When it comes to putting our faith in what God has revealed into the motion of our lives, theology can seem to many to be a theoretical nuisance. As one minister put it, “kids need encouragement, not theology”.
That view is dangerous. Theology is the core of how we mentally relate to what God declares. It is the structure of how we explain what we believe. Without it, we are left adrift at sea without any way to explain or understand biblical truth on subjects addressed in different ways and times throughout Scripture.
It is a well known fact of psychology that humans act consciously according to their beliefs. We don’t always understand our own web of crisscrossing beliefs, but they are consistently the reason why we choose what we do. The same is true of our beliefs regarding God and his divine set of expectations on those who profess faith in him. We will act according to what we actually believe, which is not always consistent with what we say we believe.
We can claim to be a follower of Jesus, and we can be absolutely convinced that we belong to him, but if we are living inconsistent with how a follower is said to live, then we are at risk of hypocrisy and self-deception. This is why a biblical view of theology is so important. The better we understand what we ought to believe, the more likely we will be able to adjust our actions in accordance with the revealed will of God.
The existence of general theological truth is not at issue here. Truth remains true, even if we don’t understand it. It is how we define what we think we understand that is important at this juncture, so that we can bring together what we think we believe with what God says we ought to actually do as a believer.
This presents an enormous challenge. There are many theological truths stated in Scripture that appear to conflict with other passages, and that seem to allow for a do-whatever-you-want, justify-whatever-you-like, kind of life. How is a faithful Christian to approach trying to apply their theological beliefs in a manner consistent with what the Bible indicates on how to rightly apply each revelation to each circumstance, relationship, conflict, or opportunity?
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” (Pro 26:4)
“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Pro 26:5)
So which is it? Do you answer a fool or not? It sounds like you will be damned-if you-do and damned-if-you-don’t. Consider the sampling below:
“Do not judge, lest you be judged.”
“Are you not to judge those inside the church?” and “A righteous man judges all things”.
“Forgive your brother as you have been forgiven” and “Bear with those weaker in the faith”
“You must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is [living in sin]”
“Do not commit murder.”
“You must be the first to throw a stone” [and kill your own rebellious child]
“You are saved by grace”
“You have fallen away from grace”
“He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
“Judge for yourselves, whether it is right in God’s sight, to obey you rather than God.”
“Turn the other check”
“Turn them over to Satan”
“You are not under law”
“We uphold the law”
“Do not rejoice at the destruction of the wicked”
“The saints will dance in the blood of the wicked”
“No one who is born of God will continue to sin” and “anyone who does not love remains in death.”
“But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense.”
“Whatever you ask for in my name, will be given to you”
“Do not think that you will receive what you ask for, for you ask with wrong motives”
“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel”.
“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers…they must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach”.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household.”
“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.”
“He who does not provide for his immediate family has denied the faith”
“the pagans chase after all these things” and “Do not store up wealth on this earth”.
How is a Christian expected to know when to do what one passage says, and when to apply a different instruction on the same issue?
This is where the rubber meets the road. This is the part where many will attempt to make their best effort, but blow the whole thing. Many will try to pick-and-choose those passages that promote approaches that they prefer, and avoid those difficult passages. Many will cling to key statements that seem like a guarantee of eternity, but do so in rejection of other passages that reveal warnings they refuse to acknowledge. Entire groups will form around selective theology, rather than bow humbly to the entire revelation of Jesus’ gospel.
It not only is difficult, it is impossible to rightly apply Scripture. Humans are completely incapable of doing the will of God on their own. Jesus spoke in parables, and the Bible has been “rightly divided” in how it was written, so that natural study or sincere application will always fail and produce distorted beliefs. Theology cannot be applied without hypocrisy, unless a person is born again and endures in that Spirit-led life.
A Christian who has professed Christ, and who has been baptized, and perhaps even has outward manifestations of the Spirit, still cannot rightly live out theological truth, unless they submit and follow the lead of the Holy Spirit at every turn.
There is a classic revelation about the application of prayer through King David, when he was still running and trying to hide from King Saul. At one point he cries out to God, asking if he should enter a city and hide there. God answers yes. Then Saul discovers where David is and gathers his army to go after him. David again asks God if he should stay there or leave. It is a very understandable request. David was wrestling with the fact that God had told him to go there, so perhaps he should exercise faith and wait. However, what God declares doesn’t always apply under every circumstance, so it might be worth checking in again. The surprising thing is that God answers a second time and tells David to immediately get out of the city and hide, which of course, David gratefully does.
Scripture reveals to believers that there is a time and place for everything. This is not only a reference to natural things like a time for life and a time for death, a time for rising and a time for falling, a time for light and a time for dark, but it also is a theology about following the directions of God. We are not given the right to follow or not, but how we apply our following can change. In David’s case, there was a time to hide in the city by God’s own direction, and there was a time to flee from the city, again at God’s word.
So it is with Christians. In order to know when to rightly apply instructions that speak of the same issue, but that appear to give very different directions, a believer must get that wisdom from God. This does not mean that by following one instruction, we are in defiance on some other instruction, even though it might look that way to others. The important thing is to strive to apply the details as carefully and as specifically as we can to our immediate circumstance, within the boundaries that God allows, with a heart that demonstrates through our choice that we would rather honor God than do what is natural.
The theology within Scripture that might apply to a Christian always states what is true, but it never presents it with the how, when, why, names, or any other specific details of application to a specific person. Those details and boundaries have to be put together from other passages and by the inspiration of the Spirit of God.
A professor of Christian psychology challenged his students that they were hypocritical if they were “pro life” and also in favor of “capital punishment” (both phrases that reflect political viewpoints and not specifically Christian ones). In his view, a person could not be in support of life and death. To the student who shared this with me, I asked, “what about God; is he a hypocrite because he gives life and takes it away?” Human reason is not a very reliable basis for defining truth or in figuring out how to rightly apply theology in our lives.
Another revealing guidepost can be found in the underlying reasons for what caused the painful separation between Paul and Barnabas. Both had been specifically called by God into evangelical ministry and were sent out together to apply their calling. However, during the first trip, the young assistant John Mark turned-tail and ran back home. When it came time to consider a second mission trip, Paul refused to take Mark, and Barnabas insisted on it, contributing to a rift in their ability to continue in ministry together. Both were likely right.
For Barnabas, he likely was trying to apply the passages that taught on bearing with those who are weaker in their faith, who struggle, but not to the point of denying Jesus. He wanted to give Mark a second chance. For Paul, he likely was recalling Jesus’ own words that those who put their hands to the plow and then look back are no longer fit for the kingdom, and so Mark should not be accepted back into the field of ministry.
We find support for this dual solution in that both Barnabas and Paul continue forward with their joint plan to revisit those who had come to faith during their first mission trip. Barnabas takes Mark directly back to Cyprus, where the young man had deserted them, like the coach who helps his timid apprentice to get back on the horse that had bucked him off. Paul, goes the other way, and begins going back through Syria, in a reverse direction. It is reasonable to assume that they all meet again somewhere in the middle, to demonstrate their willingness to endure and to reconcile in relationship with each other.
In reality, God likely intended for both initial responses, so that Mark could be granted grace along with a warning, which as Scripture indicates, had its wonderful effect, because Mark shows back up later on as someone that Paul found “very helpful to my ministry”. What a sobering strong hand. What amazing grace. What a combination of upholding biblical instructions that saved a young one!
We are often given room to apply different instructions that can be found in Scripture, but what really matters is not whether we pick the right one (which assumes that the other biblical instruction is wrong), but more likely, whether we submit our motives and desires to implement what we sense would most honor and fit the will of God. We have all been given different gifts and placed differently in the Church body, and that means that the implementation of theology will often look different, but still be consistent with the overall revealed truth within Scripture.
When combined, the pattern should always reveal a consistent upholding of biblical theology, and a faithfulness to apply those difficult commands eventually, even if we are allowed to try the others first. Like the parable of the orchard farmer, “Lord, can I give it another year and water and fertilize it? if it produces fruit then, great, if not, then let’s cut it down.”
We are given some freedom to apply the instructions of God in ways that are often different from other Christians around us. Most of the New Covenant is presented as a territory with boundaries within which we are expected to operate, rather than a specific code of laws by which we step from one to the next. Within those boundaries, however, we do have specific expectations and we are called to submit our wills to his directions.
Those who think they can pick the frosting off the top and not eat the carrots in the cake, will find their hands slapped. We might be given the grace to start with the frosting, but a faithful Christian will always apply the full set of instructions as led by the Spirit. We will not leave the hard parts to others, like those who say, “just you wait ‘til your father comes home”.
You may consider yourself an encourager, but do not be deceived into thinking that you can escape contending for the faith, or confronting a brother living in sin, or eventually “treating them like you would a tax collector or prostitute”. for others, you may lament like the prophet Jeremiah in being used to confront other believers in their ignorance and apostasy, but don’t lose touch with Jeremiah’s heart that still longed for the consolation of his people. You might prefer to offer forgiveness and grace, but do not cross the line and give what is holy to the dogs.
Should you pray for everyone? The Bible commands that we pray for civil authorities and even our enemies, but what do you do with the passages that say “do not pray for this people, for I will not answer”? I’d suggest seeking more specific council and not jump to conclusions or preferences, thinking we can do whatever we think best, like Moses who struck the rock to produce water, when God has shifted his earlier instruction and said to speak to the rock.
When should you cry out, when unjustly persecuted: “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” And what if the evidence is that they do know what they are doing, like those who have known Jesus and tasted of the heavenly gift but have fallen away? Are you going to ask God to forgive someone that Scripture declares will never be forgiven by God? As Scripture asks, “Are you greater than God?” and “Did the word of God originate with you?”
If the church operates as it should, we will all have tendencies and gifted preferences in expressing the theological truths revealed by God, but in so doing we must seek to uphold the arms of others around us who are commissioned to the same mission, but just with a little different concentration in implementing the will of God. We are in this thing together, so we need to ensure that the full will of God is being accomplished and supported through his body, and avoid the natural distortion of only doing what feels good.
Theology must be received in faith, attributed rightly to specific circumstances and people, and implemented within the freedom and boundaries established by God in a manner that is submissive to the leading of the Spirit and consistent with the gifts distributed to each, as defined by the theology of Scripture.
Cherish theology, particularly that which is stated within Scripture. Devote yourself to understanding it, and to rightly sharing it within the guidelines of Scripture that govern the appropriate circumstances and timing that will apply the specific instructions for that person or moment to fit within the will of the Lord. Then it will be the Spirit speaking in you and through you, rather than an empty expression of your own ideas, training, and natural cravings.
Show yourself approved by carefully handling the word of truth!