Can We Believe in Jesus Without Following Him?
"If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."(Romans 10:9 NIV)
Growing up in the church, one of the most life-giving teachings I heard was about the incredible grace of God, who loved us while we were still lost in sin and saved us when we were utterly helpless to save ourselves. This incredible truth caused me to fall in love with Jesus and helped guard me against legalism or trying to do life in my own strength. Three years ago, I left my home in England and went to work at a small church in a very poor neighborhood in Northern California, which ministers mainly to recovering addicts. To my great surprise, my new home was full of people who claimed to believe in Jesus, but felt no obligation to live a Christian lifestyle. This shallow version of Christianity has no power, and causes a huge amount of destruction in the lives of those struggling with addiction. However, if you try to suggest that Christians are supposed to ‘do’ anything, you are instantly accused of preaching ‘works salvation’.
The argument is pretty simple. Jesus said everyone who believes in him will be saved. Therefore, providing you say a salvation prayer at some point in your life, how you live after that point is irrelevant. You may not be a ‘good’ Christian, but providing you believe in Jesus, you are saved. If you are anything like me, something about this doesn’t sit right with you, though it’s hard to see what. That’s because the assumption that is being made is so ingrained in our culture that we no longer notice it...I’m talking about our unconscious assumptions about the meaning of the word believe.
How would you define ‘believe’? Perhaps the simplest popular definition would be “to accept something as true”. We see belief as something intellectual. Belief happens in our minds, and does not necessarily affect our actions. It is a matter of agreeing with a set of facts. I think the question we need to ask ourselves is this: how did Jesus define belief? Because, after all, it is his definition that matters, not ours. Our modern-day concept of purely intellectual ‘belief’ was certainly around in Jesus’ time. I’m told it actually began in ancient Greece. In the Old Testament, knowledge is inseparable from experience – you cannot claim to ‘know’ something that you do not live. The Greeks of Jesus’ time saw the mind and the body as separate in a way that was alien to the Jewish tradition. To them, it made sense that your soul could believe one thing, and yet your body act in a different way. These ideas went on to influence the early church, with the result of some of the most passionate argument in the New Testament. A frustrated James wrote:
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such
faith save them? ... Faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead … As the body without the spirit
is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:14, 17, 26)
What is James’ argument? That ‘deeds’ are what saves us? Not at all. He isn’t saying that salvation comes from works, but that there is no faith without accompanying actions. To put it another way, if you want to see what someone really believes, don’t listen to what they claim, pay attention to what they do. This is exactly what Jesus was constantly cautioning his disciples to do. He often spoke about testing the fruit of a person’s life:
“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:18-21)
It has become normal to discuss ‘theories’ and to see ‘beliefs’ as statements we claim, rather than convictions we live[...] What we truly believe always comes out in the choices we make and the way we live – the ‘fruit’ of our lives.
In our society, we place a high value on ‘head’ knowledge. We tend to value what we learn in a classroom or college over what we learn ‘on the job’ or in life. It has become normal to discuss ‘theories’ and to see ‘beliefs’ as statements we claim, rather than convictions we live. But this view of life is completely divorced from reality. The claims we make and the theoretical ideas we entertain have no relevance whatsoever. What we truly believe always comes out in the choices we make and the way we live – the ‘fruit’ of our lives. It doesn’t matter how loudly you claim to be a banana tree if your fruit is round and orange. Jesus said“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6: 46) ”Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” (John 14:21) When someone gives you advice, you take it if you trust them. You are unlikely to invest money on the advice of your hairdresser, or change your hairstyle on the advice of your bank manager, but if you believe someone is trustworthy in an area, you listen to them. In the same way, if we trust that Jesus is who He claims to be, we take his advice. That’s why Jesus paid no attention to the flattery of those who were unwilling to follow him. He knew the ‘faith’ they professed wasn’t real.
Before I had some of this clear in my mind, I remember reading the parable of the sheep and the goats and seeing zero connection between Jesus’ words and the gospel I had heard. Why was Jesus judging people based on their actions? “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (Matthew 25:34-36) Now that my understanding of faith has changed, this passage (and the rest of the New Testament) makes sense. Jesus rewarded those who did what he commanded, as these were the ones who actually believed him. So, is it possible to believe in Jesus without following him? The biblical answer is clearly, “Of course not.” The only reason we have any confusion about this is because of the unhelpful way our culture has defined ‘belief’. What matters now, is how we apply this truth to our own lives, and the lives of those we love.
Our faulty understanding of faith as something we claim rather than something we live has robbed many people of the freedom and the destiny that Jesus intended for them.
In light of this, I have a few comments to make. Firstly, if, when looking at the fruit of your life rather than the ‘beliefs’ you affirm, you begin to realize you don’t really trust Jesus very much, help is at hand! I have spent the last three years taking my very own crash-course in trusting Jesus, and I still have a long way to go. He is amazing at putting us in positions to develop that trust, and he is infinitely patient with us as we learn. Secondly, the Bible makes a big distinction between making mistakes and deliberately living a life that doesn’t match up to what Jesus asked of us. If you are concerned and want to understand the difference, compare 1 John 1:5-10 with 1 John 3:4-10 and Romans 7:14-25 with Hebrews 10:26-31. We all struggle with sin, but someone who has no intention of obeying Jesus but instead deliberately lives a sinful life is not a Christian. Our faulty understanding of faith as something we claim rather than something we live has robbed many people of the freedom and the destiny that Jesus intended for them. It has caused Christianity to appear powerless, irrelevant and hypocritical. If you meet people who have fallen prey to this, remember the compassionate thing is to call them out. It’s not legalism. it’s love.