by Tim Brister
There are essentially three approaches to life and ministry. The first is a life of robust theological study divorced from a pursuit of conformity to the image of Christ. The second is a quest for practical and purposeful living void of theological substance—and driven by a self-centered desire for performance. The third is a theology-driven life. It is only as we come to realize the third approach in our lives that we will avoid falling into either of the first two pits.
The first approach is one in which we might enter in on theological study merely for the sake of intellectual inquiry. Those who adopt this approach find the study of doctrine enjoyable–sometimes even to the point that it becomes idolatrous. We can very easily make an idol out of our knowledge of truth. The outcome may even appear to have admirable qualities to it–such as theological precision, robust intellectual engagement, and a serious exploration into truths revealed in Scripture.
The second approach is one of pursuing practical solutions for everyday living, divorced from theology. The conviction here is that life should make sense and should be stewarded well by making the most of it. Sometimes this results in employing “life coaches” to assist in the process. The problem, however, is that living skillfully apart from the truth results in a “whatever works” pragmatism. This approach might also result in an emotionally-driven, pseudo-relationship with God.
The third approach is a theology-driven life where theological exposition of God’s Word has a tangible impact on how you live you life. God reveals biblical truth for the purpose of not merely engaging the mind, but also engaging the heart and will so that we are challenged, changed, and conformed into the image of Jesus. All biblical truth, rightly appreciated, will be useful and transformative.
The Puritans understood this approach so well. Though they were intensely theological, they always ensured that their theology was imminently useful. Doctrine was never expounded simply to make sinners smarter. The text of God’s Word was carefully woven into the context of people’s lives so that they could experientially know God. They understood what Paul meant when he spoke of “the truth which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1).
Correct Answers Don’t Impress Jesus
The fruit of sound doctrine is godly living. God-centered theology activates faith in the ordinary life. Truth fuels engagement with the world from a biblical framework and guides a believer to think God’s thoughts and to understand the implications of them in ever aspect of our lives. Where there is lack of serious engagement of truth to life it is evident that we have not rightly handled the Word of God and appreciated the God-given purpose to transform us into the likeness of His Son.
The account of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan to a self-righteous lawyer helps us here. The lawyer was an expert theologian when it came to the Old Testament Scriptures. He probably had the entire Pentateuch memorized. When he asked Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked him how he read the Law. His response was to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirmed this and said, “Do this, and you will live.”
Although this man had “right theology” (in part), the story Jesus provided about the Good Samaritan revealed that this lawyer’s life was antithetical to the truth of God’s word. His “sound doctrine” was divorced from practical application, and as a result, it became a means of self-justification in a most damning way. Jesus exposed the folly of his approach to life, knowing that the command to “do this” is only achievable by one person, namely, Jesus. In addition, the story of the Good Samaritan is only truly realized by Jesus, who is Himself—as John Newton so helpfully observed—the Good Samaritan.
Nevertheless, the concluding charge of Jesus, in this story about Jesus, is a call for His followers, once united to Him by faith, to “go and do likewise.” Here, Jesus exposed the pragmatist who thinks that by his good performance in life he can gain eternal life. The pragmatist has believed a lie (viz., that their good works warrant eternal life). They need Truth; Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). On the other hand, Jesus exposed the theologian who had divorced doctrine from practical living. He had failed to embrace truth with his heart and will. Those who have embraced either of the first two errors need a new Way of living—Jesus, who is the way (John 14:6).
Sobering Words From Jesus
For the sake of our souls, we should remember some of the most sobering words of Jesus. There will be those “on that day” who say to Him, “Lord, Lord.” It is right to call Jesus ‘Lord.’ He is Master, Ruler, and King. But many who make that orthodox statement do notdo the will of the Father. Their not doing the will of God is evidence that Jesus never knew them (Matt. 7:21-23). Like the lawyer, they have learned to say the right things, but according to Jesus, it is by their fruits that we will know them (Matt. 7:20). In addition to the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see these truths unfolded in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) and in His parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46).
We should love studying theology; but I’ve come to learn that it is possible to study theology in a way in which it is divorced from the Person, the work and the commands of Jesus. It is possible to be right in my explanation of God’s Word and yet have no explanation for how I’m living my life. When that happens, the words of Jesus should make us uncomfortable in the best way. Not to cause servile fear in us, or to shame us—but to call us to love. Paul said, “if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). When we get theology the way God intends for us to get it, we will be better lovers of God and our neighbor. In turn, that love will manifest itself not in word or tongue only but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18). That is true theology—theology that dominates our thoughts and motivates our hearts to live and to love in ways that points to Christ and shows us to be His disciples (John 13:34-35).