Is Your Faith Just About Checking Boxes?

Faith is more than rule-keeping or sin-management. Faith is an abiding relationship with the one who created and redeemed us. Contributing Writer
Updated Apr 30, 2024
Is Your Faith Just About Checking Boxes?

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” -2 Corinthians 3:18

The first time I fasted, I fasted for 72 hours. It was the season of Lent, and I was in seminary. I diligently refrained from all food for 3 days, drinking only water and fruit juice. I knew that my fast would conclude with an evening meal, so I arranged to meet a friend for dinner once the fast was complete.

After three days, my friend and I met at Pizza Hut, where I ordered a large meat lover's pizza with extra cheese and a side of garlic bread. I ate the entire thing. It was only afterward that I realized I had ended my fast with a period of gluttony. 

See, somewhere along the way, my diligence in fasting became more about following the rules of fasting than about any sort of inward transformation. Yes, I fasted perfectly. I can tick off that box of spiritual accomplishments, but my fast became focused on “not eating food” rather than on feasting on the Lord. I arrived at the end of the fast completely unchanged. Between days one and three, I lost the whole point. 

It can be easy to make our life with God about the amassing of spiritual accomplishments. The life of faith can be misconstrued as simply a list of religious regulations or rules to which we must ascribe. We are faithful when we do what we should do and do not do what we shouldn’t. Yet this is simply a thinly veiled ethic of work-based righteousness. We are not saved by what we do, no matter how good or holy our actions may be. 

Faith is more than rule-keeping or sin-management. Faith is an abiding relationship with the one who created us and redeemed us. Unless we abide with the Lord in a transformed relationship, we fail to live within the covenant that God establishes. 

Here are three things to consider about the life of faith.

Faith is more internal than external.

Starting in the Old Testament, God continually calls God’s people into a standard of relationship. This relationship is called a covenant, and it is established with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and Jeremiah. Yet, as good as the covenant was, Israel continually misconstrued it into a mere list of do’s and don’ts. The covenant, inscribed on stone tablets, became a mere end in itself. 

For this reason, although Israel would abide by the letter of the law, they would continually fail to live out the relational heart of the covenant. Take, for example, the law concerning the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8). In obeying the sabbath restriction, diligently stepping away from all work, Israel made other people work for them. They exploited their workers and the aliens in the land under the rhetoric of spiritual obligation. Thus, the prophet Isaiah challenges the people: “On the day of fasting (sabbath), you do as you please, and exploit your workers” (Isaiah 58:3). The good and perfect law, established by God, became twisted into a system of rule-keeping.

While we can live great, moral, and upright lives by obeying the rules, we miss out on the full dynamic of a life with God. This is because God desires a heartfelt relationship more than just a system of obligation. “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God announces (Jeremiah 31:33). So deep and intertwined is God in our lives that it’s like God etches God’s voice upon our hearts, and our lives become lived in tandem with God. 

This is why Jesus continually pointed to the inner life, over and above the simple external commandments. Instead of the commandment calling people to “not murder,” Jesus said, “Whoever is angry at a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). Jesus took the external commandments and reinterpreted them to speak to the matter of our heartfelt relationship with God.  Before we consider what we might “do” for God, we must ask ourselves whether we are in the right relationship with God.

Faith is rooted in grace.

Our relationship with God is rooted in grace. Without grace, our faith becomes transactional insofar as we receive blessings and goodness because of what we do. If we do more, we receive more, we believe. Many people believe this. Yet scripture continually rejects this notion. Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace reminds us that our relationship with God exists because of God’s activity rather than any work of our own. We never earn our place with God. 

God’s grace is fully revealed in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. When Jesus announced on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he was speaking about the fulfillment of all the Law’s commandments and obligations. Jesus accomplishes all that needs to be accomplished for salvation, thereby releasing us from the law’s demands. His resurrection assures us that Jesus has done for us what we could never do ourselves. The author of Hebrews describes that when Jesus “had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). This “sitting down” signifies that nothing more needs to be accomplished. All is complete.

Grace brings the accomplishments of Jesus into our lives as a gift. Instead of working towards our salvation, faith calls us to accept the work done for us on the cross. Without an acceptance of grace, the Christian faith is impossible, for it fundamentally rejects the cruciform work of Christ.

Faith leads to a transformed life

Faith is more internal than external; it exists in the heart and soul rather than in the blind execution of action. Faith involves the grasping of grace, an acknowledgment that “he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us.” (Romans 8:3-4). Faith unites us with Jesus’ work. 

But does this mean that what we do or how we live matters not? Do grace and forgiveness mean that I can just do what I want when I want and however I want? Absolutely not!

Scripture holds a delicate balance between faith and works. Faith is not contrary to work or effort. Christian faith, rooted in grace, testifies that we don’t earn our salvation. We can never climb the heights of spiritual exaltedness by any work of the flesh. Yet, we are called to live out our faith in action. James writes, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Our actions testify to the God we worship and follow. Without faithful deeds, evidenced in our lives, our faith is naturally drawn into question.

This is why the biggest witness to the truth of the gospel is a transformed life. Jesus called us to a radically new way of life, one that directly contradicts the ways of the world. We “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]” (Matthew 5:44). Instead of acting in retribution or retaliation, we bless those who act against us. We turn the other cheek and seek forgiveness over revenge. 

The early witness of the gospel was the transformed lives of the disciples. “See how they love each other,” was the observation. This is the life that we, as followers of Christ, are called to live. Jesus calls us to transform our lives in today’s world. It is in our transformed lives that we bear the image of Christ.

So where is Jesus asking your life to be transformed? How might you live out your inward relationship with Jesus? How can your transformation, by grace, be evidenced in your life as the natural response to the love of Christ?   After all, this is the way of faith.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Ralf Geithe

SWN authorThe Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at,, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.

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