Growing “Systematically”

Growing Systematically

There are many ways we grow in our Christian faith and one of the most significant ways we do this is through the thoughtful reading of good books—often beginning with the Scriptures. Not only are the Scriptures the very words of God, true and authoritative in every way, they go beyond giving us just an intellectual knowledge of God to bringing us into a relationship with Him through His Son. This work is supernatural and transformational. Because of this fact, many believers make an effort to read their Bibles daily. Few, however, expand beyond this to other Christian literature. Over the past two decades of ministry I have become more and more convinced that the study of other literature is an invaluable resource. In this post I want to talk about the benefits of studying “systematic theology.”

Systematic Theology - GrudemTo quote Wayne Grudem, “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.” The reason it is so beneficial is that it helps us answer our questions by looking at the whole of scripture. So where should we start? In the past, I have somewhat hesitated to recommend some of the best volumes to the average reader because they can tend to be a bit heavy and academic. A number of years ago, however, I came upon Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and was thrilled with what  I found. Not only has his work become a personal favorite of mine, it is what I recommend to every Christian—whether young or mature in the faith. I am reading it now again for the fourth time.

Here are a few of the reasons I recommend the book:

  1. Grudem is faithful to the text of Scripture and uses it to support his points.
  2. He uses language that is clear and understandable to the average person without giving up the richness of theological terms.
  3. He is practical. He brings the teaching to where we live and makes helpful application.
  4. He writes with both humility and conviction (a rare blend today).
  5. He informs his readers of the differing views. He does this with respect and not a condescending rhetoric.
  6. Each chapter ends with “Questions for Personal Application.” These are also helpful for group discussions.
  7. He has an expanded bibliography at the end of each chapter which can direct reading from different viewpoints (i.e.. Anglican, Arminian / Methodist,Baptist, Dispensational, Lutheran, Reformed / Presbyterian, Charismatic / Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, etc.
  8. He recommends verses to memorize at the end of each chapter.
  9. He also references a historic hymn at the end of each chapter (coinciding with the doctrine covered).

This is a reference book, but it is more than a reference book. It is the kind of work that you can read devotionally—a little each day if your prefer. A shorter version written by Grudem and his son, Elliot, can be used in group studies, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know.

Either of these books will help you as you study God’s Word and explore’s its teaching. We love to live in the “practical,” but everything we do in life will find its way back to what we believe or don’t believe about God. Our view of God is the ground upon which we stand, the security in which we rest, and the future to which we hope.

Outside of My Box

I am uncomfortable outside of my box. I know my own box is probably different than anyone else’s and it certainly isn’t infallible, but it is the the world that I have chosen to live in. For me, it is easily defined by lines that I have drawn in my own mind that are a result of conclusions I have come to over time.

Some of the lines God has clearly drawn for me in Scripture. Other lines have been formed as I have applied biblical principles. And still other lines I have drawn are out of personal preference.

I don’t like getting pushed out of my box—but there are some things that just have a tendency to do that.

  1. The continuing study of God’s Word.
  2. Answering honest questions by my students.
  3. Reapplying timeless truth to changing times.

People ask “what’s it going to look like?” In other words “show me the box.” I don’t think any of us can tell what the box is going to look like unless we conclude that we are not going to change anything.

What we can do when we are faced with challenging questions and changing times is commit ourselves to:

  1. Live to God’s glory.
  2. Be humble and teachable.
  3. Follow God’s Word and respond to His Spirit in everything.
  4. Live by faith and not fear—no matter what the cost.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding, in all you ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.” Proverbs 3:5, 6

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

That’s Really Who You Are! (Final Post in “What Matters Most”)

This is the final part of a multi-part series on “What Matters Most.” Click these links for part 1part 2part 3part 4, & part 5.

So then, what matters most to you? I believe I can tell you. It is what you think about, talk about, write about, and fight about. It is what you spend your time on. It is what you turn the conversation to. It is probably what you will die for, and right now what you are living for. These may or may not be THE fundamentals of the faith, but they certainly are YOUR fundamentals of the faith—this is who you are.

What matters most to God should be at the center of our lives. If we focus on peripherals we won’t see the center clearly and soon will develop a “new center” that is not the biblical center—we will just think it is. What should be at the center of every Christian life and ministry is the person of Christ and His gospel. I am not speaking in superficial or simplistic terms, I am speaking of the the full scope of the gospel. “The gospel is the good news of the person and work of Jesus Christ, from eternity to eternity, that finds its center in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.” This is how we come to Christ, how we are justified in Christ, how we grow in Christ, and how we are to someday be like Christ.  This is also the gospel we stand to lose when our focus is off.

It really does matter where we begin. If we begin by separating from what is wrong, there is no guarantee that we will get any closer to what is right. If we, however, begin by separating to what is right, we will very naturally separate from all that is wrong. This is the way the Apostle Paul functioned. He began by separating to the gospel (Romans 1:1) and this led him to what he should separate from (Romans 16:17). He is not talking about matters of personal opinion and application. Isn’t it ironic that the people who most often quote Romans 16:17 are the very ones Paul is talking about? He is confronting schismatic and divisive people who don’t get it. They still don’t.

What has happened? As Paul said in Galatians 5:7, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” Many of our gospel-centered, gospel-focused, organizations have been hijacked by people who want to argue and divide over secondary matters. This becomes their new center, their new identity, and their new “fundamentals of the faith.” The fight is on but they are no longer fighting for what matters most—Christ and His gospel, nor are they fighting against anything that would compromise the gospel. They are fighting over their traditions, applications, secondary associations, and opinions. They then go to great lengths to justify their carnal actions with misinterpreted scriptures, logical fallacies, and pragmatic applications. The tragic thing is that these brothers in Christ no longer fight the common enemy but each other.  As Les Ollila has said, “The enemy is coming over the hill but the soldiers are fist fighting in the barracks.” My pastor, Bob Crowley, once told me; “They swing their swords and cut themselves to pieces.”

There is nothing wrong with holding to our local church distinctives and personal convictions. These are necessary and good, but they should not be reasons to go to war with other Christians. We can still have unity in the gospel around what matters most while respecting one another’s differences. In the case of a brother or sister being overtaken in a fault, there is a biblical process for dealing with that—loving restoration (Galatians 6:1). That is the spirit of New Testament teaching. They will know we are Christians by the love we have for one another (John 13:35). This should be our primary characteristic (John 17:21).

The political, social, and ecclesiastical landscape has changed, but I am not discouraged. While movements come and go, truth remains. We now have a great opportunity to fill the gap. If we intentionally focus on the gospel through the person and work of Christ as revealed through His Word and by His Spirit, then we will be all about what matters most. We will walk in truth and do what is right. This gospel will once again be what we think about, what we talk about, what we are willing to fight for and die for. We will once again be all about what matters most.

What Matters Most: Personal Convictions

This is part 5 of a multi-part series on “What Matters Most.” Click these links for part 1part 2part 3, & part 4.

Everything we believe may be important, but not equally so. We draw a hard line around orthodoxy that defines our Christian belief and fellowship. We draw a dotted line around our functional distinctives because, while we may enjoy broader fellowship with other Christians, there are certain beliefs that are necessary for a local church to operate in a healthy way. What about our personal convictions?

Within the context of each local church there will be differences in personal convictions and standards among its members (and this list is just about endless). These differences are not differentiated by lines but by the space we allow one another (Romans 14).

Personal convictions and standards are important to the practical living out of the Christian life. At some point we have to take the commands, teachings, and principles taught in the Word of God and bring them down to where we live. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

While personal convictions may be a good thing, there are also accompanying dangers. There will be a tendency to view these standards as a badge of spirituality, or even to judge other’s spirituality by how well they measure up to our own personal standards. This can lead to a type of Phariseeism that hurts everyone. On the other hand, a disdain for personal convictions can easily push us toward a life that is just as dangerous. Most of the students I talk to agree that this is the greater challenge for their generation. Either way, legalism or license, we miss the point of grace.

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

What Matters Most: Functional Distinctives

This is part 4 of a multi-part series on “What Matters Most. Click these links for part 1part 2, or part 3.

Most Christians that I know would agree on “the fundamentals of the faith,” the sine que non of true, historic, Christian orthodoxy. After that, we begin to differ, both in our functional distinctives and in our personal convictions. And while everything we believe is important, not everything is equally important.

Functional distinctives are beliefs and practices that are necessary for a local church to operate in a healthy way. These might include, but not be limited to; mode of baptism, church polity, eschatology, spiritual gifts, view of soteriology (reformed or not), and basic philosophy of ministry (doxological or soteriological). The temptation might be to add everything we believe to this list, but I am not convinced that “everything we believe” fits here. Not every belief is a fundamental of the faith, and not every belief is necessary for a church to have healthy life. Some of our beliefs should remain as our personal convictions. We need to strive for unity—not unanimity.

The church, as well as the para-church organization, will need to decide upon the functional distinctives as well as the degree of compliance necessary for organizational participants: administrators, representatives, faculty, staff, accepted students, candidates for graduation, members of the alumni association, etc. I think these distinctions should be drawn very thoughtfully and carefully.

If everything we believe is important, but not equally so, it might even be a good idea to develop at least a two-tier doctrinal statement:

  1. A statement of faith that would clearly delineate an orthodox position.
  2. A statement of functional distinctives that would give necessary clarity and guidance for the healthy operation of a church or organization.

Both of these doctrinal statements should include what is necessary, but not more than what is necessary. After that, freedom should be allowed for different views as long as they do not violate Scripture, prove to be divisive, or hinder the work of the church.

I believe it was Augustine who said it first, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

What Matters Most: How We Draw the Lines

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on “What Matters Most. Click these links for part 1 or part 2.

I believe that the same lines that I draw for an orthodox Christian faith are the same lines that I should draw for Christian fellowship. I believe that every true born again Christian is a brother or sister in Christ and that not only can I have fellowship with him or her, it is what Christ has intended, and it is what brings him great delight (Romans 1:1; Philippians 2:1-11). For me to draw dividing lines that He has not drawn grieves Him, hurts the body of Christ, and hinders the work of the Great Commission.

The mode of baptism, timing of the rapture, cessationist or non-cessationist positions, dispensational or covenant positions, church polity, style of music, philosophy of ministry—are NOT fundamentals of the faith. They never have been. When we get to heaven I think there are going to be a lot of people feeling ashamed about how they fought over these things and neglected what matters most.

Every local church or ministry will have its functional distinctives, and we need these. Every believer will have his own personal convictions, beliefs, and opinions. We need these as well. They are not unimportant and they may even affect the degree of practical cooperation in certain ministry contexts. But, these are not matters of separation and those who don’t agree with someone else’s opinions are not simply disobedient brothers.

A disobedient brother is someone who is in clear violation of biblical teaching and one who after repeated confrontation continues in his sin. The Bible gives plenty of instruction on how to work through these situations in love and toward restoration (Galatians 6:1-5).

What do we separate over?

  1. The Christian should expose and separate from a false Gospel (Galatians 1:8,9).
  2. The Christian should expose and separate from another Christian who continues to walk in disobedience (after following a biblical process for restoration, I Corinthians 5:9-13).
  3. The Christian should separate from the world (This is another discussion that I would like to take up in the future because I find many people have a wrong view of  “the world” I John 2:15-17).

I can visit a church on Sunday morning, fellowship with believers, love what I am seeing, encourage fellow believers in what they are doing—and still choose not to join that particular local assembly. When we start separating over every belief and opinion we soon find ourselves standing all alone, criticizing the rest of body of Christ. I don’t think that is what God intended (I Corinthians 1:10-17).

Let’s separate to Christ and enjoy the sweet fellowship with every believer walking with Him. Let the church be the church autonomous. Let every believer stand and give an account for his own life as a priest before God. And let us discuss our differences with grace, integrity, and humility.

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

What Matters Most: Is it all About the Gospel?

This is part 2 in a series, “What Matters Most.” Part 1 can be found here.

Recently I heard someone say, “It’s not all about the gospel.” This caused me to think through the scope and implications  of a term I use so often—the gospel. If we reduce the gospel down to salvation or the events of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, then I think a person might conclude that there has to be more to Christianity than just that. But, I do not see how we can reduce the gospel in such a way.

I see the gospel as the full person and work of Christ from eternity to eternity with all of its implications for us. It is more than a matter of our justification; it is also about how we live and what we are called to do. For Paul, his separation to the gospel was seen in his theology, life, and message. If we believe Christ to be God; our creator, the lamb slain before the foundation of the world, and the one to whom we will ultimately give account, then we will see this good news from eternity to eternity. While the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ prove to be the centerpiece of the story, everything flows from Him, through Him, and to Him (Romans 11:36).

We must, however, be careful. There are other ways to be overly simplistic, even shallow. If we answer in a pious tone, “It’s all about the gospel,” to everything we are asked, we can push off serious thinking or discussion. Thabiti Anyabwile last week had an excellent post on this very problem, “I’m Tired of Hearing “The ‘Gospel’ Warning: Mild Rant).”

I have referred to Galatians several times in previous posts. Paul is fiercely adamant about the gospel, and makes it very clear that we have to get this right. He shows how this effects both justification and sanctification. It is a warning about both. The same gospel that saves us from sin and gives us eternal life is the same gospel that fuels the Christian life on earth. It is a doctrine of grace, through faith, evidencing itself in love.

Yes, when it comes to Christianity in its fullest sense, it IS all about the gospel!

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

What Matters Most

We all believe in certain things, but not all of those things carry equal weight. This is especially true when it comes to our theology. There is a big difference between what you believe about the resurrection, and what you believe about the timing of the rapture, or how the polity is going to be structured in your church. Many things may be important, but not equally so. When we value everything we believe equally, we soon find ourselves dividing over secondary issues and neglecting matters of much greater importance.

This is why Paul said in I Corinthians 15:3, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance….”

So, on a particular belief do you draw a hard line, dotted line, or just give a person space? While there may not be a perfect illustration, I have found Al Mohler’s “Theological Triage” very helpful as I process my own thoughts. His original post on the topic can be found here, or a newer abbreviated article is in this issue of Southern Magazine.

I would agree that there are at least three tiers/categories to this discussion:

  1. The first/top tier is orthodoxy. What doctrines are necessary for a person to truly be “Christian?” Sometimes we have referred to these as “the fundamentals of the faith.” While five of these were distinguished in the early part of the last century, I do think there are more. These would be beliefs that are necessary to have a true gospel, an orthodox faith, and an authentic Christianity. I believe it is very clear that Paul draws a hard line here with orthodoxy when we read Galatians. If we don’t get this right, we don’t get anything right.
  2. The second tier is one of functional distinctives. These teachings are necessary for a local church to function effectively—such as mode of baptism and church polity. We may have great fellowship with a Presbyterian and even have him preach for us in our church, but we probably won’t be members of the same church. We differ because we interpret certain texts differently. I see this as a “dotted line.” We can both be Christians who love the Lord and seek to please Him in all we do and we can enjoy times together in and out of the contexts of our local churches.
  3. The third tier is personal convictions. These are matters of conscience or preference. These are important, but believers should be able to differ and still enjoy fellowship within the context of the same local church. Love and respect will “give people space.” It is a Romans 14 spirit within the body and does not prohibit a healthy functioning of the local assembly of believers. In fact, the differences can be a strengthening characteristic.

Over the next few weeks I would like to speak to the implications of our theology and “What Matters Most.”

Around the Web (July 1-6)

Sally Lloyd-Jones | Teach Children the Bible is Not About Them

Here are some good thoughts about teaching children the Bible.

Christianity Today | Should Churches Display the American Flag in Their Sanctuaries?

This is an interesting opinion piece with three contributors. It has also generated some other discussion on some other websites.

Kevin DeYoung | Where and How Do We Draw the Line

This is an article I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. It is now available in full text from Ligonier’s website.

Ron Edmondson | 8 Most Dangerous Leadership Traits

“There are no perfect leaders…except for Jesus. For the rest of us, we each have room for improvement. Most of us live with flaws in our leadership. Good leaders learn to surround themselves with people who can supplement their weaknesses.”

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.

Around the Web (June 3 – 8)

Andy Naselli | What If You Fail?

Andy Naselli posted a good quote from Tim Lane and Paul Tripp from their book How People Change.

 Albert Mohler | The Seduction of Pornography and the Integrity of Christian Marriage

Al Mohler has a two part article on pornography and marriage. These are two very worth while articles to look at digest. Part 1 | Part 2

The Gospel Coalition | Let’s Get Our Theological Priorities Straight

“Get your priorities straight. This is true in the realm of Christian doctrine, just as it is anywhere else in life. Doctrinal prioritization has a strong pedigree. Jesus himself placed priority on the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).”

David Crabb | Forbidding What God Allows

“Most Christians intuitively recognize that it is sinful to allow what God prohibits. God has said that we must not steal or commit adultery, and certainly it would be sinful for us to say otherwise. And yet, it is not so clear (especially amongst conservative Christians), that it is equally sinful to prohibit what God allows.”

I would love to connect with you! If you have any questions or would like to connect please use the contact page.