Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Priority of Doctrine in Christian Living?

Certainly, doctrine (defined as the work of godly teachers of the Bible) contributes much to the Christian life. But in some ways, according to Scripture, the Christian life is prior to doctrine in this sense. As Jesus told Nicodemus (“the teacher of Israel,” John 3:10), you can’t even see the kingdom of God unless you are born again (John 3:3), that is, unless you have new life from God (cf. 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). You cannot be a teacher unless God has given you new life. Through that new life, God gives you a “willingness to do his will” that enables you to know the truth of Jesus’ teaching (John 7:17). Note that here a change of life is prior to a change in intellectual orientation, a change in doctrine.

Note also how the Apostle Paul tells us to find, test, and approve the will of God in
Romans 12:1–2: by making our bodies living sacrifices, renouncing conformity to the world, being transformed by the renewal of our minds. Again, a change of life is what brings insight, doctrinal understanding. Compare in this respect 1 Corinthians 8:1–3 (where love and humility are indispensible prerequisites to knowledge); Ephesians 5:8–10 (where living as children of light leads us to find what God’s will is); Philippians 1:9–10 (where love gives insight); and Hebrews 5:11–13 (where ethical maturity prepares us to benefit from doctrinal teaching about Melchizedek).

So theology is not self-sufficient. It depends on the maturity of your Christian life, as the maturity of your Christian life depends on theology. Growth in grace will make you a better theologian, and becoming a better theologian will help you grow in grace. There is a “spiral” relationship between the two. When you become a Christian, you usually get some elementary theological teaching, a great help in getting started in your walk with the Lord. But then new questions arise, and you go back to Scripture and theology, and you get more advanced answers—sometimes to the same questions you had as a spiritual babe. But your greater maturity enables you to understand and appreciate teaching of greater depth. And that teaching, in turn, helps you to grow more, and so on.

This is why, in the New Testament, the qualifications of teachers (
1 Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9) are more spiritual than intellectual. Paul mentions “aptness to teach” and “sound doctrine,” but his qualifications for elder-teachers are mostly ethical: “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate,self-controlled,” etc. The application is obvious: If you want to become a theologian, you must be a godly person. That principle applies to the most academic and theoretical of theologians, as well as to the practical theologians (like most of you) who preach sermons, lead Bible studies, nurture other believers, and witness to the lost.

John Frame in Reformation and Revival, 11.1.47-11.1.49.