The Making of a ‘Theologian’: Twelve Ways to Grow in Grace and Knowledge of the Lord

lutherA few weeks ago I wrote a blogpost, “Theology is not Just for Theologians.” This week Edmond Sanganyado ran a post (“Becoming a Better Theologian“) on the same subject, where he queried more than twenty theologians on how to grow in knowing and loving God (i.e., theology). He received responses from Jonathan Leeman, Kevin Vanhoozer,  Tim Challies, to name a few. He also included a few thoughts I shared.

I’ve developed those reflections further below, and laid out twelve aspects to growing as a ‘theologian’ (i.e., one who thinks about God). These are addressed to individuals in the church but could easily be adapted by pastors to encourage his congregation to grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18), which is the aim of spiritually-enriching theology.

Twelve Ways to Grow in the Grace and Knowledge of the Lord

1. Delight Yourself in the Lord. 

Good theology begins with a soul satisfaction in the Lord. This includes conversion, but goes further. Because understanding is enhanced or hindered by our loves, the first thing a good theologian must do is love God in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4) is not just a command for decision-making, it is also necessary for doctrine-making.

Often heresy and errant theology (which are not exactly the same) are produced by men who are embittered towards God or trying to win the approval of others. In other words, because biography shapes theology (as in the case of Friedrich Schleiermacher), it is possible for bad theology to crop up from some misunderstood crisis in life. At the same time, good theology is sweetened by the grace given in times of suffering. Martin Luther said suffering was essential for making a theologian. A good theologian, by implication, must think rightly about God in trying times. And thus he or she must begin with delighting in the Lord. Continue reading

How Jesus’ Poverty Enriches Us to Give Sacrificially (2 Corinthians 8:9)

graceIn the middle of his instruction about giving to the Jerusalem church, Paul drops this theological gem:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

In context, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to fulfill (“finish doing” and “completing,” 8:11) what they started. Apparently, a year before Paul penned 2 Corinthians, the church in that city promised to give generously to the poor in Jerusalem (8:10; cf. Romans 15:25–26). In chapters 8–9, Paul recalls their promise and prepares them for the forthcoming delegation to collect the offering (see 9:3–5). His words are not threatening but motivating, as he  speaks repeatedly of their “readiness” (8:11, 12; 9:2), “zeal” (9:2), and genuine, generous love (8:7, 8, 24).

In fact, it is because of his confidence in their generosity that Paul encourages them in their giving. And one of the principle means of motivation is Jesus’ substitionary death. In leaving heaven to suffer and die on earth, Paul likens Jesus’ experience to that of losing his riches and becoming poor. And by speaking of Christ’s death in terms of “rich” and “poor,” Paul teaches the Corinthians and us how to give. To understand how Jesus humiliation motivates our giving, consider four points.

  1. Jesus’ Poverty Was Self-Appointed
  2. Jesus’ Poverty Was For the Sake of Others
  3. Jesus’ Giving Motivates Our Giving
  4. Our Giving Manifests and Amplifies Jesus’ Grace

Continue reading

A Call for *Public* Spiritual Disciplines

dcBooks on practicing the Spiritual disciplines typically have about a dozen topics. For instance, Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life lists ten: (1) Bible intake (in two parts), (2) prayer, (3) worship, (4) evangelism, (5) serving, (6) stewardship, (7) fasting, (8) silence and solitude, (9) journaling, and (10) learning. Likewise, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline enumerates twelve disciplines under three orientations: inward disciplines include (1) meditation, (2) prayer, (3) fasting, and (4) study; outward disciplines involve (5) simplicity, (6) solitude, (7) submission, and (8) service; and corporate disciplines consist of (9) confession, (10) worship, (11) guidance, and (12) celebration.

Because Scripture does not publish an authorized list of disciplines, an exhaustive list cannot be produced. Even a cursory reading these two lists invites comment on the best way to think about practicing the habits Jesus commanded. Is worship only corporate? How is solitude outward? Does solitude have to be silent? Whitney and Foster discuss these questions in their books with different emphases based on their different theological and ecclesial backgrounds. (As a Reformed Baptist it’s not surprising that I find Whitney’s book, full of Puritan Spirituality, the better book).

But what makes both of these books the same is their challenge to individuals to grow in personal godliness. Indeed, both books highlight the personal model of Jesus, a man who  undeniably practiced the spiritual disciplines and taught his followers to do the same. In short, personal spiritual disciplines are part and parcel of faith in the Lord.

That said, personal disciplines are not private disciplines. As Foster rightly identifies there is both an outward and corporate aspect to the Christian’s spiritual life. Understanding this interpersonal dynamic, Donald Whitney wrote a companion volume, Spiritual Disciplines within the Church to correct the hyper-individualism  fostered by an unbalanced concern for personal, spiritual disciplines.

Third Horizon in Spiritual Formation

Still, I wonder if there is something more that ought to be stressed in the spiritual formation of a believer? Is it possible that those who attend regularly to Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, and even fasting may be incomplete in their spiritual development? Could it be that there is a third horizon—the first two being the individual in relationship with God (worship) and the individual being in relationship with the church (fellowship)—that must be developed in order for a man or woman to walk worthy of the gospel? Continue reading

Practical Counsel for Growing in Grace

discipline“Discipline yourself for godliness.”
— 1 Timothy 4:7 (NASB)–

Recently Donald Whitney, professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky) answered a series of questions for Desiring God‘s podcast, Ask Pastor John. Dr. Whitney, who is arguably the foremost authority on evangelical spirituality, has been studying and teaching these materials for over twenty-five years. His book  Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life is a modern classic and an illuminating study for growing in grace.

If you are not familiar with the Bible’s prescribed disciplines for spiritual growth, or you are and have not read his enlightening book, I cannot commend it enough. In the meantime, if you would like a primer on the disciplines or a refresher for why they are so important, take 30 minutes (or 5 seven-minute segments) to listen to his answers to these five questions. (I’ve included a teaser quotation from each interview). Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Ten Books on Prayer

praySunday I preached on the church’s calling to “pray for one another” (James 5:16). Among the seven points of application—“seven ways to improve your pray life today”—one of them had to do with learning how to pray.

In truth, nothing teaches you how to pray like praying, and especially by praying with others who know how to pray. The disciples asked Jesus “to teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). The assumption is that both John and Jesus prayed with and before their disciples, hence prompting their question.

Theologically, it is the Spirit who directs our prayers (see Romans 8:26; Ephesians 6:18; and Jude 20). But practically, like Jesus’ twelve disciples, we too need to learn from our Lord how to pray. Certainly, the Scriptures are the place to learn what it means to “pray in the Spirit,” “by the will of God,” “for his glory,” and “for our joy.” But if you are like me, you are helped when men and women gifted to teach and gifted to pray write books that relate Scriptural truth to real life.

Therefore, if you are earnestly desirous of learning how to pray, consider these ten books on the subject. I have found them helpful and encourage you to check them out too. Continue reading

Take Up and Pray: Learning to Pray the Scriptures from Donald Whitney

prayDonald Whitney has just released a new book on prayer, Praying the BibleLike his earlier books spurring Christians towards love and good deeds (especially Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life), this little volume is sure to encourage believers and provide a pathway to greater, more fervent, more consistent prayer.

As I read the book at the end of last week’s prayer meeting at the SBC, I walked away with fresh encouragement to take up the Scriptures and pray. I am sure any believer will experience the same thing if they pick up this little book (89 pp.). To encourage you to pick up this book, let me give you a sense of Whitney’s argument coupled with his ‘tweetable’ prose. Continue reading

Don’t Waste Your Summer: Read the Bible

What is your church doing to redeem the time this summer?  

Here is something we started last night called “The Summer Biblical Triathlon.”  Here is the invitation and explanation I gave to our church, Calvary Baptist Church (Seymour, Indiana)

Don’t Waste Your Summer: How Will You Build Up Your Most Holy Faith?

In the short but powerful epistle of Jude, Jesus’ half-brother commands: “Keep yourselves in the love of God.”  In his context and ours, this instruction is vital for Christians who are on their heavenly journey.  Only those who continue in faith, hope, and love will enter the gates of heaven (Matt 24:13; Col 1:23).  Those who start well, but leave their first love are in jeopardy of proving themselves wolves in sheep’s clothing, flowers planted in rocky soil.

To spur us on, Jude commands “those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ” to “keep themselves” in the love of God.  And he gives three ways that Christians are to do this: (1) by waiting for the mercy of God to come in Christ (v. 21b), (2) by praying in the Holy Spirit (v. 20b), and (3) by building yourselves up in your most holy faith (v. 21a).  It is this last that we consider today.

One of the primary ways that your love for God will continue is to walk in faith, faith that is not self-generated, but faith that comes from the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:23) as a gift from God (Eph 2:8-9; Phil 1:29).  But this faith does not come like a digital download from the Internet.  It is an exercise of your Spirit-enlivened soul, such that Jude can tell us that we need to build ourselves up in our most holy faith.  So, how do we do that?

The theological answer is that we need to hear the word of God in Christ, for our faith comes by hearing his Word (Rom 10:17), but the practical answer is that every week we are summoned to come and hear the word of God—read, sung, prayed, taught, and preached.  In fact, faith is built not by weekly activity, but daily meditation (Col 3:16).  Still, it is from the weekly instruction that most of us have learned how to read and rightly interpret the Bible.  With that in mind, I am calling our church to go deeper in the Word of God.

The Spiritual Discipline of Learning

For the last ten weeks, as we have read Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, we have been considering how to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness.  We began by considering the central place of “Bible Intake.”  In the weeks that followed, we considered prayer, fasting, evangelism, and worship—to name a few.  And finally, our last lesson has called us to a lifestyle of learning.

The danger of learning the spiritual disciplines is knowing about them and not practicing them.  Christian self-deceit always lurks with learning (James 1:22).  The solution is not to stop learning, but to put learning to practice, and this summer I am calling our church to do just that.

With the Olympic spirit that will wash over us by August, I am challenging you to participate in a ‘Summer Biblical Triathlon.’  As with an athletic triathlon, the goal is to train and push yourself in three endurance activities.  In our case, we will fight the temptation towards lethargy this summer, and strive to build up our most holy faith.

Together, I am calling us to grow in our understanding and adoration of God’s plan of salvation.  Here are the three components.

  1. Beginning (or continuing) a Bible Reading Plan.  For those just beginning (or starting over), our reading plan will be the The Essential One Hundred Reading PlanThis reading plan selects 100 Scriptures to move you from Genesis to Revelation in 100 days or 20 weeks (5 days per week).
  2. Attending one of two Wednesday Night classes.  These five-week classes offered in May/June and July/August will explain how the parts of the Bible fit with the whole.  It will give you a guide for seeing God’s drama in biblical history and current events.  If you have ever gotten lost in the Old Testament or wondered what God’s plan for the future is, then this class is for you.
  3. Reading a book (or three) about the Bible.  In the foyer are a selection of seven triathlon books, call them “Pastor’s Picks,” to help you better read the Bible.  For example, Tim Chester’s From Creation to New Creation is a helpful overview of God’s plan of salvation, while Michael Williams’s How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens gives 4-5 pages on every book of the Bible and how they relate to Jesus.

At the end of the summer, we will have a ceremony for those who complete the triathlon and those who read three books will receive a gift book.

As summer dawns, instead of just focusing on the vacation, the yard work, or the summer job, let’s build ourselves up in our most holy faith.  Before we know it, summer breezes will be replaced by falling leaves.  The seasons prove true Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers and the flowers fade,” so let us resolve to live in the light of the rest of that verse: “but the word of God will remain forever.”

You will never regret spending more time in God’s word.  The investment is eternal.  And this summer we can protect ourselves from wasting our summers by running together and beholding the beauty of God in the pages of his Scripture.  I hope you join us!

For His Glory and your joy, Pastor David