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The Four Legs of the Christian Table

Buddhism seems to have a fondness for numerical lists. One could cite, for example, the Eight-fold Path or the Four Noble Truths or the Five Precepts. Judaism, likewise, has its Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13), and the practice of Islam can be condensed into five core requirements.

Numbers, however, are not often associated with Christian lists. How many beatitudes are there (Matthew 5:1-11)? How many qualities comprise the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)? How many Christian graces did Peter name (2 Peter 1:5-7)? I dare say few Christians could tell you the exact number of these relatively well-known items without counting them out on their fingers.

Although the New Testament nowhere gives such a list, I personally think there are “four legs supporting the Christian table,” four pillars that structure and support the genuine Christian life. They are good behavior, good deeds, spiritual growth, and personal ministry.

Good Behavior

God expects Christians to behave. Galatians 5:24, for example, says “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Consequently, real Christians are those who demonstrate self-control. They are faithful to their spouses, work hard to support their families, obey the law, and, in general, demonstrate high standards of honesty and integrity.

Nevertheless, Christians recognize in all lucidity (and, preferably, in all humility) that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. Why? In part because deep down we don’t always want to behave well, and at times we don’t. Simply put, our “crucified flesh” still leads us to commit sins of omission and commission in spite of our better angels—and we know it.

Good Deeds

Being good and doing good are not really the same. Being good is private and doing good is public. Christians visit the sick in the hospital; they fix food for the sick who are home-bound. They give money to charities and they volunteer on behalf of charitable organizations. They try to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated, sometimes at personal sacrifice. It is no accident that the phrase “Good Samaritan” refers to a New Testament story (Luke 10:25-37).

Nevertheless, good works (or good karma) do not earn salvation. Good deeds, from a Christian view, constitute a grateful response to salvation, not a means of meriting or deserving salvation. To the extent God judges Christians by their good behavior or good deeds (Romans 2:6-8; 1 Peter 1:17), he is evaluating their gratitude, not their perfection.

Spiritual Growth

The chief purpose of Christianity is not, as some would have it, to make this world a better place. The primary aim of genuine Christianity to get to heaven and take others along. It is easy to overlook this fundamental fact and to make Jesus more of a do-gooder than a savior or sin-bearer.

This world is not our home; we’re just a-passing through. We try to do as much good as we can on the journey, but it is our eternal soul, not our temporal body that needs the most care and feeding (Matthew 11:28-29; Luke 12:20-21; Mark 8:36-37). As T. S. Eliot once wrote, “The last temptation is the greatest treason—to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Personal Ministry

Christians who have won the Nobel Peace Prize include Albert Schweitzer (1952), Mother Teresa (1979), and Jimmy Carter (2002). They were recognized for their outstanding personal ministries. But a point often overlooked is that every Christian should find a ministry that transcends everyday good deeds.

The word “ministry” implies an intentional and persistent effort to accomplish something worthwhile to honor the name of Christ. It could be founding a hospital in Gabon, tending to the dying in Calcutta, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, or offering legal services to the poor. It could also be, depending on one’s gifts and circumstances, extremely simple, modest, and inconspicuous. It could even be a ministry of scholarship and writing.

Christianity believes that to whom much is given, much is expected (Matthew 25:24-30) and consequently the New Testament portrays the “Way” of Christ as active rather than passive. The word “ministry” is a fancy term for service, and, as Matthew’s gospel quotes Jesus, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

So these are, in my judgment, the four legs of the Christian table. If one leg is missing, the Christian life wobbles and often topples. Be good, be kind, be holy, be fruitful—these are watchwords of the Christian faith.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 28, 2007 10:51 AM.

The previous post in this blog was My Christian Witness.

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