Christians are told that Jesus is a stumbling stone, that all humanity will either fall upon in faith or be crushed under in wrath. This theological statement in Scripture is hard to receive—no one wants to lose their footing and face plant, but it is a promise that will apply to everyone, like it or not. The prophecy given to Mary, the mother of Jesus, was “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There are many statements in Scripture that appear to directly conflict with other passages, “which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” In this article, we will consider the difference between accepting the theological truths revealed in Scripture and thereafter attempting to rightly apply them.
Consider the difficulty in receiving these two theological statements:
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 7:21)
Both speak of the assurance of salvation. The first appears to suggest that salvation is assured to anyone who simply calls out to Jesus in faith as their Lord. The second makes it horrifically clear that the first is not all there is to the promise, and that many will think they are saved because of their profession, but Jesus won’t accept that claim. So how is a believer to trust the word of God? How can we rightly receive biblical theology?
Within Scripture, theology must be considered in two different ways. The first is that biblically-stated theology is the same thing as eternal truth. It is a statement of reality that is absolutely right in how it represents God. It never changes and will forever be true. It is also a general, overall statement that never is presented in terms of specific application.
But theology is not just some contract with a fancy stamp of authenticity that we receive and file in a safe place. It must be applied. God demands that his truth be lived out. It is only those who hear and “put these words into practice” who are said to be like those who establish themselves on a rock that will withstand the storms of life. It is to those believers who “hold to my teachings” whom Jesus identifies as “truly my disciples”—all others are fake Christians. As such, theology must also be considered in terms of specific application.
This means that biblically recorded theology must be approached in two ways: in how we receive or accept it, and in how we apply or attribute it to our specific circumstances.
In the above verses, both speak about salvation, but they are not referencing the same details of theology. The first, which actually was recorded as Scripture much later, is a statement of theological truth that is sustained by both passages. Believers are expected to receive the truth that anyone who confesses acceptance of Jesus in faith will be saved. It is a general statement of theological truth that salvation will be granted to those who accept Jesus. It is set in contrast to the beliefs held by many that such salvation must be earned by efforts at keeping the Old Covenant Law. This verse is declaring that salvation comes to a person by receiving Jesus, not by what we do. That theology is a statement about what we are to accept, what we should believe even though we can’t scientifically prove it. It is an overall truth that is not presented with names, circumstances, or details about how to rightly apply it.
The second passage, which Jesus declared about how he will view those who make such a claim of faith in him as Lord, is revealing something different about salvation. It too is a theological interpretation that reveals that some, but not all, will enter the Kingdom who claim that Jesus is their Lord. In other words, both passages uphold this same truth. However, Jesus is not talking about how believers accept the promise, like Paul was addressing, but rather that those who make such a profession must also apply it to themselves rightly. Jesus is speaking about the application part, or more specifically the mis-application of the truth about accepting Jesus as Lord.
Paul confirms this same detailed caution about specific application earlier in the same letter when he says: “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation…For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die”. In other letters, he warns Christian believers who are not rightly living out their faith, “that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom”. Both passages are in complete theological agreement. The specific context of theology, that Jesus was teaching, is that how we specifically apply truth can impact whether God will allow that truth to continue to fit for that person, group, or circumstance.
The Pharisees didn’t understand this difference, which resulted in their arrogant belief that since they were Abraham’s descendants, they were automatically guaranteed to be saved because of the promise given to Abraham. To this they were confronted with the shocking revelation, that the promise was true, the theology was absolutely reliable and unchangeable, but that God could raise up rocks to fulfill that truth, and they would find themselves rejected, if they continued to refuse to submit to the words of Christ. The theology was true; the application was subjective and selective to whom it actually applied.
With this distinction in mind, it should be recognized that the truth never changes. It remains true that salvation comes to a person, not by personal effort, but rather by receiving Jesus as Lord. What can change, is that this truth doesn’t apply universally, like some kind of magical phrase, to every individual who announces, “I accept Jesus as Lord”. Truth is always unconditional. Application of truth always has conditions!
This truth is rejected by those false teachers who say that grace is unconditional. They are not being careful with God’s revealed word. It is correct that truth is unconditional. It is deceptive to say that this truth applies unconditionally to anyone who thinks and says they want it. The theology about grace must be considered in both its statement of general truth, as well as within the God-defined boundaries in how to rightly apply it. Those who say they want it, but who don’t live in a matter that fits, will find that God will refuse their profession as Christians:
“They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.” (Tit 1:16)
This distinction between a theological statement of truth given in Scripture and its connected boundaries on how to rightly apply it can be seen in the following two passages. The first declares a general truth without applying it to any specific person, and is expected to be accepted in faith as always true. The second is recorded as a biblical measurement on how to rightly determine if this promise actually applies to a person who desires it, and is expected to be accepted personally in faith upon the partial evidence of a person’s expressions of godly love:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)
“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” (1 Jn 3:14)
When the Bible declares a general, overall truth, believers are expected to receive it in faith. They are theological statements that are intended to be received like a little child, without question or doubt. They are true, absolute, always correct, never mixed with human invention or error.
“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“There is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved.”
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth: and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live”.
“if you confess with your mouth, and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved”
“It is by grace that you are saved, not by works, so no one can boast”
“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.”
“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.”
“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
When the Bible declares a truth about how to rightly apply our faith, believers are expected to submit and obey, or find that their claim of faith can shipwreck, their crown be taken, their ability to repent be rejected, their name be erased from the Book of Life, their candlestick removed from around Christ, their identity as a virgin of the Lord be rejected at the heavenly gates, their talent be taken and given to another, their divine seed be choked out by weeds, their call be dismissed as not chosen, their leaving show that they never belonged to us, that false teachers will arise even from your own number…. What we do never changes the truth; however, it very much can impact whether that truth rightly applies specifically to us or to a specific event, decision, relationship conflict, or moment in time. Notice all the conditional prepositions:
“unless you take up your cross daily, you cannot be my disciple.”
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”
“Now that you know these things, blessed are you if you do them”
“Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”
“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”
“If you love me, you will obey what I command.”
“he who tries to save his life, will find in the end that he has lost it.”
“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…those who accepted his message were baptized”.
“what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.”
“If we disown him, he will also disown us.”
“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.”
“Unless you forgive your brother from your heart, you will not be forgiven.”
“You [Christians] who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
The theology, revealed by God, is that even to a righteous person that God promises salvation, if in the end they turn toward wickedness, God announces that they will not be given life. The truth never changes; how it specifically applies to a person can change by how we respond in faithful obedience or by turning back to the vomit of our sinful desires.
The “license for immorality” is prophesied to be taught by false teachers, who want their followers to think that they are guaranteed salvation, even while continuing to live immoral lives. They want people to think that general truths revealed and promised in Scripture certainly apply to anyone who follows their ideas, and that there is no possible way to lose out. They are told that they have a license, a guarantee, an assurance of salvation that defies all the warnings in Scripture that believers are expected to be careful in how they apply their theology.
No one can come to God unless he calls them to faith in Jesus. Those who begin to respond to this call are granted the right to put their hands to the plow for his kingdom. It is an incredible honor and act of grace that such undeserving whelps be granted such glorious privilege. However, we are warned, do not be like Lot’s wife—never look back.
Those believers who approach theology with the required “fear of the Lord” will be granted the grace to not only understand the gospel truth, but also to rightly apply it to themselves, their circumstances, and their assessments of those around them.
“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely, because if you do, you will save not only yourself, but also your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:15-16)
The above noted distinctions of receiving and applying theology emphasize belief, more than the process of actual implementation. In other words, the idea of application considered above is really more a reference to attribution. To attribute truth is to connect the dots between a general statement and a specific person or circumstance. That is a way of asking, does this general truth apply to me. When it comes to the actual implementation, such application becomes a measurement of process, not just a reference to fit.
That is where we are heading next, to try and clear the mine-field that threatens all who travel between believing theology and living Christ-like.