In my own theological tradition there has always been a great emphasis on sound doctrine. This is a good emphasis for, after all, what you believe with regard to Scripture, God, and the Gospel matters a great deal. Yet, far too often, Christians in my tradition have evaluated their spiritual health solely on the basis of their theology. If I believe the right things then I am spiritually healthy. Scripture, however, calls us to both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
When writing to his young protégé, the Apostle Paul gives him specific counsel to “watch your life and doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:16). While many are inclined to divide these two or pit them against one another, Scripture holds them in tandem. Paul wants Timothy to keep a close watch not merely on his teaching, but on his lifestyle. Belief is extremely important and getting our doctrine right does matter. Paul states plainly that if anyone preaches a different gospel they are “anathema” (Gal. 1:8). John states that if any spirit which confesses Jesus has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2), putting an emphasis on the bodily appearance of the Christ. Doctrine matters and particularly “sound doctrine” matters (1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; Titus 2:1). But if we only evaluate our spiritual health not he basis of our theology we will miss key essentials for discerning an effective and fruitful faith (2 Peter 1:5-11). In fact, often the authors of Scripture evaluate spiritual health on the basis of lived belief. They judge fruit more than simply theological profession. They call believers to reflect on their conduct, not merely their convictions. Consider a few examples.
Many readers will know that James is one of the most practically-oriented books in the New Testament. It is so focused on practical living, however, that it interacts very little with the doctrinal concerns that we have come to expect in New Testament epistles. There is only limited mention of Jesus, and zero discussion of the crucifixion, resurrection, or giving of the Holy Spirit. No mention of justification by faith, nor even a discussion of baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Instead, you find James challenging believers on their use of the tongue, care of the poor, and endurance in suffering. Pure religion, he says, is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27). His emphasis, throughout the letter, is on the importance of work as testifying to the genuineness of faith. So James says things like:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works (James 2:14-18)
James even goes a step further by challenging the notion that mere doctrine is sufficient to testify to the genuineness of your faith. He states:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder! (v. 19)
For James it is not enough to believe the right doctrines, you must live in light of those doctrines.
Of course so much of James’ epistle is built right off of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus delineates the importance of caring for the poor (Luke 6:20-24), avoiding sinful anger (Matt 5:22), being a doer of the word and not a hearer only (Matt. 7:24-27), and not judging others (Matt. 7:1-2). These are themes picked up by James (sometimes in nearly identical wording), but they are also themes found among Paul.
One pointed example finds parallels among Paul, James, and Jesus and therefore ought to garner our attention. The language of being “doers of the word” is a key marker of genuine faith according to all three men. So, Jesus teaches us that “Everyone then who hears these words of [His] and does them will be like a wiseman who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24). It is not just enough to hear the Words of Jesus, you must act on them, live in light of them if you wish to be wise. A true follower of Christ will actively respond to hearing the words of Jesus. James echoes this exact concept but focuses on the negative:
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:23-24)
The man who doesn’t act upon the Word of God is not the wiseman, he is a fool who quickly forgets what is true.
The Apostle Paul adds his own thoughts to this same concept. Paul is perhaps more pointed in his expression of this concept than either Christ or James. He states:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom. 2:13)
The man who blatantly attacked salvation by works of the law, declares that doers of the law will be justified! Scripture repeatedly puts a major emphasis on how we live!
This is not a challenge to our beloved doctrine of justification by faith. We are saved only by grace alone, through faith alone, and this is not of our own doing, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). But the truly saved person, the true follower of Jesus will live differently! Our spiritual health is often evaluated by the fruit of the Spirit present in our lives, at least that’s how the Bible evaluates us.
Why does this matter? It matters because far too many Christians have convinced themselves that they are spiritually healthy simply because they profess the right doctrines and affirm the right truths. In practice, however, their lives do not reflect the priorities, practices, and attitudes of Christ. They say that they believe the gospel but they hate their brother, which the Apostle John says makes them a liar (1 John 4:20). We need to be more holistic in our evaluation of spiritual vitality. We need to consider not merely profession but personal behavior and lifestyle.
So, consider your life, friends? Do you have confidence that your lifestyle reflects the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5) and that you are living “in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). If you find that you are not it is not a reason to despair, but rather to call out to God for help and reorient your heart and life towards obedience to Jesus. Spiritually healthy people don’t just believe the right things, they live the right way too.