I saw this quote shared on social media yesterday:
Reading the quote challenged me to go back to the Sermon on the Mount and read it all the way through (Matthew 5-7).
In my opinion this statement is correct. Indeed, the longest continuous portion of Jesus’ teaching in the Bible is incredibly action-oriented.
The priority of action
The opening statements of the sermon (the Beatitudes) all refer to being blessed for certain deeds. And the entire sermon is packed with behavioral ethics on violence, anger, sex, retaliation, compassion, and many other topics.
But in addition, Jesus also explicitly teaches 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 of the two builders that concludes the sermon is also about action. The wise man built his house on the rock because he practiced the words of Jesus.
The quote is also accurate about the Nicene Creed. This creed uses the phrase “We believe…” 4 times and is primarily a series of doctrinal statements.
And I’ve always been amazed that a key summary of the Christian faith jumps straight from Jesus’ birth to his death, without mentioning his life and teachings:
He came down from heaven for us and for our salvation, became flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. For us he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and is buried.
The quote highlights the tension in Christianity between doctrine and action; between orthodoxy (believing the right things) and orthopraxia (doing the right things).
The problems caused by this tension are significant. They are often armed in religious tribal battles where (often) more liberal Christians emphasize action and more conservatives emphasize doctrinal orthodoxy.
But there are also many practical implications. An example I have often seen is that an emphasis on the primacy of action often leads Christian organizations to hire personnel who have no personal faith because they believe that what people do is more important than what they believe. No other factor is more important in an organization that is watering down and losing its Christian ethos.
Like grace and truth, the Bible teaches that faith and action should always be held together: they are integral and interdependent. Take these three examples:
‘What does the LORD require? May you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
“Let us not love with words or tongue, but with deeds and in truth” (1 John 3:18)
“The religion that our God and Father accepts as pure and without fault is this: to care for orphans and widows in their need, and not be defiled by the world” (James 1:27)
All of these verses have a clear emphasis on action, complemented by a call to spiritual discernment. Working for justice and mercy must be accompanied by ‘walking humbly with God’. Actions must be ‘in truth’. In addition to helping widows and orphans, we must “not be defiled by the world.”
Call to action
In the Bible, faith is the integration of actions and faith. Jesus calls us to repent, which means to turn around and change our ways. Following him should lead to ‘fruit’: tangible changes that ‘produce’ our lives.
But this fruit does not grow by itself: it comes from being rooted in the conviction and faith in what Jesus has done, still does and will someday complete. Faith in Christ is the root and source of grace, joy, and truth from which everything else flows.
The true test of faith is our actions. We cannot claim to have confidence if our beliefs never carry the weight of concrete decisions that involve risks and costs. Faith should make a difference in 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 particular doctrine provides us with a “free from jail card” of divine judgment. We cannot hide an unchanged life behind a theology that denies the importance of what we do. Time and again, the Bible emphasizes 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 someday complete in the renewing of all things. Faith is faith in God’s love and forgiveness that leads to a life of justice, mercy, and humility. As Paul put it in Galatians 5:6:
“All that matters is that faith expresses itself in love.”
Related: What’s More Important, What the Church SAYS or What It DOES?
Published by Jon Kuhrt
Jon Kuhrt has been working with people affected by homelessness and poverty for 25 years. He is a former CEO of West London Mission and is now a government consultant focusing on how faith and community groups are tackling rough sleep. He lives with his wife in Streatham, South London and they have 3 teenage children. He likes football… but likes cricket. View all posts by Jon Kuhrt