Works Theology II

In the last blog, we emphasized that it is not “works theology” to state that our salvation depends on more than just believing in Jesus.  We gave several reasons why taking action to put into practice the teaching of Jesus is necessary.

However, we do recognize there is a danger in such a teaching because some might erroneously conclude that all they need to do is to perform a few actions to be saved.  The fact is the Bible teaches God wants more from us than just our belief system or a few actions that we take.  He wants nothing less than the renovation of our entire soul, not just parts of it, so that we become like him.

As our blog of April 9, 2011 states each of the ways of salvation that have been taught by various people and organizations—belief, conduct, motivation, or repenting—has its problems.

. . .belief without change is the same as no belief, actions without the proper motivation is just acting, actions without knowing what conduct God requires may be the wrong actions, motivation without a goal gets us moving but maybe to the wrong destination, and repentance without a change in action will result in us repenting for the same thing over and over and over.   Beliefs, conduct, motivation, repentance, correct use of our abilities will not, done in isolation, make our soul like God.

Jesus tells us:  For the gate is narrow andthe way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:14 ESV).  It is so much easier to restrict salvation to our beliefs or to a few actions than to embark upon the renovation of our entire soul.

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Works Theology

In the past few blogs, we have been discussing the importance of not just believing in Jesus but in taking action to put into practice the teachings of Jesus.  Now some will undoubtedly say what I am advocating is works theology.

Paul Copan makes the statement that there is more to religion than morality [1] and he is right.  However, he then goes on to state that moral improvement may not even be connected to religion. [2]  While it is true that one can be moral and not be religious, does that mean morality and religion are not connected?  What is the purpose of the 10 commandments?  Why did Jesus constantly talk about how we should live and give us the Golden Rule?  I simply cannot see how a Christian can say that Christianity and morality are not linked.  But it is not surprising.  Our theology states that the only thing that is important is belief; that is the only way of salvation.  So Christians sit around and debate theology and fail to put into practice what Jesus taught.  And anyone who dares to insist that our actions are important to salvation is branded a heretic because they advocate works theology.

Throughout the history of Christianity, various individuals have emphasized the importance of our actions in regards to our salvation (see my blogs dated July 12, 17, and 24, 2011).  Another example is Kant.  Will Durant in discussing Kant’s views on religion states:

Churches and dogmas have value only in so far as they assist the moral development of the race.  When mere creeds or ceremonies usurp priority over moral excellence as a test of religion, religion has disappeared. [3]

Kant asserts that the real church is a community of diverse people who are united by adherence to a common moral law, not a community that is bound by a set of theological beliefs and rituals.  [4]

We Christians, like the rest of the human race, want to take the easy way out.  It is easier to perform certain rituals or to discuss and debate theology than it is to put into practice what Christ taught us.

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[1]   Paul Copan, “True for You But Not for Me”, Minneapolis, MN:  Bethany House, 2009, p. 141.

[2]   Copan, p. 141.

[3]   Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1933, p. 212.

[4]   Durant, p. 212.

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Habits

In the past few blogs we have discussed the importance of action.  We have stated that actions are more important than beliefs.  We have noted that the Bible, several philosophers, and even business principles conclude that actions are the most important element in our lives.  Why?

Epictetus, a Greco-Roman philosopher, said theory is like having food in the pantry and practice is eating the food.  Having stored food does our body no good; it is only when we eat it that we realize a benefit. [1]  He also says we humans prefer theory and word play to action because it is easier. [2]  All of us recognize that actually playing the game is more admirable than Monday morning quarterbacking. It takes actual skill to play the game while anyone can spin theories of how a game should have been played.

Now Aristotle has said that having virtue is not the same as doing outward deeds. [3]  At first glance this seems to downplay the importance of action.  However, it does not.  Plutarch, and the other Greco-Roman philosophers, believed our morals are formed by our actions.  Through repeated activity, our habits, we become virtuous. [4]

Dr. Gregory A. Boyd explains how our actions, our habits, become our character.

The more we choose something, the harder it is to choose otherwise, until we finally are solidified—externalized—in our decision.  The momentum of our character becomes unstoppable.  We create our character with our decisions, and our character, in turn, exercises more and more influence on the decisions we make.  It’s in the nature of free, created beings, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise.  Life, I guess, is a lot like the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill. [5]

C. S. Lewis says we are to take action as opposed to feeling or believing:

The rule for all of us is perfectly simple.  Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did.  As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets.  When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.  If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. [6]

He also talks about Christians being the sons of God and “dressing up as Christ”.  He advocates pretending to be like Christ because it will lead to a change in a person.  “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. [7]

Rabbi Daniel Lapin states the path to becoming better at anything whether it be making an omelet or self-defense or business is to first learn the techniques for the new skill, second to understand the principles behind the techniques, and third to practice.  It is by practice that we integrate the techniques for the new skills into our being so they become automatic, so we don’t have to stop and think about what to do. [8]

It is the same with Christianity.  It is only by consistent practicing what the teachings of Jesus that they become part of us, part of our soul.  It is only by practice, by our actions, that we become a new creation.

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[1]   Luke Timothy Johnson, Practical Philosophy:  The Greco-Roman Moralists, Chantilly, VA:  The Teaching Company, 2002, Part 2, p. 44.

[2]   Johnson, Part 2, pp. 35, 39.

[3]   J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic, 1997, p. 45.

[4]   Johnson, p. 134.

[5]   Dr. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic (Colorado Springs, CO:  ChariotVictor Publishing, 1994), p. 42.

[6]   C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  MacMillian Company, 1952), p. 101.

[7]   Lewis, p. 147.

[8]   Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Thou Shall Prosper (Hoboken, New Jersey:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002), p. 13.

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Action

Clifton Taulbert and Gary Schoeniger have written a very good book about entrepreneurs entitled Who Owns the Ice House?.  The basis of the book is the entrepreneurial lessons Taulbert learned from his uncle Cleve who owned an ice house in Mississippi.  One of the lessons he learned is that one must take action if one is to succeed.  Uncle Cleve’s way of expressing that truth is:  “Yessir, if you ain’t got nothin’ planted, ain’t nothin’ gonna show up.” [1]  Ideas are great and they can provide us with a goal to aim towards.  However, as Schoeniger states:  “The truth is that good ideas are a commodity, but taking action is what really counts.” [2]

The Greco-Roman philosopher Lucian equates action with fruit and words with husks. [3]  Husks are important to the formation of a fruit but they are of minimal nutritional value to us.  Would we prefer husks to fruit?

Action has the same importance in our spiritual as in our physical lives.  Our beliefs, our ideas of how God has constructed our existence, are important but what is the value of our beliefs if we do not translate them into action?  The Bible, in the book of James, expresses this idea in this fashion:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:15-17 ESV).

Anyone who just gave encouraging words to a poor person when they had the means to help them with the necessities of life would not be well thought of by almost everyone (there are a few sociopaths in the world who would differ).  So why do we think our relationship with God would be any different?  The Bible is very clear that God wants our actions, not just our beliefs.

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[1]   Clifton Taulbert and Gary Schoeniger, Who Owns the Ice House?, Cleveland, OH:  ELI Press, LLC., 2010, p. 75.

[2]   Taulbert and Schoeniger, p. 86.

[3]   Luke Timothy Johnson, Practical Philosophy:  The Greco-Roman Moralists, Chantilly, VA:  The Teaching Company, 2002, Part 1, p. 76.

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Christian Athletes

Last year, World magazine ran an article on Christian athletes and their public expressions of faith. [1]  The article noted these expressions of faith are noteworthy and have generally been well received by the press.  However, Kurt Warner is quoted as saying that Christian athletes must live the life of a Christian first and then words can follow.  Actions are what demonstrate sincerity of those words.  The article concludes that Christian athletes must not let their actions or lack of actions destroy the positive press they have received.

If we humans acknowledge that words can be insincere and that actions are what demonstrate the sincerity of our words, why do we think God is any different?  I love how Mark Twain asks this question.

For ages we have taught ourselves to believe that when we hide a disapproving fact, burying it under a mountain of complimentary lies, He [God] is not aware of it, does not notice it, perceives only the compliments, and is deceived.  But is it really so?  Among ourselves we concede that acts speak louder than words, but we have persuaded ourselves that in His case it is different; we imagine that all He cares for is words—noise; that if we make the words pretty enough they will blind Him to the acts that give them the lie.

But seriously, does anyone really believe that?  Is it not a daring affront to the Supreme Intelligence to believe such a thing?  Does any of us inordinately praise a mother’s whole family to her face, indiscriminately, and in that same moment slap one of her children?  Would not that act turn our inflamed eulogy into nonsense?  Would the mother be deceived?  Would she not be offended—and properly? [2]

In fact God is not different than us in this regard.  This blog has documented that the entire Bible tells us God’s primary concern is our actions, not our beliefs.  So why is our doctrine of salvation concerned solely with our beliefs?

It seems we Christians live our lives one way and construct our theology another.  In our lives we acknowledge that actions speak louder than words but in our theology we say that word are more important than actions.

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[1]  Mark Bergin, “Thanking God”, World, July 14, 2012, p. 76.

[2]   Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth (Greenwich, Conn.:  Fawcett Publications, 1962), p. 174.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In the last blog I mentioned I had just read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  There are several scenes in which characters state their views on Christianity and the Bible and these views are very similar to what we have said in this blog.

In one scene, St. Clare is talking to his daughter Eva.  Eva expresses love for her servants—her slaves.  St. Clare questions his daughter’s ability to love her slaves to which Eva replies that the Bible commands us to love everyone.  St. Clare replies:  “O, the Bible!  To be sure, it says a great many such things; but, then, nobody ever thinks of doing them,–you know, Eva, nobody does.”  This perfectly sums up the attitude of most people in our world toward the Bible.  The problem is this belief is taught by most of organized Christianity.  If we are saved by belief in Jesus then why should we need to follow Jesus’ teachings?

In another scene, St. Clare after reading a portion of Matthew to Uncle Tom makes the comment that he expected it necessary for one to commit some terrible sin to be denied entrance into heaven but the Bible teaches that people will be condemned because they did not do some positive good.  Miss Ophelia then replies that “it is impossible for a person who does no good not to do harm”.  The book does not say which passage St. Clare was reading but from the context it appears it was Matthew 25:31-46 in which Jesus was describing the Day of Judgment.  Jesus said that feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the needy, and visiting the sick and those in prison were the necessary actions to gain admittance into heaven.  St. Clare and Miss Ophelia’s comments on the Matthew passage are more on the mark than what most Bible commentaries give.  It is impossible to read the Bible with an open mind and not acknowledge it teaches that our actions are what are most important to God.  Now a belief is necessary to take a particular action but according to this passage it is the action that is critical.  Is that what our theology teaches?

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The Meaning of Christmas

I trust you have had a very Merry Christmas and have taken some time to reflect upon the nature and teachings of Jesus.  The coming into the world of such an individual is ultimately what Christmas is all about.

This Christmas, I have done so in part because I was following the advice of C. S. Lewis (if I am not mistaken), who recommended reading a few classic instead of all contemporary works.  Recently, I have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Uncle Tom has a negative connotation in today’s society and Webster’s gives a definition of an Uncle Tom as “a member of a low status group who is overly subservient to or cooperative with authority”.  However, in reading the book it is very evident that Uncle Tom was a Christ figure who actually implemented the teachings of Christ in his life.  Uncle Tom did what he could to ease the suffering of his fellow slaves even at risk to himself.  When faced with the cruelty of his master did not respond in like manner but with kindness.

Uncle Tom did obey his master in all areas except where his master’s orders conflicted with the teachings of Jesus.  He did not cooperate with authority when the master told him to whip other slaves.  Uncle Tom was essentially whipped to death for refusing to divulge the escape plans of two slaves.  He also had the opportunity to kill his master but refused.

How would Jesus, if he was again born into our world, be received?  Would we call him an “Uncle Tom”?

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The Human Condition

In the last blog we discussed the Christian propensity to ignore legitimate questions about their faith.  One reason some do this is because they believe our entire being (including our intellect) has been so corrupted by the fall that we cannot by our own efforts find God.  After all, Jeremiah tell us we are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9) and in a couple of verses we are told that God’s ways are beyond our understanding (Job 36:26 and Isaiah 55:9).  Therefore, we must just believe what the Bible tells us even if our intellect raises questions about it.

The problem with this approach is that it does not address how we know what the Bible teaches us about God.  If we are so corrupted by the fall, then our intellect is unable to properly interpret the Bible and give us an accurate representation of what God is like.  As Budziszewski says in his book about natural law, such a view of humanity and of the fall shoots itself in the foot. [1]

While the Bible details the limits inherent in human existence, it also teaches we have enormous potential.  Genesis 1:26-27 tells us we are made in God’s image.  If God is as awesome as the Bible teaches and we share even a little of that nature, then we certainly can accomplish great things.  God gave us control over this earth (Genesis 1:28-30).  At times this world seems to control us but God would not have given us control if we were not capable of that task.  The Bible, in discussing the people of Babel, says that there is nothing we cannot do if we work together (Genesis 11:4-6).  The technological and cultural advances of our civilization are a testament to the validity of God’s assessment of our abilities.  The book of Psalms states we are made with just a little bit of God lacking in us (Psalms 8:4-5). [2]

Our theology must be based upon what the entire Bible says, not just a few selected passages.  The message of Christianity is that we have a sin problem and need help to overcome it but included in that message is that we also have enormous potential.  Nowhere does the Bible state our sinful nature prevents us from knowing the truth.  Paul, in Romans 1:18, tells us we must allow our wickedness to suppress that ability.

God made us rational creatures and we should use what God has given us to learn more about him.

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[1]   J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 111.

[2]   Ravi Zacharias,  Can Man Live without God?  (Dallas:  Word Publishing, 1994), p. 141.

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Culture of Deceit

I subscribe to World magazine which is a Christian version of Time or Newsweek.  An editorial by Joel Belz titled “Our Culture of Deceit” asserts our politics and culture are saturated with dishonesty and he offers plenty of examples.  He also states that we Christians are not immune to that problem. [1]

One form of dishonesty is to ignore evidence that contradicts one’s beliefs.  Christians do this because they are so convinced their belief system is true that they have stopped looking for the truth.  They are right in asserting that God’s word is infallible however we must interpret God’s word and our interpretation is very fallible.  All the different versions of Christianity prove that at least some of our interpretations are in error; they all use the same Bible but come to very different conclusions about what it says.

In this blog, we have discussed several issues that call into question the validity of Christianity’s doctrine of salvation.  However, I have seen very few Christian who are willing to discuss these issues.  Most just say that these questions are interesting and then proceed to ignore them.  Why?  Is not ignoring legitimate questions a form of deceit?  We can believe anything we want if we ignore all evidence that is contrary to that belief.

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[1]   Joel Belz, “Our culture of deceit”, World, December 15, 2012, p. 4.

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William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce was a driving force for the abolition of the slave trade in the 18th century.  Eric Metaxas, in his biography of Wilberforce, critiques the 18th century British society by saying:   “. . .the outward trappings of religion remained, but robust Christianity, with its noble impulses to care for the suffering and less fortunate, was gone.” [1]  Wilberforce was just the opposite; his religious beliefs were a call to action.  His beliefs, instead of being some fancy ornament to wear and display, were more like work clothes.  As a result, Wilberforce spent his life fighting the evils of slavery.

Are we Christians today any different from the 18th century British society?  Our beliefs are the most important element of Christianity according to most doctrinal statements while our actions rarely mentioned.  Is this what the Bible teaches?  Did not Christ teach that the ultimate test of whether one is speaking for God is their actions (Matthew 7:15-20)?

Christians have become so afraid of being accused of advocating a works salvation that they ignore what the Bible teaches about our actions.  Our doctrine drives our interpretation of the Bible more than the Bible drives the formation of our doctrine.

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[1]   Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace, New York:  HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 71.

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