Word and Action

On the Sola Panel:

How do you react when you notice that you or your church has a dull, dry, inactive faith, even though you are committed to God’s word? Elvis, in his song, A Little Less Conversation, gives us a model for one way that we could try to solve the problem:

A little less conversation, a little more action,
All this aggravation ain’t satisfaction in’ me
A little more bite and a little less bark
A little less fight and a little more spark
Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me

Yes, I know that Elvis wasn’t talking about his relationship with God. But his solution to his own relationship problems is similar, in some ways, to one common reaction we can have to our own spiritual or church problems. Elvis thought about his relationship with his baby as a kind of balancing act between talk and action. Conversation and action were competing with each other for Elvis’ valuable relationship time. The problem, according to Elvis, was that there was just too much talking … and therefore, by definition, not enough action. In fact, the talking itself was bad, because it just led to arguments. So, Elvis’ simple solution: to get more action, he really had to tell his baby to shut up.

I suspect that Elvis’ baby didn’t hang around for long. But when it comes to our own relationship with God, Elvis’ approach might seem to make some sense, mightn’t it? We can look at our dull, dry, inactive spiritual or church life and we can conclude that the problem is that we’re just spending too much time with God’s word. We’re full of head-knowledge, we hear lots of sermons all the time, we study the Bible together, but we don’t actually live for God. We’re not loving each other, we don’t care for the lost, we’re not passionate about worship; instead our Bible-focus is just leading to useless arguments about doctrine. And the solution seems obvious. The Bible has a place, but it’s competing with our valuable God-time. We need less Bible, less doctrine, less knowledge, and more action.

I want to suggest that this solution, attractive as it may sound, in the end is going to be just as useless as Elvis’ approach to his baby. Because it assumes that God’s word is something that competes with our obedience and our fellowship. But that’s not how it works at all. God’s word is the living source and foundation of our active obedience to God and our fellowship. A dull, dry, dead faith actually needs God’s word more, not less.

Take James, for example. James wrote a letter to people who were in great danger of having a dead and useless faith. Their problems included too much empty talking (Jas 1:26), lack of concern for the vulnerable (Jas 1:27), envy and prejudice (Jas 2:1-4), fighting and quarrelling (Jas 4:1), etc. But James never tells his readers off for being too ‘word-focused’. In fact, James does the opposite. He tells them off for not being word-focused enough! Very early on in his letter, he speaks of God’s word as the thing that created us anew and saves us:

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures … Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
(Jas 1:18, 21)

Because the word is the source of our life and our salvation, James urges his readers, not to put the word aside, but to receive it humbly, to listen to it, and to take it so seriously that they actually put it into practice (Jas 1:22-25).

If we have a dead faith, then the problem, according to James, is not that we’re spending too much time with God’s word. The problem is that, in our sinfulness, we’re not taking God’s word, God’s wisdom, seriously enough (Jas 3:14-17). We’re hearing, but we’re not taking it to heart. So the solution is not to put God’s word aside, or make it less central; we need to make it more central in our lives and our hearts and desires. Sometimes we do indeed need to close our mouths. But this isn’t just to give us more time to do stuff. Instead, our closed mouths should lead to listening more to God’s word (Jas 1:19-21), and then seriously going ahead and acting on it (Jas 1:26-27).

You can’t ‘balance’ God’s word against Christian action. God’s word is what creates our action. Our great sin doesn’t consist in spending too much time on God’s word. Our sin is about not taking God’s word seriously enough.

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