Have you ever heard this assessment of Christianity? If you have, you know it isn’t usually said in a positive manner. Most often if comes from someone who has walked away from their early exposure to Christianity – an exposure that left them seeing Christianity of just a bunch of rules and something to inhibit their freedom from pursuing what they want.
While I understand how someone might come to this assessment of Christianity, the foundation and the heart of Christianity are very different. I have been reminded of that heart and foundation as I have studied and taught the epistle of Romans for the last 7 months. Along with that study has become a particular insight that speaks to this improper perspective of Christianity as a bunch of dos and don’ts.
Before telling you that insight, let me remind you of some of the impact God has authored through Romans over the last 500 years. Martin Luther, considered the Father of Protestantism, was converted through his teaching of Romans while a professor at the University of Wittenburg. Several hundred years later, George Whitfield, one the key figures in the Great Awakening of the 1740s whose influence is still felt today in American Evangelicalism, was converted in England at a Moravian Meeting as Luther’s while listening to the reading of Luther’s Commentary on Romans. Luther said of Romans in the Introduction to his Commentary on the book:
“This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart,but occupy himself with it everyday, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”
Here is the insight. The author, Paul, spends five and a half chapters explaining this Gospel. In those five and half chapters there is not one imperative to obey. Not one! Rather, those five and a half chapters are full of indicatives to believe.
When Paul wanted to explain the gospel, he made sure his audience saw it first as truths to believe before he ever spoke of commands to obey. Christianity is not a bunch of dos and don’ts. The foundation, the heart of Christianity is first and foremost truths to believe, truths that center on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In saying that, I don’t want to imply that Christianity isn’t concerned with how we behave. It is, but from a different perspective that we often think. To examine that perspective, let’s look at the first imperative or command to obey comes in Romans 6:11 – “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The first thing we are to do with the gospel is to think differently about ourselves. We are to think about ourselves in light of what God does in us through the gospel. Eugene Peterson captures this idea in The Message – “From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That’s what Jesus did.” In other words, believe what God did, think of yourself in this way and now live out who God has made you in Christ Jesus.
Three more imperatives follow in v12,13 which reiterate this idea – “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” In the light of what God has done for you and in you through Christ, now live differently, with different desires and goals.
After these commands, to reemphasize these ideas of believing before behaving, Paul goes five more chapters until we get another imperative in Romans 12:1,2 – “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Notice the similarity between these Chapter 6 and 12 – “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life and your members as instruments for righteousness” and “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” These two ideas are built on the incredible truths God brings about for us through the Gospel, what Paul covers throughout Romans 1-11.
Again I say, Christianity is not first of all about a bunch of dos and don’ts. It is about giving us life and changing the very nature of who we are. From that changed nature, we can behave differently as we act upon these truths we believe. We can live lives pleasing to God as we see ourselves differently through the lens of the Gospel.
These lives are not restricted, joyless lives of a bunch of dos and don’ts. They are lives marked more by freedom and joy. Let me illustrate. When James Naismith invented basketball, he gave the game some rules. These rules were given not to inhibit joy but to release it. Trying playing basketball for 5 minutes without rules and you see what I mean. No rules – chaos. Playing with rules – order and joy. Rules may restrict some freedom but empower greater freedom within the game itself, releasing greater joy.
The same is true of God and life. The Gospel sets us free to be alive to God, to empower us to live according to what pleases him, which releases greater joy as we are live more and more this way built upon us grasping more and more of the change he has authored in us through the Gospel. This is what the Gospel does for us – sets us free, empowers us, and brings great joy.
The next time someone says to you something like “Christianity is just a bunch of dos and don’t,” I hope you would graciously and gently correct them. Maybe you could say, “This may be what you think Christianity is, but Christianity at the heart is not rules to obey but truth to believe. Christianity is not about rules but about a relationship that empowers us, that sets us free, to live as we were meant to live, to give us great joy. I would love to talk more about it with you if you are willing.”
If you find the one saying that Christianity is just a bunch of dos and don’ts to be yourself, would you speak these truths to yourself and dig further into the book of Romans. God wants us to discover the truths to believe to give us this life, freedom, and joy.
Romans is a central book for Christians for understanding the Gospel, the heart of Christianity.