If there has been one thing that has stemmed from God’s call on my life into the ministry that has particularly brought me great joy it has been the desire God has given me for theology. I am currently finishing an undergraduate degree from Boyce College through their online learning program and have been soaked into theological studies over the past year. Though I am not pastoring and though I have yet to preach my first sermon, I can safely say that it has been my study of theology that has produced the most spiritual fruit in my life and in the lives of others. I firmly believe that theology is the starting point of all things Christian and it is the measuring stick through which we can judge false teachings, heresies, and also deal with cultural and social issues and dilemmas. A solid harmatological (harmatology is the doctrine of sin) perspective, for example, allows for things like war, famine, divorce, adultery, pain, suffering, and death to be understood and seen more clearly. Theology is the lens through which we can more clearly see and understand the world. If you are like me and have very poor vision, when you are without prescription glasses or contacts, everything looks very blurry. Sure, I can make out a road sign on the side of the interstate; but what exactly the speed limit is is unclear. Only until I put my glasses on does everything suddenly become clear and only then can I avoid getting a ticket or harming myself and others.
Theology is that lens through which we see life. It shapes our worldview. What we think about God truly does matter. Can God be both loving and wrathful? Can God really hate sinners and love sinners (Ps. 5:5; Rom. 5:8)? Are my sins really just mistakes or is it more sinister than that? Does God even really care about me or the way I live my life? What is life really all about anyway? Theology not only gives answers to these questions, but the study of it helps clear up some cloudy things in life. The way you view war, abortion, marriage, divorce, work, being a father or mother, and countless other aspects of life depends upon your theology. And make no mistake, you do have a theology whether you realize it or not. Even the atheist has a theology of God, it is only foolish (Ps. 14:1).
Theology: Practical Necessity
Just last night I saw just how much I need not only to have a theology, but to have a good, correct, and God-honoring theology. New believers were asking me questions, a family expressed to me the suffering and afflictions they are experiencing, and I played football with some young guys. Yes, theology matters when you are teaching an eighth grader why he cannot tackle a third grader. It helps to have some common sense too. But in all of these cases it was not enough to simply say “Let go and let God.” What kind of advice is that anyway? More difficult questions to the effect of, “Why is this happening to me?” and “I came to church after this or that happened to me, so why do I not feel better?” and “I pray to God, but I do not feel that he hears me or answers me or even cares. Why doesn’t he care?” were thrown my way. Explaining the difference between working for salvation and working from salvation and how the former is not only impossible, but a stain on the gospel is important to talk about but ineffective to talk about without a sound theology. Theology matters in order to get the gospel right. And if we are to be the church, we must have that right!
Theology matters at a church cookout. Theology matters when you explain why we pray before a meal. Theology mattes when you explain why we allow elderly men and women to go before us in line. Theology matters when you see people eating alone. Theology matters when that guy from down the street stumbles in to get a bite to eat. Will you talk to him? What about? Theology matters. But why do we do all of these kind acts and religion activities? Is it because our culture demands it? I hope not. I hope we do these things because our Christ demands it. We pray because food was created by God to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:3-4). We allow older men and women to go before us in line because we are to honor them out of fear and reverence for God (Lev. 19:32). We extend love and grace to all who gather with us to eat because of the love and grace that was first shown to us (1 John 4:19). And we care for those in need because it is more of a blessing to give than to receive as the early church so often has shown us (Acts 20:35). Our commitment to Christ and his mission is made evident through our theology. Our theology fuels our obedience to Christ. Good, sound theology is a catalyst for grace empowered acts of love and kindness. And a good, sound theology will serve as the building blocks for our evangelism, missions, and personal sanctification.
Because of these realities, I am resolved to do three things every day and I pray you would consider something in this vein as well.
1. Read the Bible. I know it sounds simple, but that is precisely the point. Stop waiting for God to send you an email, strike you with lightning, or even “give you a feeling.” God has already spoken through his Spirit in his Word. If you have a complete copy of God’s Word, count this as a joy that many saints before you did not have and that many saints before you bled and died to make it so. Consider this exchange between a pastor and a young student of his during discussion time at a pastor’s training school:
“Sir,” [the young man] asked, “don’t you think it’s important for me just to get alone with God and find out what the Holy Spirit is saying to me?” The preacher’s answer was shocking. “Young man,” he replied, “I’m not interested in what the Holy Spirit is saying to you. In fact, you may be surprised to know that I’m not interested in what the Holy Spirit is saying to me.” Then he explained. “All I’m interested in is what the Holy Spirit is saying, and the Holy Spirit has been saying the same thing through a passage of Scripture since the day He inspired it. And I’m going to use every available means that I have to find out what that is” (quoted from Jim Shaddix, The Passion-Driven Sermon, 152, emphasis his).
So, read, re-read, and read again. This is what I must do in order to have a sound theology about God and his activities in this world.
2. Read the work of a Christian who has gone before me. Now, this may look different for me than it will for you, but then again it may not. Remember, I love theology. It is not an odd day for me to be sitting outside in the sunshine reading the systematic theologies of Michael Horton, Wayne Grudem, or John Calvin. I read commentaries on books of the Bible for fun. I am currently working through Charles Spurgeon‘s entire collection of sermons as a side venture to my class readings and work. However, what I think should be universal and heavily advocated for in every church is the reading of a Christian who was really in sync with the Scriptures. The way Christians before us understood Scripture goes along way in helping us develop our theologies. And what we should be striving for is not to develop a new theology, but rather to land where so many before us landed.
Whether it is Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, the Puritans, Edwards, Wesley, Boyce, Packer, Piper, or even Platt, reading the works of other Christians is vital to developing a good and sound theology. The goal of their writings is often to help in the sanctification of the saints. “My purpose [in writing this work] was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Prefatory address to King Francis I of France). So, read a sermon by Charles Spurgeon or John Wesley, or Jonathan Edwards. The best place to begin reading theology might just be one of two works by J.I. Packer (18 Words: The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know or Concise Theology). Neither of these works are too academic or scholarly.
3. Talk to someone. Theology was not meant to be kept in a box. I can be the greatest theologian in the world, but if I remain cooped up in my ivory tower, I will be of no benefit to anyone other than myself. Such a theology would be wasted. Do not toil for naught. Remember the words of Paul,
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. — 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Share what you have read with your spouse, child, friend, brother, sister, mom, dad, co-worker, or pastor. Yes, even your pastor. It is like a refreshing cold drink on a hot summer day to discuss the glory of God in Scripture and to take a peak into eternity past to discuss something like divine election or the Father’s eternal love for his Son or the truth that God will never leave or forsake his people! Such are things a pastor needs to hear more than your disgruntles over the style of music we use to worship or the size of the building or the color of the carpet. Things such as this are but teardrops into the ocean that is God’s majestic mind and Being. God works differently in the lives of different Christians. We would do well to learn from them and them us. We are not in this alone. And we would be foolish to try to go it alone. Theology is meant to be done in community and it will foster community and fellowship among believers. If we really thought a lot about the work of Christ and of his Spirit just in salvation (soteriology), we would feel the weight of the glory of God in the grace of being able to congregate together on Sunday morning to worship our King. Sharing theological truths and discussing Scripture with another believer is a tremendous means of grace to conform you to the image of Christ. Relish it.
Theology: A Means of Grace for Joy
Taking theology seriously, realizing that theology matters, is like taking a dive head first into this ocean. So, swim through his Word, swim through the thoughts of saints before you, and swim through the fellowship and thoughts of saints among you!
John Calvin once wrote,
“Today all sorts of subjects are eagerly pursued; but the knowledge of God is neglected…Yet to know God is man’s chief end, and justifies his existence. Even if a hundred lives were ours, this one aim would be sufficient for them all.”
I pray that I would have such a high view of theology so that I may know God more tomorrow than I do today. And this my friends is the pathway to true and lasting satisfaction and joy for your soul through all pain, suffering, and in all endeavors in this life. Nothing will satisfy you so much as knowing God. Theology matters because it is the most practical way to gain access into the glorious mysteries of God revealed in Christ. And no other grace has produced more joy in my soul. May it ever be so.