I made this statement rather emphatically in the Important Part section of my Case For A Creator: true Christianity is belief, not behavior. The belief will (naturally and obviously) influence and change your behavior as God works to conform you to the image of His Son, but belief is where it all starts. That’s the foundation. You don’t decide to “live better,” you surrender to God, believing that Jesus has paid the price for your failures, and then trust God to change you into what He wants you to be.
There are a couple of great examples that I want you to consider.
One of the recurring themes in the Bible is how the Children of Israel, having been rescued from Pharaoh (rather miraculously, too), then whined and complained and rebelled and whined and fussed and groused and whined the whole time they were in the desert. Then they refused to enter the Promised Land. “Too much work, too dangerous,” they whined. “The people there are giants and they’ll smish us. Oh, why’d we ever leave Egypt?”
Yes, I’m paraphrasing rather freely, but that’s the gist of it.
Hebrews 3:16-18 (NASB) — For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient?
That seems pretty clear, right? They were disobedient. They sinned. They provoked God … but wait a minute! The passage ends with this intriguing verse:
Hebrews 3:19 (NASB) — So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief (emphasis mine).
True belief will change your behavior, but changed behavior will never, ever result in a true belief. (Re-read that sentence a few times.) You need a second example? I’ll share one that kindof stunned me the first time I ever read it. I won’t quote the entire passage; once again, I’ll do a rough paraphrase.
2 Kings Chapter 23 is the story of King Josiah’s reforms in Israel. Prior to Josiah’s reign, a couple of really evil kings had ruled: Manasseh and Amon. Manasseh turned the entire nation of Judah over to idolatry, including child sacrifice. He was a cheerleader for evil: as it says in 2 Kings 21:9, “Manasseh seduced them to do evil more than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the sons of Israel.” (NASB) Amon, who followed him, was just as bad.
When Josiah took over, a 180-degree, polar-opposite change took place. He embarked on a moral crusade like none ever seen before. The account in 2 Kings Chapter 23 says that (a), he first rededicated himself to the Law and forced the people to do the same. Then, (b) he cleared the idols from the temple, and ran amok tearing down all of the “high places” (i.e., places of idol worship) scattered throughout the land. He killed the false prophets and people who’d led Judah astray — and more. (Read the account.)
Finally, (c), he celebrated Passover, the forerunner of our modern Communion. A perfect end to the most moral crusade in Scripture, right? But the account ends with this (2 Kings 23:26, NASB): However, the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of His great wrath with which His anger burned against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked Him.
Belief, folks. Not behavior. If you read between the lines of that account in the Bible, it’s obvious that the people were trying to change behavior, and not belief. Jesus quoted this passage from Isaiah to describe Judah in his day (Isaiah 29:13-14, NASB):
Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me,
and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men will perish, and the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.
In other words, they were simply repeating the same mistake they’d made all along. God gave them a Law that they couldn’t possibly keep, and instead of crying out for mercy, they said, “no problem, God! Got it! We can do this …”
Their hearts were far from Him. But we have this promise, and we should all take it to heart (2 Chronicles 7:14, NASB):
[if] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Note: God doesn’t require that everyone do this, just “His people.” Revival always begins with the guy or the gal in the mirror, and it will always represent true repentance. The Greek New Testament word translated “repentance” (metanoeo) is perfect: at the end of the day, it simply means, “I change my mind.”
A moral crusade without a change of hearts won’t do a lick of good. But a change of hearts toward God will lead to repentance.