A friend asked me,
This was in my Bible study: “‘Christianity’ is more easily perceived by what you do than what you believe.” It really made me think. What are your thoughts on this statement? I’ve been studying Paul’s life, and was reading in Acts 23-24. It was diving deeper into “The Way” that is used in chapter 24 to describe Christianity.
That’s a great question. I said decades ago in one of my first books (back in the 80s!) that while our children will sometimes fail to do what we say, they will seldom fail to do what we do. That’s the power of example, both good and bad.
On the one hand, what God says is true, whether or not we live consistently with it. An ungodly person, even an unbeliever, can share the gospel message, and someone can be genuinely saved by believing it even if the person who spoke it was living in disobedience.
On the other hand, a man who calls people to live pure lives while living in immorality is not only a hypocrite, but those around him will find his words hard to believe despite the fact they are true.
First, we need to profess what is right and true, and second, we need to live consistently with what we profess. “Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (Philippians 3:16). A person who by God’s common grace lives a good life cannot compensate for the fact that he does not believe in God. Placing our trust in God is essential to salvation, as Romans 10:9–10 demonstrates. That passage says we are to both confess Jesus with our mouth (which is an action), and we are to believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead (which is faith or trust).
“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person” (1 John 2:3-4). No matter what a person professes, he must live an obedient, Spirit-empowered life to effectively point people toward Jesus. This doesn’t mean everyone will automatically like us for representing Christ. Someone can live an authentic life honoring Christ, and it can be highly offensive to unbelievers. We’re told in 2 Corinthians 2:16-17, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” We just want to make sure we are offending people for the right reasons, not the wrong ones!
So yes, true Christianity is often more easily perceived by what you do than what you believe. On the other hand, true and authentic belief should always come out in our actions. However, those with discernment will understand that a claim may be true, even when a person sharing it fails to live consistently with their own words.
James 2 is powerful here:
16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.
19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless.
21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.
23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?
26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
We are saved by true faith in God alone, as Ephesians 2:8–9 emphatically states, and so does Titus 3:5. There’s no righteous work we can do to become saved. It only requires belief or trust. But if belief and trust are authentic, they will be demonstrated in our actions. Hence, there is no contradiction between the words of Paul and James. They both believe in faith, and they both believe in works that demonstrate that faith. They just say it in different ways, both of which we need to hear.
This is a good article on faith/beliefs and works/actions and how both are necessary and should be interrelated.
I was glad to hear my friend is studying Paul’s life in the book of Acts. I have a graphic novel, called The Apostle. It’s Scripture based, but I also imagine (and the artist envisions) what Paul’s life looked like.
Finally, here’s an excellent article on “the Way.”