Quite some time ago I wrote a piece about the difference between believing in Jesus and in following Jesus. It’s been a surprise to find it the most often re-read column, frequently by readers from foreign countries. Not a badly written article but it isn’t my writing that’s sought but the subject matter.
In short, I wrote that one can believe in anything, even the most preposterous. Belief by itself means little. Even belief in Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior needs a good deal more to justify it and prove its worth. An essential part of ‘a good deal more’ is the determination to follow where Jesus has led in word and deed.
I don’t know why the piece gets read or re-read so often but I wonder if it has something to do with decades of pastoral advice telling people the only thing required of a certified “believer” is to have made a particular declaration of belief in Jesus as personal lord and savior. The declaration has the advantage of allowing the new ‘believer” to depart with all their prejudices intact and with the satisfaction of knowing sinful backsliding is easily forgiven by the simple expedient of re-declaration of belief. But what constitutes sinful backsliding? It seems to have become limited mostly to failures of personal morality involving sex, alcohol, drugs, profane language, temper tantrums and the like. It rarely has anything to do with failure to live by God’s commandments about love, social and economic justice.
Indeed for some who profess to be Christian, the words, love, social and economic justice smack of liberal, left wing politics they fear and distrust. The would-be Christians seem unwilling to consider that God’s commandments are not liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, right wing or left. They are simply God’s commandments left to humans to work out how best to follow them given the times and conditions in which they live. It is this disconnection from God’s most important laws and commandments that enables guilt free advocacy of so called Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and far right authoritarian politics. It’s also what enables the substitution of selected social values, or snippets of Levitical regulation, to assume the identity of authoritative “biblical values.” To cut the ‘yeah but’ argument short, the same is true for any extreme position no matter where it may fall on the spectrum of extremities.
Extreme positions are not the only obstacle to living as believers in and followers of God. The entire history of God’s people is one of stiff necked resistance to following God’s guidance toward a more harmonious, prosperous and just way of life in community. It is no less true today than it was in thousands of years past. Prophets were heard but seldom heeded. Even and in spite of God’s presence in Christ Jesus it was not enough to convince everyone, nor is it today. Jesus proclaimed in plain ordinary every day language what commandments had prominence and against which all other laws are to be evaluated. He demonstrated by word and deed what that looked like, and commanded us to do likewise. I suppose he could have been just another holy sage like Isaiah or the Buddha, but his divinity and authority was fully revealed in his resurrection. He was and is the Word of God made flesh. There is no higher authority.
Following his commandments and example in our own daily lives is no less certain however as much as we may claim to be doing it. The stories of the early church in The Acts of the Apostles and letters of Paul, Peter and James attest to the difficulty believers had in getting things right. They never did but they always made mid-course corrections to do a little better, not perfect but better. We are no different. Not one of us has it right. No denomination has it right. But we will get it closer to right if we are diligent about following Jesus in the way of love that does not abolish but fulfills all the law and the prophets.
When Paul wrote that works in obedience to the law did not lead to salvation, he meant blind obedience to ancient rules and regulations. It is trust in Christ that leads to salvation. When James wrote that belief in Christ without works was dead, he meant that faith or belief alone is of little consequence unless it’s demonstrated in one’s way of life, however imperfectl.
© Steven E. Woolley