Every Christian must be a theologian. In a variety of ways, this is something I tell my church often. And the looks I get from some surprised souls are the evidence that I have not yet adequately communicated that the purposeful theological study of God by lay people is important.
Many times the confused responses come from a misunderstanding of what is meant in this context by theology. So I tell my church what I don’t mean. When I say every Christian must be a theologian, I don’t mean that every Christian must be an academic or that every Christian must be a scholar or that every Christian must work hard at giving the impression of being a know-it-all. We all basically understand what is meant in the biblical warning that “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Nobody likes an egghead.
But the answer to formal scholasticism or dry intellectualism is not a neglect of theological study. Laypeople have no biblical warrant to leave the duty of doctrine up to pastors and professors alone. Therefore, I remind my church that theology—coming from the Greek words theos (God) and logos(word)—simply means “the knowledge (or study) of God.” If you’re a Christian, you must by definition know God. Christians are disciples of Jesus; they are student-followers of Jesus. The longer we follow Him, the more we learn about Him and, consequently, the more deeply we come to know Him.
There are at least three primary reasons why every Christian ought to be a theologian.
First, theological study of God is commanded. Having a mind lovingly dedicated to God is required most notably in the great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Loving God with all of our minds certainly means more than theological study, but it certainly does not mean less than that.
Second, the theological study of God is vital to salvation. Now, of course, I do not mean that intellectual pursuit merits salvation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8) totally apart from any works of our own (Rom. 3:28), which includes any intellectual exertion. But at the same time, the faith by which we are justified, the faith that receives the completeness of Christ’s finished work and thus His perfect righteousness, is a reasonable faith. Faith may not be the same as rationality, but this does not mean that faith in God is irrational.
Saving faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8; Rom. 12:3), but it is not some amorphous, information-free spiritual vacuum. The exercise of faith is predicated on information—initially, the historical announcement of the good news of what Jesus has done—and the strengthening of faith is built on information, as well.
Our continued growth in the grace of God, our perseverance as saints, is vitally connected to our pursuit of the knowledge of God’s character and God’s works as revealed in God’s Word. Contrary to the way some idolaters of doubt would have you believe, the Christian faith is founded on facts. Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that for the Christian, faith is not some leap into the dark. Instead, it is inextricably connected to assurance and conviction. It stands to reason that the more theological facts we feast on in the Word, the more assurance and conviction—and thus the more faith—we will cultivate.
Paul tells his young protégé Timothy, “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 Tim. 4:16). He is reminding Timothy that the sanctification resulting in continual discipleship to Christ necessarily includes intense study of God’s Word.
Third, the study of God authenticates and fuels worship. True Christians are not those who believe in some vague God nor trust in vague spiritual platitudes. True Christians are those who believe in the triune God of the holy Scriptures and have placed their trust by the real Spirit in the real Savior—Jesus—as proclaimed in the specific words of the historical gospel.
Knowing the right information about God is just one way we authenticate our Christianity. Intentionally or consistently err in the vital facts about God, and you jeopardize the veracity of your claim truly to know God. This is why we must pursue theological robustness not just in our pastor’s preaching but in our church’s music and in our church’s prayers, both corporate and private.
But theological study goes deeper than simply authenticating our worship as true and godly—it also fuels this worship. We must remember what Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman at the well:
True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24)
We are changed deeply in heart and, therefore, our behavior when we seek deeply after the things of God with our brains. The Bible says so: “Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul writes. “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). The transformation begins with a renewing of our minds. As John Piper has said, “The theological mind exists to throw logs into the furnace of our affections for Christ.”
Purposeful theological study of God, as an expression of love for God, cannot help but deepen our love for God. The more we read, study, meditate on, and prayerfully apply the word of God, the more we will find ourselves in awe of Him. Like a great ship on the horizon, the closer we get, the larger He looms.
Jared C. Wilson is the author of Your Jesus Is Too Safe, Abide, Gospel Wakefulness, and Seven Daily Sins as well as articles and essays appearing in numerous publications. He is the pastor of Middletown Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Visit him online at www.gospeldrivenchurch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jaredcwilson.