This post is adapted from a talk I was recently privileged to give to the men’s group at my local church.
I want to start by putting all of my cards on the table and say that on this topic, I believe that the Bible is authoritative and clear regarding salvation and Godly living, and that it is God’s very words to us. Therefore, it’s of utmost importance that we dedicate ourselves to it.
In Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer he says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17). Sanctify means to be made holy (like Christ), or set apart. And Jesus says here that God’s word is not only “the truth” but that it “is truth”—in fullness. So Jesus is asking God to set us apart, or make us holy, through himself, and his revelation to us (which is his written word—the Bible—and his eternal word—Jesus Christ—who is at work in us by his Holy Spirit).
What is Theology?
Theology, simply, is the study—or knowledge—of God. Christian Theology, then, is the study of the one true God, his attributes, and his relation to the world as clearly and authoritatively revealed by his definitive word, the Bible. It’s important that our study of God should be grounded in God’s authoritative word because while we can know a lot about God by simply observing ourselves, others, and the rest of creation, we can’t know God personally in this way. Only through God’s true revelation of himself in the Bible can we know God personally, and then understand the prompting of his Spirit in our lives.
One thing we should note, as well, is that giving theology an important role in, and on, our lives does not mean that we need to know a lot of big theological words. Giving theology a prominent role in our lives simply means that we are setting habits, and creating practices, that push us to know God more deeply and truly, and that we are doing so based upon the truthfulness of his word.
Seven Reasons Theology is Important
Theology forms how we look and act
We tend to look and act like the things and people we spend the most time around because, whether we know it or not, the things that we’re in contact with shape our behaviors and loves. The author James K.A. Smith calls this idea “Cultural Liturgies.”
The word “liturgy” simply means order of worship. Church leaders should place a great deal of prayer and thought into the liturgy for the Sunday worship service because it plays a very important role in how we come into contact with, and worship, our Lord. For instance, at my church, we start our services by calling (beckoning) one another to worship–it’s a communal action. As another example, we corporately confess our sin and that’s followed immediately by an assurance of pardon—this causes us to acknowledge that our sins are not committed in silos and in a very real sense we have sinned against God and one another, but to keep us from morbidly looking into our guilt it’s followed immediately by a reminder that if the son has set us free then we are free indeed (John 8:36). There isn’t an item in our worship service that hasn’t been placed there without a purpose, and that purpose is to glorify God.
“Cultural Liturgies,” then, are the same, but they essentially are causing us to worship worldliness through our exposure. Smith writes, “…we are ritual, liturgical creatures whose loves are shaped and aimed by the fundamentally forming practices that we are immersed in.” Think of advertising. When we see a fast-food commercial, the point of the ad isn’t necessarily to get us off our couch and to restaurant the moment we see it, but instead the hope is that we would be so trained by their advertisement that the next time we’re hungry, we’d choose their store. In this way, there isn’t a moment that goes by that we aren’t being “taught” or “shaped” by something in our environment.
Another example is how our culture portrays manliness in general. Our culture will train us to think that a “real man” will withhold emotion, acquire lots of wealth, and fulfill all of his sexual desires as he sees fit, among other things. The problem with that is that Jesus was the fulfillment of what man should be and Jesus wept (John 11:35), was homeless (Matthew 8:20), and died a 33 year old virgin.
With this in mind, how much more should we strive to counteract the worldly cultural liturgies that are influencing us at all times with the truth of God’s word? We need to be constantly at war with the ways in which the world is attempting to change our mind about things that are eternally true of God and, in certain ways, true of us.
On this subject I think about two particular lists in Galatians 5–the works of the flesh contrasted against the fruit of the Spirit.
By God’s grace, as we learn more about him by taking theology seriously, and are conformed into the image of Christ, we will look and act less and less like that first list and more and more like the second.
Theology increases our faith
We can see this in John 4 just following the account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The Gospel says,
“So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”… Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” (John 4:28-29, 39-42)
There doesn’t seem to be an indication that the Samaritans didn’t believe upon hearing the word from the woman, but what we learn is that their faith is deepened after having spent time with Jesus themselves. No longer do they believe on account of someone else’s testimony, but because they have spent personal time getting to know Christ they can say that they now “know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
It’s kind of normal for us to have some doubts, and be pulled along our journey to faith with some skepticism. However, what we see over and over again is that God is willing to meet us where we are and give us what we need. If theology is knowing God, then theology increases our faith because as we know God more, we have a clearer picture of who he is. When we have doubts, a quick answer often won’t satisfy us—even if it’s the right one. What we need for our doubts is often just a clearer revelation of him. We come to him with doubts and he responds to us with himself (Job 38-41).
We have two quick examples of this from our favorite doubting disciple, Thomas.
In John 20, Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, but Thomas wasn’t there. When they tell him about it, he says, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25). And we know what happens, eight days later Jesus appears to the disciples, but this time Thomas is there, and Jesus tells him to touch the wounds causing Thomas to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”—assurance.
The other example is in John 14. Here, Jesus is telling his disciples that he is about to go away to prepare a place for them, but that they know the way to get there. Thomas says they don’t actually know where he is going, and asks how they can know the way. Jesus famously responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Instead of just shaking his head and walking away out of frustration, Jesus takes the time and reveals himself to Thomas in the way he needed to hear it.
Theology gives us not only something to believe—like doctrines—but a person to trust that is patient with us because he cares for us.
Theology enables us to navigate life wisely
The Bible is full of God’s wisdom to us. Wisdom, of course, includes moral teaching, but it goes beyond that. It involves making the right choice even when there are no clear moral laws. It means seeing situational distinctions. It means seeing multiple courses of action. It means being able to discern between good, better, and best (Tim & Kathy Keller, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs).
As Dr. Eric Mason says, in his book Manhood Restored, “wisdom is far more than the accumulation of biblical information; it’s the ability to execute what you know about the information.” Or in other words, wisdom is knowledge in action.
If we gain knowledge about God through engaging the Bible, and wisdom is knowledge in action, then we must know God’s word in order to put it into action. The problem is the Bible can be pretty hard to read, let alone understand and utilize in our daily lives. Peter, speaking about Paul, even says how difficult he can be to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16). The Bible is full of things like didactic teaching (commands) and other genera’s like narrative, poetry, prophecy, parables, lament, etc. But still, Paul tells Timothy, that even with its many genera’s “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So even in its varying forms, as Christians, it is important that we are dedicating ourselves to the whole of God’s word and seeking to live wisely in light of it.
For our purposes, though, let’s break it down quickly into two big buckets: direct instruction (aka: didactic teaching), and everything else. In a certain sense, the instructions seem easier to apply because there seems to be a clear-cut right and wrong. However, this doesn’t always prove easy in the application—think Genesis 3; God clearly tells Adam and Eve what they can and can’t do, yet in their temptation they look to their own reason to provide them with true right and wrong.
Alternatively, we should look to Christ, who when he was tempted (Matthew 4:1-11) replied with “it is written…” Jesus recalled God’s words concerning the issues at hand, and wielded them against Satan. So too should we be so immersed in God’s word that when temptations arise we can reply with “it is written…”
However, as we’ve said, sometimes scripture doesn’t just give us a command to follow but a set of morals to interpret. That’s when spending time, years, in fact our whole lives learning from God’s word gives us the ability to do this. God may be teaching you something in this season that won’t be put to use for years to come, but by dedicating your life to his word he is equipping you to reply “it is written…” when the time comes—even from the other genera’s.
So for us, prioritizing theology means spending more time immersed in God’s word, which means we will be able to know right from wrong, but also means we will have the wisdom to know the difference between good, better, and best.
Theology informs our prayer
What we believe about God—his character—and subsequently what that means about us is going to have a big impact on our prayer—both for ourselves and for others. We see this in the structure of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), not that this is the only way to pray, but it sure is a good example. The first half of the prayer is all about us praying for God to do things for himself—let your name be hallowed (revered, respected, made holy), bring your kingdom, and accomplish your will on earth as it is in heaven. These things certainly have impacts for us, but they’re largely pleas that set our eyes on God for who he is, and ask him to do what he has declared is important, because he alone has the ability to do it.
Then we get into the petitions that are for us—the things he knows we need like food, forgiveness of sins, keeping us from temptation, and deliverance from evil. But if we skip over that first part of the prayer where we set our eyes on God for who he is in praise, reverence, and adoration—or if we don’t really believe in the God the first part describes—then it will leave us praying without much assurance. If I don’t believe that God is a good provider, and will always provide for my needs, it may leave me anxious when I ask him to give me my daily bread because I’ll be left wondering if he’s going to even be able to come through like I want him to.
However, if instead, we really believe that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37), that his ways and thoughts are higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isaiah 55:8-9), and that he can do far greater than we can even ask or think (Ephesians 3:20), then we would have great confidence to pray for things like our daily bread, because even when it seems like God can’t provide most, we will know he always can.
Theology will place our prayers in the appropriate perspective of the greatness and capable providence of God, while also understanding him to be near and personal when we bring our cares to him.
Theology and the priesthood of believers
It’s seems fairly common for people to think that theology should be left to the academics and/or the “professional” Christians, and that theology isn’t for the “regular” Christians. I’m not sure why that is—maybe it’s just a way to skirt responsibility—but it doesn’t make much sense given what we have even already talked about.
1 Peter 2:9 says that we—all the members of the Church—are a “royal priesthood.” And what do priests do? The rest of the verse goes on to say, “…that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
One commentator restates it like this:
“that you should show—in your spirit and conduct, in all your tempers, words and works, the perfections; the wisdom, power, goodness, truth, justice, mercy, the holiness, the love of the Father, in and through Christ; [having called you] out of the state of ignorance and error, sin and misery, which you formerly lay and into the light of knowledge, wisdom, holiness, and happiness, into which you are now brought.” (Benson Commentary)
How can we possibly expect to proclaim these things with our “words and works” if we are not habitually investing our lives in learning them? We are a priesthood of believers, and as priesthood we all have the responsibility to know these things and put them on display through thought, word, and deed. It isn’t the responsibility left to a select few. For instance, in my community group, we encourage everyone to speak up and participate—I even call on people if they haven’t said anything (no shame in my game)—because I believe that I have just as much to learn from them as they have to learn from everyone else. When we became Christians, we were called into a community of believers. And we each bring a particular relational and experiential perspective to the community.
Making this point in The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes about the passing of one of his friends, Charles Williams, and the void that it left in his friendship with his remaining friend J.R.R. Tolkien:
“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in his/her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.”
The point is that we are only able to know certain things about God through the ways others have experienced him. For instance, I can know truly that God is a comforter to the afflicted through his word, and through his working in my own life, but when a brother shares with me how he has rejoiced in God’s comfort even in the worst of times—times that I haven’t and may never experience, it allows me to know God’s comforting character in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.
As we all invest in theology we are all able to know God more truly in community—through the priesthood of believers.
Theology shapes our gospel communication
Imagine this with me: a theological discussion has begun, disagreement is evident, and one side gets fed up and exclaims, “It’s not a gospel issue!” fundamentally ending the debate. I’m sure many of us have encountered this, or something like it. With a lot of doctrines this claim certainly has some truth, but only some. Let me explain. There are certainly doctrines that are not essential in the sense that they have to be believed—or believed in a certain way—or else you are undermining the whole faith. However, I say some truth because everything that we know and believe about God is a “gospel issue” because it influences how we believe God operates and interacts with his creation—either implicitly or explicitly. What we believe about God informs our actions in, and for, his kingdom.
On this note, one product of the Protestant Reformation was the motto “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” meaning: the church reformed, always reforming. This motto dates back to the 17th century, and is attributed to the church as a whole, but we can apply it as a principle to our own lives as well. One quote that brings it out well is this, “When God’s word picks a fight with you; you have to let it win.” Or Tim Keller often says, “If a premise/argument/position leads you to a conclusion that you know can’t be true (based upon God’s word), then the logical thing to do is to change your premise, not your conclusion.” It basically means that we must always be allowing God’s word to reform our understanding of him. We can get caught up in culture—as we have discussed earlier—or pragmatism, or whatever, but we must always let God’s word have the final, and authoritative, say on all matters to which it speaks.
As a side note, the most common way that the book of Proverbs describes a “fool” is through a word that could be translated as obstinate (stubborn, pig-headed). So the main mark of a fool is that he is opinionated, wise in his own eyes, and unable to learn knowledge or be corrected. We must always be open to learning. This doesn’t mean that we should never come to conclusions about things, but we must be humble enough to allow God’s word to challenge our conclusions because we are faulty, and he is not.
If we do not give God’s word authority, then the gospel we proclaim will become less and less God’s gospel and more and more ours. If our gospel communication is only informed by what we “feel” is right and wrong, and isn’t informed by the whole counsel of the God whose gospel it is, then we limit it.
Theology empowers us to fulfill the Great Commission
Given everything mentioned so far, apart from theology (knowing God), how can we expect to fulfill the Great Commission? As a reminder, the risen Christ says,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
How can we go forth and expect to see people saved (baptized) into the faith we know little about? How can we make disciples, inviting people into a personal relationship with a person that we barely know? Finally, how can we teach people to observe all that Jesus has commanded of us if we don’t know it ourselves?
Maybe one way we feel like we can get around it is to just give a really moving testimony of the experience we’ve had. That can be helpful, but I think, if it is all we are armed with, it falls short of what Jesus has in mind in the Great Commission because it is often subjective and not fully informed by what God is doing in salvation.
For this, I think of two fairly famous—and I’m sure emotionally charged—“here I stand” quotes. One of them by Martin Luther in his famous speech at the Diet of Worms, in Germany, in 1521, and the other by Queen Elsa in her solo “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen.
“It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
She follows this up by saying, “Here I stand, And here I’ll stay.” She essentially says that she will stand upon what she alone determines to be right and wrong and not let anyone tell her otherwise.
On the other hand, when asked to recant his positions that contradicted the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther says,
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen”
Elsa’s appeal is to her individual ability to determine right and wrong for herself. It’s an internally motivated emotional appeal, and it’s powerful when paired with the rest of the song and movie which depicts her internal struggle to fit-in, and ultimately her decision to walk in her “true identity” and what she knew was right for her.
Luther’s appeal, though, is to God’s word that has captivated his conscience. It’s an externally motivated emotional appeal. Yes, he appeals to his conscience, but only in that it is captivated by God’s word.
Investing in theology gives us the strength and authority to stand upon our claims. People can make really moving and “reasonable” claims as to why they believe what they do—and many do with their testimonies, but if our goal is to make disciples of Jesus, then our appeal has to be to God’s word as our ultimate authority and nothing else.
So, theology gives us the ability to fulfill the Great Commission not because we are armed only with our own experiences, but because we are armed with the power of God through his word, and by his Spirit at work within us.
A Notable Warning
In our pursuit of knowledge, we should remember that Scripture reminds us that through knowledge we can be puffed up with pride. The Apostle Paul talks about how ungodly individuals can have the appearance of godliness, while denying its power… these people, he says, are always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:5, 7).
We don’t want to be these people, and by God’s grace, we won’t. We want Jesus’ words in John 17:17 to be true of us—that we would be set apart, and made holy, in the true knowledge of him. Instead of letting our knowledge of God puff us up with conceit (1 Timothy 3:6), let’s pray that it, instead, humbles us. Let our prayer be that as our knowledge increases it will only drive us into a deeper understanding of our dependence upon God to give grace, and an assurance in faith that he will.