Monday, October 23, 2006

Practice and Belief

Practice and Belief
by Keith Giles

In the early church, the Christian faith was defined more by practice, not by doctrine. Islam, Judaism and the early Christians were all defined by what they did (practice) more so than a set of doctrines or beliefs. Jews kept the Sabbath. Muslims prayed several times a day, Christians gave to the poor. Faith was seen as a way of life, not a list of beliefs.

It was only after Constantine that the Church began to shift towards defining a Christian as someone who held to a set of beliefs and away from a person who lived a certain way. Mainly this was so that Constantine could have Christian soldiers who would profess Christ and still sign up to slay their enemies in combat. Previous to this, Christians were notoriously pascifists and went to their deaths when confronted rather than to take up a sword and defend themselves.

In our current culture, being a Christian is still understood as being more about having the right belief and less about having the character of Christ and practicing the faith.

A simple reading of the Gospels will reveal that Jesus expected that His disciples would obey His teachings. He was quite adamant that to call Him "Lord" wasn't enough if you weren't going to actually put His words into practice. (see Luke 6:46, Matt 7:21, John 14:23, etc.)

The book of James makes it clear that belief alone is not enough. "You believe that there is one God? Good! Even the demons believe and they shake with fear." (James 2:19) The passage goes on to point out how Abraham's faith was demonstrated by his actions. "You see that his faith and his actions were working together and his faith was made complete by what he did." (James 2:22). The most stunning statement in James is in verse 24 where he says, "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone."

Whoa. Let that sink in for a moment.

Faith (belief) has to be accompanied by action (practice) in order for your faith to be justified (proven true).

My simple paraphrase of this goes like, "Swimming won’t make you a fish; but if you are a fish you will swim." So, if you do good works in order to be saved you’re wasting your time. However, if you have truly become a new creation through a relationship with Jesus, you will become the sort of person who does good works by nature.

So, in the mind of the earliest disciples of Jesus, following Him was all about practice, not simply agreeing with a doctrine or belief. Trusting in Jesus is about obedience, submission and relationship, not cerebral acknowledgement or knowledge.

My concern is for those people out there who are placing a false hope in a statement of faith in Jesus who have never actually surrendered their life to Christ as the Lord of their life.

I'm also concerned that our world is full of people who walk around proclaiming themselves to be Christians yet live any way they want; in complete oppostion to the words of Jesus.

"Now this is eternal life: that they may know you the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." – JESUS (John 17:3)

The kind of knowledge Jesus is speaking of here corresponds with the idea of intimacy. In fact, it's closer to the word for sexual interaction. This is the kind of knowledge that conceives new life.

This is the kind of intimate knowledge of God and of Jesus we are meant to have.

Knowing stuff about Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus. I could know all about Shaquille O'Neil but still not know him as a person. My knowledge of him would not mean that Shaq and I are friends. In the same way, it's possible for you and I to become experts on Bible Trivia about Jesus and still not really "know" Jesus personally.

A few months ago a friend of mine stood in my house and shared with me a story about someone who they were hoping would become a Christian. "If I can just get them to say they believe in Jesus, they’re saved," the person said.

We had an interesting discussion out of that statement, but what really kept gnawing on me was the mindset that my friend had, and that I observe that many others have, when it comes to the question of Salvation. Specifically, I think it has to do with what we believe it really means to be a Christian.

Obviously, my friend would say that to be a Christian is to say that you believe in Jesus. Maybe you don't even have to really do anything else except say it out loud, like a magic word, and then God has no choice but to let you into heaven. I have to question this line of reasoning.

I know that many Christians believe that all you have to do to get into Heaven is to repeat a prayer, believe that Jesus was real and make plans for the afterlife. But is that really what the Scriptures teach about what it means to inherit Eternal Life? Is that really what it means to be a Christian?

In scripture, and historically, the word "Christian" came from the followers in Antioch who were called such because they were so much like Jesus that the pagans around them called them "little Christ's" or, literally, "Christ-ians". The name doesn't mean what it used to mean in our society today.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life"- Jesus (John 3:16)

What does Jesus intend to teach here? I think it all hangs on how you understand his use of the word "Believes". If you think Jesus meant "to think that Jesus was an historical person", or even "to accept that Jesus was the Messiah", you’d be missing the real point.

In the actual passage, Jesus is having a conversation with a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus. In the conversation Jesus is not asking Nicodemus to believe that Jesus is standing there. Obviously Nicodemus believed Jesus was real and alive, they were having an active conversation together. So, to "believe" in Jesus is more than mental knowledge or acceptance of a series of facts as being true.

What does the Bible mean when it says, "Believe" or "Know"? Many would tell us that this means simply accepting as factual or having the knowledge of something as being true. If this is what Jesus and Paul meant in these verses, then this would be the correct interpretation of these passages. But this is absolutely not what Jesus or Paul meant by the words "Believe" and "Know", therefore our understanding of these passages is seriously flawed and we have to take another look at what is really being said here.

One main clue as to what Jesus meant is to look up the passage in the Greek. The actual phrasing used in most cases is actually; "Believe into the Son" which suggests placing faith or trust for your life into the hands of Jesus. The best example of this is the Greek rendering of John 3:36 which says, "The one believing into the Son has everlasting life, but the one disobeying the Son will not see life..." Again, the choices are to obey/believe or to reject/disobey. Belief, then, is more about obedience and practice, not doctrine divorced from a way of life.

Many people quote Romans 10: 9-10 which says, "That if you confess with your mouth that 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Again, it is not the act of saying "Jesus is Lord," it’s very much about actually living like someone who is surrendered to Jesus and being someone who actually makes Jesus their Lord. It is not about saying a magic word in order to get a ticket to heaven.

I'm not suggesting that doctrine and belief are unnecessary. In fact, I feel that doctrine is quite important. But by itself it's not enough. What we need is Jesus.

Maybe what we need is to have a reinterpretation of what it means to believe? Better yet, perhaps we should simply take Jesus at his word and begin to do what he says?

I would love for the day to come when people can tell whether or not someone is a follower of Jesus by the way they practice the Jesus way of life.

Let's do our best to encourage one another to follow Jesus in this way.

"If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching...he who does not love me will not obey my teaching." – JESUS (John 14:23-24)

JOB TRAIL: Still on the hunt for a full-time job. So far God has closed a lot of doors. He’s provided miraculously for us since the end of June. He has been faithful to us in the midst of uncertainty. I appreciate your prayers for me and for my family during this time.
NEW COLUMN: My new regular column, "SUBVERSIVE", will begin over at as soon as the final installment of the "Gospel: For Here Or To Go?" series is done. (Which should go up this week, I believe). Watch for more details soon. I'd appreciate it if you could all come by and leave a comment, etc. once the articles are posted. It would really encourage me.
THE MISSION: Our third Sunday Morning house church service was the last weekend. I am so excited about what God is doing in each of our lives. This is seriously the best thing I've ever done in my life with the word "Church" on it!
According to my post counter this is post number 50. Wow. I can't believe I've been doing this for like, fifty weeks! And they said it wouldn't last...



Dale said...

It is funny that you see practice opposed to belief. And I am not so sure that Constantine is the magical line for the Christian intellectual tradition. The faith was totally practical, but fully theological as well. The early fathers of the church were thorough biblical theologians, fighting for the truth of who God is/was and what he had done in Christ, and that theology related intimately with their concern for the poor. To believe right is necessary for worship and service and a bunch of other things. Most of the fathers whom we derive our most precious doctrines came long before Constantine.

Keith Giles said...

Dale- Not sure how you get that I'm against doctrine or theology when I blatantly state that I'm not saying that....

What I'm against is the idea that you can say "I believe in Jesus" and be a Christian. That's bad theology and it stems from the lack of sound doctrine...which I'm attempting to correct.

Still, this was a very challenging article for me to write, I will admit. I wrote and re-wrote sections and paragraphs of this over and over again trying to make sure I was being clear and communicating effectively. I apologize for my failures in this area, my friend.

I also welcome, as always, your insight into these matters.

I agree that "..most of the fathers whom we derive our most precious doctrines from came long before Constantine". Amen! If only the practice of living the faith had been left intact when Constantine introduced the idea that you could believe in Jesus and live any way you pleased.

Let's keep talking.