Where do we go from here?
Many of us first entered ministry because of a love for God’s truth. We loved studying and were passionate about sharing the fruits of our study with others. Our libraries likely contain theological volumes we once read and studied with great zeal, but are now, in the words of one pastor, “monuments to a bygone era of study.” If the concerns expressed by Peterson, Wells, Seel and Powlison are valid, then it appears the demands and expectations ministry have robbed us of a previous devotion to theological study and reflection. If this is true, it is time to reconsider why theology is vital to healthy pastoral ministry.
If Peterson is correct in saying the “pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God”, then it is true that pastors must be theologians. Herman Witsius (1636-1708) put it this way:
By a theologian, I mean one who, imbued with a substantial knowledge of divine things derived from the teaching of God Himself, declares and extols, not in words only, but by the whole counsel of his life, the wonderful excellencies of God and thus lives entirely for His glory.
Herman Witsius, On the Character of a True Theologian,
ed. J. Ligon Duncan III, Reformed Academic Press, 1994, p.27
The apostle Paul clearly emphasizes the life-informing properties of theological truth.
1 Timothy 3:14-15 (ESV)
… I am writing these things to you so that … you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
1 Timothy 4:6 (ESV)
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.
1 Timothy 4:13 (ESV)
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
1 Timothy 4:15-16 (ESV)
Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 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 Timothy 6:2-3 (ESV)
Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.
1 Timothy 1:13-14 (ESV)
Follow the pattern of sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
Ongoing biblical, theological study is the duty of every pastor.
2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV)
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
One day we will stand before God and give an account for how we fulfilled our ministry calling. We do not want to be ashamed because we failed to accurately teach God’s truth. We surely hope that our work will be seen as “gold, silver, precious stones” and not as “wood, hay, straw” (1 Corinthians 3:12).
We have been called to preach, teach and model truth. Our God-given mandate is:
Ephesians 4:12-14 (ESV)
… 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, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
With the technological advances we enjoy today (e.g. Bible study software, podcasts, blogs, social media, etc.), people can misinterpret Scripture and embrace bad teaching at speeds before unthinkable. Paul encouraged the Ephesian elders to be properly prepared to guard their flocks against false teaching.
Acts 20:28-32 (ESV)
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
To fight for the truth; to contend for the faith; is a primary responsibility for a pastor (2 Timothy 4:1-5). Our times urgently call for men of God who have a firm grasp on biblical truth – on sound theology – and are unafraid to boldly proclaim it in their pastoral work.
If a doctor must continually study medicine, how much more should a physician of souls study the eternal truths of God’s Word, bearing in mind that Satan never ceases to spread his spiritual diseases?
Joel R. Beeke and Terry D. Slachter,
Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans,
Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, p.84.
Theologically astute pastors lay the proper groundwork for evangelism. Beeke and Slachter say:
Too much evangelism today operates on the assumption of common beliefs. It offers a truncated gospel. It tries to graft biblical concepts such as ‘God loves you’ onto a pagan and worldly mindset, resulting in syncretism and hypocrisy. Easy believism also encourages counterfeit faith. While the Spirit is free to work as He pleases (John 3:8), it is best to lay a solid foundation of truth in the mind of unbelievers so that they can rightly respond by the Spirit’s grace to our appeals to come to Christ.
Beeke and Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors, p.84
Theologically astute pastors are equipped to provide wise counsel for believers as they withstand Satan’s attacks. Ignorance and error are two main pillars in Satan’s attack on the church of Jesus Christ. Christians with a solid understanding and application of biblical truth find amazing victory over sin and temptation. Satan cannot withstand the truth of God. Though neglected by the vast majority of Protestants today, former pastors often visited their parishoners with a catechism in one hand and a Bible in the other. Catechism are designed to provide a stable framework for the gospel doctrines will believe and teach.
Theologically astute pastors are able to present solid biblical preaching that nourishes God’s people. Edifying preaching rests upon a firm theological foundation. If the anecdotal evidence I’ve received over a number of years is accurate, a discouraging amount of preaching consists of motivational speeches injected with a few Scripture texts to legitimize it as Bible preaching. Pastors committed to solid theological truth will recognize the need to give their people a diet of biblical theological truth that covers the whole counsel of God. That can only be done by pastors committed to disciplined study of the whole corpus of Scripture.
Studying and teaching a systematic approach to doctrine also bears subjective fruits. The big picture fits our lives and questions into the meta-narrative or epic story of God’s eternal plan and redemptive activity in history, thereby giving us an encouraging sense of meaning and direction. It helps us to answer questions such as, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Why is my existence so painful?’ ‘What is the solution to my problems?’ ‘Where is all this headed?’ and ‘What is the purpose of life?’
Beeke and Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors, p.89.
The ultimate aim of our lives is to glorify our God.
1 Corinthians 6:20 (ESV)
… for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
How it is possible to glorify God without having great thoughts of God? And how is it possible to have great thoughts of God except that we ransack the pages of holy Scripture where we find God revealing himself to those who hunger to know him. We cannot revel in the wonders of our God without studying him and his works – the very fodder of theology.
Theology is the discipline of thinking glorious thoughts of God. … When pastors study theology with both mind and heart, they learn how to live a God-centered life.
Beeke and Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors, p.90.
As to the importance of theology in the life of a pastor, Michael Lawrence says it as clearly as anyone:
… the most practical thing we can do, the important tool we need in ministry, is biblical theology. … Learning how to do biblical theology is no mere academic exercise. No, it’s vital to your work as a pastor or church leader. It shapes your preaching, your counseling, your evangelizing, your ability to engage wisely with culture, and more. You will not be a very good theologian, which means you will not be a very good pastor, if you do not learn how to do biblical theology.
Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, p.11
When we leave this Association meeting this afternoon, it is not likely we will rush back to the office to read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, or Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology. We are not likely to pull out a volume of John Owen, Jonathan Edwards or Calvin’s Institutes.
We are likely headed back to one of those incessant committee meetings, perhaps dinner with a new member who wants to get involved in the church, or maybe an appointment with board member who’s concerned about some changes you recently made.
Whatever it is that awaits your return, it will require decisions and practical proposals. And this is where your theology kicks in and proves its value. Theology isn’t about a program or new methodology which will draw people away from another church to your church. It isn’t a strategy to position the right people on your ministry team.
Good theology provides you with the big picture of God’s story – indeed, it places you within that story. It will birth within you a vision from God for what he is doing and yet plans to do, both in the world and in your local ministry.
A solid theology provides the structure for ministry to the hurting, bewildered, or wandering people you inevitably encounter in your pastoral work. Michael Lawrence says: “Ministry is theology in action.” It looks something like this:
- You have taught the church about God’s goodness and sovereignty, so that when a child is diagnosed with cancer, the parents will be grief-stricken but not completely undone.
- You have equipped the eighteen-year-olds heading off to college with the necessary tools for facing the radical relativism of their professors.
- You know how to help the man in your church who is struggling with whether or not God knows the future because his brother-in-law from another church gave him a bad book.
- You have helped a young wife and mother who struggles with perfectionism and people-pleasing to find her justification and worth in the gospel.
- You have prepared the engaged couple for the challenges of marriage through premarital counseling that focuses on God’s plan for our holiness and not just instantaneous happiness.
Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, pp.15-16.
Our people rightly look to us for wise, godly leadership. In the end, they won’t care so much about the cleverly-designed programs and amazing properties we assembled. They will, however, forever appreciate the wise, loving and God-saturated counsel we provide to help them navigate a crazy world.
Let’s strive to emulate the first leaders of the Jerusalem church: “… we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4 ESV).