Belief is no good without practice is a stupid statement. Yes, I have read James (once or twice).
My argument has been pretty simple so far. God is glorified when he is known truly. God is glorified by our trust in what he says. It is God’s great pleasure to reveal himself to his children. God is glorified when he is known and understood. God desires orthodoxy and right belief.
But some of my comments have made some people very uncomfortable, especially this one (emphasized in italics):
I was in a small group venting about my expository preaching class ten years ago. I said, “They are trying to get me to pull out direct immediate application—something for the people to do—out of every sermon.” I complained about this. My group of young seminarians were divided. I told them that not only were some passages of Scripture not able to produce direct immediate application without sinful manipulation, but sometimes, I told them, “God simply wants us to believe what he said. This is application enough!”
In our Evangelical/emerging climate, we have those who seem to have come to some sort of personal epiphany about the problem with the church. “Doctrine divides and causes problems.” Fair enough. “Christians have the tendency to have an arrogant attitude about doctrine, systematically condemning those who don’t agree with them on everything and, in doing so, fail to express love. They elevate correct doctrine above love.” Agreed. “Therefore, we should quit talking about doctrine and just love each other.” Time out! Love without truth is not Christian.
“But what does being doctrinally correct actually do? How can it help the world today? How does it alleviate oppression? How does it feed the hungry? How does it promote equality? And what about the environment?”
You see? There you go again. You think that this life is about you. You think it is about man. You think that if it does not effect the world within the next hour or day or week, according to your standards, it is a bad stewardship of your time.
“Belief is no good without practice.” Translation in our generation: “Since right belief (doctrine, systematic theology, understanding, etc) does not evidence itself in practical matters immediately and causes people to be arrogant, we should not even worry about belief at all and just get out there and “do” what we know is right. Orthodoxy is bad. Orthopraxy is good.”
This fails to understand that right belief itself is the application—the ultimate application. How so? Because belief will always produce of itself. This belief will sometimes evidence itself in ways that are immediate and sometimes in ways that become an integral part of a person’s life and personality. (Hang with me).
Let me give some examples of beliefs that are easy to apply immediately:
We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
We should forgive one another.
We should carry each others burdens.
We should seek justice for the weak.
But what about the beliefs that don’t seem to be tagged with this type of immediate application? What about God’s sovereignty? God’s nature? Human sinfulness? The second coming? What about the genealogies of the Bible? What about the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo? What about the canon of Scripture, the definition of predestination, the flight to Egypt (all of them), the historicity of the Bible, the arguments for God’s existence, the doctrine of sola Scriptura, sola fide, the Reformation, or hell and the wrath of God?
“Sorry Michael. Our generation, through a series of epiphanies, has made those teachings and beliefs off-limits because of their counter-productive tendency to divide. Plus, they don’t have any direct application to our lives. If someone is to have an opinion about them, lets just keep it at that—an opinion.”
The problem with this line of thinking is that it puts God in the practical application box of our own design. We get out easy by calling foul with regard to doctrine. But, in the end, we end up with a load of rubbish that exiles God to the unknowable. The acceptable “application” of our generation could be applied to any religion. There is nothing distinctly Christian about them. When we do this, we tell God that since his revelation only has limited application we are going to wear selective earplugs while listening.
I believe that all good is defined by the degree which we listen to, understand, and believe the whole council of God, both in his world and in his Word. I also believe that when we say that what you believe about doctrine does not matter as much as what you do, we have fundamentally misunderstood, misdefined, and mishandled what belief means. In doing so we are creating an artificial preservative that we are trying to dress up like the real thing, but whose substance has limited shelf-life.
When we listen to God, when we prioritize truth, doctrine, understanding, and belief, when the time is right, you will see that we have changed, not from the outside in, but from the inside out. We are what we believe, not what we do. This is Christianity 101. It is about belief first. Belief must have content.
For example, take the Theology Proper (the doctrine of God). God has revealed himself as one who is the creator of all things, who transcends all of creation, being holy, unchangeable, without any need whatsoever (aseity), who loves man but will not let the unrighteous go unpunished. It is only when we have intellectually wrestled with and reflected upon it that we can recognize his majesty. It is only when we recognize his majesty that we can recognize our sinfulness, hopelessness, and helplessness without him. It is only by doctrine—right doctrine—that we can come to a state of brokenness. It is only in this brokenness that we can worship him truly. This belief—when truly understood and believed—will produce a fragrance of a character which is in conformity to Christ. Call the fragrance “application” if you will, but it is only present because of an understanding and belief.
But what you must understand is that this brokenness is application. It is not the place holder for application that will come later.
It pleases God to be known as Trinity. Knowing God is application.
Worship is expressed as the deepest longings of our heart are fulfilled by coming to know our creator and all that he has revealed to us and we rejoice in this knowledge.
We need to recognize that giving people the truth is our first priority. The fragrance produced by this truth will be inevitable. It is the nature of belief to find expression. I can’t always tell you exactly what this expression will look like and in what manner it is identified. But the belief is the foundation. The belief brings great glory to God. Belief is always enough. So long as it is true belief, the fragrance will permeate from us. If it does not, then the belief is not there. This is what James meant: “Belief is not true belief when it does not have a fragrance.” But he was not trying to elevate the action above its source.
Will there be people who believe—truly believe—but don’t have this fragrance? No. Never.
What is our mission? To do our part to make God known. Truth, orthodoxy, belief, and understanding are foundational to Christianity as the substance is foundational to the aroma produced.