it:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him. Whoever believes on him is not judged, whoever does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed on the name of God's one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)
The way which God provided for us to be forgiven and rescued from our sinfulness and our guilt before God involved God himself becoming a real human being. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, fully God, and fully human too. Jesus lived a perfect life, never once sinning in any way. He perfectly obeyed the law of God, something we, by nature, cannot do. Then he went to a cross, and suffered terribly, bearing our sin and the punishment we deserved. He died there, and God raised him back to life on the third day.
The wonderful truth is that Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, has obtained and secured the forgiveness of all who will turn to him in repentance and faith. Because of Jesus' perfect obedience to God's law, and what Jesus suffered on that cross in our place, we can be forgiven, reconciled to God, adopted into his family. But this is only true for us if we genuinely put our trust in Christ alone.
God now commands all people everywhere to repent
The Bible tells us that God now commands all people everywhere to repent. This means recognising that we are guilty before God, turning to Jesus Christ and putting our faith in him alone, believing he died for us, surrendering our lives to God with thankfulness, and asking for and trusting in his help as we turn from all that we know is wrong, and begin to follow him.
There will be a terrible consequence for us if we do not repent
Some preachers take the verse John 3:17 and try to make it say that there will not be a judgment, that everyone will be saved:
For God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him. (John 3:17)
But this is an interpretation of that verse which makes it contradict all of the many warnings that the Bible (and Jesus himself) gives us. It also makes verse 17 directly contradict the verse which follows, verse 18:
Whoever believes on him is not judged, whoever does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed on the name of God's one and only Son. (John 3:18)
Asserting that everyone will be saved also contradicts the verse which precedes verse 17, which makes being forgiven and saved conditional upon believing in Jesus:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
The Bible clearly warns that a day will come when God will deal with those who rejected him, who spurned his grace and love:
..the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to those who do not know God, and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus: they will suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thessalonians 1:7b-9)
Those are very strong words, but they are plainly part of what the Bible teaches us. There is no other way of being saved from this punishment except by turning to Jesus Christ and truly following him:
Salvation is not found in anyone else, for there is no other name under heaven that is given among men, whereby we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
But God's love is so great that if we do repent and believe, he forgives us freely
'Truly I say to you, whoever hears my word, and believes on him who sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but has already passed from death to life.' (John 5:24)
The apostle John wrote to Christians of the wonderful love and forgiveness of God for all those who truly believe in Jesus:
Behold, what manner of love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called the sons of God. (1 John 3:1)
Could God ever forgive me?
During Jesus time on earth of going around preaching about the Kingdom of God, healing those who were sick, and caring for people because his heart went out to them 'for they were like sheep without a shepherd' (Matthew 9:36), Jesus told a story about a father who had two sons. The older son prided himself on always being obedient and dutiful, whereas the younger son decided to go his own way. It's a story that is often referred to as the parable of the prodigal son.
The point at the end of the story is really all about what Jesus thought of the self-righteous Pharisees, who are represented in the story as the older brother. Jesus had been forgiving, loving and embracing all kinds of sinful people who had turned from their ways and put their trust in Jesus, and this really offended the Pharisees, who didn't think that God would ever forgive such people. The Pharisees thought that no truly religious person could have any time for such sinners. They were beyond forgiveness.
So Jesus told the story of the prodigal son. Although the point of the story was largely to rebuke the self-righteous Pharisees, the story also tells us something very important about God's heart towards sinful people like all of us, provided we turn back from our ways and put our trust in Christ:
'A certain man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me my share of the inheritance," so he divided his property between them.'
'Soon after, the younger son gathered together all he had and went on a journey into a far country, and there he wasted everything on riotous living. And when he had spent it all, there was a mighty famine in that country and he began to be in need.'
'So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed his pigs. He even wanted to eat the husks that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.'
'When he came to his senses, he said, "Even my father's hired servants have enough bread to eat, and to spare, and here I am wasting away with hunger! I will go back to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Take me back as one of your hired servants.""
'But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran to embrace him and kissed him. And the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." '
'But the father said to his servants, "Bring out the best robe, quickly, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and bring the fattened calf, and kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate! For my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!"' (Luke 15:11-24a)
The Bible clearly teaches that there is no sin we cannot be forgiven for - if we will genuinely turn to Christ in repentance and faith. God has promised to forgive you if you will truly put your trust in him. We do not, and cannot, earn God's forgiveness. This is an essential point to understand. Anyone who has truly been 'born again' (John 3:3) will (immediately) turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, but repentance and faith are not something we do which thereby earns us God's forgiveness. We cannot earn this. Jesus lived the perfect life we never could have lived, and he took our sin and the punishment we deserved on that cross, and it is only on the basis of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ that we can be reconciled to him.
Being right with God is by his grace alone
Forgiveness from God, assurance of his love, and adoption into God's family, are wonderful free gifts, by grace alone. Although Jesus had to go through terrible suffering to secure those gifts for us. But even the faith we are saved by is a gift from God. So if you fear that God could never forgive you because you don't deserve forgiveness, the answer is that no-one deserves his forgiveness. But if you will truly believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (and true belief in him is always accompanied by repentance), that forgiveness is yours, because of the merits of Jesus alone.
We are saved by faith alone...
It is faith alone in Christ alone which makes us right with God. And the sole ground of our being right with God is Christ's perfect obedience to God's law, and Christ's death on the cross in the place of sinners. If we are Christians, our right relationship with God does not ever depend upon our performance, but solely upon Christ's performance as our substitute. To think we have to make ourselves right with God by our own work is a false religion.
...but not by a faith which is alone
But although we are saved by faith alone, true faith is never on its own in the true believer in Jesus. True faith in Christ will always be accompanied by a true and progressive turning from all we know is wrong and displeasing to God, and true surrender to Jesus' claims over us as our Lord. This is repentance. However, although our repentance must be genuine, it is never complete in this life, for if it were, we would never sin again. All Christians struggle with sin (1 John 1:8-10). But a true believer, having a conscience that has been made alive by God, will be troubled by their sin and be continually turning from it. If we have a conscience entirely untroubled by our sin then we do not have true faith in Christ.
True saving faith in Christ will be evidenced by our we live. As James says (James 2:24), we can see that a person has true saving faith by looking at how he or she lives.
James is not saying that:
'a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone',
...which is how some people misread this. Read the verse carefully and the meaning becomes clear:
'You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone'.
We can see that a truly saved person has true faith by looking at how they live. If we cannot see any evidence of faith at work in how they live, then any claim they make to having faith is suspect. This is the only correct way of understanding what James is saying, given that the apostle Paul teaches clearly in the book of Romans that we are saved only by faith and not by any works of ours.
The Heidelberg Catechism
The Heidelberg Catechism, written around 450 years ago, is not part of the Bible. But it is based upon the Bible, and contains many wonderful reminders of what the Bible actually tells us. If you are wondering whether God could forgive you, consider these excerpts from The Heidelberg Catechism*:
Q. How are you right with God?
Even though my conscience accuses me
Q. What do you believe concerning 'the forgiveness of sins'?
A. I believe that God,
I hope this page has answered for you why it matters what we believe. Turn to Jesus Christ and put your faith in him. I pray that you will do so.
If you have put your trust in Jesus it's important to find yourself a local church which believes the Bible and where you can meet with other Christians to worship God, learn more about him, and find out more about following Jesus. There are some (UK) links to help with this here: find a church.