When evaluating data, it is important to understand the relationship between correlation and causality. If two things usually happen at the same time (or one after the other), there may be a strong correlation between the two. However, this does not always mean that one action or event necessarily caused the other.
My favorite example of correlation falsely implying causation is the theory that eating ice cream causes shark attacks, because more shark attacks occur when ice cream sales go up. Of course, sharks don’t eat people because they taste like ice cream, they just find more swimmers in the ocean on hot days when we like to eat ice cream. (See https://www.kdnuggets.com/2019/01/dr-data-ice-cream-linked-shark-attacks.html, and elsewhere.)
When it comes to our salvation, though, there are two events whose correlation and causation are often in question: 1) The reconciliation and justification of a Christian (i.e., their salvation) and, 2) the good things that someone who follows Jesus does.
Sometimes, there is not a strong correlation between someone making themselves known as a Christian, and them exhibiting positive behavior. That’s a different problem – albeit a significant one – from the issue we’re looking at today, though.
Instead, let’s consider those who observe the good behavior of Christians who are genuinely following Jesus Christ. Sometimes, there is an incorrect conclusion drawn: the belief that these people are welcomed into the family of God because of their good works.
In the book of Galatians, Paul addresses those who were being told that they had to keep the law (plus accepting Jesus’ salvation) in order to be considered righteous before God. These people were getting messages from teachers (albeit false teachers) who were promoting the idea that certain practices from the Jewish faith were essential for salvation.
In the following verses, Paul suggests that there is a correlation between how followers of Jesus live and their behavior, but the causality is exactly backwards of what works-based false teachers might say.
“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:19-20 NIV
This passage addresses two incorrect conclusions:
- Just because Christians don’t have to keep the law of Moses (or lists of man-made rules), in order to be pronounced righteous before God, doesn’t mean that we are merely living for ourselves. That is, there should be a correlation between following Jesus and living for God.
- And, the life that Christians live (as opposed to the slavery of sin and its consequences that someone experiences before individually accepting Jesus’ salvation) is based on faith in Jesus, not on someone doing enough good things for God to “like them”.
So, the ideal situation is that following Jesus (and putting our faith in His voluntary sacrifice for our salvation) causes us to live better lives. In fact, Christians may end up doing more good than those who are trying to save themselves (through good works), because we have the help of the Holy Spirit, and the motivation of gratitude [as noted in Lookout, referenced below]. We also have – or should have – freedom from spending time in guilt for sins that have already been paid for (covered by Jesus, not by our own activities).
Said another way, followers of Jesus don’t need to add following the law of Moses to their salvation, in order to be doing good. However, living for God means that we should be doing good, anyway.
In that context, Christian disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, quiet time with God, worship, and time spent with other Christians are a good idea. These are good habits to practice, and they help us follow God’s direction for our lives [ref. Lookout]. However, when we feel like we have to check boxes – even these positive habits – in order to consider ourselves justified before God, we have completely missed the point of God’s gift of salvation through faith in Jesus.
Now, right and wrong (being a reflection of God’s holiness, and not something that He – or we – just made up) haven’t changed, so living for God today (i.e., trying to please Him out of love and gratitude) may include many of the righteous behaviors that the law of Moses identified. A key difference, though, is in the motivation and purpose for those good deeds: do we think that they are the cause of our salvation and justification before God, or are they the natural result of those blessings?
To paraphrase a pastor that I heard years ago: when we are saved through faith in Jesus, we don’t have to do good things in order to remain as part of God’s family; instead, we get to do good things as part of God’s family. If you are doing good things in your life, I hope that your behavior is inspired out of gratitude and love for Jesus (having accepted His salvation), and not out of fear of His condemnation.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for August 8, 2021
- The Lookout, August 8, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Galatians & Ephesians, by Kenneth L. Boles. College Press Publishing Company, © 1993, p.32-60.