The Importance of Practical Religion

‘The Gospel is at stake! You must not budge an inch! Peter, brothers, Barnabas, you’ve got to change your practice!’

Is that how it happened in Antioch, with Paul’s face-to-face rebuke of Peter, where he refused the spare the blushes? The truth of the Gospel was endangered by behavior that was disconnected from principle (Galatians 2.11 & 14):

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned …But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of Gospel, I said to Cephas: ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile, and not like a Jew, how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews.”

In my initial naivety, I thought that there was only one simple single principle being taught: that we should lovingly, prayerfully, firmly, yet bravely, highlight hypocrisy publicly, if the Gospel is in jeopardy – of course we should do that, no matter who it embarrasses, for the love of Christ, with the hope of restoring brothers – but to bow to peer pressure, and create confusion about the Gospel, puts souls at eternal risk, so we cannot pass the buck!

However, on reflection, principial disconnection from practice is a much more subtle species of sin, and has far wider application, than first appears. I think we can draw a number of valuable principles from this text and surrounding verses.

  1. Wrong practice compromises right principle while right practice supports it.
  2. Wrong practice may obscure right principles that we actually believe.
  3. Practice should never be disconnected from principle.
  4. Principle should never be disconnected from practice.
  5. Principle and practice should always be organically connected, derived from the Word of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, as a means of grace, by which God does His will through human instruments.
  6. Right practice is a proper, accurate, contextualized application of right principle (perhaps our beloved departed friend, Professor John Murray, hit the nail on the head with his book ‘Principles of Conduct’: no doubt any thought that Christian conduct could be disconnected from principle would have seemed outrageous to him).
  7. There is no biblical basis for pragmatism (practice which is not soundly grounded in principles of faith, which are in fact principles of faith and conduct).
  8. All Christian conduct should be principled conduct (though sometimes in a fallen world we have to make a principled allowance for human frailty).

If I have extrapolated the principle 1 (which I drew from the text) to the point of eschewing full-blown pragmatism in principle 7, this may seem a stretch for some (perhaps I have overlooked some pragmatic expedients, but most seem to me to be grounded on some overarching principle such as love or patience or forbearance).

All I want to do, however, in the remainder of this article, is to tease out a little the implication of Principle 1 – wrong practice compromises right principle while right practice upholds and enhances it.

It does seem clear that Peter did not really believe it was right to withdraw from the Gentiles: Peter was content to munch Pork Kebab & Chips before the ‘tight crew’ came from James! Indeed, there were even a couple of mealtimes he forgot to wash his hands and had a cheeky grin on his face! How could he ever forget that lunchtime vision from heaven on Simon’s roof in Joppa, in Acts 10.9-16? Preaching to Cornelius and His household gentile staff was a watershed experience from which Peter could never go back, in Acts 10.44-48? Later he stood up for grace successfully, and faced down the grumpy circumcision group, in Acts 11.1-18! So when, bit by bit, Peter withdrew from Gentile tables in Antioch, and began to spend more time eating with Jews only, it was an act of pure pragmatic polity on his part, and hypocrisy to boot.

Paul actually calls it out for exactly what it was – Peter play-acted and pretended as a scared nod to his peer group! The fisherman apostle was not abandoning God’s monergistic, grace-only, Gospel! Yet, this fourth denial of Christ, gave the impression to others, he was making some wriggle room for a synergistic salvation of grace plus works! The Gospel was at stake so Paul had to nail truth down!

Don’t you think that is a fascinating fact! Peter did not in any way attempt to change his principles! If you had asked him to articulate his theological position, no doubt he would have said something like this: “We are only saved by grace through faith in Christ alone without any addition of Jewishness or works”. The only change in Peter was a small practical shift – all it might have been was a different seating arrangement, in a separate Jewish annex, with a slightly different menu, or attending the second sitting – only a small change in practice (that’s all and nothing more), but in this cowardly bluff the net effect was this;

He practically denied the principle he held and taught as the Gospel of free grace…

…So there is, I think, I wider lesson to be gleaned from this text:

If you act inconsistently with what you believe, your practice negates, discredits, and corrupts the principle you espouse.

There are some well-known examples of not practicing what we preach:

  • if you don’t walk the walk well then do not be surprised if people do not listen to the talk you talk!
  • if you care more for friends than your spouses it practically denies one flesh unions we espouse!
  • if you practically treat the Sabbath like any other day of the week, then you have negated what you say about the Lord’s Day being holy and set apart for worship!
  • an unholy life undermines the claim that the Gospel is God’s power to save people from their sins!
  • if you share in an ecumenical service, whatever your motive, then people may believe there is another valid version of Christianity which teaches grace, plus works, plus church!
  • if the church program is packed with social events or attractive new methods of outreach, it won’t be too long before the community believes you have lost confidence in the Gospel (you probably have) – they will come to think that you have come to believe that the preaching of the Gospel is no longer God’s method of choice for calling sinners to repent (even though that’s what you still hold in principle): a good question to ask is ‘From you church program what do (a) the members believe are the priorities in the church and (b) what do those in the community believe that the message and purpose of the church actually is?
  • a godly life, that is full of spiritual fruit, which reflects the likeness of Christ, and attends the means of grace, is a glowing commendation, and confirmation, that the Gospel of free grace, is powerful in renewing and transforming the whole man.

I’m sure there are many other ways we could apply this truth – no doubt there are subtleties that need considered: of course we must take care in how we apply these principles. What we should be able to agree on, however, is the need for scrutiny, to ask ourselves honesty, if, even in small ways, our practice denies our principles. Small subtle shifts can be really significant ones! As Calvin notes:

“This shows us how cautiously we ought to guard against giving way to the opinions of men, lest an immoderate desire to please, or an undue dread of giving offense, should turn us aside from the right path.”

Let us pray for much grace and wisdom, courage and boldness, to base and back, as closely as possible, all our behavior with our beliefs …if we look to Christ, who did exactly always that, and fixed his face towards His Cross, we will certainly have no lack, or be tempted to play act.

 

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