Faith and Behavior
by Dennis Pollock
Most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, can appreciate the positive aspects of Christianity. The idea of having a loving and kind Heavenly Father, of going to heaven when you die where you will live forever in joy and peace, and of having God answer our prayers and meet our needs – who could object to these things? The result of this is a natural tendency for many toward a spurious faith and Christian experience. Wanting all of the benefits but having no heart to embrace the life of discipleship Jesus demands, they take on many of the peripherals of Christianity while never experiencing the heart of it.
Compounding this is a common misunderstanding of grace. Hearing that we are saved by grace and not by any works we can do, it becomes an easy thing to decide God doesn't much care how we live or what we do. The God of the Old Testament may have been tough, demanding, and grumpy, but now that grace has appeared God has morphed into an easy-going deity who has given up on ever making His children holy. As long as one has prayed the sinner's prayer He is satisfied – no behavior change needed or expected!
Given all this, we would expect that God would give ample warning in His word about the dangers of deception and a counterfeit faith void of transformation of life and behavior. And that is exactly the case! The Scriptures are filled with warnings to those who profess themselves followers of Jesus. Paul exhorts the believers at Corinth to "examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith." By making such a charge he is declaring it is possible that we may only think we are "in the faith" when in fact we are not. He is telling us it is possible to have all the trappings of Christianity – to sing the songs, read the word, pray before meals, attend church, give in the offering, and listen to Christian radio – and yet be as lost and without Christ as the man who does none of these things.
Walking the Walk
Most of the warnings God gives to those who profess a relationship with Him have to do with behavior. Perhaps the plainest example of this may be found in the words of our Lord, as He speaks of what will occur for some on the day they stand before Him as Judge:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
Despite all kinds of religious credentials, Jesus tells these folks He never knew them – not that He once knew them and they went bad, but that He never knew them at all. His description of these people which becomes their indictment is "you who practice lawlessness." Regardless of how much faith in Jesus they professed, how many times they called Him Lord, Lord, they regularly practiced lawless, wicked behavior. They claimed the benefits but defied the commands of Christ.
There are two essential truths about behavior and salvation that we must keep in mind. The first is that good behavior is no guarantee of salvation. Over and over the Scriptures tell us that salvation is obtained through faith in Jesus Christ. With true faith, salvation is assured. Without it there can be no salvation. It is possible to be a (relatively) nice, decent person, well-liked and responsible, and be utterly lost, "having no hope and without God." While in the eyes of man one may be a model of propriety, in the eyes of God he is but another sinner, in desperate need of the Savior, the Lord Jesus. One can look healthy on the outside, while terminal cancer is beginning its deadly job of eating away at the vital organs on the inside. Only upon a doctor's examination is the deadly disease revealed. Such is precisely the case with those who live an outwardly moral life while shunning Christ and having no desire for God. Their decency may make them better neighbors in this world, but does nothing to provide them with housing in that city "whose builder and maker is God."
So while good behavior in no way guarantees salvation, the second truth we must recognize is that consistent bad behavior is clear evidence of the lack of salvation. You cannot be saved by being good but you can surely demonstrate you are lost by being consistently bad. John tells us, "He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar…" What makes the man a liar is saying He knows God when in fact he does not. What proves he does not know God is his failure to keep the commandments God has proclaimed in His word.
Knowing & Living
There is no way around it – God's word makes it plain that there is a definite link between knowing God and living an upright life. If there is no such life, there is no genuine relationship – regardless of how many Hallelujahs you utter, how loud you clap in the praise service, or how many Christian CDs you own. This is not to suggest that Christians can't fall into serious sin; they surely can and sometimes do. But the true believer can never be content in such a state. He can never be completely comfortable in his sins. He will face the Father's discipline and the Spirit's reproof. The goodness of God will be at work to lead him to repentance.
Paul gives a serious warning to the Corinthians and lists behaviors that, when practiced regularly, will assure you a place outside the kingdom of God:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
This passage could be considered one of the promises of God – an exclusionary promise! Paul is telling us who will not be found in the Heavenly City. There will be none who regularly practiced sexual immorality, or stealing or drunkenness or idolatry. Notice Paul's warning: "Do not be deceived." The implication is that many were deceived, practicing these sins and assuming everything was fine between them and God; committing adultery and singing "It is well with my soul" (some first century version of course – I realize the song was written in the 1800s!).
James deals with the same subject in a terse command: "Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (James 1:22). Once again we have the possibility of deception linked with our behavior, in this case a lack of "doing the word." Space does not permit us to look at many other similar passages which testify to the truth that genuine faith in Jesus is always linked to moral living. The lack of such morality is all the proof necessary to demonstrate that genuine faith and genuine salvation are not present.
To understand this is to see the desperate need there is for the church of Jesus to proclaim the moral law of God vigorously. Some pastors have foolishly decided that since we are in the age of grace, there is no need to speak of God's attitude toward sin or man's need for repentance. As a result their churches have members who have prayed the sinner's prayer but are still living in the same ungodly lifestyle they had before the prayer. They sing "I am a friend of God" on Sunday morning and by Sunday night are getting drunk at a party or in bed with their latest lover. These deceived folks could attend Sunday morning services at their church for the next twenty years, and never gain the slightest hint that God might not be too pleased with their lawless behavior, or that the new birth is always accompanied by repentance and change of life.
Isn't Faith Enough?
You may be thinking, "But aren't we told simply to believe on Jesus to be saved? If these people have believed on Jesus, are they not therefore saved according to the Scriptures, regardless of how they live?" The mistake in this kind of thinking is in not understanding the nature of genuine faith. Consider two chain smokers who read the same article, which describes the dangers of smoking, and relates studies which clearly demonstrate the terrible effects of smoking upon heart and lungs. Both men understand the article and recognize that the research is sound and the conclusions are valid. One man puts down his magazine, reaches into his pocket, and lights up a cigarette. The other man throws his cigarettes in the trash and vows never to smoke again.
Which man believed the article? If you were to ask them, they might both declare they believed it. But one man's belief stayed in his head and his life remained unchanged. The other man's belief went not only into his head but somehow captured his heart and brought about a radical change in his behavior. He was the true believer. So it is with faith in Jesus Christ. Genuine faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit, always brings about a lifestyle change. It will be more noticeable in the man who was blatantly and flagrantly evil, but it will bring change to all, from the meekest little old lady to the most obnoxious gang member. John writes, "Whoever has been born of God does not sin (can't go on in his sinful lifestyle), for His seed remains in him."
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
So what does the person do who finds himself still engaging in the same ungodly lifestyle long after he has supposedly received Christ? The answer is not merely to grit your teeth and determine to be a better person. You must trust Christ fully as not merely a Savior from hell, but as a Savior from sin. The angel told Joseph, "You shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” Probably the primary reason people have a profession but not a possession of Jesus is that they have never really acquainted themselves with Him. Read the gospels and learn of Him. Learn of His love, His power, and His wisdom. Rest your eyes and your faith on Him and He will do His amazing work.
The wonderful thing about our Lord is that what He commands, He also makes possible. When Jesus was on earth He often told lame people to rise up and walk. He commanded men with paralyzed arms to stretch them out. This might seem unfair, even cruel. To command someone to do that which he clearly is unable to do is unreasonable. But in Jesus' case it was just. He who commanded lame men to walk released His power in them to do just that. As they made their first efforts, perhaps with trepidation and timidity, they found they could do that which had previously been impossible. Within the command of Jesus was His provision.
So it is with Jesus' commands to us to repent and turn from our wicked ways. We may have been bound in our sins for decades, but a simple command from Jesus changes everything. As we take our first steps of obedience and righteousness, to our amazement we discover a power we have not previously known. We can turn from immorality and ungodly living. We can reject the sexual temptation, deny our flesh when it demands the right to vent its rage, and speak truth even when it may embarrass us.
"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36).
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People have debated this question for millennia. And we cannot speak concerning specific individual questions of suffering, but the Bible clearly speaks as to why suffering has always been a part of the human experience.