Ethics & Christian living, Theology

Beliefs + Action = Faith

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). 

Doctrinal statements

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.

Highlighting tension

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.’

*Psalm. 62:12Prov. 24:12Jeremiah 17:10; 32:19Matt. 16:27Rom. 2:6; 14:12Rev. 2:23; 22:12

Related: What is more important, what the church SAYS or what it DOES?

13 thoughts on “Beliefs + Action = Faith”

  1. Thanks Jon. I’m a great admirer of Robin Myers’ work; “Saving Jesus from the Church” was a cornerstone in my conversion to Christianity (if conversion is really the right word, awakening is perhaps more accurate). Good to see him quoted here. I have yet to read “Saving God from Religion”, and it is now on my reading list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do agree with your emphasis on the priority of both action and belief – however, comparing a summary of key teachings (sermon on the mount) with a credal statement is a little unfair on the latter… dare I say disingenuous…. That said, I agree the creed sorely lacks many many things, because of the heresies it was countering. In a way, a bit like Paul’s letters…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Been thinking recently along similar lines: the servant that buried their treasure (inaction) received a heinous chastising vs the praise heaped on the one that took risks (proactive). We are called to be Kingdom Business Developers not Account Managers…


    1. thanks Doug – the emphasis is on the active, especially for those who have significant resources. Yes, I remember hearing a provocative talk about being ‘a capitalist for the kingdom’ years ago on this very subject…


  4. My immediate response when I saw the question on twitter was to think ‘surely, both!’ What we do should arise out of what we believe: as James says, faith and actions go together. It’s getting the balance right that’s difficult and can lead to division.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a myriad of people and philosophies telling me what to do or how to behave. I put more credence in the words of Jesus than others ‘because’ of what I believe. To pit the sermon on the mount against the Nicene Creed seems somewhat like comparing War and Peace with the Theory of Relativity!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks Alan. I agree that the quote is provocative and that the comparison possibly not a fair one. But do you not also find it surprising that when the Nicene creed was being collated, they created such an ‘ethics-free’ set of words? I think the leap from Jesus’ birth to death illustrates a problem, even if its an understandable/explainable one!

      Understandably people go to the Creeds to find out the distilled, core message – what Christians really believe – and they find more about Mary’s virginity than about the kingdom of God, which was the main theme of Jesus’ life and teaching.


      1. I think its a question of understanding purpose. In the sermon on the mount Jesus is encouraging his audience to be genuinely just and righteousness as opposed to the superficial righteousness of many of the religious elite of his day. In the Nicene creed the early church Fathers were codifying ideas about the nature of God, selecting ideas that they believed were right while rejecting ideas that they felt mis-represented God, hence the emphasis of certain themes. Given the context for the Nicene Creed and the hot topics of the day it is not suprising that it is what it is. It could be argued that while there was disagreement around topics such as the Virgin Birth there was some concensus around the place of justice and rigteousness. I’m happy with both and accept each for what they are.


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