The Necessity of Theology
“I grew up impressed by the people I knew in the buckle of the Bible belt
Hopped in a van with a band, now I’ve been just about everywhere else.
Met a soldier from Seattle and a lawyer from the east,
a Texas oil baron and Roman Catholic priest.
Everyday I choose, to walk in their shoes,
’cause pretty are the feet of those who bring the good news
‘Cause it’s a Good people, good, good people, everywhere, everywhere it’s God’s people.” from Audio Adrenaline, “Good People”
A common objection to the study of theology is the assertion we that should be more focused on doing right than on knowing right doctrine. Even many Christians will assert that as followers of Jesus, we should be more focused on imitating His example than on meditating on His teaching. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that true theology is absolutely necessary for the things we do to be accepted by God. As Phil Johnson recently explained on his blog [Pyromaniac]:
Authentic good works flow from sound doctrine; not the other way around. Orthodoxy [right belief] is what gives rise to orthopraxy [right action]. It never works in reverse. This, after all, is the basic message of Christianity: good works are a fruit of genuine faith. Faith, not any kind of work, is the sole instrument by which we lay hold of justification (Romans 4:4-5). And the practical righteousness of sanctification follows that (Hebrews 11:6; Galatians 5:6). Genuinely good works do not—and cannot—precede faith (Romans 8:7-8).
In other words, orthodoxy does take precedence over orthopraxy. That is an essential ramification of true biblical and evangelical doctrine. Orthodox doctrine really is more important than social action.
That is not to suggest that good works, human compassion, or godly virtues are optional. Far from it. (That certainly ought to be clear; for more than 35 years, our ministry [Grace to You] has opposed the kind of antinomianism that portrays good works as irrelevant to authentic faith.) But good works are secondary to faith and sound doctrine, because they flow from it. They are caused by it. They are never the cause of it. Social action and political causes (whether on the right wing or the left) are simply not as important as the truth of the gospel message, and every Christian’s personal priorities ought to reflect that principle.
Sinful behavior is always a fruit of wrong beliefs. You can be certain that if your behavior is bad, you have a belief somewhere that needs correcting.
For example, even if you can recite the catechism perfectly on the divine attributes, if you persist in deliberate sin, you do not fear God the way you should, and that is a belief (or lack thereof) that needs to be corrected with more orthodox thinking.
To put it another way, sound teaching (orthodoxy) is ultimately a necessary remedy for all evil praxis.
By the way, that’s why Jesus spoke of the Word as the instrument of sanctification. And that’s why orthodoxy itself should never be derided just because some who seem to be superficially “orthodox” might behave badly.
It’s certainly true that “doing is more important than words.” No one here has argued otherwise.
However (and this is the point I have labored to make), “orthodoxy” is not about words. It’s about truth, real belief, and the word of God. If it doesn’t result in “doing,” it isn’t true orthodoxy; it’s dead faith. That’s James’s point in chapter 2.
On the other hand, genuine goodness is not the fruit of pietistic doing. It’s the fruit of faith–and genuine faith is rooted in orthodox beliefs, not unorthodox ones.
It is important to note that true theology leading to orthodoxy, or right belief, is more than just intellectual knowledge about facts concerning the person and work of God through Jesus Christ, but true theology is not less than this knowledge. The biblical definition of saving faith includes information (biblical knowledge about God’s holiness, our sinfulness, and salvation through Christ), intellectual assent (confession that Jesus is Lord), repentance, and trust in Christ alone as Savior.
For those of us who have trusted in Christ, we must remember that all commands in the Bible flow out of the command to love God (Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5) and we cannot love someone we do not know. It is for this reason that knowledge of God is stressed in the Bible and that right knowledge is said to have transforming power in our lives. So that the Apostle Paul declares:
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, (Philippians 1:9 NASB)
And again he commands us:
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 NASB)
[This post was originally published on 6/28/05.]