After 50-plus years of preaching, I can recall only two sermons that received a very strong negative response.
I’m not saying, of course, that all of my sermons were appreciated and affirmed by everyone in the congregation. But these two received actual pushback—including signed letters expressing strong disagreement.
One sermon was on biblical stewardship. These sorts of messages, especially about tithing, often make a few people uncomfortable. But in this instance it was about taking care of God’s creation—including our forests. As it turned out, it ran into resistance with a logger and a retired forest ranger.
It was the other offending sermon, however, that motivates me to write this blog post.
The sermon title, “Practical Atheists,” was probably enough to create some discomfort. After all, either I am a believer in God or I am an atheist. Correct?
Can faith be merely a façade? Can a person have “virtual” faith? Like having a meeting on Zoom without actually meeting together. Or like enjoying virtual church services while perched on the sofa in our home.
I think not. At least that is what James thought.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (James 2:18–19, esv)
Did you catch the apostle’s pointed warning? To simply say that I believe something—without any corresponding evidence in my actions—is to imitate Satan and his kin. True faith, by its very essence, requires application. Otherwise, it is simply empty words—virtual faith. I can profess that I believe in God, but if my actions don’t support my claim, I am like an atheist in my practice. That’s practical atheism.
If James preached in our church (or yours) what he had written in his letter, I wonder if his sermon might receive pushback. My sermon certainly did. The offended parties recoiled at even the thought of being called a practical atheist. After all, they were lifetime believers and proud of it.
Years ago there was a popular video series that many churches used in their small group ministries. The message in the video lectures was tied together by this one question: “Do I really believe what I say I believe?” In other words, do my actions back up my words or my claim to believe something is true. Or, to put it another way, “Am I a believer?”
I love the musical My Fair Lady and have used some excerpts in marriage retreats. In one scene Eliza Doolittle responds to Freddie, a potential suitor: “Words, words, words… don’t tell me, show me!” That’s what James was saying in his letter.
Jesus also said the same thing in a story about two men in Matthew 7. Each man built himself a house. Nothing in the story distinguishes one house from the other, as far as square footage or architecture. The only distinction between the houses was their foundation. One was constructed on the sand; the other on bedrock.
When a violent storm swept over the horizon, however, the difference between the two dwellings became all too evident. One collapsed into a worthless heap. The other remained as strong as ever.
Most of us are familiar with the parable, but do we remember the point of the story? Jesus never told a story to entertain his listeners. In this story He drove home the point that both men had heard the word of God. One gave mental assent. The other heard the word and applied it to his life, because he truly believed what he had heard. His actions proved it.
Here’s Jesus’ short but sharply pointed story:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:21–27, esv)
I believe the most important words above are in the first paragraph. Please read it again. Jesus is talking about a matter of life or death—heaven or hell. It’s not what I claim to believe, but what I do with that claim that defines real faith.
You and I are in that story. We are either a wise builder—a true believer—or a fool with only virtual faith. Faith that is worthless. When I truly believe something or in someone, it will change my worldview and my daily actions.
So I want to you to ask yourself, “Do I truly believe what I say I believe? Do I believe that God’s Word is truth—truth to apply even if it may be uncomfortable or unpopular?”
To help me answer those questions, I have created a short checklist of practical examples from my life.
If I say that I believe Jesus will physically return to earth, and that it could happen at any moment, do my priorities support that claim?
- Do I pray for the unreached who have never heard the good news of salvation in Christ? Does my bank account reveal that I am investing in the effort to spread the Word? Am I concerned for my neighbors? Sadly, some days my actions and attitude undermine my words.
- If I believe Jesus’ command to not store up wealth in this world but to invest in things eternal, do my choices on how I spend discretionary money reflect my claim? Most of us have discretionary money that God has entrusted us to invest in Kingdom Work. It has been noted that only two things on earth have eternal value: The Word of God and human souls. As for me, I ask myself, “When is enough, enough?” Our recent move into a smaller home has revealed how many things that we had accumulated were not essential. They weren’t necessarily bad things, but in light of eternity and our present world situation they weren’t wise investments.
- If I say that I believe God cares about the poor, the homeless and the immigrant among us (and He clearly makes that point over and over in Scripture), do my actions support my claim to have faith? When I see pictures of children with extended bellies and sunken eyes and emaciated bodies, do I quickly flip the page or turn away from the TV screen? Or do I invest in a trusted ministry to provide nourishment or clean water? At the risk of being too blunt, I contemplate how readers responded to a previous blog post sharing an opportunity to provide safe drinking water for an entire community in western Uganda through the ministry of a local Baptist Church and a faith-based non-profit. How many readers invested in the water project or a similar ministry? How many simply checked “like” on the Facebook page?
The checklist continues. I ask myself if I consistently pray for all our national and local political leaders. Or do I pray for God to bless and use the politicians of my preferred party? Here, I confess, I am too often a practical atheist.
Years ago, after preaching from this text in Matthew about the wise and foolish builder, a man sought me out after the service. He was concerned—even convicted—admitting that he was struggling with the assurance of his salvation. This was significant, because he held an office in the church and was on staff at a local Christian college. Everything he claimed to be and did as a career was on the table.
His transparency surprised—even shocked—me. But most of all, his confession about his doubts impressed me. He had heeded Jesus’ warning: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Like Jesus’ story about two homebuilders, there were two distinct responses to my “Practical Atheists” sermon. One man was uncomfortable with my words and vented. The other was convicted by God’s Word and sought counsel.
He’s a believer!