The following message was delivered at Ohio Valley Baptist Church on the 27th day of December 2015:
Before I dive into the subject of why theological study is crucial for the Christian, I would really like to address something important. When you read the title of this post, you may have had certain doubts. You might have had one of these reactions: Theology? I don’t want to lose the simplicity of faith! Won’t I substitute thought for action? I mean, theology has caused divisions – theology uses big words, and it just complicates communication. Isn’t theology all based on speculation, and doesn’t theology major on minor truths?
If you had a reaction similar to this, you’re not alone. You see, a large number of people in the church, unfortunately try to avoid theology and all that goes along with it like avoiding some plague. Most people have strong doubts about theology – but let me encourage you by saying that theology is not a bad thing. In fact, if theology is done with the right motive, it is a most glorious thing. With that said, let’s dive in deeper into why we should study theology and why it is definitely a good thing.
First of all, what is theology? Theology, in its literal translation is the study of God. The meaning of the word comes from two separate words: Theo (meaning God) and ology (meaning study). Essentially, theology is the study of God. Henry Clarence Thiessen gives us an even better way to understand the definition of theology, saying that “we may define theology as the science of God and His relations to the universe.”¹ Why is this? Why is theology the science of God and how He relates to the universe? Because in Christian theology, you have to include many different doctrines. Throughout years of study, we now include every Christian doctrine to this idea of theology. Doctrines such as:
This was far from a complete list, but it definitely gives a good overview of what we consider to be theology today. It’s not just one idea, or a few scattered ideas – it is a science – the science of God. Theology is important because it deals with every day Christian life, as you can see clearly from the list above.
Why should we study theology? There are four main reasons why it should be important for Christians to study theology. So why should we sit down and enjoy studying theology?
The first reason is because the Bible teaches us that theology is important. Look at Hosea 4:1-6:
“Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and everyone who lives in it languishes along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky, and also the fish of the sea disappear. Yet let no one find fault, and let none offer reproof; for you people are like those who contend with the priest. So you will stumble by day, and the prophet also will stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest, since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (NASB).
In the beginning verse, God tells the people of Israel that there is a case against them – because on top of many other things, there was no knowledge of God in the land. And this is an essential part of theology. We as theological students try to learn more and more about our God. We need the right knowledge of God as Christians. This passage from Hosea calls us to pursue that knowledge, and it does so through one of its many warnings found in verse 6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge, because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest, since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” If God is unchangeable (which is one of His many attributes), then He can do the same thing to us. We can be spiritually destroyed and reap the consequences without knowledge of God. We as Christians, as God’s people, need to have knowledge about God. Also, similar instruction is found in Malachi 2:7, “for the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” In the local church, your pastor(s), deacons, elders, Sunday school teachers, or any other persons in leadership roles should help you in your personal study of the knowledge of God. This study is what we call theology. So first we see that the Bible teaches that study of theology is important.
Secondly, we should study theology because Jesus demonstrated that theology is important. Let us look at Matthew 16:13-16:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (NASB)
What is pictured in this passage is that they are walking in a line and Jesus goes to each disciple individually and asks these questions. When it says that Jesus was asking the disciples, it has the action of beginning to ask and kept asking. Finally, after he got through all of the disciples, he got to Peter. And Peter said that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. The point: Jesus wanted to know what people were saying about Him. By doing this, He was demonstrating that theology is important to Him. If we cannot answer this fundamental question right, then we cannot dive further into theology, for if we have an answer any different than Peter’s, anything else we say is as flawed as the “wisdom” of this world.
Thirdly, to be a disciple we need to study theology. Remember, if we cannot answer who Jesus is correctly, we cannot begin to go anywhere else in Scripture. To be a true disciple of Christ, we have to know what Christ says, does, and thinks. The only way we can figure this out is by reading our Bibles and by studying theology. We need theology to help us in our walk with God. We need theology to be better ambassadors for Him. The Christian life may start out with a “blind” and simple faith, but God does not want us to stay there. God wants you and I to grow in our faith. God wants us to learn more about Him, and as we do we will be growing disciples.
Last, the early church demonstrated that theology is important. The early church had to rely on sound theology to safeguard against the all-too-frequent heresies that came about. Many of the major heresies really started after the apostle John died. Soon after his death was when Gnosticism was on its rise. This heresy affected people’s understanding of the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of humanity. If you ever decide to research Gnosticism, you will see that its impact was so sever that we are still trying to recover from this heresy. On a similar note, you even have to be careful when studying the heresies! Make sure you have a very solid foundation on the Bible before you work through those. There were many other heresies that came about that compelled the early Church to rely completely on sound theology. And that demonstrates the need for studying it.
As I said in the introduction, if you study theology with the right motive, then it is a most glorious thing. Since we know why we should study theology, then we need to find out what the right motive is for studying theology. So what is this right motive? The answer to that is really the answer to why we do anything. We as Christians do everything to bring praise, honor, and glory to our sovereign King. That is always the end goal in everything that we do. Our motive for studying theology is no different. We study theology for God’s glory. If our motive is anything other than to learn more about our Creator, and to grow in our relationship with Him, then we are wrong and need to desperately repent. There are many who study theology so that they can answer all the questions, and be the smartest person in the room – quite plainly, that is wrong. They need to repent because it is clear that God is displeased with that. Truthfully, they would be better off not studying theology in the first place. So before starting to study theology, ask yourself why you are doing this. If the answer is not so that you can grow in order to glorify God, then wait until you can answer that way.
What you are about to read are my weekend reflections. Back a few weeks ago, I started doing this in a notebook for my own personal benefit. This isn’t a diary, trust me, I have a beard. But it is a time for me to reflect on the past week for the following purposes: so that I may contemplate on what most stood out to me Sunday through Friday; so that I can think on the biblical and practical lessons the Lord has taught me most recently; so that I can see what can be done more productively or differently; so that I can improve upon what I’m already doing; and so that I can encourage you in your own personal walk with Christ, or you area of ministry. Til now I’ve been keeping these reflections to myself, but I’d like to share them with you today. These are some of the lessons the Lord has impressed upon me this past week.
We are called by God to be stewards. A steward is someone appointed to look after, manage, or supervise another’s property. We know from Scripture that everything in the earth is the Lord’s, and that He has called us to steward His property. So Christians are to be stewards of their talents, their finances, and also their time. All of these things which belong to the Lord. But perhaps the most difficult area of stewardship is our time, and managing it well. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:15-16, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (emphasis mine).
In today’s world, it is increasingly difficult to spend our time most efficiently – let alone spending that time honoring the Lord in what we do. Well, the Lord has been teaching me a few lessons for the past few weeks, and especially this past week. One of those lessons is this: faithful time stewardship today ensures faithful time stewardship tomorrow. Or put another way, faithful time stewardship yesterday ensures more faithful time stewardship today. If we spend our time well today, it always ensures that tomorrow’s time will be spent even better.
Practically speaking, there are many things I’ve tried to do that have proved helpful in being a better steward of my own time. Knowing that if I spend my time well today I can spend it better tomorrow, I have implemented a few different habits that have certainly helped me. First, I’ve tried to wake up earlier and get to bed earlier. Waking up early is sort of a “love-hate” thing for me. I love the stillness of the morning, and I am as active as a carpenter’s pencil in the morning. But I have difficulty getting up at my first or second alarm. What helps me to wake up is to prepare my favorite breakfast the night before, and plan on doing at least one major thing that will get my blood pumping the next morning. That way, I’ve got something enjoyable to look forward to when I open my eyes in the morning. I know that I’ve got that delicious smoothie waiting to be enjoyed; I know that I’ve got at least 15 mins to run in my neighborhood as the sun rises. Of course, as a pastor, I work the same 9-3 hours as most everyone else. Those hours are not always spent at the office (which is my bedroom too), but they may be spent visiting, making calls, printing materials, or a host of other things. But no matter how busy I am during the day, I try to make it a priority to plan something enjoyable the night before, so that I can wake up ready to go. I mean, when did any of us stay in bed on Christmas morning anyway?
The second thing I’ve tried to do is ordering my daily tasks by importance and order. I’ll sit down on Sunday evening or Monday morning and write out everything I can perceive that needs to be done on what day(s) – appointments, sermon preparation, visitation, everything. And when I get those tasks written out, I will write a number to the left side of each task. This number indicates the order in which I need to accomplish the tasks. For example, if I’m heading to the church and I need to stop to make a visit, I’ll put a 1 out by the visit and a 2 out by my stopping by the church. That way, I can keep up with the order of things and not leave anything out. I also do this for the principle of doing first things first. If I get an unexpected interruption and I’m not able to complete some of the smaller, less important things, then I’m still okay. Why? Because I completed the first things first. The things that are most important in my to-do list need to be done first. That way I’m not having anxiety about completing those important tasks, and my less-important tasks can have as much flexibility as they need.
When God gives us a task to complete, or when He calls us to a particular task or ministry, we are to do those things and fulfill those ministries with excellence because it is the Lord’s work that we are doing. Paul says that we are to give ourselves fully to the Lord’s work: “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58, ESV). So for this reason and many others, all that we do should be done with excellence of service—whether it is teaching Sunday School, cleaning the worship center, setting up the student area, or helping a child make a craft.
In order to complete those tasks, and fulfill our ministries, we need to be properly educated and trained to do so. One of the best ways that excellence is ensured in our service is being well-trained at our vocation. Because of this, I try to emphasize the urgency and need for training in all areas of ministry at our church. If you teach the children, you need to know how to teach them and answer their questions. If you work the soundboard, you need to know how to monitor its diverse mechanics. If you teach students, you need to know how to teach in a way that is relevant to this stage in their life.
In the area of Sunday School, it’s been a pleasure for me to train a young man to eventually teach our high school students’ class. He’s been making a lot of progress as we’ve talked, and as I’ve given him a plethora of materials for his training. It’s taken more time out of my daily pastoral ministry duties, but it has been worth it and it will be worth it. I would encourage you to do the same, because we need to take time to invest in our church members, we need to disciple them, teach them new skills, and help them discover their calling or spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Pet. 4:10-11).
Pray for this young man, and do the same in your churches – our teachers especially need to be continually refreshed so that they can refresh others. They need to be well-trained so that they too can one day train another to take their place. It’s the biblical model for enlisting and recruiting people to serve in various ministries: “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2, ESV).
As an aside, here are the best resources I’ve ever used or passed on to our Bible teachers:
1. Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary by Thomas Nelson Publishers.
2. How to Study the Bible by Robert M. West.
3. 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer.
4. The ESV Study Bible by Crossway.
5. The Complete Bible Answer Book by Hank Hanegraaff.
“Many Christians expect the world to respect the book they neglect.”— E. C. McKenzie
Theology matters. It’s the study of God. It’s been said before that, “What you believe about God is the most important thing about you.” Every Christian in the world is a theologian. That sounds overboard, I know—but think about it for a moment: every believer has an idea of what God is like. Every believer has an idea of the nature of God and what He requires of us. And that is the essence of theology: it is the study of God.
It seems today, however, that if you mention the words theology or doctrine that you get quite a few negative reactions. Few, it seems, want to be seen as “theologians.” Aren’t theologians, after all, just impractical people given over to fussing over Bible trivia, and engaging in doctrinal hair-splitting? If you have harbored such thoughts like that, then what I am saying may be a surprise to you. But as children of God, it only makes sense that we should strive to know all we can about our heavenly Father, His ways and His will for our lives. Taking a casual approach to our beliefs nearly guarantees frustration and misunderstanding in our relationship with God. That’s why theology is important. “If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas.”—C. S. Lewis (1)
With that being said, why is studying theology absolutely necessary? (2)
Theology cannot “improve” on the Bible by doing a better job of organizing its teachings or explaining them more clearly than the Bible itself has done. We get our theology from the sufficient Word of God. Still, Jesus commanded His disciples and now commands us also to teach believers to observe all that He commanded. He said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).
In order to teach all that Jesus commanded, is simply to teach the content of the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the gospels (Matthew-John). But in a broader sense, “all that Jesus commanded” includes the interpretation and application of His life and teachings, because in the book of Acts it is implied that it contains a narrative of what Jesus continued to do and teach through the apostles after His resurrection: “I [Luke] have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). “All that Jesus commanded” also includes the Epistles of the New Testament, since they were written under the inspiration and supervision of the Holy Spirit and were also considered to be a “command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37; John 14:26; 16:13; 1 Thess. 4:15; 2 Peter 3:2; Rev. 1:1-3). So in a larger sense, “all that Jesus commanded” includes all of the New Testament.
Additionally, when we consider that the New Testament writings entirely endorse the absolute confidence Jesus had in the authority and reliability of the Old Testament Scriptures as God’s words, and when we realize that the New Testament epistles also endorse this view of the Old Testament, then it becomes evident that we cannot teach “all that Jesus commanded” without including all of the Old Testament (rightly understood, that is) as well.
The task of fulfilling the Great Commission includes not only evangelism, but also teaching. And the task of teaching all that Jesus commanded us is, in a broad sense, the task of teaching what the whole Bible says to us today. Therefore, for us to learn what the Bible says, it is necessary to employ theology (the study of God). The basic reason for studying theology, then, is that it enables us to teach ourselves and others what the whole Bible says and teaches, thus fulfilling the second part of the Great Commission (which cannot be divorced from the first part).
Of course, the basic reason for studying theology is that it is a means of obedience to our Lord’s command. But there are some additional specific benefits that come from such study:
1. First, studying theology helps us overcome our wrong ideas. If there were no sin in our hearts, we could read the Bible from cover to cover and, although we would not immediately learn everything in the Bible, we would most likely learn only true things about God and His creation. But with sin in our hearts we retain some rebelliousness against God. At various points there are, for all of us, biblical teachings which for one reason or another we do not want to accept. The study of theology helps us overcome those rebellious ideas. It is helpful for us to be confronted with the total weight of the teaching of Scripture on a particular subject, so that we will more readily be persuaded even against our initial wrongful inclinations. So studying theology helps us overcome our wrong ideas.
2. Second, studying theology helps us to be able to make better decisions later on new questions of doctrine that may arise. We will not know what new doctrinal controversies will arise in the churches in which we will live and minister ten or twenty years from now. But they will arise, and when they do, Christians will be asking, “What does the whole Bible say about this?” Whatever the new doctrinal controversies are in future years, those who have learned theology well will be much better able to answer the new questions that arise. For example, if you read the older books on systematic theology, there is no addressing of the sinfulness of same-sex marriage. There would be a defining of what the Bible teaches about right marriage, but for the days of older theologians writing these books, same-sex marriage was just not an issue. Today however, you cannot avoid the obvious problem of same-sex marriage. There are denominations even today who have shaky, wrong theologies, and thus approve of same-sex marriage. Who knows what doctrinal controversies will arise in the coming decades/years? Because the Bible is related to every area of life, those who have studied theology well will know what the whole Bible teaches on these controversies.
3. Thirdly, studying theology will help us grow as Christians. The more we know about God, about His Word, about His relationships to the world and mankind, the better we will trust Him, the more fully we will praise Him, and the more readily we will obey Him. Studying theology rightly will make us more mature Christians. If it doesn’t, then we aren’t studying theology rightly. In fact, the Bible often connects sound doctrine with maturity in Christian living: Paul speaks of “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3), and says that his work as an apostle was “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1).
The greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). He did not give options, as if we could love God with heart or soul or mind; the command requires all of the above. Loving Him with our minds will naturally entail finding out as much as possible about Him. Just as in any relationship, love compels us to know and understand what He is like, how He works in the world and in us, what He loves, what He desires, what offends Him, and what delights Him. Doing so requires our full attention and our diligent study of theology.