Believe and Obey

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Wanna Not Gotta

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A Common Attitude

In the fall of 2022 I had just published my book Understanding God, and hosted a book launch event at my local church.  One of the long-time parishioners was asking me what it was about.  This is not an easy question to answer in the middle of signing books for those who just purchased a copy.  I gave him the tried and true “elevator speech” and answered that it was about finally understanding what God has been telling us all along; namely that all we need for our salvation is to trust.  That is, we do not need to “do” anything, but rather be…lieve. 

His response was indicative of an altogether common attitude amongst most believers, both Catholic and Protestant.  He replied that belief, sure, but you gotta live a good Christian life.  That event was neither the time nor the place to try and unpack that response.  So, I will try to briefly do so in this essay.

A Definitional Problem

The first issue is what constitutes a “good Christian life”.  I am not sure that there is any satisfactory answer to this question.  Sure, we can list the Ten Commandments for starters.  That tells us mostly what not to do.  We could move on to the more insightful Beatitudes.  This seems closer to the mark, as it has to do with who we are, rather than what we do. 

Nonetheless, we still have precious little to go on by way of a code or set of rules.  Yet, it was exactly a set of rules or code that the man who responded to the theme of my book was suggesting.  I would argue, in fact, that the New Testament is explicitly not a codex or rulebook.  There is no grid with an x and y axis that we can then trace our fingers to the square that gives us the answer to a particular problem.  It is, as I suggested, regarding the Beatitudes, more a matter of a state of being.

Jesus did not give us a codex, because He knows we do not need one.  We know, instinctively, at any given moment, how we are to behave.  We know how we are to treat others.  This attitude does not beget a simple code or set of rules to live by.  For instance, it is generally bad to lie.  However, if the Nazis show up at the door are you going to tell the truth that a Jewish family is in the attic?  Or are you going to lie through your teeth?  We all know what we should do in such a situation: lie!

Likewise, there are a myriad of situations that do not give us easy answers to tough situations we may find ourselves in.  What may be clearly wrong in one such situation may not be quite so in another.  This is not to suggest that right and wrong are situational, or God forbid, tribal.  It is only to suggest that the answer lies in who we are, and our striving as imperfect creatures to emulate our Lord.  The specifics matter much less than the state of our heart.  The main point here is that none of what our Lord and Savior gave us can be boiled down to a simple set of rules.  I mean, God tried that with 10 seemingly simple Commandments.  Look how that turned out!  This leads us to the other problem that this parishioner identified.

What Do You Mean Gotta?

This is the much more crucial question.  It far transcends the dicey idea of a rulebook, as bad an idea as that is.  The question lurches toward the hoary idea of “works righteousness”.  This is the notion that we can be saved or made righteous by our works.  This is the single most damaging piece of theological flotsam to come floating down the river of humanity.  The very notion should make us recoil.  What is it exactly that we think we can do for God to make Him love us?  What is it we think that God needs from us?  We know that the answer is that God needs nothing from us, and there is nothing we can do to get Him to love us.  That is the reality of us as fallen creatures, we know this to our core.  That is the essence of what the law does; it convicts us and convinces us that we cannot be saved by ourselves.  If that was the end of the story it would indeed be despairing.  That is why this is such a terrible theological notion.  It leads us to despair that we can ever enter a relationship with God.  It also gives us the distinct impression that those who roll out these kinds of judgmental works for us to perform are just as fallen as us, and therefore nothing but hypocrites.  It becomes almost the perfect storm to turn people away from God, and His Son Jesus the Christ.  Works becomes the “Gotta” in that man’s question to me.  It was the point of my book to argue against this idea based upon the damage it does to people’s faith, using my life’s story as a case study.  As I wrote in the book, it was not simply that I buckled under the weight of works righteousness, it broke me.  Only the Gospel made me whole again.

The Truly Good News

The amazingly Good News (the very meaning of the term Gospel) is that we don’t gotta do anything.  Which is handy, because as I pointed out above, there is nothing we can do.  Any and all work involved has been done by Jesus.  He took on our humanity.  He lived amongst us in human community.  He experienced all that we experience as humans.  That includes even death itself.  Yet, because He is both God and man, the grave could not hold Him.  It is this life, death and resurrection that places within us the faith that puts us right with God, the faith that saves.

So, no, we don’t “gotta” do anything.  We just be…lieve.  Believe that God’s word is true, the resurrection is real, and that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Trust in the promises, and God will carry you home.

Wait…This site is Believe and Obey, Right?

Yes, indeed that is the name of this site, and my ministry.  It comes from the notion put forth by the German theologian and martyr to the Nazis Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He railed against what he called “cheap grace”.  The idea that the Gospel could penetrate our hearts without changing us.  We should, he said never treat as cheap that which was so costly to God.  The cost of the Grace God shed upon all of us is the blood of His Son.  Therefore, we should not dishonor that costliness by not responding as best we can.

The Obey part of the web site title is what we try best to accomplish in response to God’s gifts of Grace upon Grace.  We do what we do because God has given us everything, not in order to get Him to give us everything.  That is the key distinction here that is so often lost.  It is even lost on many descendants of the Reformation, who should clearly know better.  In short, we Obey because we Believe.  We do what we do because we wanna, not gotta.

Praise Be to God

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