Belief and Action

Here is an essay I wrote as part of my Course in Christian Studies. I hope you enjoy! I hope that normal service will resume on the blog in the not too distant…!

7. Write an essay of between 1500 and 2000 words on the question: What have you learned from Paul about the relationship between what we believe and how we act?

By Andrew Brown

In this essay, I will attempt to explain what I have learned from Paul about the relationship between what we (Christians) believe, and how we ought to therefore act.

Before we can explore what I have learned from Paul about this, we must first ask if any such connection exists. Do our beliefs affect our actions at all, or rather do our actions go on to affect our beliefs? Or, alternatively, is there little connection between them whatsoever?

Let’s take a simple example to begin with. What does the act of sitting down in a chair tell us, if anything, about our beliefs? The obvious answer is that by the act of sitting in a chair, we learn that the individual must first have believed that the chair could hold their weight. If they did not believe this, then there would have been no corresponding action. The action is driven by the belief.

Similarly, a person who says they believe a chair can hold their weight, and yet refuses to take the action of actually sitting in it, is likely not being totally honest. What faith can we put in their “belief” if they are not willing to act on it?

Finally, what came first – belief or action? Without belief, one may have chosen not to take the action at all and this suggests the believing must precede the action. However, one who does not believe, sits down anyway, and yet the chair does not fall… such a person would derive belief from that action.

Of course this example has limitations, but it in some small way aids us in understanding what I have learned from Paul in his letters – namely, that what we believe is crucial, and that it drives the actions we take.

Using Colossians as our prime example, I hope to demonstrate that we must first believe in the truth of the Gospel and in what Christ achieved for us, and this, therefore, leads to us living and acting in the way Paul directs us.

Paul opens his letter like so: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,” (Col. 1:1 ESV) and we note that Paul is an apostle, not on his own merit, education or effort, but rather by the will of God.

Chapter 1 begins with Paul giving thanks for the Colossians, and their response to the Gospel which they heard from Epaphras (v7). He tells them that he has not stopped praying for them since he heard of their faith (v3-4). Beginning at verse 9, Paul then notes down some of his prayers for the church. Part of verse 9 says “asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,” and this is a prayer about their belief rather than action. It is about helping them fully understand spiritual matters and to know His will for them. Verse 10 then begins “so,” as of a result of this, that they may “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord…” Before they can act in a pleasing way, they must first know and believe the truth of the Gospel.

Having completed his prayer, Paul goes on to discuss the Pre-eminence of Christ, starting at v15. Paul sets out that Christ is the image of the invisible God (v15), and that all things were created by and for Him (v16). Verse 18 tells us He (Christ) is the head of the body, that is the church, and v19 is astonishing as it states that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Him!

Verses 21 to 23 tell us how Christ reconciled us, despite our evil, to Himself through the death of His body. That we may be present holy and blameless and even above reproach if we continue steadfastly in our faith. This all achieved by Christ, and not attributed to our own action or righteousness. It is all about our faith in the One who has achieved it for us!

Paul concludes chapter one by explaining his ministry in Christ for the church. We see almost no instruction to act in any particular way here, and Paul has made a case for what Christ has done. He has stated the theology we must first accept and believe.

Chapter 2 continues in like manner. Paul sets out how he wants the church to have full understanding of the mystery of Christ. He continues to build the theology, wanting them to be “knit together in love.” Only at verse 6 do we see a command to act – “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Again, it begins with “Therefore,” like the “so” above, and as a result of what they believe they must act accordingly.

After a warning to guard against deception in “philosophy and empty deceit,” (v8), Paul goes back to setting out the supremacy of Christ. Verse 12 points out how we were buried with Him in baptism, and raised with Christ through faith. Verse 14 shows how our debt to God (in sin) has been cancelled, and nailed to the cross forever.

Paul ends chapter 2 arguing that the church is free from the demands of rituals to do with food or drink, New Moons or Sabbaths. The final verse of the chapter points out that while such laws have the appearance of wisdom or “self made religion,” – “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (v23). 

Having built a strong foundation of faith in the first two chapters, that is, the beliefs of the Christian, chapter three then begins to set out how we ought to act as a result. Paul tells them to seek the things that are above, and to keep their minds focussed on the matters of Heaven, not of the Earth. Verse 5 instructs the church to put to death the earthly things, such as sexual immorality, impurity and evil desire. Verse 8 tells us to put away things such as anger, malice and obscene talk, and verse 9 that we ought not to lie to one another.

Verse 12 begins the contrast, stating what we should be doing; compassion, kindness, humility and patience. Verse 13 gives the instruction to forgive each other and above all else, verse 14 tells us to put on love. As a result of acting this way, the peace of Christ will rule in our hearts (v15).

The remainder of chapter 3 gives instructions for the Christian household, advising how wives, husbands, children and parents ought to act towards each other. Many of these commands are difficult and often contrary to the ways of the world, and so we must act this way out of the firm foundation of our belief in the Gospel and what Christ has achieved.

Before Paul concludes his letter in chapter 4 with his final greetings, he gives further instructions for “masters” and also general instructions about prayer and wisdom. All of these come together to paint a clear picture of how we Christians ought to act.

As demonstrated above, we see that Paul does not launch straight into instruction for the church in his letters. Instead, he builds a foundation of faith and belief, and then, as a result, directs us to live and act in certain ways. Such a structure is not unique to Colossians, and we see it also in Paul’s other epistles.

There is insufficient space here to discuss the letter of Romans to any degree, but it is another example of how Paul sets out the comprehensive view of the Gospel in perhaps the first eleven chapters, and then turns to instruction in the concluding chapters. Romans 12 opens with the famous verse from the NIV: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” This “Therefore” builds on the theology of the previous chapters to then give us instructions of how to act.

Finally, we can make similar arguments of the structure of Galatians or Ephesians, but I cannot pass up the opportunity to discuss the small letter of Philemon. In this letter, Paul writes to Philemon asking him to accept back his runaway servant Onesimus. This short letter encapsulates the relationship between belief and action that I have learned from Paul.

Paul begins by praying for Philemon, and rejoicing in his love driven by his faith in the Lord Jesus. He then, rather than commanding Philemon to accept back Onesimus, appeals to him on the basis on his love and faith. Paul has little doubt that Philemon will do the right thing because he believes the truth of the Gospel and acts out his love. Paul does not seem to need to instruct, but instead points out his knowledge of the faith, and therefore relies on this to appeal to Philemon to do what is right.

In conclusion, I take from all of this that in order to act in a manner worthy of the Lord, we must first have proper belief, that is, correct theology about what Christ has achieved in and for us. If we believe right, then this will lead to right actions. I believe that if we attempt to act well without proper belief, then we are merely acting as those under the Law. We do not act to obtain God’s love and favour, instead we have already obtained it through Jesus Christ and His sacrifice, so therefore we act accordingly.

When studying Paul’s letters, I may be tempted to jump straight to the instructional sections, wanting to practice my faith. However, I believe I will have little success unless I have a firm grasp of the truth of the Gospel, and like Paul, I “ask God to fill you [me] with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives” (Colossians 1:9 NIV).

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