Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Faith Vs. Works: Let's Rumble!

At last! A little healthy debate, courtesy of my friend, Brooke. In response to my blog entry "Mainstream Media Offers Definition of Christianity," Brooke writes:

Being a Christian is more than saying, "Jesus I believe You." I don't think the whole of scripture nor a wider than evangelical Christian orthodoxy supports that statement. Read the Sermon on the Mount. Read the book of James. What about this scripture? James 2:14-19 says, 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.

If a person's life does not demonstrate their belief in Christ, perhaps there is no real belief to begin with. James is not preaching salvation by works. Jesus is not giving us a new law in the Sermon on the Mount. What they are talking about is a true righteousness of the heart that comes from a real acceptance of Christ and ALL that He did and said. Unfortunately Evangelicalism often has reduced salvation and Christianity to an "in" "out" status based on mental agreement and verbal profession. I think Christians need not be apologetic about following Christ by strictly adhering to the Bible and to His teachings. So in this case I don't think the reporter was that far off. She was perhaps off in her definition of American Evangelicalism which does not always insist on such.

Brooke is referring to my definition of Christianity in "Mainstream Media Offers Definition of Christianity." (I was hoping it might cause some commotion!)

Our opinions often are shaped by personal experiences. I think Brooke and I represent an important concept: We interact with people who are on various points of their spiritual journey. When I think about discussing faith, I first think about my friends and family who are not Christians. I think about the words I'd use for seekers, and those who are just curious or even hostile about religion. Since Brooke is a church leader, I imagine his discussions are often with new Christians and those growing (or stagnating) in their faith.

I won't debate Brooke's point because I agree with his statements about faith and works. In John 14, Jesus says, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. ... These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me." But I'm sticking with my definition of Christianity because it works in my conversations with friends who aren't Christians. And that's who I'm most interesting in defining Christianity for: non-Christians.

Granted, most non-Christians I encounter are a certain type of people: well-educated 30- and 40-somethings who believe Christianity is about completing certain tasks in order to earn a spot in heaven. One friend, I'll call him Thomas, candidly told me, "I'm a good person. I give to charities. I volunteer in my community. I do whatever I can to help the poor. I just don't want to go to church." Thomas believes there are requirements for Christianity, such as regular church attendance, studying the Bible, and devoting hours to prayer. So if Thomas were to read that Reuters reporter's definition of Christianity--"... a strict adherence to the Bible and personal commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ will bring salvation"--his theory would be confirmed. He'd say, "I knew it all along. Those Christians think they're better than everyone else just because they go to church and read the Bible."

So it comes down to this: I feel Brooke's points work well in defining Christianity for Christians. (The Scripture he references was James' instruction directly to the church; rather than saying "I'll be praying for you," and walking on, we're called to try to help the person in need.) My definition is for those who aren't Christians. Like I said, my friends who aren't Christians are highly ethical, moral pillars of society who feel it is their duty as human beings to do good. Essentially, they're already doing works. What they don't know/understand is: 1) Jesus said he was deity; and 2) Jesus provides a way to have a relationship with God. When I tell them this, it blows their minds. This is stuff they've never heard before, or at least, they never "got" it.

I was raised in the church, but didn't believe salvation was that simple. Believe in Jesus? Nah, there had to be more to it! I spent nearly a decade trying to figure out what I needed to do, what method I needed to follow, in order to have a relationship with God. My life was about works. I kept moving further and further away from Jesus until I was convinced he wasn't deity, that he was merely a wise teacher. Then, one day, I heard a Christian say, "Jesus is God." It was exactly what I needed to hear to realize, "Hey, Jesus is enough! Without Jesus, all my methods and to-do lists don't count for anything."

Now I know the statement "Jesus is God" isn't exactly theologically correct. We Christians immediately want to discuss the incarnation and the inner workings of the trinity. My Christian friend Mark pointed out we Christians like to be academic about our faith, to present logical--and often lengthy--arguments. He referred to a time in history when most Christians couldn't read the Bible for themselves because it wasn't available in their language. They had to take someone else's word for what it said. Once the Bible was translated, Christians jumped at the chance to study it, to think critically about Scripture and discuss faith in scholarly ways. We remain academically inclined to this day, Mark feels, but scholarly discussion doesn't win people over like it used to. People today want to know very simply, "Why are you a Christian? What does it do for you? How does one become a Christian?"

For that last question, I'm also sticking to my answer of saying, "Jesus, I believe you." Perhaps, to incorporate Brooke's idea, I'd add, "Jesus, I love you," for a Christian audience, with more of John 14 in mind, where Jesus says: "If you love me, you will obey what I command. ... Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him." I understand that idea of loving (and obeying) Christ now because I'm a Christian, but wouldn't have comprehended it in the past.

My point, in case it wasn't clear, is we need to be able to communicate our faith to non-Christians. We use so much church language and assume it's understood. Even topics like "loving Jesus" or "Jesus loves you" can be quite complicated: "How can you love someone you've never met? Why would you love them?" an unchurched person might ask. So we first must explain: 1) Jesus said he was deity, and 2) Jesus let humans kill him. Then we must explain why Jesus let humans kill him.

As we grow close to God, the ideas of love and obedience become clearer. But relationships of any type don't begin with love. They begin with interest or attraction, maybe deep gratitude at best. To clarify my definition, becoming a Christian simply requires belief. And working off Brooke's ideas, being a Christian then requires love and obedience, as we are transformed by the Holy Spirit.

More thoughts, anyone?

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