I love Theology and Apologetics and I am proud to say that my faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been greatly matured by studying these complex and significant disciplines. However, I would like to talk about the danger that a maturing Christian faces when they choose to sprint towards Apologetics and Theology without first seeking a strong love and knowledge of the Gospel that is rooted in the bible. A strong foundational understanding of the Gospel, and its basic principles empowered by the Holy Spirit, allows for a believer to strive towards complex Theology and Apologetics with a desire to glorify God. Going forward, I plan to show how a maturing believer can be harmed without this foundation.
Theology and Apologetics are intellectual pursuits that are made richer by the presence of the Holy Spirit who reveals truth to us and reminds us of it when we need it. In evangelism they can be used as vessels to lead people to saving faith in Jesus. However, it does not take faith to understand Theology and Apologetics. An atheist, agnostic, or anyone else who is not Christian can study Christianity and understand the mindset of most theological debates. The Christian artist KB and his friend Ameen Hudson talked about this on their podcast “Southside Rabbi” and they pointed out that Theology only requires a strong mind, a few good books, and the ability to read. There are plenty of people that know good Theology and do not walk with the Lord. If you are a believer, or if you are curious about Christianity, it is crucial to know the Bible and how it supports theological ideas so that you do not get tripped up and confused in conversations with others. People will unintentionally and intentionally misuse and abuse scriptures in theological and apologetic debates. This makes a deep foundational understanding of scripture crucial.
Another problem I have seen with some Christians who prioritize deep intellectualism over scripture as their foundation is that they can see their pursuit of theological wisdom become the “works” they do in order to show their sanctification. This mindset, especially without biblical maturity and the Holy Spirit saturating your mind with a deep love and knowledge of the scriptures, can also work to make someone arrogant. I have seen many fellow believers, including myself, grow annoyed with and intolerant towards new believers who do not understand complex Theology and Apologetics. One starts to look at young believers and think “If they only were deeply into Apologetics like me, or if they could explain the complexities of Calvinism then they would be a better Christian!” Our zeal, or at least my zeal, for the truth has often blinded me from realizing that before someone can run to these topics they must crawl as children, learning the basic essentials of the faith.
The essence of one’s faith is the Gospel that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity who has existed for all eternity, came to earth as man and lived his life without sin, being fully man and fully God, died and suffered for the sins of the world. Being God in flesh, Jesus died a gruesome death for all of the sins of those who call upon his name, and he rose from that grave to prove himself to truly be our Lord and Savior. Ironically, I am aware that the sentence and everything I have typed so far is a complex theological opinion. I could not articulate the Gospel this well for many of the first years of my Christian faith and I am blessed that I can today. The theological complexities of the bible only made sense to me within the framework of the scriptures. The more I grow the fire that is my knowledge of the scriptures, the more use I find Theology as a kindling for my faith.
I can now articulate proper Theology, not because I have read good Theology (though I have), but instead because I have read the Bible in prayer in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit within the body of believers who teaches us through God’s Word and through other mature believers what is good and proper Theology. Yes, God is thrilled that I can articulate deep and complex Theology. But, He is even more thrilled with what Jesus did to bring me as a sheep into his fold. One way to put it is this: It is more important to see yourself and know yourself to be a sheep in the flock of God, who is the best shepherd that laid his life down for his sheep when they didn’t deserve it, than to know the detailed and intricate knowledge about how the Shepherd, who has all authority and power works and wills, accomplished this.
I want to strongly emphasize that this is not a one or the other situation, but instead a question of priorities and sustainability. The Apostle Paul makes it clear in his epistle that the Gospel is the starting point of all Christian life. He says to the church in Corinth that the matter of first importance he delivered to them was the Gospel. This is often repeated as seen in Galatians 1:3-5, Ephesians 1:3-10, Philippians 1:3-6, Colossians 1:3-7, and 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, all of which he starts by teaching them the Gospel or acknowledging that they primarily understand it. He knew that the Gospel is the foundational sustaining truth of the Christian life.
If you prioritize knowing about God in detailed and abstract ways before knowing him in his immediate word where you can have a relationship with him, it may lead you to burn out and suffer as a believer. People who prioritize Theology over a deep understanding of the Gospel may find themselves enjoying the intellectual stimulus instead of the joy we find in the Lord. Surely the joy of intellectual stimulus and knowing the God, who died to save you, is a good thing; however, it can be turned into an idol.
This brings me to the heart of why I am writing this. I have seen many people call upon the name of Christ to be saved, and then be ushered by well-meaning people to good Theology before being ushered to the Bible and into a biblical community where they can mature as a believer. Receiving the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not simply the qualification for entering the race of faith in which theological intelligence will sustain you. Instead, the Gospel is what qualifies you for the race and it empowers and sustains you for the race of faith. As you run this race, the word of God will lead you to deeper theological concepts that will help empower you more as they make the Gospel clearer to you.
In order to become more like Christ, we need the nourishment of both the milk and the meat (simple and complicated theological matters). These are of necessary importance to a believer, as seen in Hebrews 5:11-14 which shows us that we must seek to understand the basics of the Christian faith before we run into more complex content. Let me draw this illustration: If you hand a toothless baby (a new believer) a Prime Ribeye you may see them struggle to eat it which will lead them to dealing with hunger (spiritual malnourishment). A new believer needs strong and mature believers who have had ample meat and milk to effectively nurse them with milk into spiritual adulthood. Then they will be able to handle and discern how to eat the meatier topics of the Christian faith that are shown to us in scripture.
If you have a strong love and trust in God through the Holy Spirit saturating your mind with scripture, you will find yourself more willing to believe the theological implications of the Bible. As sinners, we detest being corrected and changed. But, once we fully understand the Gospel, we can clearly see it as a necessity. This allows us to humble ourselves before the Scriptures and to allow them to teach us what is right. An immature believer who lacks the basic understandings of who God is may easily stumble if in their pursuit of Theology they discover a false Theology that leads them out of biblical Christianity and against their peers.
A young believer may also stumble over sound doctrine and see it as too controversial and costly to believe as well. There are some Christian beliefs that are fundamentally offensive to those outside the church. Without truly trusting God, many immature believers are willing to deny biblical truths for the sake of their own comfort in conformity to the world’s standards. Though I am not fully convinced of all reformed Theology, I’ve found myself going from detesting it to rejoicing in it. I have begun to see many Reformed and Calvinistic Theology in the scriptures even when I am not even looking for them. Topics such as Complementarianism, Election, and Biblical Marriage are often hard to even discuss until one finds the loving truth of the scripture more appetizing than their sinful nature.
In the end we must be patient with new Christians who are starting to mature and within our own maturity. To paraphrase John Piper’s recent sermon at Together 4 the Gospel, I think it is best said like this: “We need to run the race of faith with endurance at a pace that will allow us to finish the race well”. I believe we need to love God’s Word like Paul and be willing to follow Jesus no matter the cost. But, we must not act mentally superior and oppressive to others believers as Paul did as a Pharisee before his conversion. We must not mistake intellectual ability with actual holiness and maturity. We must be patient and remember that we are saved by faith alone and that genuine faith yields works of righteousness which will eventually include theological competency.
Grace and Peace