Thoughts on Theology

The following is an assignment from one of my classes… we were to define theology and then we had a discussion on whether theology could be sinful.

Theology is the study of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in and through his self-revelation, human religious experience (including church practices like worship and teaching, and the processes of salvation, sanctification, and glorification), faith, spirituality, and orthodox church tradition, resulting in the pursuit of (and conformity to) Truth as expressed in Scripture – all of which being ultimately for the glory of God. Systematic Theology seeks to express in a cogent, coherent system of beliefs the commands, teachings, principles, implications, truths, and spirit of the Scriptures in addition to the God with whom they are concerned and from whom they come.

Can theology be sinful? If so, when does it become sinful?
It seems to me that theology can and does become sinful when it begins to be an end in and of itself. When a theological perspective ceases being first and foremost for the glory of God in Christ Jesus, and becomes more dedicated to proving itself (its logical consistency, its universal appeal, its biblical basis, etc.), replicating itself, or making itself known and respected rather than aiding discipleship of the saints in understanding God’s self-revelation, it has dethroned God (by making him and his glory a secondary or tertiary goal) from his rightful place and has exalted itself above him. In this way, it becomes sinful. 

For example, if I quote a certain theologian (Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Grudem, Piper, Driscoll) – or any other man, for that matter – more than I quote Scripture, and if I know a certain book or collection of writings better than I know the Scriptures themselves then I have begun traveling down this road. Rectifying this situation does not involve merely reading the Bible more and studying it more intently… rather, it begins with repentance for idolatry, turning from my trust of fallible humans over the infinite God and pursuing what he has said above all others.

This is not to say that theologians are detrimental or obstruct our understanding of the Scriptures. The men mentioned above have been immensely formative to my beliefs and my sanctification. The sin lies not with the theologian (unless they are a heretical false teacher), but rather with me. If I put my trust in Grudem’s theology or Edwards’ sermons or Calvin’s doctrine before I put my trust in the Scriptures from which they are derived, then I have turned the appropriate order on its head – I have begun examining the Scriptures through a theologian’s lens rather than measuring a theologian’s claims against the Scriptures.

The end goal of theology, then (as far as I can tell), is the study of God’s self-revelation in such a way as to bring him glory through truth-based spirit-filled worship, bold Christ-centered gospel-saturated preaching and teaching, and through the transformed lives of Christ followers working out the lifelong process of sanctification.

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Groping for the Door

So I have been reading through Genesis for my Old Testament class. For the most part it has been a really refreshing look at the beginnings of our world, the foundations of theology from God’s revelation, and a convicting reminder of both humanity’s sinfulness and God’s sovereign grace. I made my way through Creation and Fall, Noah, the Tower of Babel, and Abraham… but then one story in particular – in fact just one line from Genesis 19 – blew my mind, and immediately I began to pray, think, and write.

As the story of Sodom unfolds in Genesis 19, God has sent two angels (in human form) to investigate and destroy Sodom for its immense wickedness and ‘very grave’ sin (18:20). Lot (Abraham’s nephew) met the angels at the city gates in the evening and invited them to stay at his home. Then the men in the town surround Lot’s house, demanding that Lot hand over his visitors to them “that [they] might know them,” (19:5). Now up to this point if you have no idea what’s going on, you might think that these men are a welcoming bunch and are practicing for the meet and greet time at church on Sunday. This scene is much more sinister than it appears, though, because these men have such a grave sinfulness in their hearts that they desire to gang rape Lot’s heavenly visitors (the Hebrew word translated ‘know’ conveys a bit more than a handshake and a smile if you know what I mean… in fact the English word ‘sodomy’ comes from this story). Lot goes on to demonstrate his excellent parental wisdom by offering to sate the men’s lust with his virgin daughters – to no avail. The angelic visitors pull Lot back into his house and strike the crowd (which ranges in age from young to old) with blindness… which brings us to the line that stopped me in my tracks.

“And [the angels] struck with blindness the men who were at the entrance of the house… so that they wore themselves out groping for the door.” (Genesis 19:11 – emphasis added)

These men were so consumed with their lust and hell-bent on gratifying their wicked desire to sexually abuse two other men that even when they were miraculously struck with blindness, they continued pursuing their sin with full intention of carrying it out.

My immediate reaction to reading this astounding phrase came in the form of a few questions:

How often do I continue pursuing my sin, even when God hems in my way and disciplines me so as to show me my sinfulness?
See, I am prone to wander far from the Lord’s guidance in my own pride and arrogance. I like to try things on my own, and I like to think that my way is correct and beneficial. But when I experience God’s gracious discipline and the merciful pain that is designed to bring me to repentance (Hebrews 12:11), I must heed that conviction and truly repent – meaning that I turn away from my sin and turn toward Christ. To not heed the wisdom of Scripture and to continue on unhindered in pursuit of my sin denotes a hardness of heart that characterizes those who do not know Jesus. In other words, if the life I lead appears no different than those men in Sodom (continuing in my pursuit of sin despite divine intervention), then I have just cause to seriously question whether I am one of God’s children. The Holy Spirit not only leads us to a deeper knowledge of both God and his Scriptures, but he also brings conviction of sin for the purposes of repentance and sanctification.

What does it look like for me to wear myself out ‘groping for the door’?
· When I feel that heart check from the Holy Spirit warning me to turn from the path that I’m on and I disregard it, continuing on in my pursuit of sin, I have begun groping for the door.
· When I consciously decide to disregard Scripture or distort the clear teachings of the Bible to create ‘gray areas’ that give me license to sin, I have begun groping for the door.
· When I acknowledge the horrid effects of sin (corporate and/or personal) and continue in it anyway, I have begun groping for the door.

What will it take for me to see that the way that I’m pursuing only leads to folly, destruction, and death?

When will I repent of my sin and return to Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith, who will welcome me with open arms and throw a celebration for his prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32)?

When will I see that I am not gaining even fleeting pleasure, but rather rejecting the eternal promises of Christ and slopping around in worldly filth?

One thing that I’ve learned through my experiences with sin is that it’s actually Jesus we’re groping for and we will not truly be satisfied until we look to him (St. Augustine wrote in his “Confessions” that ‘our hearts are restless until they find rest in God’). So we will continue being frustrated and blind as long as we are pursuing unworthy ends. But as soon as we turn our affections toward Christ’s loving grace and see that he is actually not for our pain and hurt, but rather for our good and our joy, then the world begins to look wholly different. Monogamous relationships and marital fidelity are no longer shackles but rather unlock the full potential for love and intimacy. Fleshly hedonistic pursuits ring hollow and fall flat in comparison to the richness of the depth, breadth, length, height, and beauty of our Savior (Romans 11:33; Ephesians 2:7) working on our behalf for his glory – for they are not mutually exclusive, but actually work in tandem. God is both sovereign and good, and when we realize that he is not some cosmic buzzkill but rather a mighty king who saves (Zephaniah 3:17) his people from themselves, the better off we will be, and the more glorified God will be in and through our heartfelt worship in light of his unequalled grace.

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My Battle Axe and Weapons of War

I’m so very thankful for the wisdom of men and women who have gone before me into ministry and have felt the need to offer advice and direction to those following similar paths.  Charles Spurgeon is one such man who has impacted countless souls for the sake of Christ both before and after his death.  “Lectures to my Students” is a collection of manuscripted lectures given by Spurgeon to the young men in training at his seminary, and it has proven to be one of the most helpful, challenging, and encouraging books that I’ve read to date.  I would encourage any who have felt the call to ministry or seminary to read it and take his advice to heart.  What follows is a reaction to one of my favorite quotes from “Lectures” which rests in a wooden frame on my desk.

“It will be in vain for me to stock my library, or organize societies, or project schemes, if I neglect the culture of myself; for books, and agencies, and systems, are only remotely the instruments of my holy calling; my own spirit, soul, and body, are my nearest machinery for sacred service; my spiritual faculties, and my inner life, are my battle axe and weapons of war.”
– Charles Spurgeon (from ‘Lectures to my Students’)

It seems to me that all too many seminarians fall into the trap of writing papers, reading books, and being concerned with climbing the ministerial ladder… and seminary does train you to do those things.  But let us not forget our calling – to minister to people, and to administer the Word of God correctly, by the power of the Spirit, under the authority of Christ, to the glory of God.   While ‘stocking the library’ can bring new ideas to light, share experiences, and sharpen the mind, it can become a pursuit that allows the excuse for avoiding ministry and inflating the ego.   And while ‘organizing societies’ (conversations over coffee and/or lunch, etc.) is the medium of a precious sort of ministry, it can take precedence over those times that fill our tanks so that we can be sharp during such conversations and offer that bit of wisdom, that spiritual insight, or that word of encouragement that makes such meetings worthwhile.   Finally, as a strategist I am no stranger to spending countless hours ‘projecting schemes’ and getting ministry-oriented things organized in my head.  However, if this energy is divested of both the foundation and the end goal of such plotting – that is, the glory and renown of Christ – then it is less than in vain.  Obsessive planning and ‘strategery’, when pursued without having been anchored in a solid consistent walk with Christ, become filled with prideful sin (self-importance and self-reliance) and will rarely be honored by the Lord.

And let us not forget that all of the theological training, exegetical papers, and seminary professor recommendations on our resumes will be completely useless if we neglect the culture of ourselves and fall into egregious sin that disqualifies us from serving as shepherds.
[As a quick aside, if you find yourself struggling with sin while serving in ministry, please, for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, do not let yourself become a wicked pastor.  Get help; pursue repentance-oriented counseling, resign from your position, or begin by confessing your sin to another pastor before it finds you out and you must deal with it publicly.  Enough men have walked down that path – we do not need any more.]

Getting back to my original train of thought, it is not as though stocking libraries, organizing societies, and projecting schemes is bad; rather, they are all secondary and we should treat them as such.  Do them in as much as they further your sanctification and help you develop your spiritual faculties.

God has called us to the ministry – not our books, not our social schedules, and not our church planting proposals.  He has called us to steward our minds, our bodies, our hearts, and ultimately our walks with Him in such a way as to serve him faithfully and glorify him with our successes and our failures.  So do spend the appropriate time relating to God and anchoring your soul in Him first and foremost every day.  Read the Bible regularly and conform your life to its mandates rather than conforming the Word to your life and in so doing justifying sin.  Get to know yourself, find out where and when you are most vulnerable to sin and build up your defenses so as to not fall into Satan’s numerous traps.  Honestly examine your soul and let the Holy Spirit show you where the rough and unpolished areas of your life are.  Find true biblical accountability and have the hard conversations that will lead to solid growth – do not allow yourself to get by with the auspices of battling sin, all the while allowing sin to fester and rot the foundation of your ministry.  Pray fervently for the Gospel to continue transforming you and your flock, for without it we are adrift and most of all to be pitied.

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