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Theological Integrity: A Pastor's Perspective
by R. C. Sproul
I now have two jobs. For the past five years I have served as editor of Tabletalk magazine, a magazine committed to teaching sound theology. Now I am also a pastor, tending a very small flock in a mission church. It would be very easy for me to see these jobs as totally distinct. I can't pastor the readers of Tabletalk after all. I don't even know most of them. One could make the case that one of my jobs is theological, and the other practical. That is that in one job I teach lay people theology, and in the other I 'minister' to folks.
Such a distinction is all too common. We have a tendency to see theology as either an academic exercise or as a parlor game. That theology is a field of study like geology, or a topic of conversation, like sports. I must confess that I have been very guilty of seeing theology in the latter category. My interest in theology began when I discovered that I could, with relative ease, make people think I was pretty smart because I could beat them in theological debate. And beat them I did, for two reasons. The first is that I was always more interested in debating than my opponent. The second is that I always chose to defend the truth, that is Reformed theology.
Ironic isn't it, that I would use a theology built upon the foundation of soli Deo gloria for the propagation of my own glory. So what is the purpose of theology? You are even now investing your time, energy and concentration in reading Rev. Murphy's newsletter. Are you preparing for a parlor game, or compiling obscure footnotes for an academic paper, maybe a thesis on 20th Century Southern Presbyterianism as Exemplified in Martin Murphy? What is your goal in reading this article, and others like it?
I would posit that theology, as a field of study, exists and is practiced for one overarching reason, for God's glory. Of course that is a pretty simple answer. When my three year old begins to ask that long string of 'why's' that children are fond of I often cut to the chase and respond, 'For God's glory.' There's no where to go from there, that is the ultimate reason for everything.
So how is God glorified in the study of theology? The next step down in the hierarchy of ends is this, the law. That is God is most glorified when we love Him with our whole being, and when we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That is why theology is important, to make us better able to carry out these two penultimate obligations.
Sound theology matters, because without it both of these obligations are not met. One, in a sense is more theological, the other more practical. But as a pastor I would suggest that nothing is more practical than the theological.
To see why let us look at how theology enables us to better love God with all that we are. Some would suggest that whether regeneration precedes faith or faith precedes generation is an obtuse, angels on heads of pins kind of question. It is impractical. What people really need, we are told, is help with their relationships. True enough, that people need help with their relationships. And we must begin with our relationship with God. Is that relationship one you initiated, or did He? Would one answer increase your gratitude toward God? What if Paul said, 'As for you, you were sick, but had an island of righteousness in you by which you, out of that bit of goodness, chose God...' Would you be as amazed at God's grace? Would you love Him as much? Or to put it in practical terms, would you feel more grateful if I cured your headache, or if I raised you from the dead?
Sound theology makes for sound worship, sound love of God. A sound marriage means nothing when you don't love God, or worse don't know God because unsound theology has only shown you a weak, lawless, pitiable deity who impotently begs all men to come unto him.
So what about practice? As a pastor I can't begin to love my flock until I have a sound theology. First because I am to lead them into worship. Second because sound theology is the root of sound practice (though a sound theology coupled with unsound practice will create unsound theology. That is if we affirm that God is sovereign, but act as though techniques are what win the day and lost souls we will eventually affirm a theology that matches our practice, that man is sovereign).
Sound theology is what drives the practical, the nitty gritty of how to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. A theology which treats God as a means to the end of personal peace and affluence will give rise to viewing others as means to the end of personal peace and affluence. A theology which views God as a spectator in history will not allow me to offer the comfort of Christ in times of sorrow. It is because we have done our theological homework, because we have striven for theological integrity, that we can say to those that suffer, 'The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.'
The distinction then between theology and practical theology is a false one. We must and will always preach what we practice. I labor as an editor to help people understand who God is so that they can better love Him, and those whom He has effectually called. And I labor as a pastor to help people obey these two great commands. I pray that my teaching, my practice, indeed all of my life would reflect the truth of who God is. My integrity is what is on the line with theological integrity, and the integrity of those under my care. Theology is not a parlor game, nor an academic exercise. Rather it is the study of the God who is, the source and sustainer of all things, and He who calls dead men like me to life. How can I, or anyone, play fast and loose in such a holy endeavor? 'Theology doesn't matter' is a lie, straight from the Father of Lies. Don't believe it.
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