We live in a society where we have almost anything at our disposal in a matter of minutes or seconds: mass amounts of clean water, mass amounts of clean food, transportation, smooth roads (for the most part), climate-controlled buildings, instant information via the internet, instant everything. We want news in bite-size chunks; we want food made in front of us as soon as we show up in the line (Chipotle? which I love by the way) or quickly available at a drive-up window; we want clothes that we like when we like. We don’t want to wait, on anything. We get extremely frustrated in traffic jams. We’re not a patient people. We live in a society where because of technology, we think in terms of convenience as it relates to almost everything.
I am including myself in this culture and not trying to make it seem as if I have successfully distanced myself from it, because I haven’t. By God’s grace, hopefully, I’m on the way. I’m simply diagnosing these things that are good in one sense (the ease of meeting our needs and our wants) and bad in another (what it has done to our character as a culture).
There are ways in which I am petty, short, impatient, frustrated when things don’t go my way when these convenient services or products are either cut off or made more difficult to obtain, either in the short-term or the long-term. I am a sinner in need of grace, grace to work in my heart to make me more like Christ, that these things our culture is absorbed in as behavioral patterns of operation would cease to be active in me. I suppose it will take a life time.
All of that to say that unfortunately it seems this instant gratification culture we are absorbed in has made it’s way into the Evangelical world, and in particular, Biblical thinking and understanding. Because of our instant gratification, pragmatic, practical, “break it down for me” modus operandi, we tend to think of theology in the same manner.
We are not patient when it comes to the difficult things to understand in the Scriptures. We want to get straight to a complete understanding without having to do the work to get there. “Just give it to me straight.” “All we need is Jesus.” “I don’t need to think through what it’s saying, that’s what theologians are for. Just give me the broken down, short version.” Christianity (the Gospel) doesn’t work that way, it just isn’t that simple. Now, in one sense it is simple, being that a child can understand it in its simple message that God saves sinners. Yet in another sense, it is infinitely deep, so deep even angels long to look into these things.
Even further though, many times people don’t even want the broken down version anymore, so they try to bypass theology altogether and skip straight to the “What should we do?” thinking instead of first thinking through the “What has Christ done to reconcile me to God?” as the basis for moving forward to the “What should we do?”
In many of Paul’s writings in particular, he starts with theology before getting to the “What should we do?” portion. Ephesians and Romans are primary examples of this. In Ephesians, chapters one through three are theological primarily. Then chapters four through six are about works and growing in them.
In Romans it’s the same deal. Chapters one through eleven are primarily theological. Then chapters twelve through sixteen are practical, or focused on our works in response to the theology presented in chapters one through eleven. Even then though, Paul is constantly relating works back to the Gospel. One necessarily and logically proceeds from the other and it cannot work in the reverse direction (though of course in works we can see that very theology being played out for sure).
Theology is for doxology, orthodoxy is for orthopraxy, or to break that down even further, right thinking and believing necessitates right living and doing. You cannot divorce the two and in addition to that, right living always proceeds from right believing (with the heart) and thinking (with the mind), just as wrong doing and living always proceeds from wrong believing and thinking.
In the American Christian culture, we want to skip the difficult thinking and go straight to the pragmatic, practical doing. But it just won’t work or last. We will burn out because our believing and thinking isn’t firmly grounded in the source of power and vast truth that is in Jesus Christ, revealed in the Scriptures. Skipping over proper thinking and believing concerning the Scriptures is, at its heart, legalism, or it will inevitably always give rise to that if it hasn’t yet. Why? Because then the focus of our faith is no longer the glory of what Christ has won for us at Calvary, but is now what we’re doing.
We don’t want to sit down, quietly, and patiently think through what the Word of God says and wait upon the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and minds that which is true from the Scriptures. This has to do much with our convenience mentality. Or we don’t want to sit down and take the time to work through a theological work someone has put a ton of effort into to help us understand it.
So what do we do in place of this? We take single verses, many times out of their respective context, that are easy to understand and reduce the entire Christian faith to a few summed up statements in the Scriptures. There is so much more to it though than just a few commonly known verses like John 3:16, Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23 and so on. Those are great summation verses, don’t get me wrong, and they should be employed in the service of sharing the Gospel. Why? Because they are God’s word. But they certainly do not express all that is said concerning salvation. And for many of us, we just stop at these verses and proceed no further in understanding all that God has said to us.
That’s why there are chapters and chapters of Scripture speaking directly to these things, even if they are hard to understand at first. We must fight the tendency to conveniently sum up Scripture into these bite-size chunks and dig deep into His Word like a miner digging for gold. As much as we would like the Scriptures to be a few sentences, the fact of the matter is they are not and it is complicated. It takes us a lifetime to work through all that has been said to us. And even then, we couldn’t even begin to exhaust His Word to us.
Theology is careful thinking about what the Bible says to us concerning the truths of God in the Scriptures. It is also relating one passage to other passages. For instance, how do we understand Paul’s statements in Romans 4 and 5 with James’ statements in James 2:14-26? Paul says we are justified by faith alone. But James says we are “justified” by faith and works. Yet we believe Scripture does not contradict itself because it is the inerrant Word of God. So what are we to make of these passages in regard to justification? That is theology. And it is vastly important that we get it right. This is just one example. All of this is important because it shapes how we view Christ and His work on our behalf, which then, depending on our comprehension of it, ultimately works itself out into how we serve Him and others.
So at the same time that we’re pursuing people with works intentionally, that seek to show them the Gospel (ultimately), we need to constantly be diligent in studying the Scriptures and thinking through what others in our present day and in the 2000 year history of the church (that the Lord has graciously blessed us with) have had to say concerning them. You cannot skip over theology as if it can be ignored because it is difficult. No. Wrong thinking and believing about God, man, salvation, and a host of other points of theology will always result in works that dishonor Him, that esteem His value to be worthless.
You will always be doing theology in everything you say, even when you want to skip over it. There is no question about that. Every time someone asks you a question concerning what the Scriptures have said, and you give them a response, you have uttered theology, even if it is a summed up, shortened statement. As R.C. Sproul has said, the question is not whether you have a theology or not, the question is whether you have correct, truthful theology.
Now to be clear, this does not mean you need to study twelve hours a days like Jonathan Edwards or someone like that. Let’s be reasonable. Most of us do not have that kind of time with jobs, school, and the pressures of everyday industrialized, technology-saturated life in a world like ours. But this does mean that we all need to be diligent and persistent, everyday, in actively pursuing the truths of God in the Scriptures.
If we fail to do this, our thinking about God will not be conformed to the Scriptures and we will conceive of God in the way we want to think of Him (which amounts to idolatry according to Romans 1), not how He’s revealed Himself in Scripture. This will ultimately affect how we make decisions on a daily basis, which then ultimately affects all of what we do, practically speaking.
If we were as diligent in pursuing the unlimited spiritual knowledge within the Scriptures (given to us by God Himself!) as we are in pursuing business degrees, law degrees, masters degrees, careers, etc., think about how much we could mine that would be valuable unto eternal life, not just this life that is passing away before our very eyes according to Ecclesiastes.
Monergism.com is a great place to start with all of this. They have topics on possibly every area of theology or question you may have pertaining to our faith.