What Is True Theology?
Good theology doesn’t necessarily guarantee good living. Far too many pastors, theologians, scholars, and laypersons have possessed good theology and lived like their father, the devil (John 8:44–45). However, for those who wish to live a godly life, good theology is not an option since we are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17).
The Scriptures teach that sound doctrine and godly living go hand in hand, with the former providing the foundation for the latter. In fact, the apostle Paul makes this clear when he writes to Timothy in a context affected by false teaching and ungodly living: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).
The salvation of God’s people is explicitly tied to Timothy’s ministry, which should be characterized by both his sound living and good teaching. For this reason, many theologians in the past defined theology in a way where the practical aspect of Christianity was part of the definition of true theology. For example, the Puritan William Ames affirmed, “Theology is the doctrine, or teaching, of living to God.” For Ames, theology, as conceptual as it will always be within the mind, must never be divorced from the practical response that issues forth according to the will.
The Dutch Reformed theologian Petrus van Mastricht built on Ames to claim, “Theology is most correctly defined as the doctrine of living for God through Christ.” The addition “through Christ” rightly emphasizes the fact that living for and to God remains impossible apart from our union with Christ. Like Ames, van Mastricht believed that theory and practice go together in theology; and so, “Nothing is offered in theology that does not incline to this point, namely, that a person’s life should be directed toward God . . . Therefore, theology is nothing other than the doctrine of living for God through Christ.” As a result, good theology (that which is well received) results in good living (that which is well delivered).
There are, to me, five foundational pillars in the Christian faith. Put simply, the Christian faith is defined as that which is:
- Trinity oriented
- Christ focused
- Spirit energized
- Church inhabited
- Heaven anticipated
These are doctrines that we do not simply believe, but also ones that we respond to in faith. So, for example, to truly believe in the Trinity is to orient our lives around communion with the one God in three persons—hence, it is “Trinity oriented.” We commune with the Father in love, the Son in grace, and the Spirit gives us this fellowship with the Father and the Son (2 Cor. 13:14).
Our thankfulness towards God for his saving acts towards us is impossible apart from a knowledge of what Christ has done for us. Notice how Paul brings together “things to be believed” with “things to be done” in 2 Corinthians 5:14–15: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
We live for Christ because Christ lived and died for us. As such, our Christian lives are Christ-focused. But we are not able to maintain a Christ-focused life apart from being “Spirit energized.” Christ sent his Spirit, the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9), to dwell in us and enable us to live for God through Christ.
Speaking in the seventeenth century, Thomas Goodwin once noted, “There is a general omission in the saints of God, in their not giving the Holy [Spirit] that glory that is due to his person . . . The work he does for us in its kind is as great as those of the Father or the Son.” I wonder if this is still true today for many of us. Do we live in awareness of our utter dependence on the Holy Spirit for our salvation? If we are taught about the glories of the Spirit and his connection to the work of the Father and the Son, then perhaps our desire to be inhabited by him will increase; which should (ordinarily) give us a greater Christian experience and godlier living for God.
The place where we typically learn about the glorious truths of the Christian faith is the church. If God is our Father, then the church is our mother. Basically, we can all agree that a good mother protects, nourishes, and strengthens her children. When those children are God’s children, the responsibility of the “mother” (i.e., the church) is naturally enhanced to such a degree that we talk about the necessity of the church in terms of life and death. As a baby starves to death without milk from its mother, a person will spiritually starve without the milk of God’s word from the church. In other words, you cannot be a private Christian. The New Testament especially makes Christianity a “public” matter in which believers belong to a visible assembly of God’s people, which ordinarily includes pastors, elders, deacons, and members. Thus we live a church-inhabited life.
True theology is the doctrine of living unto God, through Christ, by the Spirit, in the context of the church, and with a view to the glories of heaven.
In Ephesians 4:11-16 we see this principle elucidated by Paul. When Christ ascended, he gave gifts to the church:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Christ desires that the body be built up in love. For this to happen, he has given the church the gifts to make this possible—without which we would starve to death spiritually.
Finally, the Christian faith, in its basic form as living for God, must be a heaven-anticipated life. In this life, with all its struggles and challenges, we are longing for something more beyond this world. We seek the everlasting life that we taste now in Christ and will enjoy in its fullest sense at death and beyond that, at the second coming of Christ. The young church at Thessalonica had this concept down; it was said of them that they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9–10). This is the Christian life in a nutshell: a life lived in worship of our triune God, through Christ, while waiting for our very Savior to return and bring us into heavenly glory.
Thus, true theology is the doctrine of living unto God, through Christ, by the Spirit, in the context of the church, and with a view to the glories of heaven.
Mark Jones is the author of Living for God: A Short Introduction to the Christian Faith.