We are told that if we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ then we shall be saved. It therefore clearly behooves us to know what the word believe really means. Fortunately it is a fairly direct translation of two words: 'âman (H539) in the Hebrew and pisteuō (G4100). There are two additional Greek words rendered believe but they are the noun and adjective form of the same verb.
Somewhat less pleasingly the meaning of the Hebrew is very broad indeed. The distribution of KJV translations for 'âman emphasizes this: believe(44), faithful (20), sure(12), established (7), brought(5), trust(6), verified(3), continuance(2), nurse(5), stand(1). This slightly off-putting list needs to be balanced by the emphasis the Bible places upon the importance of the word. Here is the first use of âman.
Gen 15:6 And he [Abraham] believed539 in the LORD;3068 and he counted2803 it to him for righteousness.6666
Clearly the word 'believe' and 'salvation' are as closely tied in Old Testament theology as they are in the New Testament.
Looking up 'âman in a dictionary shows that the breadth of translation provided by the King James is entirely reasonable:
1) to support, confirm, be faithful
1a1) to support, confirm, be faithful, uphold, nourish
1a1a) foster-father (substantive)
1a1b) foster-mother, nurse
1a1c) pillars, supporters of the door
1b1) to be established, be faithful, be carried, make firm
1b1a) to be carried by a nurse
1b1b) made firm, sure, lasting
1b1c) confirmed, established, sure
1b1d) verified, confirmed
1b1e) reliable, faithful, trusty
1c1) to stand firm, to trust, to be certain, to believe in
1c1a) stand firm
1c1b) trust, believe
Of course the quick answer is simply to jump to the Hiphil parsing; note that it is the parsing used in Gen 15:6 and simply state that it means a firm trust in something. In many ways that is reasonable but I think the other definitions help color the meaning beautifully.
Firstly we note that the root meaning is to build up or support. This is used of a nail supporting a door and of someone nursing a child. We see both the firmness and strength coupled with the need for ongoing persistence (or faithfulness). The Niphal then shows the effect of the root; that one should be supported, established or verified. The Hiphal is then causative (the NET Bible describes it as declarative); the effect of this steadfast reliability and support is that one considers something steadfast, reliable and supportive. Walker-Jones gives a fascinating insight into the Hiphil; he states that the Hiphil tends to refer to something that only occurs a few times and that the object as well as the subject are causal in the event. Thus in the case of Abraham we may well be seeing saving faith at this point; Abraham is responding to God's providence by transitioning to a state where he considers God as his supporter.
Often when coming upon the meaning of an English word in the Bible one is faced with the question as to whether or not the Hebrew and Greek meanings of a translated word are equivalent. Happily we have no such decision to make for 'believe' as the Holy Spirit made it for us. Rom 4:3 quotes Gen 15:6 and the Greek word used in place of 'âman is pisteuō.
The translation of pisteuō is also not in question. Of the 250 times it occurs it is translated believe or some derivative 240 times; the other ten commit (7) and trust(3). What is interesting however is that the root meaning of the word is very different from the Hebrew equivalent. Pisteuō is the verb form of pistis which means the conviction of truth of something or to trust the fidelity of someone. They are both derived from peithō which means to persuade. Thus we see that whereas 'âman looks for a response to providence pisteuō looks for a response to truth.
Whilst remembering that the Spirit has equated these two words it is interesting to ponder why such an important concept is allowed to have two different shades of meaning in the Old and New Testament. I suggest it is a simple result of the cultural realities of the situation. In the Old Testament God had worked extensively and visibly with Abraham prior to his believing. Throughout Israel's history they were raised directly under the hand of God and their covenant provided that faithfulness would be met by increased provision. In the New Testament there is no such guarantee; our reward is in heaven. Also prior to belief the Gentile is an object of wrath and thus whilst the object of general provision they will not have been the subject of special provision. We are thus asked to believe in the truth of God's promises independent of physical verification.
The above stated: it is probably worth also noting that in Gen 15:6 Abraham believed immediately after God made a promise that defied physical verification or common sense. The New Testament makes clear also that the nature of God is visible to us through creation even before our salvation. I think we therefore see how the two shades of meaning dovetail together. No matter the covenant in force the requirement placed upon man is that they should believe (consider true) what God is telling them and rely upon it.