What is Systematic Theology?

What is Systematic Theology?

What is Systematic Theology? Why is it important? These two questions form the basis for our study of Bible Doctrine. When starting any study, it’s necessary to define your terms. This is especially true when it comes to the study of Scripture. The lack of definition (or worse, the avoidance of definition) will always lead to a lack of clarity, which will always lead to a lack of understanding, which will always lead to defective practice. We see this illustrated in Proverbs 4:7 – “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” If wisdom is the application of knowledge, then it follows that the more clear our knowledge or understanding, the better our practice should be. We also see this in Hosea 4:6 – “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee…” Here our standing with God is conditioned on our knowledge, or lack thereof. However, it’s not just ignorance that is condemned, but the attitude, as well. So if attitudes and actions are the results of how we think about God and His Word, then it is most important to have a strong understanding of what that Word is and what it means.

Systematic Theology is any study that answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach us about any particular topic?” Notice what this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean we scour the Bible looking to find out if Donald Trump or Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ. It doesn’t mean that we try to live by the rules of the Old Testament today without reference to the New Testament. But it does mean that we take all of Scripture seriously and let it speak to us. There is a balance in our study, consistent with Christian beliefs throughout history.

Accuracy and precision are very important in studying the Bible. The details matter. We should not think of the way we study Scripture as less important than the way we study anything else. When I was being treated for oral cancer of the tongue, precision was very important in the surgery and the radiation that followed. One wrong move could have disastrous results. The same is true in theology. One wrong assumption, one wrong definition, or one misunderstanding could have disastrous, eternal results. So always beware of those who downplay precision and clarity and those who say that it doesn’t really matter as long as you believe. But, believe what? When you start to answer that question, you have just stepped into the world of systematic theology, because you’re now giving a definition and explanation of what you believe and we can watch your life to see if you’re serious about it or just giving lip service.

Not all doctrine is the same. There are some beliefs that are more important than others. Major doctrine is that set of beliefs that have to do with our eternal salvation. Belief in God is major, the person of Christ is major, the doctrine of sin is major, and heaven and hell are major. Minor beliefs are important, but not necessarily of eternal significance. Whether music is used in worship is minor, mode or subject of baptism is minor, and form of church government is minor. And where these things are made major, you will always have division, which Scripture say we should avoid (1 Corinthians 1:11-17).

A systematic study also means that it’s organized. We’re not opening the Bible at random to get our word from God today. All of Scripture is God’s Word, and God Himself organized it into books. The books of Moses are different from the Psalms, and the Prophets are different from the Apostles. If we ignore God’s own divisions, how can we learn what God is teaching? Organization simply means order and many of us need the discipline of an orderly, organized study of God’s Word, not just focusing on our favorite parts, but all parts in their place.

The purpose in all of this is the practical outcome we get from an organized, detailed, defined study of Scripture. As we think about God and His character and His creation, we are transformed in our attitudes and actions. If people truly meditated upon the seriousness of their sin against God and each other, and the ultimate outcome of that sin, they would certainly try to alter their courses. But when people ignore those things, we get the world that we presently live in with murder, theft, lying, assault, etc. Most people are looking for joy, happiness, and peace, but few find it because they’re looking in the wrong places and we can easily see the results of that. Jesus Christ says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” – and that is a tangible, practical effect that comes from a systematic study of theology.

Please note: For 17 years, I taught the Bible Doctrine course at Zion Christian Academy in Columbia, Tennessee. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am now not able to do this. Since I have no students to teach for the first time since the year 2000, I’ve decided to write (or at least try to write) what I would have said in class and post it here. This is intended for students around 16 to 18 years of age, and is mostly based on Wayne Grudem’s book, Bible Doctrine. Outlines of this course can be found at www.bibledoctrine.club.

John Newton on Matthew 11:25

John Newton on Matthew 11:25

At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.” – Matthew 11:25.

Though the things of nearest consequence to you are in the Bible, and you should read it over and over till you commit the whole book to your memory; yet you will not understand, or discern the truth as it is in Jesus, unless the Lord the Spirit shows it to you. The dispensation of truth is in His hand; and without Him all the fancied advantages of superior capacity, learning, criticism, and books will prove as useless as spectacles to the blind. The great encouragement is, that this infallible Spirit, so necessary to guide us in the way of peace, is promised to all who sincerely ask.

The Sinner’s Encouragement

The Sinner’s Encouragement

Come as a sinner and you will find all in your favor – all, the door open and every face smiling upon you. But if you attempt to come as a saint, and you are dubious whether you are so or not, you will come as an impostor and a hypocrite; and you will be detested – there can be no doubt that you are a sinner. Well, then, come in your real character and you will be welcome. Every thing in the councils of heaven favors a returning sinner – election, particular redemption, vocation, justification, etc. – all, all are in his favor and give him every encouragement he can want and God can give. But impostors are abhorred. And such is everyone who assumes a character which he is not sure belongs to him.

– Thomas Charles, Spiritual Counsels, pgs 387,388.

More John Owen on the Mortification of Sin

More John Owen on the Mortification of Sin

The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.

Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.

The vigour, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.

Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work? Be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work. Be killing sin or it will be killing you. Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened with Him, will not excuse you from this work.

Who can say that he had ever anything to do with God or for God, that indwelling sin had not a hand in the corrupting of what he did? And this trade will it drive more or less all our days. If, then, sin will be always acting, if we be not always mortifying, we are lost creatures. He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a comfortable event? There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so while we live in this world.

There is not the best saint in the world but, if he should give over this duty, would fall into as many cursed sins as ever any did of his kind.

The contest is for our lives and souls. Not to be daily employing the Spirit and new nature for the mortifying of sin, is to neglect that excellent assistance which God has given us against our greatest enemy. If we neglect to make use of what we have received, God may justly hold His hand from giving us more. His graces, as well as his gifts, are bestowed on us to use, exercise, and trade with. Not to be daily mortifying sin, is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, who has furnished us with a principle of doing it.

Where sin, through the neglect of mortification, gets a considerable victory, it breaks the bones of the soul, Psalm 31:10, 51:8, and makes a man weak, sick, and ready to die, Psalm 38:3-5, so that he cannot look up, Psalm 40:12, Isaiah 33:24. And when poor creatures will take blow after blow, wound after wound, foil after foil, and never rouse up themselves to a vigorous opposition, can they expect anything but to be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, and that their souls should bleed to death? 2 John 8. Indeed, it is a sad thing to consider the fearful issues of this neglect, which lie under our eyes every day.

Let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness who walks not over the bellies of his lusts. He who does not kill sin in this way takes no steps towards his journey’s end.

The root of an unmortified course is the digestion of sin without bitterness in the heart. When a man has confirmed his imagination to such an apprehension of grace and mercy as to be able, without bitterness, to swallow and digest daily sins, that man is at the very brink of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Neither is there a greater evidence of a false and rotten heart in the world than to drive such a trade.

– From Volume 6 of Owen’s Works

J. C. Ryle on Making Worship Services More Attractive

J. C. Ryle on Making Worship Services More Attractive

This is a great danger in these days. It is a sunken rock, on which I fear many are striking, and doing themselves immense harm. The plausible pretext of making our services more attractive, and cutting the ground from under the feet of Ritualists, too often induces Evangelical ministers to do things which they had far better let alone. New church decorations, new church music, and a semi-histrionic mode of going through church worship, are things which I suggest that we must watch most narrowly, and keep at arm’s length. They are points on which we must take heed that we do not let in the Pope and the devil. Tampering with these things, we may be sure, does no real good. It may seem to please the world, and have a “show of wisdom,” but it never converts the world, and makes the world believe. We had far better leave it alone.

Let us carefully observe how little good they do who attempt to mix up Evangelical preaching and a Ritual ceremonial. Little, did I say?—they do no good at all! The world is never won by trimming, and compromising, by facing both ways, and trying to please all. The cross of Christ is never made more acceptable by sawing off its corners, or by polishing, varnishing, and adorning it. Processions, and banners, and flowers, and crosses, and excessive quantity of music, and elaborate services, and beautiful vestments, may please children and weak-minded people. But they never helped forward heart-conversion and heart-sanctification, and they never will.

Popularity obtained by pandering to the senses or the sentiment of our hearers is not worth anything. Worshipers who are not content with the Bible, the cross of Christ, simple prayers and simple praise, are worshipers of little value. It is useless to try to please them, because their spiritual taste is diseased.

– J. C. Ryle from Knots Untied