It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “Christianity is not about a list of dos and don’ts; it is about a relationship.” That sounds good and, indeed, there is truth to it; but it is not the whole truth.
For one thing, talking about some generic form of “Christianity” is misleading. The term is so broad as to be practically useless and so battered as to be (in some cases) unrecognizable. Besides, it is not a term that Jesus, his apostles, or the early church used. When they referred to their common beliefs and shared traditions, they spoke of “the faith,” which inherently conveys the idea of relationship, and “The Way,” which suggests a particular approach to life.
For another thing, it’s all well and good to say that the faith is not about a list of dos and don’ts but the fact is Jesus instructed his followers to do many things and not to do other things. For example, in the famous Sermon on the Mount alone, I counted 49 imperative (command) mood verbs in the Greek text. The New Testament itself has more than 1,500.
Jesus obviously instructed his students in how to go about life – and not a typical life either. Most people don’t bless those who curse them, for example, or give to the person who asks. The Jesus way of doing life is not just an enhanced edition of some universal religious practice, like Windows 10 Pro is an upscale version of Windows 10 Home. The Jesus Way is distinctive.
Nevertheless, it remains true that the faith of Jesus is not a mere list of dos and don’ts. Doing the “dos” and avoiding the “don’ts” may, in some measure, be done without recourse to faith. For example, I might keep a list of dos and don’ts with a view to receiving a promotion or qualifying for some kind of reward, say, an all-expense-paid vacation. There may be some element of faith in this setting but it is nothing like the robust faith Jesus and his early followers considered essential.
A few of Jesus’s many commands can be kept, even without faith. For example, no one has ever sued me for my tunic, so Jesus’s command to give such a person my cloak as well has never been a problem for me. However, the command to stop worrying has been a problem. So has the command to love my neighbor as myself, to guard against hypocrisy, to get rid of all bitterness, and to do everything without complaining or arguing.
As it stands, it is simply impossible to check off these and the other New Testament commands in the way one checks off items from a to-do list. To consistently do these things and, more to the point, to be shaped in heart and mind in such a way that doing these things becomes natural, a person must have faith. This kind of faith is not mental assent to a doctrine, even a doctrine about God, nor is it a belief that God exists and that everything will work out in the end. It is not that these things are wrong; it is that they are not what Jesus and his early followers meant when they spoke of faith.
When they spoke of faith, they weren’t talking about a belief in God’s existence; everyone they knew believed God existed. When they spoke of faith in God, they were talking about trusting him: trusting his knowledge and so doing what he says; trusting his commitment and so being confident of his help; trusting his love and so feeling secure.
Trust is not something one can simply cross off a to-do list. There is never a point where one can say, “Did that.” Trust inherently requires relationship. And trust, if it is not misplaced, requires the other person be trustworthy. Faith is a response to faithfulness.
One can only do the things Jesus tells people to do – forgive and pray for enemies, give generously, live sacrificially – by trusting Jesus is right and trusting God to keep his word. And that kind of trust is only found when people respond to God’s invitation to enter into relationship with him through Christ.
First published by Gatehouse Media