I saw this quote shared on social media yesterday:
Reading the quote provoked me go back to the Sermon on the Mount and read it right through (Matthew 5-7).
By my judgement this statement is accurate. The longest continuous section of Jesus’ teaching in the Bible is indeed incredibly action-oriented.
The priority of action
The sermon’s opening statements (the Beatitudes) all relate to being blessed for certain actions. And the whole sermon is packed full of behavioural ethics about violence, anger, sex, retribution, compassion and many other subjects.
But in addition, Jesus also teaches explicitly about the priority of action. He says that the people who enter the kingdom of heaven are not those who claim to know God but ‘the one who does the will of my Father’ (Matt 7:21).
And the parable about the two builders which closes the sermon is also about action. The wise man built his house on the rock because he put it Jesus’ words into practice (Matt 7:24).
The quote is also accurate about the Nicene Creed. This creed uses the phrase ‘We believe…’ 4 times and is chiefly a set of doctrinal statements.
And I have always been amazed that a core summary about Christian faith jumps straight from Jesus’ birth to his death making no mention of his life and teachings:
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
The quote highlights the tension in Christianity between doctrine and action; between orthodoxy (believing the right things) and orthopraxy (doing the right things).
The problems created by this tension are significant. They are often weaponised in tribal religious battles where (often) more liberal Christians emphasise action and more conservatives emphasise doctrinal orthodoxy.
But there are also many practical implications. One example I have seen many times is that an emphasis on the primacy of action often leads Christian organisations to hire staff who do not hold a personal faith because they consider that what people do is more important than what they believe. No other factor is more significant in an organisation diluting and losing its Christian ethos.
Similarly to grace and truth, the Bible teaches that belief and action must always be held together: they are integral and dependent on each other. Take these three examples:
‘What does the LORD require? That you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8)
‘Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth’ (1 John 3:18)
‘Religion that our God and Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to not be polluted by the world’ (James 1:27)
All these verses have a clear emphasis on action augmented by a call to spiritual distinctiveness. Work for justice and mercy should be accompanied by ‘walking humbly with God’. Actions should be ‘in truth’. As well as helping widows and orphans, we should ‘not be polluted by the world’.
Call to action
In the Bible, faith is the integration of actions and belief. Jesus calls us to repent, which means to turn around and change our ways. Following him must lead to ‘fruit’: tangible changes to what our life ‘produces’.
But this fruit does not grow by itself: it comes from being rooted in the conviction and belief in what Jesus has done, continues to do and will one day complete. Belief in Christ is the root and source of grace, joy and truth from which all else flows.
The true test of belief are our actions. We cannot claim to have faith if our beliefs never bear the weight of concrete decisions which involve some risk and cost. Faith must make a difference to how we speak, behave, forgive, raise our children, as well as how we work, use our time, money and other resources.
Saved by grace
Christians are saved by God’s grace. But this is not because mental assent to a certain doctrine provides us with a ‘get out of jail free card’ from divine judgement. We cannot hide an untransformed life behind a theology which denies the importance of what we do. Time and again the Bible emphasises the eternal importance of how we live and act*.
Authentic faith in God’s grace changes us. It is a foretaste of the work God will one day complete in the renewal of all things. Faith is belief in God’s love and forgiveness which leads to lives of justice, mercy and humility. As Paul put it in Galatians 5:6:
‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’