The Intersection of Theology and Life
A High View of God in the Valleys
If the chief end of man is to know God and enjoy him forever, how does that shape our everyday life? How do we suffer and yet still lean upon his sovereignty? How does our understanding of the gospel trickle into the love we have for our spouses? How does our view of Scripture shape our prayer life?
Too often we leave our theology book on the shelf; this guide is a plea to bring a rich understanding of God into every aspect of life. May your exalted view of God inform everything else about you—all to the praise of his glorious name.
Table of Contents
Why Every Believer Needs Theology
When I say theologian, what comes to mind?
It likely conjures images of elite educators and the hallowed halls of academia. It’s a name often attributed to learned men of letters—those who spend their years in libraries, publishing grand tomes on doctrinal fine points. Within the church, there is a tendency to see theologians as separate and elevated—the privileged of the Body of Christ. The theologians are the upper-class who publish articles, write books, teach in seminaries, and frequent the lecture circuit.
But while many of these activities are common to those who travel in theological circles, none of these define a Christian as a theologian.
Instead, the distinguishing characteristic of a theologian is that he knows God. Never content, he steadily pursues a deeper knowledge of Him and His Word. Despite how the term theologian is often used, it is not a profession; it is a way of life—one that should be common to every individual who claims to believe in Christ.
John Gerstner wrote, “If a theologian is a person who knows God, then by reverse reasoning a person who is not a theologian does not know God. There is no shame in a layman’s being told that he does not know carpentry, or plumbing, or medicine, or law, or teaching, or the ways of a housewife; but there surely is the greatest of shame in a layman’s being told that he does not know God.
Furthermore, there is more than shame; there is a very great danger.”
All men are accountable to God, for their knowledge of Him, and service unto Him. The Christian should spend his life chasing God through His Word.
In John’s gospel, the Lord Himself said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Knowing God is not an optional endeavor; it’s a mandate for the church. If Christ has called you to repentance and faith, He has called you to be a theologian.
This is not a calling you fulfill merely by sitting in a pew each week. True theologians are not content to be spoon fed their doctrine—they earnestly seek out the rich sustenance of God’s Word. They understand the practical value of their theology—how it touches each aspect of their daily lives.
How Can I Know if I'm Saved?
Many are often left wondering, "How can I know if I'm saved?" It is a multi-faceted concept and for this reason, one that can often escape the well-intentioned believer.
Its complexity stems in part from the fact that we all have a history—we have experiences and influences in the past that affect the way we understand our relationship with Christ now. Furthermore, we all have personality traits—we have tendencies and dispositions which can color our understanding of what it means to be saved. Finally, we all face a set of present-day circumstances—we endure the reality of life in a broken world and that can easily cause us to ask questions regarding the nature of our standing before God. Although assurance is available to every believer, it is not promised. It is a complex issue and it is often absent in the Christian’s life.
The Apostle John addressed the issue when he wrote to a group of Christians who were experiencing turmoil, false teaching, and the departure of some in the congregation. With pastoral skill and theological precision, the beloved Disciple penned 1 John “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). His aim was to instill confidence in a group of disciples—confidence that they were indeed secure in Christ, in the midst of teaching that had undermined the true and saving gospel.
As we survey the contours of the letter and John’s strategy in writing, it is instructive to note how the apostle begins. He does not call the believers primarily to examine themselves, nor does he question their fidelity to the word. Contrary to our tendency to set the discussion of assurance within the framework of obedience, John begins his letter by simply setting forth Christ. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).
At this point we might ask, why does he start his discussion of assurance in this way? He does this because assurance is a fruit of faith. Assurance grows out of our trust in the Savior, and it cannot be properly considered apart from this fact. As such, if we want to grow in confidence of who we are in Christ we must—as a matter of priority—nurture our faith. The way we do this is to feast on the gospel. We delight ourselves in the one who saved us.
The nineteenth-century Scottish minister Robert Murray McCheyne was correct when he counseled that for every look at self, there should be ten looks at Christ. It is when we bathe our minds and hearts in the truth of the gospel—salvation by grace accomplished at the cross—that our faith increases, which in turn fosters a sense of assurance.
At this point, it is worth considering the proper antidote to a lack of assurance. Oftentimes a Christian will suffer from uncertainty concerning the nature of his salvation because there is ongoing sin in his life. As the counselor, you might be tempted to advise him “start obeying in order to gain assurance.” However, such advice runs contrary to John’s logic. When he makes an appeal for holiness he is not anticipating that obedience will in turn yield assurance. To strive for obedience in order to nurture assurance is to turn our faith upside down and pursue merit via our own efforts. Put another way, assurance is not the child of obedience.
Fidelity to the commands of Scripture does not, in and of itself, beget certainty of our union in Christ. Rather, the relationship between obedience and assurance is one of friendship. They are companions, and they are both products of faith. Therefore, just as assurance is nurtured by growing our trust in Christ, so also is true obedience. As such, the proper counsel for someone who is lacking in assurance because he is demonstrating an inconsistent pattern of Christian living is to look to the Savior, to set his gaze on Jesus. Then, with Christ firmly in view, he must wage war against sin, trusting that in time a sense of assurance will grow.
How to Get Our Sanctification Unstuck
Oftentimes, in our Christian walk we can look at the lack of progress in our “progressive sanctification” and feel as though we’re simply stuck—our lives standing as half-finished monuments to the saving grace of God who began a good work within us, but seeming so far from completion. When we survey our spiritual walk and realize that we’re not making the kind of progress we so earnestly desire, how do we get things moving again?
When it comes to sanctification, it is not possible to just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
While your effort is surely necessary, and is commanded in dozens of places in the New Testament, those efforts must necessarily fail if conducted apart from a total dependence upon the work of the Lord within us. The necessary work of sanctification can only be undertaken with a full dependence upon the power of God that is at work within us.
Recognize God's Power
Power is ultimately what we're all after in sanctification. And when it comes to sanctification, we all seem to lack power. So where does this power come from?
Peter answers that question in 2 Peter 1:3. We have divine power that is propelling us toward godliness. It's not just power that now belongs to you, it’s divine power—the power of Christ Himself. The power of Christ that was so evident in His calming of the storm, the feeding of the 5,000, the raising of the dead, and the tearing of the veil—that is the power that is now being funneled down towards the end of your sanctification.
This isn’t a weak human power to sometimes make a right choice. It’s an infinite, gushing fountainhead that serves as a constant, throbbing source undergirding not only your effort, but your progress as well. His power now becomes your power. It is a power that was given as a gift when he “granted” it and unilaterally “called” us to Himself, thereby guaranteeing its abundant
availability. As Peter explains, this gift was brought to us by His own glory and excellence when He exercised His power on our behalf.
Because the exercise of His power in our growth is linked to His glorious and excellent person, it cannot possibly fail. When God stops being glorious, you’ll be allowed to say that you have no spiritual power. When He ceases to be holy, you’ll be justified in claiming that you can no longer grow. But as long as He is either of those things, and He must always be, the spiritual wind in your sails blows in one never-ending gust, providing you with everything you need for life and godliness.
Recognize God's Provision
The source of God's power for life and godliness is made available to us through the knowledge of Christ. The implication is that the more clearly you see Jesus, the greater power you will have in your spiritual life. This connection between knowledge of Christ and progress in sanctification is verified by 1 John 3:2 where we’re told that our sanctification will only be perfected when our vision of Christ is likewise perfected. Therefore, if you're not progressing today, it means that you’re not seeing Christ clearly.
Where is this knowledge of Christ found? Peter makes it clear that the truth of Christ is found in the pages of Scripture. This is why Peter says later in chapter one that we have the prophetic word made “more sure” than Peter’s own vision of the glory of Christ at the transfiguration. It is in the pages of Scripture that God provides you with everything you need for life and godliness.
He is the everything we need. Therefore, when you feel stuck, recognize that the provision of God’s power is not future tense. He’s not going to provide for you at some point down the road. It’s not as though God might or could provide. Rather, it’s in the past tense. He already has provided the full revelation of the person of Christ, and you’re holding that provision in your hands.
Recognize God's Promises
The power of God, granted as a gift, rooted in His nature, has now bestowed upon us a truckload of promises that enable our walk today. Those promises are described in Scripture as being precious and very great (2 Peter 1:4). We find here that the promises of God are to be treasured as rare jewels. Their volume is to be cranked up to “great” levels so that we are constantly aware of them, thereby being motivated by them.
Imagine the horror of a world in which you knew the truth of God but were not enabled to move towards Him. Instead, He’s given you a truckload of promises that all motivate you to move! Why is this so important? For it is “by them” – these promises – that we become partakers of the divine nature and escape the corruption that is in the world. When you feel stuck, remember that God has not only brought to you the knowledge of Jesus Christ, thereby providing everything you need for life and godliness, but He’s also handed you an arsenal of promises that are of infinite value in sustaining you for your daily struggle.
Enslaved: A Theology of Addiction
You’re not going to find the word addiction in your Bible. The word comes from a Latin term which means a hopeless dependence. But what does the Bible say about the issue of addiction?
When you hear the word addiction, think enslavement. The difference in wording is crucial—you can be freed from enslavement, but you cannot ultimately be freed from an addiction. Why? Because as the world so joyfully and pessimistically exclaims, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. Once addicted to pornography, always addicted to pornography.
But that’s just not true.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Do not be deceived, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." And then he writes, "Such were some of you" (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Were—past tense. In other words, Alcoholics Anonymous sells a lie. They sell that you can never ultimately change. But God says you can.
“Such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
There can be change. Once a chemical abuser, not always a chemical abuse. Once an alcoholic, not always an alcoholic. There is always hope of liberation.
Cloaked Cowards: A Theology of Conflict
Certainly, Christians are to be peacemakers. And conflict, therefore, should not be sought or desired. But being a Christian requires believers to step into situations that are irreversibly awkward—situations that have the potential to turn contentious. We must not be so scared of strife that, in attempts to avoid it, we forsake our duties.
Faithful evangelism, for example, will often result in bitter rejection. Church history has attesting to this a mountain of martyrs. Calling a brother or sister in Christ to repent, even when done in love and patience, may lead to conflict. Exercising discernment—dividing truth from error—can also lead to vehement disagreement, even among believers. It’s not that we pursue evangelism and discernment in pursuit of arguments, but being a Christian means doing things that lead to awkwardness, even contention.
More often, however, Christians are so terrified of awkward conflict that they diligently side-step these Christian duties. Worse, we too often justify our cowardice by painting it over in shades of virtue. “I'd rather be gracious than contentious,” we warmly concede. Or, “It’s more loving for me to just let it go.” “It’s not my place,” we whimper as we retreat from the frontline; “I just want to be encouraging and focus on the positive.”
Many believers will never have that tough talk, will rarely proclaim the gospel, and will act as if a stand against theological error is something of a social faux pas. And how do they defend their tender-hearted neglect of these duties of Christian love? Because they are such gracious, kind, loving, and merciful Christians, of course! But more often, their avoidance of confrontation stems, not from virtue, but fear. Their dodging of disagreement is not the budding fruit of the Spirit, but rather the fear of man. Still, they dress their cowardice in cloaks of kindness and virtue.
Genuine Christian virtue looks much different. Christian virtue does not seek the fight, but it also refuses to run.
Believers, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, do hard things and engage in difficult conversations, not because they cherish contention, but because it is loving and God-honoring.
If we properly feared God, we would not hunt for gracious avenues of disobedience in order to appease our fear of man. And what a joy to know that almighty God is on our side, even as we boldly walk into powder keg conversations. When we fear God, not man, we can conclude with the author to the Hebrews, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6) So, I can have that tough talk with confidence.
Real virtue requires a deeper fear of God than man. The world does not need more timidly bland Christians. The world needs men and women of Christian virtue, who boldly and lovingly evangelize, disciple, and discern without fear of reputation or repercussion, because they are doing it not for man’s praise, but in service to the living God.
The Danger of Loveless Discernment
What begins with a healthy interest in discernment in many Christians' lives can end in an unhealthy addiction to gossip and debate. Many of them manifest a cruelty in how they go about condemning error. There's an almost giddiness when they get to call someone “false teacher" and a haughty attitude of superiority. These things ought not be so.
We must wield discernment like a surgeon’s scalpel. We are called to speak the truth, yes. But we are called to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). That does not mean speaking less truth. But, it should be a heart check for us in how we speak the truth. How sad it would be if, in our attempts to be discerning, that ever-clever Devil twisted our love for truth into a love of gossip and contempt for others. What if he succeeded in tempting us to err in our walk even as we were seeking to reject error in our doctrine?
If we are to practice discernment in love, we must discern with precision, humility, and sorrow. Not to temper the truth, but rather that we might bolster the truth with our love that we might more honor Christ and persuade the erring.
Discerning in love means discerning with precision. Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between right and wrong; rather it is telling the difference between right and almost right.” And John Murray said, “The difference between truth and error is not a chasm but a razor’s edge.” They are right. As you read through the New Testament epistles, you often find the writers addressing what appear to be incredibly fine points of doctrinal disagreement.
So, when it comes to doctrinal issues, we must wield discernment like a surgeon’s scalpel, carefully incising into a teaching to separate the bad tissue of error from the healthy tissue of truth. But we must be precise in how we go about exercising discernment as well. Because we are not only dissecting the false teaching, we are also trying to persuade our brothers and sisters to turn away from it. Yet many self-described watchmen treat discernment less like a scalpel and more like a broadsword, wildly mowing down believers by the herd with every careless tweet.
Jesus had a whip for false teachers but he wept for the deceived. Precision in how we apply discernment means marking that distinction between deceived and deceiver, and treating them accordingly. There’s a difference between a false teacher and someone who has been deceived by false teaching. Your mother-in-law shouldn't be burned at the stake just because she listens to a health and wealth preacher. She needs someone to take the time to make a loving, patient, prayerful exposition of Scripture to show her why it is unbiblical. Precision recognizes that your buddy with bad theology is blessedly inconsistent. He’s not necessarily a heretic, he’s just an immature believer in need of doctrinal correction. Just observe the difference in how our Lord dealt with the Pharisees versus the other people He came across. Jesus had a whip for false teachers but he wept for the deceived.
Before Uttering a Word in Prayer
If you were to ask the average churchgoer to list the most important elements necessary for a healthy prayer life, you would be delighted if you heard them give such answers as a proper environment without distractions, discipline and determination, an attitude of faith and expectancy, or freedom and confidence. Indeed, these are all crucial components of biblical prayer.
The Son of God himself “would often slip away to the wilderness to pray” (Luke 5:16). He taught that His disciples must “pray and not lose heart,” just like the widow persisted before her judge (Luke 18:1-8). James instructs us to offer requests to God “in faith, without doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind” (Jam 1:6). And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that we must take advantage of our privileges as God’s children and “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need” (Heb 4:16).
But the most important aspect of prayer is actually not the environment, attitude, or manner of our speaking to God. What contributes most to the health of our praying is what comes before we even open our mouths to address the Almighty. It is our hearing—our listening to the oracles of God on the pages of Scripture—which influences our praying the most.
Using Latin terminology to emphasize the primacy of God in all things, theologians call God the principium essendi (foundation for existence), the principium cognoscendi (foundation for knowing), and the principium loquendi (foundation for speaking). It is this third principium which is particularly important to our understanding of prayer. While theologians typically refer to it to emphasize that we could not speak about God if God had not first spoken to us, the principle also relates to prayer. If God had not first spoken to us, we could not speak to him. Man’s speaking to God is directly dependent on God’s Word to man. Without God’s propositional revelation, prayer in any meaningful sense would be impossible.
As such, to be a man or woman of prayer necessitates being of the Word. It means submitting oneself to the absolute authority of Scripture in whatever it says. It means approaching Scripture as “the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2)—oracles which cannot be altered, contested, ignored, or disobeyed. Thus, if you are to pray well, you must be committed to studying well. True prayer—just like true preaching—cannot be practiced or experienced without this foundational commitment.
A statement from the life of George Müller helps illustrate the priority that God’s Word must have in our prayer practices. Recognizing that he had put the cart before the horse, Müller writes,
Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer, after having dressed in the morning. Now I saw, that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord. I began, therefore, to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning. (A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller, vol. 1)
Hearing the Word of God as He has delivered it in Scripture is the starting place for your life of prayer—whether you are a new disciple of Jesus Christ or a seasoned prayer warrior. If you find yourself struggling in prayer, it can ultimately be traced to your struggle in the study and understanding of Scripture. A right approach to Scripture will not only motivate and enable you to pray better, but it will instruct you how to pray and provide you with the right content to pray.
We tell our children often, “Listen before you speak.” The same holds true for our praying.
For undoubtedly, that which God abundantly makes the subject of His promises, God’s people should make the subject of their prayers. It also affords them the strongest assurances that their prayers shall be successful. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards)
To Have & To Hold
It happened again. My wife and I heard of yet another Christian couple—whom we knew and loved—ending their marriage. I felt sick. I couldn't rid my mind of the years, likely decades, of unrest that would trickle from this.
It seems as if Christians are beginning to be okay with their marriages mimicking the world's broken marriages. We are growing accustomed to leaving the gospel on the sideline when it comes to our wedding vows. Divorce has become something of a car crash: unpleasant, destructive, but sometimes simply inevitable. A wreck, however, pales in comparison to the ripple-effects of divorce. A fractured marriage not only affects the family, it devastates our witness as ministers of grace to a broken world.
But just consider the impact of a couple who says and actually means their wedding vows—"for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."
Several years ago, I officiated a memorial service for a woman who had had a long fight with Alzheimer's. She rarely recognized her husband the last years of her life. Yet week after week he drove four hours to be with his bride. On his last visit, something changed. She held his face in her hands and whispered, "I love you." What a beautiful picture of the stubborn, never-wearying love of the gospel—a love that gives and forbears, even in days and years of forgetfulness.
How to Put God's Glory on Display
The succinct, simple and direct mandate of Scripture is that "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31). All of God’s creation is to be absorbed with putting the glory of God on display. When the angels announced the Savior’s birth, they were joined by the heavenly host, glorifying God (Luke 2:14). The shepherds responded by glorifying God following their visit to the Christ-child in the manger (Luke 2:20). Even the physical creation incessantly declares His glory (Ps 19:1-2).
While the importance of this mandate is not lost on most Christians, its fulfillment frequently is. We heed lip-service, often closing our prayers of petition with, “and we’ll be sure to give you all the glory.” But when the answer comes, we, much like the nine lepers, are often so elated that we fail to make good on our promise.
How can we follow the example of creation or join in the chorus with the shepherds and the heavenly host in glorifying God? The answer, I believe, is found in Exodus 33:18-34:8. When Moses asks to see the glory of God, God puts His glory on display by rehearsing His attributes, and thereby demonstrates how we can give God the glory that belongs to Him. Here are six ways you can put the glory of God on display:
When we confess sin, we are putting on display His glory by declaring His righteousness. That is David’s point in Psalm 51:4: “Against You, You only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when you judge.”
Our God is a forgiving God (Ps 130:3-4; Mic 7:18-19). When we forgive others, we are proclaiming His compassion and eagerness to forgive. It has been said that we are never more God-like than when we forgive. That is why the Lord places so much emphasis on forgiving others in the disciples’ prayer (Mt 6:12, 14-15). Forgiving others puts His glory on display.
If God does all things for our good (and He does), then demonstrating our trust in Him puts His nature and character on display. We reflect who He is. The life of Abraham provides a remarkable example of this. Romans 4:20 notes that, “with respect to the promise of God, Abraham did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God.” At the end of his life, Paul recounts how the Lord stood with him, strengthened him, and rescued him from every evil deed, and concludes that the Lord will bring him safely to his heavenly kingdom, to Him be the glory forever and ever (2 Tim 4:17-19). Trusting God declares His glory.
Jesus says: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Living a life that adorns God’s attributes puts His glory on display. When His communicable attributes are reflected in our lives, it not only produces fruit, but it glorifies God.
Psalm 50:23 says, “He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving glorifies Me.” Expressions of gratitude to God sets His glory on a pedestal. Thanksgiving directs our focus on the One who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). First Thessalonians 5:18 reminds us of God’s sovereign orchestration of all of life for the believer (cf. Rom 8:28). Thanksgiving acknowledges that and thereby reflects His glory.
Like giving thanks, prayer shines the spotlight on God’s attributes of goodness and omnipotence. The Lord encourages and invites us to, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble and I will rescue you and you will glorify me” (Ps 50:15). In John 14:13 He adds, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
Glorifying God is not a memorized mantra of special words or phrases. Rather, it is a life that reflects the attributes of God, a lifestyle that is consumed with putting His glory on display. Like a city built on a hill or a lamp set on a lampstand, glorifying God entails letting the light of the attributes of God shine before men so that others will join with us in glorifying our Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).
The Aim of Theology
John MacArthur writes in Biblical Doctrine on the intent of theology in the believer's life:
[The study of theology] begins with informing the intellect (knowing and understanding). The intellect shapes what we believe and love in our heart. Our will desires what we love and repudiates what we hate. Our actions then accord with what we want most. The mind shapes the affections, which shape the will, which directs the actions. Theology is not fully furnished until it has warmed the heart (affections) and prompted the volition (will) to act in obedience to its content.
May our affections for Christ flow into every corner of our lives.