Christianity is a religion of faith, but it is equally a religion of practice. One of the great dangers facing modern Christians is that we have forgotten the piety—the observance of God’s law that shapes life under the rule of God—and settled for a Christianity of intellectual ascent largely detached from any meaningful change of behavior. William Ames, the “Learned Doctor” as he was called once defined theology as follows:
Theology is the doctrine of living to God.William Ames. The Marrow of Theology.
While this might sound overly simple, it succinctly captures everything he believed and taught. He believed deeply that theology must drive right living before God otherwise it wasn’t theology. He sought a holistic integration of the believer’s: mind, heart, and will, all aimed for the glory of God. “There can be no other teaching of the virtues than theology which brings the whole revealed will of God to the directing of our reason, will, and life.” The Christian faith must therefore be practical and experiential. The intellect is certainly involved for God has spoken through words and sentences that the mind must interact with and comprehend. But the Christian mind is connected through the Holy Spirit to the Christian heart. The two have been melded together in an inseparable bond, in such a way that a change in one must necessarily produce a change in the other.
Ames was directly confronting the tendency for Christians of his day to separate Theology from Ethics. He took up the mantle and led the charge to insist that Christianity is an all-of-life experience. Christ gets a hold of the whole person, the will no less than the intellect. The Apostle John wrote the following words, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:28-29). For the Beloved Disciple, it was the one who “practiced righteousness”—right living underneath God’s law and by God’s wisdom—that was provided the assurance of their rebirth. Our justification—right standing before God— is in no way contingent on our sanctification. It is solely a work of God’s election. Yet our sanctification is certainly a direct & necessary fruit of our justification.
The heart of this post is to address a need that I see within the Church today, a need that I believe can be traced to multiple equally destructive sources. The need is for Christians to live truly pious lives, lives so overwhelmed by the sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ flooded into their souls, that they are marked outwardly among the non-believing world as strange and peculiar. The need is for Christians to once again pick up the mantle of our Puritan forefathers, and refuse to separate right thinking from right living. The need is for Christians to refuse to play the chameleon, by adopting secular practices and presuppositions that fail to comport with the living Word. “…For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
Practically, what this means is that every Christian needs to be trained, not only in the classic disciplines of the Christian faith (for no doubt those disciplines will reap fruit in due time), but even more so, ever Christian must be trained in the art of Theological Reflection. Whenever a Christian who is filled by the Holy Spirit engages with God’s Word, a life transforming effect should take place. The person’s whole being is joyfully surrendered underneath the Refiner’s fire. Many Christians have been trained to ask questions of the text (What does this text teach me about God? What does this text teach me about man? What does this text teach me about the Gospel?). Those are excellent questions that will shape the intellect and help us to think rightly. But, if these are the only questions we ask, then we miss the opportunity for a whole-person transformation.
It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way than by mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it… Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action.”Jonathan Edwards. The Religious Affections.
We must begin asking other questions that reflect upon the soul’s condition and drive us towards practical life change. How does this text impact my heart’s affections—the things I feel concern for, zeal for, hunger for, compassion for? Where are my affections misplaced or misdirected? If the text is a law-based passage (a passage that gives godly instruction) we may ask whether we consistently live according to the standard set for us in Scripture? If we discover moments of failure to adhere, ask what causes those failures? Are there particular temptations that require greater prayer, or clearer boundaries? What does secular society say about this Biblical instruction, and what informs their opinion? If there is a gap between secular thinking and Biblical thinking, ask to what areas and to what degree we have attempted to soften the Bible’s firm and clear message in order to placate a postmodern secular society? All of this reflection is driven towards repentance and chance. We think practically, practically, practically. It is one thing to say that God delights in us (that is an intellectual statement of faith). It is another thing entirely to experience the hatred of the world, and to be marked by a resounding joy as you bask in your identity in Christ and through Christ. We must put the good book to practical use once again!
The list above provides just a sample of questions that can be used for solid Theological Reflection. The point however ought to be clear, our Christianity cannot simply be a matter of what we say we believe. Our Christianity ought to be obvious through our lifestyles of constantly reforming piety. All of life is aimed towards the glory of God. The secondary end—after the glory of God—is the promised blessed life. An all-of-life joyful submission to God’s instruction produces the incomparable joy of living unto God.
May our theology be rich with a hunger for godly living. May our lives by marked that peculiar fragrance of an other-worldly people. May our convictions on the practical issues of daily living in a secular society be resolute and unashamed. May the bright light of the lives of the saints shine once again over the darkness.