Does It Really Matter What You Believe?

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Does It Really Matter What You Believe?

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Have you ever heard someone say that, as long as you believe in Jesus, everything else doesn't really matter?

According to the Bible, those who know God should hold to beliefs based on His laws and not compromise. "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:3-4 1 John 2:3-4 [3] And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. [4] He that said, I know him, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
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Why is what we believe important? Our beliefs are of consequence because they determine in great measure the decisions we make. Our decisions, in turn, decide the way of life we lead.

If our decisions are based on God's laws, then we can resist the pressures to conform to the standards and values the world imposes on us. We can live in the world, yet not take part in its sins. We can avoid the breaking of God's laws that so often takes place in society.

God's commandments should determine what we believe, and they should certainly make a difference in the decisions we make. As Christ taught, "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4 Matthew 4:4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
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Consider, for example, the Sixth Commandment, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13 Exodus 20:13You shall not kill.
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). This command appears straightforward, yet most of traditional Christianity has come to interpret this commandment as allowing Christians to fight "just wars."

How just-war concept gained acceptance

The idea that a war could be just was not widespread among Christians in the first three centuries. However, after Emperor Constantine converted to Roman Catholicism in 325, religious and civil governments were firmly linked. The secular and the religious had an empire to defend, so religious leaders concluded that a Christian could take up arms and fight for the emperor and the Church.

The Christian world came to accept the notion that Christians could sinlessly wage war. British historian Paul Johnson describes how this idea entered the Roman Catholic Church and later the Protestant churches. He is, by his own admission, a practicing Roman Catholic and one who recognizes the shortcomings in the church's past.

Johnson traces the doctrine of just wars and justified Christian violence against others back to Augustine, the bishop and 4th-century theologian: "Of course the times were horrific. The late [Roman] empire was a totalitarian state. State torture . . . was in fact employed whenever the State willed . . .

"Augustine was the conduit from the ancient world . . . If the State used such methods for its own miserable purposes, was not the Church entitled to do the same and more for its own far greater ones? He not only accepted, he became the theorist of, persecution; and his defenses were later to be those on which all defenses of the Inquisition rested.

"For the first time, too, he used the analogy with the State, indeed appealed to the orthodoxy of the State, in necessary and perpetual alliance with the Church in the extirpation of dissidents . . . Here, first articulated, is the appeal of the persecuting Church to all the authoritarian elements in society, indeed in human nature . . .

Differences in West and East

"This stress on violence was particularly marked in the West. Eastern Christians tended to follow the teachings of St. Basil, who regarded war as shameful. This was in the original Christian tradition: violence was abhorrent to the early Christians, who preferred death to resistance; and [the apostle] Paul, attempting to interpret Christ, did not even try to construct a case for the legitimate use of force. Again, it was St. Augustine who gave western Christianity the fatal twist in this direction. As always, in his deep pessimism, he was concerned to take society as he found it and attempt to reconcile its vices with Christian endeavor. Men fought; and always fought; therefore war had a place in the Christian pattern of behavior, to be determined by the moral theologians.

"In Augustine's view, war might always be waged, provided it was done by the command of God. This formulation was doubly dangerous. Not only did it allow the existence of the 'just' war which became commonplace of Christian moral theology; but it discredited the pacifist, whose refusal to fight a war defined as 'just' by the ecclesiastical authorities became a defiance of divine commands. Thus the modern imprisonment of the conscientious objector is deeply rooted in standard Christian dogma. So is the anomaly of two Christian states each fighting a 'just' war against each other.

"What made the Augustinian teaching even more corrupting was the association in his mind between 'war by divine command' and the related effort to convert the heathen and destroy the heretic . . . Not only could violence be justified: it was particularly meritorious when directed against those who held other religious beliefs (or none). The Dark Age church merely developed Augustine's teaching. Leo IV said that anyone dying in battle for the defense of the Church would receive a heavenly reward; John VIII thought that such a person would even rank as a martyr" (Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 116-117, 241-242).

Christ said love your enemy

Is this how Jesus Christ viewed the Sixth Commandment's prohibition of murder? Certainly not! He clearly explained in Matthew 5:43-45 Matthew 5:43-45 [43] You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. [44] But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you; [45] That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
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: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies [not kill them, even in self-defense], bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you . . ."

Throughout the centuries, courageous Christians remained true to this command of Christ, in spite of persecution and the threat of death. Meanwhile, those involved in wars—always described as "just" by leaders on both sides—often became the pawns of the particular government to which they were subordinate and on whose behalf they were forced to fight. In this century the world has witnessed the tragic spectacle of two world wars, each taking millions of lives, fought principally among nations claiming to be Christian.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia sums up the teaching of Jesus Christ: ". . . The religion of Jesus is essentially a call for peace rather than war. The New Testament traces war to the selfishness and greed that dominate people (James 4:1 James 4:1From where come wars and fights among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?
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). The early Christians were taught that the true warfare takes place within the individual; the base passions of the flesh war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11 1 Peter 2:11Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul;
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). The armor of the Christian is the armor of God, intended to enable one to stand against the forces of wickedness in this present darkness (Ephesians 6:10-17 Ephesians 6:10-17 [10] Finally, my brothers, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. [11] Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. [12] For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. [13] Why take to you the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. [14] Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; [15] And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; [16] Above all, taking the shield of faith, with which you shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. [17] And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:
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)" (Vol. 4, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1988, p. 1018).

Decision time in prewar Germany

What would have happened if we had lived in the Germany of the 1930s and our system of beliefs included the acceptability of just wars? Johnson relates a candid account of practices among the Christian-professing groups of that time, those whose systems of belief produced revealing results:

"Despite the attempts of both Protestant and Catholic clergy to delude themselves, Hitler was not a Christian, and most of the members of his movement were avowedly anti—Christian. Of course Hitler was sometimes deceptive. He never officially left the [Catholic] Church . . . Neither the Evangelical [Lutheran] nor the Catholic Church ever condemned the Nazi regime . . . At no point were Catholics given, either by their own hierarchy or by Rome, the relaxation from their moral obligation to obey the legitimate authority of the Nazi rulers . . . nor did the bishops ever tell them officially that the regime was evil, or even mistaken . . .

"Of 17,000 Evangelical [Lutheran] pastors, there were never more than fifty serving long [prison] terms at any one time. Of the Catholics, one bishop was expelled from his diocese, and another got a short term for currency offences. There was no more resistance, despite the fact that, by summer 1939, all religious schools had been abolished . . .

"Both the state churches urged Germans to obey the Führer and fight for victory . . . Pius XII advised all Catholics everywhere to 'fight with valor and charity' on whichever side they happened to find themselves . . ." (Johnson, A History of Christianity, pp. 485-490).

The only churches that did not participate in backing Hitler's regime and his war were those that kept the Sixth Commandment as expressed by Jesus Christ: Warfare is abhorrent to Christians, and they must be willing to accept persecution for standing firm in their beliefs.

Johnson describes the fate of those who steadfastly refused to participate in war: "Only free sects stuck to their principles enough to merit outright persecution. The bravest were the Jehovah's Witnesses, who [in Germany] proclaimed their outright doctrinal opposition from the beginning and suffered accordingly. They refused any cooperation with the Nazi state which they denounced as totally evil. The Nazis believed they were part of the international Jewish—Marxist conspiracy. Many were sentenced to death for refusing military service and inciting others to do likewise; or they ended up in Dachau or lunatic asylums. A third were actually killed; ninety-seven per cent suffered persecution ..." (ibid., p. 489).

A few brave clergy, Catholic and Lutheran, did oppose the Nazi regime. They paid a high price, suffering imprisonment and, for some, execution for their resistance.

Humans fight the Prince of Peace

How important are our beliefs? History demonstrates that our beliefs determine our actions. The supreme irony of the doctrine of just wars will reveal itself when, as prophecy shows in Revelation 17, the nations of the earth will be deceived-so deceived that they will send out great armies in a final war they will call just.

But against whom will they fight? Verse 14 says they will fight against the returning Jesus Christ! In preparation they will be gathered together at Armageddon (Revelation 16:16 Revelation 16:16And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.
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As The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible explains: "The teaching of Jesus is strongly directed toward peace and peacemaking. The kingdom of God needs no force to establish or maintain it. The peacemaker is blessed (Matthew 5:9 Matthew 5:9Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
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), and the enemy is to be met with love and good deeds instead of hate and violence (Matthew 5:43-44 Matthew 5:43-44 [43] You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. [44] But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you;
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; Luke 6:27 Luke 6:27But I say to you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,
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, 35). The ethic of Jesus is the antithesis of the warlike mood, and, if universally accepted, would create an ethos [prevailing guiding beliefs] in which war was impossible" (Vol. 4, Abingdon Press, 1962, p. 801).

Such is the sobering story of convictions—or a lack of them—and their results. God's commandments—including "You shall not murder"—stand in stark contrast against the deception of society's distorted values.

Along with the frightful events that will engulf the world just before Jesus' return, the Bible describes a group of people who stand out because of their commitment to obey God: "Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus" (Revelation 14:12 Revelation 14:12Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.
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God's people resolve to remain faithful to His commandments and their faith in Jesus Christ regardless of the cost. As we can see, it really does matter what we believe. GN