Christianity, as set out in Scriptures, is immensely practical. Sadly, as individual Christians, we are not always as practical as we should be. There is a considerable emphasis on doctrine in some quarters (and rightly so), but a faith that is only expressed in an intellectual way is pointless and worthless. The problem is not a new one, nor is it exclusive to this dispensation. The complaint of Jehovah against His earthly people, for example, was that “they judge not the fatherless, and the cause of the widow cometh not unto them” (Is. 1: 23). However, as Christians, our light, and hence our responsibility is considerably greater: “For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has before prepared that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2: 10, my emphasis). Doctrine is essential but practical expression of what we believe is equally vital. There needs to be a proper balance. Luke’s summary of the Gospel that bears his name is that it concerned “all things which Jesus began both to do and to teach” (Acts 1: 1, my emphasis). If He “went through [all quarters] doing good” (Acts 10: 38) ought not we?
Scripture is quite explicit that nothing we do can merit our salvation, and that it is wholly dependent on what God has done in Christ: “the kindness and love to man of our Saviour God appeared, not on the principle of works which [have been done] in righteousness which we had done, but according to his own mercy he saved us through [the] washing of regeneration and renewal of [the] Holy Spirit, which he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that having been justified by his grace, we should become heirs according to [the] hope of eternal life” (Titus 3: 4–7, my emphasis). However, the writer does not stop there, for he goes on to say that “The word [is] faithful, and I desire that thou insist strenuously on these things, that they who have believed God may take care to pay diligent attention to good works” (v8). Note the language: insist, strenuously, diligent. Thus while good works have no place in the sight of God as regards our salvation, it is imperative that once saved we live up to our profession and “abound to every good work” (2 Cor. 9: 8). Man’s works are never called good until he is saved. Those in Rom. 2: 7, who “in patient continuance of good works, seek for glory and honour and incorruptibility” are saved persons and contrasted with the unbelieving who are “disobedient to the truth” (v8).
James is very blunt on the relationship between faith and works, going as far as to say that “faith without works is dead” (James 2: 20). In verses 14–16 he illustrates his meaning: “What [is] the profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him? Now if a brother or a sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one from amongst you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled; but give not to them the needful things for the body, what [is] the profit?”. Some see a conflict here with Paul’s doctrine that we are “justified by faith” (Rom. 3: 28) and brought into blessing “not according to our works” but according to God’s “purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 1: 9). However, the faith that James describes is a false faith (proved by the lack of good works flowing from it), and such a faith cannot save. Thus there is no conflict with Paul.
Numerous Scriptures set out the vital importance of good works in Christian life: We are to be established “in every good work and word” (2 Thess. 2: 17), to “do good, to be rich in good works” (1 Tim. 6: 18), to be “zealous for good works” and to be “ready to do every good work” (Titus 2: 14; 3: 1). Again, note the language: every, rich, zealous, ready. Furthermore, lest some think they can dismiss such activity as of little importance, Paul connects it directly with sowing to the Spirit: “he that sows to the Spirit, from the Spirit shall reap eternal life: but let us not lose heart in doing good; for in due time, if we do not faint, we shall reap” (Gal. 6: 8, 9). No doubt the “doing good” here is very general, but there is no question that it includes good works. Nor does the apostle stop there. “So then” he says “as we have occasion, let us do good towards all” (v10). None are to be excluded, and every occasion is to be used. However, he does add that our kindness is to be directed “specially towards those of the household of faith”. This is only good and proper, for the welfare of my brethren in Christ (ignoring every badge of sect or party) ought to be of particular interest to me. Why? Because “if one member suffer, all the members suffer with [it]” (1 Cor. 12: 26).
Love for the Saints
This love for my fellow Christians is normal, healthy Christianity: “Beloved, let us love one another; because love is of God, and every one that loves has been begotten of God, and knows God. He that loves not has not known God; for God is love” (1 John 4: 7, 8). Again, “Now concerning brotherly love ye have no need that we should write to you, for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4: 9). Where love is absent, then we are justified in asking whether Christianity is absent too.
What is love? God has defined it Himself by what He has done in Christ: “Herein as to us has been manifested the love of God, that God has sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4: 9, 10). The force of the argument cannot be avoided: “Beloved, if God has so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v11). Indeed, the apostle elsewhere characterises it as an obligation or commandment (see 1 John 4: 21; 2 John 5). “No one has seen God at any time”—that is clear—but the divine purpose is that the love of God is displayed in the lives of His children: “if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4: 12). We are to be “imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, even as the Christ loved us, and delivered himself up for us” (Eph. 5: 1, 2).
Love to others flows from love to Christ: “For God [is] not unrighteous to forget your work, and the love which ye have shewn to his name, having ministered to the saints” (Heb. 6: 10, my emphasis). There is therefore nothing more obnoxious to God as when this love is a sham, hence the repeated warning for love to be unfeigned and accompanied by pure motives (see Rom. 12: 9; 1 Tim. 1: 5; 1 Pet. 1: 22). Because of what we are naturally, we require constant prompting to “follow after love” (1 Cor. 14: 1), and, because we are brethren, we need to “consider one another for provoking to love and good works” (Heb. 10: 24). Nor are we to love some and not others—our love is to be “towards all the saints” (Eph. 1: 15, my emphasis). This is not to say that all are easy to get along with—hence Eph. 4: 2: “bearing with one another in love”. Practically, we will only be able to do this if “the love of each one of you all towards one another abounds” (2 Thess. 1: 3, my emphasis), for if we have “fervent love” among ourselves, then love will cover a “multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4: 8). Fervent love, note—not anything less.
Now love is not some vague and abstract generality. On the contrary it evidences itself practically in a multitude of differing ways, some obvious and some not so apparent. These evidences are not love in themselves, but it would be difficult to maintain that love exists when they are absent: “Put on therefore, as [the] elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, long–suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any should have a complaint against any; even as the Christ has forgiven you, so also [do] ye.” (Col. 3: 12, 13). There are many other examples in the Scriptures: “kindly affectioned towards one another: as to honour, each taking the lead in paying it to the other … But we ought, we that are strong, to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbour with a view to what is good, to edification” (Rom. 12: 10; 15: 1, 2); “Let no one seek his own [advantage], but that of the other … Love has long patience, is kind; love is not emulous [of others]; love is not insolent and rash, is not puffed up, does not behave in an unseemly manner, does not seek what is its own, is not quickly provoked, does not impute evil, does not rejoice at iniquity but rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 10: 24; 13: 4–7); “walk worthy of the calling wherewith you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long–suffering, bearing with one another in love … Let all bitterness, and heat of passion, and wrath, and clamour, and injurious language, be removed from you, with all malice; and be to one another kind, compassionate, forgiving one another, so as God also in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4: 1–3; 31–32); “[let] nothing [be] in the spirit of strife or vain glory, but, in lowliness of mind, each esteeming the other as more excellent than themselves; regarding not each his own [qualities], but each those of others also” (Phil. 2: 3–4); “Finally, [be] all of one mind, sympathising, full of brotherly love, tender hearted, humble minded; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing; but on the contrary, blessing [others], because ye have been called to this” (1 Pet. 3: 8, 9). Do these things need explaining? No, for the sense is perfectly plain and unambiguous. The lack is not in our understanding but in the practical working out of these things.
Remembering the Poor
Genuine love will give up everything for its object: “Hereby we have known love, because he has laid down his life for us; and we ought for the brethren to lay down [our] lives” (1 John 3: 16). In only a small number of God’s people does this verse have a literal fulfilment. For the rest, the test is seen in the verse that follows: “But whoso may have the world’s substance, and see his brother having need, and shut up his bowels from him, how abides the love of God in him? Children, let us not love with word, nor with tongue, but in deed and in truth” (vs. 17, 18). Paul, busy man as he was, did not fail to “remember the poor” (Gal. 2: 10), and exhorted others “to come in aid of the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20: 35). Token giving is not in view: the individual believer with the capacity to give is “to be liberal in distributing” and “disposed to communicate [of their substance]” (1 Tim. 6: 18)—that is, to have that characteristic bent of mind. We are not to be so ‘heavenly minded’ that we are of no earthly use: “But of doing good and communicating [of your substance] be not forgetful, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13: 16).
All this is largely individual, but there is also an expectation placed upon the Assembly itself to “make a certain contribution for the poor of the saints” (Rom. 15: 26). The apostle Paul writes “concerning the collection for the saints” instructing that “on [the] first of [the] week let each of you put by at home, laying up [in] whatever [degree] he may have prospered” (1 Cor. 16: 1, 2). Is there still a real link between how we “may have prospered” and the amount we give? Sadly, many of us have moved a long way from what Paul had in mind! In 2 Cor. 8, he writes of those who in “deep poverty” nonetheless managed to give “beyond [their] power” (vs. 2, 3). How much more generous then ought to be our giving if, like some of the disciples in Antioch we are “well off” (Acts 11: 29)! Again, while distributing to the “necessities of the saints” (Rom. 12: 13) would surely include many things, there can be no doubt that in Scripture the overwhelming emphasis is on meeting the needs, not of preachers, or building projects, or publishing houses, but of the poor. If the meetings of the saints seem to be middle–class and self–sufficient, then maybe it is high time we opened our eyes (and our wallets) to needs elsewhere. Not that this should be made a legal requirement, for “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9: 7), but if we are to truly walk in obedience to the Word of God then we need to be marked by “free–hearted liberality … towards all” (v 13).
Spend and be Spent
It would be a poor thing, however, if care for the saints was only about meeting physical needs. Spiritual poverty abounds among the people of God! The writer to the Hebrews lamented the fact that “when for the time ye ought to be teachers” it had become necessary “that [one] should teach you what [are] the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5: 12). What a contrast with what John says to Gaius: “Beloved, I desire that in all things thou shouldest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospers” (3 John 2)! As brethren, we ought to care about the spiritual welfare of each other: Timothy cared with genuine feeling how the Philippian saints were getting on (see Phil. 2: 20). Others were not so inclined, affecting an interest when in fact they sought their own things and not the things of Christ.
Concern for the spiritual welfare of our brethren will cost us—and the proof of how much we care is seen in how much we are prepared to pay. If meeting physical poverty is more about spending our money, meeting spiritual needs is more about spending ourselves. Witness Paul’s farewell word to the Ephesians “that for three years, night and day, I ceased not admonishing each one [of you] with tears” (Acts 20: 31, my emphasis). See the “distress of heart” and the “many tears” (2 Cor. 2: 4) with which he wrote to the Corinthians. Nor were his prayers a case of a brief, hurried form of words before settling off to sleep. For the Colossian saints he was “always combating earnestly for you in prayers” (Col. 4: 12, my emphasis). All this was very energetic and draining. The assemblies were not merely of an interest to him, they were a “burden” and a “crowd [of cares]” was “pressing on” him “daily” (2 Cor. 11: 28). A little later on he declares “Now I shall most gladly spend and be utterly spent for your souls, if even in abundantly loving you I should be less loved” (2 Cor. 12: 15). He would exhaust himself on their behalf. Were they his friends, persons who liked him, brethren with whom he saw eye to eye? No, for he speaks about being less loved and yet at the same time he would most gladly spend and be spent for their souls. Sadly, most of us know very little of this kind of spirit. Christianity is merely something we dip into every now and then as the fancy takes us, but for Paul (and many others) it animated his entire being: “For me to live [is] Christ” (Phil. 1: 21).
ConclusionThere is something very attractive in a faith that is lived in practical expression of Christ. Perhaps it is because we see something there that we rather lack in ourselves. Indeed, is this not the key to very many of our troubles—the feebleness in Gospel testimony, the paucity of real ‘fellowship’ and the inability to retain young people in the meetings? Let us endeavour then to be practical Christians, for if our faith is not accompanied by works, then what kind of faith is it?