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Dead roses and living words: theology driving mission

By Owen Strachan–

Every time a Christian leader says, “It’s not your theology I want to see – it’s your deeds,” somewhere in the universe a lily-white rose falls dead to the ground. That’s a bit of a dramatic response. But that line of thinking is nonetheless deeply problematic. 

But why?  Aren’t deeds most important?  Doesn’t 1 John indicate that love, actionable piety, is the true test of faith? Yes it does. But the above formulation, said in numerous ways all over the evangelical spectrum, is flawed. It forgets one essential idea: deeds are in fact driven by truth. To say it differently: theology drives mission.

Friends who don’t like theology

Let’s play this out so I can explain myself. Say you have a friend who is passionate about God and service in his name. This friend eschews heavy theological discussion. While you bristle if you sniff out an infralapsarian in your community group, he starts to get restless when the conversation turns to high-level ideas. He’s got a great heart, he wants to be a “radical” Christian, but when you try to engage him, he tells you flatly that all the diphthongs and hollow verbs don’t get anyone saved. You’re flustered, but he’s got a point – right? 

Yes, he does. The one who claims to be a Christian yet has no love for others is in fact in a dangerous place. James 2 challenges those of us who might be tempted to cling to our books and retire to our studies. In almost pugnacious terms, James informs us that “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20). Clearly, then, our friend is offering us a corrective many of us need to hear. 

I would wager that many evangelicals, though, do not struggle with reading too much theology. George Barna has said of the rising generation that “our continuing research among teenagers and adolescents shows that the trend away from adopting biblical theology in favor of syncretic, culture-based theology is advancing at full gallop.” In such a situation, many well meaning church members will focus more on practice than knowledge. They may actually dismiss the importance of deep theological thinking, equating it with inactivity, pride and solipsism. 

How Content Shapes Conduct

There are two initial responses I can think of to this way of thought. First, it’s just not true that our conduct is disconnected from content. Think of a family that loves one another, specifically of children who obey and serve their parents in a God-glorifying way. That obedience is driven by a whole host of realities that the children know, whether on a conscious or subconscious level. The father sacrifices his body and his sleep to put food on the table. The mother carried her kids for nine months, then gave birth to them. The father turns down opportunities at work so that he can be home more often to play with his children. The mother interrupts her priorities on a constant basis to bandage knees, bake cookies, do laundry, read books and a thousand other daily responsibilities. As this kind of behavior heaps up over weeks and then months and then years, it has a cumulative effect. The children of loving Christian parents may not consciously list off all the truths they know about their parents each time they decide to obey. But that content shapes and drives their conduct, to be sure. 

This leads into my second point. Just like the child who lives with a whole body of knowledge about his or her parents, so every Christian lives according to their theology. The missionary who travels to a foreign country for no other reason other than to announce to unsaved souls that Jesus is Lord and Savior and King is carrying out intensely theological or theistic work. What is more doctrinally motivated, after all, than moving to a faraway city far away from family and creature comforts to tell people the good news of the gospel? Pardon my forcefulness, but it doesn’t get more truth-driven than that.

Don’t Believe What You Hear: The Trinity Matters

In recent days, it was suggested in some evangelical circles that the doctrine of the Trinity is rather unclear. It’s such a high-level matter, so mysterious, that you don’t really have to understand it. That, to be blunt, is highly ironic. 

The early Christian theologians labored to help the church understand the wondrous mystery that God is one essence, three persons. Athanasius was persecuted viciously in the fourth century for doing nothing other than contending for a biblical doctrine of the Godhead. Like the Cappadocian Fathers and his near-contemporary Augustine, Athanasius understood that the Trinity was absolutely basic to an orthodox Christianity. In fact, it was so important it was worth risking one’s life to defend. 

In our day, we need a recovery both of this spirit and this way of thinking. Rich biblical truths are not disconnected from everyday life. They shape it. Theology drives mission. This is true whether we know it or not. 

The question, then, is this: what kind of doctrinally-motivated life will we lead? A fulsome one? A weak one? May it be in our day that more and more Christians discover the riches of a staunchly theological life. 

God’s glory is in this, after all. That, and not the fate of lily-white roses, however elegant they may be, is our consuming concern.  

Owen Strachan (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Assistant Professor of of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College. Previously Strachan served as Managing Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at TEDS and was the founding Associate Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS. With Doug Sweeney, Strachan is the author of the five volume set, The Essential Edwards Collection

This article originally appeared in Towers.

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