Theology

Why Study God?

Next week, we will be wrapping up our Youth Ministry Large Group sermon series in the Book of Exodus with a sermon on chapter 34 which is primarily about the attributes of God. In preparation for this sermon, I was reminded of one of the best books on the subject of the attributes of God. In J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, one is confronted with a God who is far beyond all eyes can see and minds can imagine. Packer has sold millions of copies of this book and for good reason. There are few books that explore the depths of the God of the Bible with so much simplicity. Packer begins his most famous book Knowing God with one of the best openings of any book ever although the opening is not his own words but rather someone else’s. Here is how the book begins:

[Packer begins] On January 7, 1855, the minister of New Park Street Chapel, Southwark, England, opened his morning sermon as follows:

“It has been said by someone that ‘the proper study of mankind is man.’ I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.

“There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, ‘Behold I am wise.’ But when we come to this master science, finding that our plumbline cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass’s colt; and with solemn exclamation, ‘I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.’ No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God….

“But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe….The most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity.

“And, whilst humbling and expanding, this subject is eminently consolatory. Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore. Would you lose your sorrow? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in its immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead. It is to that subject that I invite you this morning.”

[Packer’s begins again] These words, spoken over a century ago by C.H. Spurgeon (at that time, incredibly, only twenty years old) were true then, and they are true now. They make a fitting preface to a series of studies on the nature and character of God.

Oh, may God raise up more Packers and Spurgeons who know a God like this and proclaim a God like this!

4 Ways RTS Jackson Has Shaped Me

Tomorrow night my wife and I will be attending an event hosted by RTS (Reformed Theological Seminary) where they have some students doing a panel discussion on their experiences at RTS Jackson. While thinking in anticipation for this, there have been many thoughts go through my mind about the different ways RTS has shaped me in my time there. Although I am not done until December, I have already seen several ways that my life has been changed because of my studies there. This list could be pages and pages long but I wanted to give just a few that might be helpful. Keep in mind, I transferred to RTS from another seminary because I knew that what RTS was doing at the moment was some of the best in the world and I could not afford to miss out on it.

  1. Big God Theology
    There is no replacement for sitting under teaching for four years while soaking in theology that drowns you (and I’m not talking about theology that you can’t understand because the terms are strange and the wording is complicated but rather the theology that a child can read but an adult is overwhelmed by). True theology “happens” not when people write or teach in a complicated way where only the academic elites understand but rather when they write and teach in an overly simple, relevant, and applicable way but the truth of it is so weighty that it knocks you on your spiritual back. We live in an overly man-centered age of the Church and RTS has battled against that by showing us a God who cannot tamed. If the foundation of sin is built upon pride then the best way to combat against sin is to look to an infinitely glorious God. RTS certainly done that. I cannot tell you how many days I have walked away from class thinking, “I know nothing. I am so small.” Hopefully, you’ll laugh at that thought because we have all been prideful in our thoughts about God and need to be humbled by how “big” He really is. Two of the professors I have to thank for this first reason are Derek Thomas and Bruce Baugus.

  2. Preaching a Big God in a Simple, Clear, and Applicable Style
    What good is it to know all the theology in the world if you can’t help others understand it? Christ has commanded that all Christians live on mission (shoutout to Dr. Elias Medeiros) and that means to present the gospel in word and deed. RTS has shown us that the depths of theology are for the Church. Theology is not left for the academic elites while the rest of the Church just focuses on “Christian living”. If salvation is to know God (John 17:3) and if the entirety of the Word is what sanctifies us (John 17:17) then that means that every Christian needs to understand the depths of theology. The primary way this happens is when a man learns to preach a “big” God in simple ways. One of the best pieces of advice I have gotten came from Reverend Patrick Curles (Associate Minister at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, AL) when he told me, “If you can’t preach the gospel to the elementary kids then you can’t preach the gospel to adults.” His point was that if you don’t know the depths of the gospel so clearly that you cannot present it simply to those who can’t read then you don’t really know how to preach the gospel. RTS has put a big emphasis on this. There is no such thing as good preaching if it cannot be understood. There is also no such thing as preaching if you only explain the text. The Bible jumps out at us and redefines all of life and if the preacher does not “apply” the text to the real lives of his congregation then he is not preaching. I am very indebted to Dr. Charlie Wingard for giving us straightforward feedback on the seven sermons that we preach in front of him (and that he graciously sits through). I am also greatly indebted to Dr. Sean Michael Lucas for showing me what it was to proclaim Christ all the time.

  3. We Must Be Pastor-Scholars
    There is an unnecessary division between a pastor and a scholar. I believe it was Sinclair Ferguson who once said that this has only been a recent development in Church History. Through much of the church’s history the pastor has been the scholar and the scholar has been the pastor. RTS has sought to develop pastor-scholars rather than either/or. We make a wrong division when we say that the pastor shouldn’t be someone who studies more for the sake of shepherding the people or that the scholar shouldn’t be someone who relates his studies to the people. The pastor is the “local theologian” for the people and where the pastor is not a theologian then the people tend to be ignorant. Again, RTS has done a superb job of not just teaching us the truth but lighting a fire in us to keep pursuing a greater knowledge of the truth that applies to our people. My father is a long-time veterinarian in Montgomery and he told me once, “Vet school does make someone a veterinarian; it only gives someone a license to learn how to be a veterinarian.” In the same way, seminary doesn’t make a pastor-scholar. Seminary only gives someone the license to learn how to pursue to being a pastor-scholar. The pastor is someone who must always been studying and always learning. For this, I have a massive amount of thanks for Dr. Benjamin Gladd, Dr. Guy Waters, Dr. Miles Van Pelt, and Dr. Mike McKelvey. These four men have not merely convinced me that lifelong study is necessary but also have lit a fire in me to do so.

  4. No Other Way To Prepare Youth Workers
    Unfortunately, youth ministry is seen by many churches and pastors as a “practice round” for future pastors. Youth ministry is often treated as the “minor leagues” while the senior pastor is the “big leagues”. Here’s the problem: the students that I am leading today are the elders for tomorrow. The students I am preaching to tonight are the pastors and counselors for tomorrow. Working at Pear Orchard while pursuing my studies at RTS has been the best preparation for preaching to youth, counseling youth, and leading youth. The Church cannot afford to overlook youth ministry because where youth are neglected the Church is neglected. Our youth are growing up in a Church culture where there is much biblical illiteracy and this is greatly hurting not only the Church but the world. What we need now more than ever is better preaching to youth, better teaching to you, better counseling to youth (massive shoutout to Dr. John Kwasny—yes, the same John Kwasny who is at POPC!), and better discipling of youth. RTS has taught me that the big parts of theology are not left for the “big leagues” but rather they are of utmost necessity for the seventh grader who feels like they have no friends. The tenth grader who struggles with pornography doesn’t need just some web blockers or tips to not look at porn. What they need now more than ever is a “big” God who transforms their lives through the gospel of Jesus Christ. If our youth don’t have “big God preaching” then they will never be transformed. We have too many youth workers who give students fluff and lightweight lessons because they don’t think they can handle the more “weighty” matters of Scripture. I have seen from experience and word of others that when a “big” God is preached in simple, straightforward, relevant, and applicable ways that youth not only listen but are transformed by it. For this, I am forever indebted to RTS for training me in this way.

For all of this, I am forever grateful to Dr. Ligon Duncan for his leadership and passion for RTS and the training of future church leaders.

Life and Theology

What does it mean to know God? Would we say that it’s primarily knowing a certain set of facts or propositions about God? Does it mean “feeling good” Sunday morning during church? Is it the same as memorizing Bible verses? What if I said that knowing God involves all of the above, and yet a crucial part of knowing God is obedience? To know God is to obey God. That might sound like a strange statement, but I want us to see that it is well-grounded in the Scriptures.

During the prophetic ministry of Jeremiah, the Lord commissioned him to deliver this word of judgment against Shallum, the king of Judah: “Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:15-16). Notice in this passage that the Lord connects the obedience of the king with knowledge of the Lord.

We see another example in Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees. At the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus delivers His most withering attack against the supposed “God-knowers” of his day: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3). Later in this passage, Jesus calls the Pharisees “sons of hell” (23:15). The very people who were supposed to know God the most actually proved themselves to be sons of the devil (John 8:44). In this second example especially, we can see that there is a vast difference between knowing God and knowing about God. While the Pharisees knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards, their lack of obedience demonstrated that they knew the devil far more than they knew God.

We as Reformed Christians need to be reminded of this truth, because we can often equate the knowledge of God with knowledge about God, in ways that appear largely innocent. Perhaps one of the more common ways we do this is by thinking that if we are reading “theological books,” or even the Bible itself, we are automatically becoming more Christ-like. I do not want to discourage the reading of sound theological books, and I definitely don’t want to discourage us from reading our Bibles more. However, as Thabiti Anyabwile has noted, “Good theology does not mechanically lead to good living…We can stack our chips on theology, as though theology inexorably produces the social results we want with little to no attending effort.” This means that we do not become more holy by simply reading Christians books, or even by the bare reading of Scripture, as if by a “mystical osmosis” the words will produce right living. Rather, it is in striving to obey the Word, both in our “vertical” relationship with the Lord, as well as in our “horizontal” relationships with neighbors, that we gain a greater knowledge of God.

We must keep in mind, even as we educate ourselves and one another, that education is not our ultimate goal. Rather, it is “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). We should ask ourselves every now and again whether we’re truly growing in our knowledge of God. Perhaps we might be tempted to think that the only way to judge that is whether we’re reading our Bibles for longer periods of time, or whether we’re making it to church every Sunday. These indeed are essential barometers of spiritual growth, but along with these questions, let’s ask whether we are delighting in Jesus more, whether we are seeking justice for the oppressed and poor in our neighborhoods, whether the Bible is in fact coming “alive” in our words and deeds, through our love for Christ and others. While it takes time and effort for us to “connect the dots” between the word of God and the world in which his word is applied, it is well worth it! Let’s press on to know the Lord (Hosea 6:3).