The perception that the Bible is simply a collection of do’s and don’ts is not new, and is a conclusion easily drawn by those who haven’t actually read the Bible. But an attentive reading of the Bible helps us understand quite a bit about who God is and what He expects from people. Rather than a jumbled mess of commands and prohibitions, the Bible provides a clear set of ethical mandates for believers, but specifically for unbelievers, there is only a singular ethical mandate.
For example, only one book of the New Testament is actually addressed to those who don’t believe. John’s Gospel is written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). This passage represents a common theme in the Bible: for those who have not believed in the Person of Jesus the Christ there is really only one ethical mandate: to believe in Him. In fact, John uses the term believe ninety-eight times in his Gospel, and the object of saving faith (faith is simply another word for belief) is Jesus, Himself (e.g., John 6:47).
The writer of Hebrews supports the idea that faith is the primary mandate for unbelievers. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Of course, even for someone who does not believe in Jesus Christ, reforming their behavior will certainly have some positive outcomes – the book of Proverbs presents many examples of beneficial principles that can effect anybody positively – but for there to be any lasting value, and for there to be true rightness before God, faith is required. The Proverbist acknowledges that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).
Consequently, the Bible is not so focused on reforming behavior of unbelievers as it is focused on helping them understand what is worth believing – what is true. Jesus’ own statement that He is “the way the truth and the life” (John 14:6) is vitally important, as He adds that “no man comes to the Father but by Me.” His claim to exclusivity is either true or it isn’t. He either is completely credible or has no credibility – there is simply no in between.
If indeed faith is necessary to please God, then it is the most foundational ethical mandate in the Bible. And we would do well to understand what is the object of that faith. Thankfully, we are provided the answer to that question often in the pages of the Bible. Even in the very earliest Biblical explanation of how a person came to be righteous before God, we are introduced to the object of faith. “Then he (Abram) believed in Yahweh (the Lord), and He accounted it to Abram as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). From that moment of belief, Abram was considered by God to be righteous (even when Abram’s actions weren’t righteous).
Notice the object of Abram’s belief: he believed in Yahwah (or the Lord, as the proper name is translated into English). Notice in 15:1 the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, self identifying as “I am the Lord who brought you…” (15:7), and Abram refers to this one as “Lord God.” Abram wasn’t just seeing some text and words – he was interacting with a person. But who was that person? Roughly twenty five hundred years later, Jesus told His listeners, “your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus’ audience knew exactly what Jesus was saying. They acknowledged that He was claiming to have seen Abraham (8:57), and Jesus confirmed that He was indeed asserting that. Jesus added, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (8:58). Recall the introduction to John’s Gospel, in which He identifies Jesus as the logos – the Word (John 1:1-18).
For unbelievers, the message of the Bible is very simple. Recall that Jesus told Thomas to examine the evidence of who Jesus was and what He did, and “do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). Yes, the Bible does contain some do’s and don’ts. God is holy, and expects believers to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2), and there are many outward expressions of that ongoing transformation. But for those who have not yet believed in Him, there is but one simple call: Do not be unbelieving, but believing.