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“Belief is No Good Without Practice” . . . and Other Stupid Statements (Part Deux)

Part one in a nutshell: God is glorified by right belief. Right belief is foundational to right practice.

In Peter Rollins’ book How Not To Think About God (a book I enjoyed and recommend) it is said that we are to love God as a newborn baby loves his mother. Rollins says that the baby does not need to know anything about his mother to love her. He simply recognizes her as his mother and rests in her protection.

The point he makes is that the Christian life, like the newborn, is not so much to love God by knowing or understanding him, but to be known, understood, and loved by him.  While this has much to commend as we as children of God recognize and find protection in our Father’s love, the analogy does not provide a sustainable or stable illustration of the Christian worldview. It can also be misleading, giving people the impression that God does not care about what you think about him or whether you understand or know him.

What we must realize is that the baby is unable to move beyond its state which necessitates the passivity of his interaction. As many of you know, my wife Kristie and I have been blessed with four children, two girls (10 and 9) and two boys (5 and 2). Not too long ago Zack was an infant. I remember holding him in my arms and was talking to him. One day when I was doing this Will (my then three-year-old son) profoundly informed me that Zack could not understand. “Daddy, Zack does not know what you are saying!!” was his comment. I said to Will, “This is how you learned to talk and understand. If we keep talking to him someday he will be able to respond.”

Though there is a part of me that desired my children to stay a small, helpless, innocent newborns, there is a greater hope—a great anticipation—that one day they will grow to understand and know me. There is the great hope that we will one day have a relationship that is not one sided. In this relationship I will, among other things, tell them my name, let them be involved in my life, share with them things about myself that I would not share with others, and hope that they would love and trust me based on what I have revealed to them. I will hope that they will come to know and understand me.

It is the same thing with God. A relationship is never meant to stay one sided. God did not make newborns to perpetually remain in a state of passive interaction where love comes by default. God created people to grow in our understanding.

The writer of Hebrews exhorts his audience to mature in their thinking. They had become like newborns in their faith which was not a good thing.

Hebrews 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.

“You ought to be teachers” assumes that they needed to grow in their understanding. But sadly these people were like newborn babes, ignorantly feeding off their mother’s milk once again. The time for immaturity in our faith has passed for all of us.

Let me use Jeremiah again and expand on it a little more:

Jeremiah 9:23-24 “Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches;  but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD (emphasis mine).

We are not to boast in our supposed wisdom, strength, or riches. But we can boast in our relationship with God. This relationship is defined very particularly in this passage. It requires knowledge and understanding. We can only know and be satisfied in God to the degree that our understanding of Him is growing. The Hebrew word here for “understand” is one that communicates comprehension based upon reflection. This does not mean that we will exhaustively understand God or any one thing about Him. But it does mean that which He has revealed about Himself is essential to our relationship with Him.

What are these things? God is one who “exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth” and that he “delights in these things.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I see this as quite a bit of information here—quite a bit of doctrine, theology, truth, correct information. Who is this God that you love? He is one that is kind, but He is also just. Each of these characteristics go far beyond the information that a newborn can have of a parent. It goes far beyond a theology of milk that says our love for God can stay and grow in a state of joyful agnosticism.

God is good. God is righteous. God will provide. God loves us. God has a plan for the future. God is involved in history. God will not lie. God does not change. God made us in His image. God will not drop us. God will feed us. God will clothe us. God is in control of the good and bad. God gives us comfort. God cares when we cry. God will heal the wounds. These are all statements of belief. This is theology. While we can and should enjoy being loved and understood, our relationship must become reciprocal. The Christian faith is one of understanding God, not simply being understood by him. You cannot have a perpetual relationship that is one sided. There is really no such thing.

Proverbs 2:3-6 “For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD and discover the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth comes knowledge and understanding.” (emphasis mine)

Again, while God cannot be understood exhaustively, he can and must be understood truly. He himself has said as much.

Beliefs are foundational to all else. Don’t ever think you can have right practice (orthopraxy) without right belief (orthodoxy).

See part 3

25 Responses to ““Belief is No Good Without Practice” . . . and Other Stupid Statements (Part Deux)”

  1. On the connection between worship and right belief:

    Suppose that you are married, and are talking to someone about your spouse. You say, “I love her for her kind heart, and the passion with which she sings & plays piano, and her gorgeous red hair.” Problem: Your wife is a tone-deaf brunette. Do you think she’ll be happy with your praise of her? Or ignore the question of how she’ll feel: Wouldn’t you want to be praising her for things that are true about her? You will never know her perfectly–but your relationship with include a lifetime of coming to understand her more. To know her better, both relationally and “factually”.

    When we praise God, we praise him for things that are true about him. But if he’s not like what we’re saying, what does that mean for our worship? Part of loving God well–and part of a healthy approach to our relationship with him–will include wanting to understand him better, in what he has done and said and in the way that he is.

    What’s more: Suppose that you are repulsed by a doctrine like substitutionary atonement. Suppose you are repulsed by the notion of God’s wrath. Suppose that you disbelieve the idea of God having wrath–and you praise him for not being that way. You say, “I worship you, Lord, that there is no wrath in you.” And suppose that you’re wrong. That wrath is part of who he is. What does that mean for your praise?

    A pure, humble desire to know God more will include the desire to be corrected. It will include the desire to come to understand things like his justice and wrath, and how that interplays with his mercy and patience. And if we trust God, we will be confident that by learning more about him, we will find more and more glory. The more clearly we see him, the more beautiful and good he will seem–even if we have to work through some re-ordering of our ideas before we get to that point.

    And fortunately for us all, God accepts us where we are, if we trust in Christ & His work. He accepts us because of the life that Christ lived, and He works to change us to be more like Him. He transforms our minds, and teaches us. The Spirit grows us. Our worship & understanding is imperfect–but if we dwell in Christ, the Spirit will heal and change us. Our imperfect lives & worship are accepted now, even while He sanctifies us.

    Our love of God should mean that we want to understand him better, in what he has done and said and in the way that he is.

  2. Truth Unites... and Divides March 4, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    CMP: “Don’t ever think you can have right practice (orthopraxy) without right belief (orthodoxy).”

    Emerg***s and mainline theological liberals will be eager to plaster and bold-face this irenic declaration in their writings, and to proclaim it boldly in their sermons and exhortations.

    Well-done, CMP.

  3. Questions: How is it that we gain knowledge? When is what we know enough to begin practicing? Should the Church allow only those who give a proper confession of Christ and display an adaquate understanding of doctrine to practice Christ-like service? And, who will be the judge if the answer is yes?
    Your parent/child analysis is interesting. But, I doubt you would have your children read a book about you to find out who you are or even have their mother tell them about you as though you were dead and could not speak for yourself. Is the overt teaching of scripture the only acceptible methodology of getting to “know” God? Truly CMP, I am not merely trying to be difficult. I am trying to understand where intellect and relationship merge.

  4. minnow,

    I doubt it’s a matter of, “Get your doctrine right, then you can start practicing things”, so much as it is, “Do your best with your present understanding, and keep seeking to grow”. (Though there is an issue of wisdom–situations where you really do need to spend some time in thoughtful study before going forward, if you want to claim any measure of wisdom. For instance, if you’re going to plant a new local church, and there would be something wrong with going forward without spending any time in the Word reflecting on what church leadership should look like.)

    Also, I would say that there’s something missing from your depiction of comparison to reading a book. When we study the Word, the Spirit of God is in us, teaching us. That’s much more relational than a child reading a book about his parents. (This isn’t an answer to your questions–just an observation for reflection.)

  5. This is a wonderful post. Probably one of the most significant you’ve ever written. If readers really took this to heart (and part 1), and committed themselves to this pursuit, above all others, I believe that the results would be life-changing for many (including me). It occurred to me, while reading the many “God is” statements, that we would have so much more peace in our lives if we really knew these truths more fully. Our ability to trust Him would grow and grow.

    Jugulum…. loved what you added as well. “A pure and humble desire to know God will include a desire to be correct. It will include a desire to understand His justice and His wrath…….” ….. all good (!) And, I like the way you connected knowledge and worship.

    Minnow, you asked, “How is it that we gain knowledge?”

    That’s an important question. I would say, by consistently making God’s word our ‘daily bread’. Reading, and studying it like there’s nothing in the world that’s more worth or time, study and devotion. It’s God breathed …. it can change our hearts and minds like no other book in the universe can. It’s the best way to learn about God, and develop true wisdom and discernment. It’s also important to study the word with other believers — to attend a church regularly, where the word of God is taught like it’s the most important thing for us to understand.

  6. Susan,

    Matt Chandler said something along those lines in his message at the Desiring God conference this year. You can go to the following link to listen. (There are notes, but they’re not the full manuscript. And it’s really worthwhile hearing how he says it.)

    A Shepherd and His Unregenerate Sheep

    It’s at ~20:50.

  7. Jugulum, thanks. That is great. I listened to the whole thing. He touched on some things I’ve given a lot of thought to…. especially as he first introduced the passage in 1 Tim. 4. I smiled when I saw that it was a link to the Desiring God conference, because I’d again thought of John Piper (who’s ministry is of course, called by that name), because he always stresses that Jesus….. knowing Him, is the greatest, and most satisfying end….

  8. rayner markley March 5, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Michael: ‘God is glorified by right belief. Right belief is foundational to right practice.’

    I think you have not given evidence from real life for this broad statement. God is also glorified by right practice. Do you rule out the possibility of non-believers doing any right practice? In John 13:34-35 Jesus seems to allow that right practice consists of following His teaching to love one another. We can see that God gives everyone an ability to love, and even non-believers who practice love or practice the Sermon on the Mount are following this teaching. Thus, right practice is loving one another, not loving one another because they have right Christian beliefs. However, although Jesus does not make right belief a precondition for right practice, we do see historically that Christian belief (whether right or not quite right) has been the greatest motivation for right practice (again, both right and not quite right practice).

  9. Rayner, we ALL fall into the “not quite right practice” category. I’ve yet to meet a Christian who does it ALL correctly. We all struggle in different areas. But I will hold to what Michael posted here, riight practice (or mostly right given our fallen nature) will follow right belief. I haven’t read anything suggesting we can’t act until we get all belief right, but our practice will morph and change and be upgraded the more we study. To know God is to love God, and to love God (according to HIM) is to obey Him..

    We men get in trouble all the time from our women by attempting to put something together by ourselves and tossing the instructions. Then we scratch our head when it doesn’t come out right. Same thing. You can’t build a quality house without quality blueprints. You can’t just wing it.

  10. I think you have not given evidence from real life for this broad statement

    I think that is the point about parts one and deux. It is not what we see or feel, it is what Scripture says

    While all of us (believers and atheists alike) can do good things, only believers can do things that please God. …..By this all men will know that you are my disciples…. – our actions show that we are believers. But belief comes first.

  11. I am not a theologian and sometimes miss the subtleties. Zacchaeus changed his behaviour after encountering Jesus, did he not? And the rich young man went away from Jesus because he understood the implications of Jesus’ demands, giving away his wealth. Faith in Jesus, being changed degree by degree (2Cor.3:18), will surely lead to changed behaviour. Let the thief no longer steal.

    Michael, I think you are posing a false dichotomy; believing in God, trusting in Jesus for salvation, being filled with the Spirit, must result in changed behaviour or the claimed faith/salvation/filling is questionable, according to James.

    I love your blog, by the way.

  12. rayner markley March 5, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Dac: ‘…only believers can do things that please God.’

    Maybe true, but we’re not talking about pleasing God–we’re talking about doing right things. We’ve both said that anyone can do good things. Yet, I would go further and say that it does please God for any one of his creatures to do good things. Does it displease Him?

    Dac: ‘…our actions show that we are believers.’

    Well, the actions mean that we are His disciples, following His teaching; no particular beliefs are implied. Are you saying that we do good things because we want to obey Jesus, who taught us to do so, or because we simply want to follow the principle of righteousness? Although the details differ among cultures, righteousness is a universal principle. Jesus was certainly following the guidance given to Adam and the principles of righteousness that were upheld throughout the OT.

    Michael,
    How about the converse of your ‘nutshell’? Wrong belief is foundational to wrong practice. Aren’t there historical examples of wrong belief producing right practice, and vice versa?

  13. Sure, by practice alone, no one can tell who is a believer and who is not.

    I would challenge people to find me an example of a practice that only believers can or do do consistantly.

    If you are a believer, you should be acting in accordence with whatever the belief demands.

    For example:

    If you believe it when God says, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” then you would be giving more and hording less

    If you believe that God is perfectly holy and you are a sinner, your worship will be more in accordance with the truth, being in awe of the majesty of God more than you would otherwise.

    The first has a result and so does the second. But the first’s result is evident in a different way than the second. But this does not make the second’s result inferior to the first’s in any way. Therefore, sometimes belief does not have “practice” in the sense that people often look for.

    Hope that makes sense.

  14. What’s more: Right practices are based on something. They’re “right” practices for some reason. Orthodoxy points to those reasons. And genuine belief leads to behavior in accordance with those reasons.

    I think that may be related to what Jesus said about “What comes out of a person is what defiles him” in Mark 7:18-23. And related to Romans 12:2, about being transformed by the renewing of our minds.

  15. Semetic totality concept. Or in other words, a belief that does not produce right conduct indicates that the “believer” does not have right belief.

  16. Thanks for this. I agree completely. Everyone wants to live the “right” way without having to “know” or have a relationship with God based on specific facts about Him. I am so thankful that you address this very well. Could you do a follow up post explaining how James and other “prescriptive” passages actually support having to know God?

  17. Truth Unites... and Divides March 8, 2009 at 11:30 am

    CMP: “I would challenge people to find me an example of a practice that only believers can or do do consistantly.

    (Answering in Jeopardy Show format) What is the practice of sin?

    [Of course unbelievers sin as well, but ONLY believers can and do sin consistently AND YET who will still have a saving relationship with God in Heaven.]

  18. rayner markley March 8, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Michael: ‘Sure, by practice alone, no one can tell who is a believer and who is not.’

    So, one may produce right practice without right belief! Then right belief isn’t always foundational for right practice. If right belief were foundational, then we would always be able to tell belief from practice.

  19. Ryan,

    1) “So, one may produce right practice without right belief! Then right belief isn’t always foundational for right practice. If right belief were foundational, then we would always be able to tell belief from practice.” So you agree that there are no works that an believer can practice that an unbeliever can’t?”

    2) “So, one may produce right practice without right belief! Then right belief isn’t always foundational for right practice. If right belief were foundational, then we would always be able to tell belief from practice.” That is my point, right practice is not really “right” from the outside, but its foundational motive being grounded in truth makes it right. Therefore, what you believe makes all the difference, not what you do. “Do” only finds meaning in belief. Outside of such it is rubbish.

  20. rayner markley March 10, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    1) That’s right.

    2) ‘…what you believe makes all the difference, not what you do. “Do” only finds meaning in belief. Outside of such it is rubbish.’

    Well, it’s not rubbish to the beneficiary. What you believe makes no difference at all to the beneficiary of a ‘good’ work. People who receive aid in time of disaster benefit regardless of what the donors believe. Thus, practice certainly has intrinsic value to the beneficiary. But not to the donor, of course. We’re not talking about value to the donor I hope.

    The phrase ‘Belief without practice is no good’ may mean that it’s wrong to just believe and not to practice one’s belief. You agree with that principle when you say that one who truly believes will act correctly. Practice is a necessary part of belief. If we do not practice, we do not truly understand God.

  21. I’m not usually this flip. But for once:

    So just sitting around and doing nothing is good enough?

    Just “being”? Or say, “being faithful”?

    I’m glad. I thought I was going to have to do something.

    Just sit around and feel holy? OK; I got it! Not so hard!

    Hey! It’s a wide gate after all!

  22. What is practice of sin? You mean you are practicing so you can get perfect at it? Or like a doctor who practices medicine…you do it after years of study on how to do it.

    I don’t think in the Christian vocabulary practice and sin go together. Seeing as how we aren’t supposed to be sinning anyway.

    Definition in case you don’t get it yet
    VERB:
    prac·ticed , prac·tic·ing , prac·tic·es
    VERB:
    tr.

    1. To do or perform habitually or customarily; make a habit of: practices courtesy in social situations.
    2. To do or perform (something) repeatedly in order to acquire or polish a skill: practice a dance step.
    3. To give lessons or repeated instructions to; drill: practiced the students in handwriting.
    4. To work at, especially as a profession: practice law.
    5. To carry out in action; observe: practices a religion piously.
    6. Obsolete To plot (something evil).

    So to “practice” sin you:

    1:habitually perform sin
    2:sin repeatedly to acquire skill at it
    3:teach others how to sin
    4:work at sinning
    5:to carry out sin
    6:plot ways to sin

    Tell me where in the Bible this is possible as a Christian when Jesus said not to sin any more?

  23. Dr. G
    We might disagree on abortion theology and the origins of the soul, but at least you get it that there’s more to this than just thinking.

    Didn’t Jesus say somewhere the doers of the word were justified?

  24. CHP:

    1) Would “going to heaven” be a “practice” that only a believer could do? To be sure, this is done for us, as much as by ourselves; and is only our “own” act, partially.

    2) In any case though, isn’t there the constant danger here that by over-emphasizing the right orientation – faith, etc. – will keep us from ever doing anything? Since finding that orientation, is seemingly an infinite matter. Paralysis by analysis.

    We study Theology no doubt for example, to try to find out how to be Good and have right belief; and yet the search becomes an endless web, from which we never emerge.

    Theology like most academic subjects, being infinitely complex, and never firmly deciding much of anything, therefore we never do know where to put our foot down and act. And therefore, never do anything at all?

    And is a Christianity that is all theory, all in the mind … but that never – or rarely – finds its way to the “world” of “works” … what the Bible had in mind?

    Is it proper to be a Theologian, in other words?

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