Is it more important to preach about right living or right believing? The Old Testament answer was right living, but the New Testament answer is clearly right believing – and right believing actually creates right living: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). When we are focused on right living we are focused on our own efforts to “do” righteous. When we are focused on right believing, we place our trust in the finished work of Jesus that He has “made” us righteous.
Abraham, an Old Covenant person, is held up to us as the example of how to live in the New Covenant. “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (Romans 4:13-15).
Unfortunately, many in the New Covenant start in faith but go back to an Old Covenant mindset of focusing more on performance than on beliefs. “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? . . . Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-3). We are living in the flesh (placing our trust in the flesh) if we are focused more on what we are doing than what we are believing.
Do you know what the opposite of faith is? It is not fear, it is works. There are two ways to approach God – faith and works. One “works” while the other does not. Those who would preach and emphasize holiness and good conduct apart from a heavy diet of emphasizing that we are righteous by faith will actually increase sin in the people they are trying to influence positively. “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
Focusing on the finished work of Jesus in that He already made us righteous will cause us to access that grace to live righteously. When we teach the God side first (what He has already done), it makes the man side easy. When we preach and teach right believing, there is an enabling grace of God (the ability of God) released to do what we could not do on our own.
“You have become dull of hearing . . you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:11-13). One of the greatest skills we can have is to be skilled in the word of righteousness. This means we are relentless in our belief and confession that we are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:21) even when we sin (miss the mark of God’s highest for us).
Again, if our preaching and teaching is mainly emphasizing right living, we are part of the problem. If we believe the moral decline in our country will not be stopped unless we as the church go back to strongly preaching against behavioral sin, then we are a main part of causing behavioral sin. We may seemingly get positive results in the short-term, but preaching the law will ultimately only increase sin. What we focus on we will have more of. If we focus on sin we will see more sin, we will empower sin.
If, however, our preaching and teaching emphasizes right believing in Jesus, who he is, what He has done for us, we become a source of victory to those we minister to. Our words will cause people to walk in victory over sin. They’ll receive grace (God’s ability) to overcome areas that have held them captive for years! We become part of God’s solution!
Before I go on, I want to clarify this: I hate sin and wrong living. I have seen the horrible effects of sinful choices on individuals, families, and nations. It grieves me to witness the devastation and pain caused by wrong living. I agree with those who proclaim God will heal our land if we as God’s people humble ourselves, pray, and turn from their wicked ways (2 Chronicles 7:14), but we cannot turn from our wicked ways apart from radically believing we are righteous. There is no other way to do this.
Here is how we know we are staying in faith and are skilled in the word of righteousness. If we immediately think and proclaim we are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus in the following situations, then I believe we are skilled in the word of righteousness:
When we sin (miss the mark)
When we see moral decline around us
When we are tempted to move into regret and “if only” thinking
When you are battling sickness
When you are tempted to do wrong
So what should we be preaching: right living or right believing? The answer is clear. Only when we have a solid foundation of emphasizing right believing can we effectively release the supernatural grace of God to enable people to live right. Then accountability, wisdom, and confrontation become tools of encouragement instead of weapons of condemnation. We become God’s ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:21).
This is a radical message, so let me share what I am not saying as I trumpet this vital message at this hour:
I am not saying if you are abusing others, bringing hurt to others, or living recklessly yourself that you should not get help from skilled people to protect you and others from pain caused by your choices.
I am not saying there is never a time for strong preaching to shake people out of compromise and complacency.
The most important place to use our faith for is concerning our righteousness. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (not our righteousness) “and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). I dream about a day when we will have repentance meetings where the reason people are crying at the altar is not believing they are righteous or loved, and they are more concerned about this revelation than what they are doing. That day is coming and will come brighter and brighter. I believe it will change everything.
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Steve Backlund was a senior pastor for seventeen years before joining the team at Bethel Church in Redding, CA in 2008. Steve is a leader developer, joy activist, a revivalist teacher, and as Senior Associate Director, is a key part of the Global Legacy (a ministry of Bethel Church) leadership team. He travels extensively throughout the world encouraging churches and leaders and has authored a number of books.