A common refrain that I hear from friends and family is, “I’m a Christian. I don’t read the Bible / go to church / pray OR I get drunk / swear / sleep around. But I believe.” And they’re right, aren’t they? The important thing is belief, right? Like Paul and Silas to the Philippian gaoler, “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved,” or the thief on the cross next to Jesus who never ‘proved’ his belief in Jesus by living a holy life.
And yet, the likes of Bonhoeffer have railed against the idea of ‘cheap grace’, of believing without living it out. Indeed, the book of James has very strong words on the subject: What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? (James 2:14)
So what can be said? At one level, of course, God knows the hearts of all people. He alone is judge, not me. But I wonder whether this kind of statement unearths a misconception even those claiming to be Christians hold. It’s the misconception that even if you can’t say that you read the Bible or go to church or don’t get drunk, there’s still one thing you can do to count yourself as a Christian. There is one last work — belief.
Belief in Jesus is the Bible’s call to each human to make, just as we see with Paul and Silas. However, it is a grave mistake to support that one’s belief in Jesus that makes one right before God. No matter how sincere or strong this belief, no matter how theologically correct or heartfelt or hard won, it can never take the depraved human and make him or her good enough for the holy God. No, only the blood of Jesus can do that. Only the sacrificial death of Christ can turn aside the wrath of a just God. No human can contribute to that. Salvation comes solely from that same gracious God.
It is painful to think that anyone claiming to be a Christian would cite their reason as their own belief in Jesus. Because therein is a sense of having one thing in your favour, one thing to earn forgiveness from God. And inclusion into God’s family, those we call Christians, is based on God’s action, not our own; grace, not works. How good it would be, instead to hear, “I am a Christian because Jesus has washed me clean in his blood”.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.