“I yearn for the day,” writes Dennis Prager, “when Christians will emphasize ethical monotheism as the most important part of their commitment to Christianity,” (Think a Second Time, p.211). He’s got a point. How we live is vastly more important than what we say, think or believe.
Prager believes that the Christian notion that God saves people no matter how they act toward each other undermines the principle of ethical monotheism. He writes, “Millions of Protestants hold that believers in Jesus, no matter how many cruel acts they perform, attain salvation, while nonbelievers in Jesus, no matter how much good they do and how much they may love God, are doomed to eternal damnation,” (ibid.).
If one studies the history of the larger Church, it is clear that at many junctures in history, Christians of all types have felt justified in murdering fellow Christians, Jews and Muslims in the name of God. The reverse is also true – almost all religions have murdered competitors in the name of God, or of their gods. Anti-religious author Sam Harris writes, not without justification, that “A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion,” (The End of Faith, p. 12).
Of course we can also attribute many such slaughters to secular ideologies like Nazism and Communism – but religious homicide and cruelty have a much longer history. During his earthly ministry, Jesus warned his original disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me,” (John 16:2-3).
Those who murder in the name of God don’t really know God. Those who kidnap, torture, rape and otherwise abuse their fellow man in the name of religion do not represent the way of ethical monotheism in the world. In historic times, Christians have practiced forced conversion, wrongful extraction of tithes, confiscation of property, unjustified imprisonment, torture, burning at the stake and other evils, all in the name of our Lord. None of this is of God. It originates in the dark side – in the pits of hell itself.
No godly person – no truly ethical monotheist – does evil in the name of God. The fact that someone is religious does not automatically make them a good person. Some of the nastiest people in the world are deeply religious.
Nor do the outward trappings of religion make its adherents spiritually noble. All of the religious institutions, buildings, flowing beards, austere black or ornate costumes, or the platitudes of piety, do not a godly person make. A godly person is one who simply lives a godly life.
Jesus taught, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them,” (John 7:15-20).
What kind of fruit is born in a given religious person’s life? How does he or she treat his or her family and neighbors? Do we see in that person’s life the fruit of the Spirit of God? Do we see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22)?
Such traits characterize a truly good person – an ethical monotheist – whose behavior is influenced not by the dark side, but by the Spirit of God. Conversely, a person who is still enslaved to the pulls of his own flesh and the devil’s influence will manifest the “bad fruit” of a “bad” tree: “…sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like,” (Galatians 5:19-21a).
Here we see contrasted the carnal (fleshly) and spiritual person. As you read the above words, take inventory. Which traits characterize your life? Which side – the dark or the light – has the greatest influence in your life? What kind of “tree” are you?
The Myth of True Belief
Many Christians live as though belief alone is enough to save them. After all, did not Paul write, “…if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” (Romans 10:9)?
And did not Peter say of Jesus, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved,” (Acts 4:12).
Unfortunately, simply quoting these two verses, along with John 3:16, is as far as some Christian’s personal theology goes. They’ve made their confession, they believe the above verses, and that’s all there is to it. End of story. But it’s not really the end of the story – there’s much more to it than these few terse verses. These verses need to be qualified and elaborated on by the rest if the documents of the original believers.
“But we know The Truth!”
Other Christians have confidence in the notion that because they adhere to “doctrinal truth” they are therefore members of the “true church” and therefore they have salvation in the bag. As they view it, all other “Christian” churches are bogus, counterfeit or “pagan.” They believe that because they observe the seventh day Sabbath, keep the annual holy days of Israel (Leviticus 23) and avoid unclean meats, that they are somehow more spiritual, more authentic, and more truly Christian than those “pagan” Sunday worshipers.
The point is what we believe about doctrine and liturgy means nothing if we are not living right. Israel and Judah, throughout their history from Moses’ day forward, kept the holy days sporadically at best. When they kept them, they gained a false sense of security in so doing. It made them feel more religiously “authentic.” But when God sent his prophets to correct them, they said things like this: “New moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies, (Isaiah 1:13b). Why would God say this of observances he had commanded? — because for all their liturgies and religiosities they were not living right. The nation was full of murders (verses 15c & 21c); evil deeds (v.16); injustice (v. 17); oppression of widows and orphans (vs. 17b); political corruption and bribery (vs. 23) and so on. In this context, their Sabbath-keeping, festival observance and knowledge of the truth meant nothing.
There’s a principle here: No matter what we believe, and no matter how right it is or how liturgically correct we believe it is; it means nothing if we are not living right and bearing fruit to the Holy Spirit. Even in the New Covenant writings, Paul excoriated Christians who were observing the Lord’s Supper while not living right (I Corinthians 11:17ff.). By behaving in ungodly way while observing a valid liturgy, they were eradicating the value of it (vss. 27-32).
We don’t live right to earn salvation. No amount of ergon nomos – works of law – can undo the effects of our past sins. Only the grace of God manifested through Christ can do that. That being said, God still expects his Jewish and Christian people to live a certain way – the way of ethical monotheism. How we live is vastly more important than what we espouse, believe or express liturgically.
The “Good Attitude” Standard
In a denomination to which I once belonged, and served as a minister, much was made out of people having a “good attitude.” A good attitude meant smiling, being courteous, compliant and respectful toward the ministry. Good attitude people said, “Yessir!” a lot – and they did it with enthusiasm and much kissing up. They adopted postures of apparent humility.
There were those who had politically correct attitudes, and who believed and espoused “orthodox” doctrine. They were typically viewed as being “in good standing.” To them went the gifts or responsibility, status and material rewards. They were the good attitude loyalists.
People with “bad attitudes” argued a lot. They didn’t show sufficient respect. They openly challenged dogma, doctrines and the dictates of the ministry. But in none of this – good attitude or foul – was it taken into consideration how they lived. Did they manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their lives? Were they kind and considerate, or were they hard-nosed authoritarians? Did they quietly and unostentatiously (Matthew 6:1-4), perform good works? Did they live in conscience toward God, or were they merely politicians milking the system to their own advantage?
Every denomination includes a full spectrum of human types: authoritarians, politicians, sycophants, good attitude people, phonies, con artists, exploiters, the truly pious, servants, good time Charleys, neurotic dependents, people with bad attitudes, folks with religious spirits, mindless zealots, sensualists, and truly converted, fruit-bearing Christians. What we are in this context is a matter of personal choice. The wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest.
What God wants, even more than correct belief and good attitudes is simple obedience. For Jesus, actions always speak louder than words. This is illustrated by one of his parables found only in Matthew 21:28-31:
“’What do you think?” asked Jesus of his disciples, “There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?
“’The first,’ they answered.”
God is pleased with children who actually do his will, no matter what kind of attitude they display. On one occasion, Jesus asked his own admittedly loyal (exception: Judas) disciples, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). It isn’t enough to know about Jesus, to “confess Christ,” and to “believe on him.” Our Lord requires obedience to his teachings – teachings that could be classified as ethical monotheism. He went on to say, “I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation of rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck the house but could not shake it, because it was well built,” (Luke 6:48).
If we call ourselves “Christians,” our lives will be solidly anchored in the ethical monotheism of our Lord. On an ongoing basis, we will be actively seeking to better understand Jesus’ teachings and example, and how to implement them in our personal lives. We will embrace the Lord’s world view and seek to live as he lived. We will care about what he cared about. His priorities will be our priorities, his concerns our concerns.
On the other hand, we can choose to be mere nominal Christians, believing in Christ, espousing some denominational version of the Christian faith with its distinctives while living what amounts to a basically carnal or secular lifestyle. We can claim to have saving faith while being devoid of the works that demonstrate it (James 2:14–26). Study these verses carefully.
Jesus himself illustrated the vacuity of empty, workless faith, when he said, “But the one who hears my words and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete,” (Luke 6:49). Jesus was a carpenter; he knew what he was talking about.
The point of all this is that belief and faith in Christ and the tenets of Christianity without obedience to Jesus’ teachings is empty faith. To say one is a Christian because one believes something about Christ, about faith, is relatively meaningless if one ignores the teachings of the one we are supposed be following and emulating. Paul wrote, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ,” (I Corinthians 11:1).
Earlier in the same letter he wrote,” Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church,” (I Corinthians 4:16-17).
To be truly authentic Christians, no matter our personal theologies and doctrinal distinctives, our way of life must be consistent with our Lord’s teachings. We can make truth claims till we’re ultramarine in the face, and it will mean nothing unless we live the life – the life of ethical monotheism.