Derek Thomas; LIGONIER MINISTRIES
The Puritan William Perkins famously defined theology as “the science of living blessedly forever.” His contemporary William Ames mimicked Perkins by calling theology “the science of living for God.” Since living for God is every Christian’s duty and joy, every Christian must be a theologian—a good one. The connection between theology and everyday life is clearly seen in the following three examples from Paul.
First, at Philippi. Two named women are in public dispute in the church at Philippi, and Paul feels he must address it (Phil. 4:2). Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Perhaps, but Paul is an Apostle, and the church’s good reputation and witness are at stake, and the issue cannot be brushed under the carpet.
What does he do? He brings into play the most massive theology he can muster: the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. Jesus, who was “in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”—in the sense, perhaps, that He did not grasp at His deity in a manner that would say no to the lowliness of His incarnation (Phil. 2:6). Though Jesus was “very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things are made,” as the Nicene Creed of 325 stated, He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (v. 7). So fraught with theological danger is the term “emptied” that many translations have shied away from the literal translation, employing a euphemism in its place (e.g., “made himself of no reputation,” KJV). The passage in question deserves a fuller treatment, but the point needs to be underlined. Paul wants the Philippians (and you and me) to demonstrate the mind-set of Christ: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (vv. 4–5). The colossal doctrine of the incarnation is employed in the interest of demonstrating humility; the “truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1).
Third, at Rome. Having written eleven chapters outlining the nature and shape of the gospel, Paul makes the morphology of practical godliness clear: you (Christians in the church in Rome) will be transformed “by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:1–2). The manifesto that is Paul’s letter to the Romans is for the purpose of practical godliness: demonstrating brotherly love (vv. 9–10), ridding oneself of laziness (v. 11), demonstrating patience in trials (v. 12), contributing to the needs of the saints in acts of hospitality (v. 13), preventing peacock feathers rising in displays of self-importance (v. 16), doing the honorable thing (v. 17), living as peaceably as possible with one’s neighbor (v. 18), feeding one’s enemy (vv. 19–20), and responding to acts of unkindness in a non-retaliatory fashion (v. 21). It doesn’t get more practical than that.
But Paul is merely exercising the wisdom he saw in his Savior. How practical is theology? Consider the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ comprehensive coverage of everyday life. Jesus’ view of holiness was physical. Sanctification doesn’t take place merely in our minds but in our bodies. Jesus talks about eyes and hands, feet and lips. The point is that we use our bodies either to sin or to express holiness. Speaking of lust, for example, Jesus suggests that we should pluck out our right eye and/or cut off our right hand rather than use them in acts of sin (Matt. 5:27–30).
Do you have anxiety issues? Do you worry about daily provision in a manner that suggests a lack of trust in your heavenly Father? Then take a look at the birds that fly into your garden every day. They look healthy and strong. God takes care of them. And you are of more value to Him (Matt. 6:25–34). Are you judgmental in a manner that delights in seeing the sin in others and exaggerates it? Say to yourself, “There go I but for the grace of God!” (see 7:1–6). Treat people with respect, in a manner that you would want others to treat you. Live by the Golden Rule (v. 12).
Take the issue of guidance. Jesus promises: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (v. 8). As the twenty-third psalm promises, “He leads me” (v. 2). The verb suggests that our Heavenly Father, our Shepherd-King, will grant us the wisdom and discretion we need to make the right decisions in order to walk through this life in a manner that brings Him glory. Our Father loves us and isn’t about to stop loving us. His covenant ensures that His word is His bond. But He leads us “in paths of righteousness” (v. 3) and not in stray paths of unrighteousness. He will never lead us to acts of impropriety or to sin. Those come by not listening to His Word, not praying for wisdom, or giving in to choices that are less than the best.
Perspicuity and Providence
How practical can theology be? Consider two doctrines: perspicuity and providence.
Perspicuity is a theological term that expresses the truth that “ordinary” Christians may read the Scriptures for themselves, and by using the right means (sermons, Bible study aids, mentors, commentaries, and even Tabletalk) they may come to a “sufficient” (though not necessarily comprehensive) understanding of “those things which are necessary to be known . . . for salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1:7). This point was, of course, contested in the medieval church when the Bible was largely unavailable, trapped in a language that only the clergy understood, and used as a ploy to keep the masses chained to the restraints of papal and church authority. The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture encourages us to love the Bible, read it often and well, and grow in our practice of putting its precepts into visible, tangible action. It is a doctrine that teaches us to be like those noble believers in Berea, described by Luke as those who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
What is providence? It is not a term employed in Scripture, but it is a basic Christian truth. The Westminster Confession defines it this way:
God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose and govern all creatures, actions and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy. (5.1)
The confession’s chapter on providence touches on some rather difficult issues (the nature of God’s control of history and its relationship to free agency and evil, for example), but its basic thrust is to assure us that nothing happens without God’s willing it to happen, before it happens, in the way that it happens.
Briefly, this definition of providence is an expression of Paul’s statement in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” To a mother who loses her first child, a sister who learns of a malignant tumor, a college graduate who fails his first job interview, and to people in a thousand other scenarios, God’s providence serves as a reminder that while we may not have all the answers, God does. And when all is said and done, that is what really matters most. It is a doctrine that brings with it an abundance of calm and serenity in the midst of life’s storms. It doesn’t get more practical than that. All of us are theologians to some degree. The real question is, Are we good theologians? Are we using our knowledge of God in every aspect of our lives for His glory?