Is Christianity a religion or a relationship? This is a common question that often stirs tension between Christians who emphasize belief and doctrine and those who emphasize acts of compassion and service. Is what we believe most important, or how we treat others?
As Christians, are we content to subscribe to rituals, customs, and a list of dos and don’ts, while we otherwise live a normal life? Or is Christianity a way of life that makes us stand out from the world? And if so, what does the Christian way of life look like?
Christianity is a way of life centered on the work and person of Jesus Christ. What we believe as Christians should affect our personal conduct and choices, as well as our interactions with others.
Belief in Action
In the modern west, the tension between belief and practice within the church usually centers on how the church responds to the socio-political issues of its day. In America’s short history, the church has been divided over the issue of slavery in the 19th century, the role of women in the 20th century, and society’s embrace of homosexuality in the 21st century.
In society debates over changing practices are usually reduced to terms of “for” and “against.” And this is the same mindset that spills into the church, but here it is framed—usually incorrectly—as a difference between trying to be right and trying to do right.
But for Christians, these two ideals should never be in tension, because the Christian life is all about living our faith:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? … In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder…
As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.James 2:14, 17-19, 26
Our faith begins with what we believe about our sinful nature, our need for redemption, and Jesus’s redemptive work on the cross to secure our salvation through his free gift of grace.
But as Christians, we are not called to simply acknowledge what Jesus has done and continue living as we always have. As James reminds us, even demons do that much.
Instead, we are called to show evidence of Jesus in our lives. Jesus himself summed up what the Christian life ought to look like when he said “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35).
In our present day, much of the tension within the church comes from a disagreement over what a life lived in love actually looks like. Some are quick to embrace a cultural definition of love that sometimes contradicts God’s holiness. Others emphasize holiness to the point of self-righteousness.
But just as James reminds us that our faith without resulting works is dead, we must also recognize that love without a foundation of holiness is a fleeting emotion and not the deep-rooted unconditional love of the Father.
So what does Christian love—built on Christian belief—actually look like in practice?
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.Acts 2:44-47
In Acts, we read about the launch of the church. In the earliest days of Christianity, Christians provided for each other, encouraged each other, and lived in a constant state of mutual care and support.
Of course, Christianity has gone through some interesting changes over the centuries. So it may not make sense for us to sell our possessions and meet daily in our current culture. Nevertheless, the attitude behind the disciples’ actions ought to inform how we live in any culture, including the present one.
No matter what setting we find ourselves in, the truth is that God’s love working through us fosters the best environment for God’s grace to be revealed and shared with others. And we cannot truly love if we remain isolated and try to live as Christians apart from a faithful fellowship of believers.
Our identity as Christians is established in Jesus, but it is expressed through the church.
The Christian Way of Life
Before followers of Jesus were called Christians, they were simply called followers of “the Way” (Acts 19:8-9). And it is a way that involves both a personal relationship with Jesus and participation in a community of Christians in order to be fully realized.
Let us examine how the Apostle Peter lays out the Way of Christian life:
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”1 Peter 1:13-15
When we come to Christ, our journey begins with the internal transformation of receiving his grace and being conformed to his likeness.
This is, of course, a lifelong journey as we struggle with our old sin nature. Yet, the call is that we turn from sin, reject the ways of the world, and lean on Jesus so that he can grow us into holiness.
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.1 Peter 1:22
Just as we continuously seek the heart and mind of Jesus and surrender to him, we have a responsibility to love others with the love of Christ. To our Christian brothers and sisters, this may mean holding them accountable and providing gentle correction where needed (they are called to holiness, too!).
As Christians, we need this love and support—and accountability—in order to effectively live in the world as grace-filled people delivering the good news of salvation.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.1 Peter 2:9-10
We ought to be so surrendered to Jesus that our identity is found in him. By saying that we are a “people,” Peter is emphasizing that it is not our nationality, our ethnicity, our social status, or any other worldly measure that unites us and makes us who we are. Jesus himself is our source of unity because he has set us apart from the ways of the world.
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.1 Peter 2:11-12
We are called to resist sin and temptation. Our refusal to participate in lifestyles that are not pleasing to God is, in and of itself, a lifestyle statement and it may subject us to scorn and insults. Yet when we live to honor God, even against pressing darkness, His faithfulness and goodness will be revealed in us.
One Final Thought
Of course, we must remember that even as we resist the ways of the world, we are not called to condemn the world. We must let our love and our peace be our witness. We love others while rejecting sin. We serve others without judgment. And we let our light shine for God’s glory, not our own. That is the Christian way of life.