Nicodemus famously visited Jesus one night. We cannot be sure of his motivation for the time choice, but it appears it was a matter of caution on the part of Nicodemus. He wanted to find out what Jesus was about, but he had to consider his position as a ruler and a Pharisee. Perhaps he was a member of the Sanhedrin. Anyway, he at least went to see and inquire of Jesus. He was welcomed.
In that well-known visit Jesus made a remarkable claim concerning God. He stated that God loved the world to the extent that He had sent His own Son for the benefit of said world. The benefit was that a belief-response would result in a never-ending life. The default condition of the “whosoever” did not include that never-ending life; it included some kind of perishing. So, a person was in a condition of not having never-ending life (perishing), but God intervened by sending His own Son to make a provision. What was required was a belief in the One sent. That belief would result in a change in the condition of any given person from not having said life to having it.
So a decision is made and a person’s status is changed from “perishing” to “having eternal life.” Today, most Christians think this is the end of the matter. Respond to God’s provision by “believing” in the One (Jesus, the only-begotten Son) whom God had sent, and the status change is made. That is all there is to it. Alas, many practitioners of the community of believing persons believe and teach that all is as simple and final as that. The status transfer is a one-up event in the lives of most. That doesn’t seem very hard. Decide to believe, and it is done.
There are two major problems with this very popular approach to Christianity. First, it does not do a very good job of defining “belief.” Is belief a single event in time? Does it last for only a moment, or does it have to last for at least a week? And still, what is the actual content of belief? Modern practice has compressed all this down to a statement, but a look at the phenomenon of belief implies much more. What is implied is something permanent. What is implied is that a mind contains a particular state with regards to a matter. That state is more-or-less permanent, and influences the behaviors of the person in a manner consistent with the content of the belief. The implication of Jesus’ comments to Nicodemus was that a new belief had to come into being in the person. That means that the person either had no belief with respect to eternal life or the person had a negative belief related to same. The “belief” state about which Jesus was speaking was a changed belief state. Previously the person had no belief that eternal life was possible. The change was to a state in which the person did believe in eternal life.
Saying so, however, is not the same as coming to “believe” that such a state exists and that we have access to it. A statement may be all the evidence another person has about a state change in someone, but the actual state change is really what Jesus was talking about. The actual state change is what matters. That is a matter between the person in question and God. Only the two of them can be fully aware of whether an actual state change has occurred. That is beyond our scope. If the state change (regarding eternal life through a belief in the Son) occurs in the individual, then the requirement is met and the eternal life is accessed.
The state change matters though. In life you act based on the belief set that you hold. In any situation, a number of beliefs come into play. The composite of those beliefs determines how you react to the situation. If you have a state change such that “perishing” has become “accessing eternal life” that state change should affect many of your behaviors. In other words, the state of your beliefs is manifested in your behaviors. To believe in access to eternal life in lieu of perishing without any evidence of that belief in the conduct of life would be virtually impossible.
But there is an even more fundamental matter at hand. Love is an active state. It has a dynamic. Love requires that you either respond to that love or not. In fact, the apparent non-response is a response because of the reciprocating nature of love. It does not fail to have a response from its object. Love will cause something to happen in you.
God did not just send His Son into the world to produce a state change for people. If that were so, then it would be unnecessary to send His Son. He could simply produce the state change for everyone. After all, it is thought by most to be changing a mark in a column. No. God had a reason for sending the Son with the state-change mission. He sent His Son because He loved the world so much that He desired to do so.
Furthermore, the Son did not come and just hand out instances of the state change. The providence of the state change was conditional. You had to believe in the Son and His mission in order to become a beneficiary of it. That belief is life-changing, not just state-changing. It is both state-changing and life-changing. That begs a question. What “life change” are we talking about? The state change is the one from perishing to having access to eternal life. But, what is the life change?
Perhaps the life change has to do with the very motivation of God in this whole thing to begin with. He “loved the world so much” that He sent the Son to bring about permanent belief changes and subsequent life changes. Love might be the key to this whole thing – not just eternal life. Love requires a response. It is at its most powerful when it is fully and accurately reciprocated.
Maybe “believing” in the Son is about learning to love the Father reciprocally for His love in sending the Son to begin with. Maybe what is wanted is that we decide and then learn to love God as a response that includes the state-change and the life-change. A gospel that speaks only of a state-change without a life-change leaves God’s love in an unrequited state. Alas that it be so. For so many, the challenge of returning God’s love appropriately just seems too much a challenge. How often does His love remain unrequited, because it is just too hard to love Him back.