Theology and practice are inseparable

Jeremy Sarber

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

Sometimes we divide the teachings of Scripture into two distinct categories. We make a category for what we should know. That’s where we place what the Bible says about God and salvation, for instance. We may refer to this category as doctrine or theology. Then, we make a second category for what we should do. This category includes all of the practical teachings of Scripture.

Paul was very faithful to incorporate both in his letters. Ephesians, Romans, Galatians, Colossians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians—they all follow the same pattern. In the first half, Paul teaches us about our position as God’s redeemed people, relating the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. In the second half, he shows us how to live as God’s redeemed people. He moves from soteriology to pragmatism, from theological to practical.

Notice how this chapter begins. Paul says, **I, therefore—” (Eph 4:1). He uses a familiar transitional word to indicate the shift in this letter. If he had ended the letter with Ephesians 3, we’d likely walk away feeling great about our position as God’s people, but we may not be inclined to do anything with that information. Hallelujah! I’m saved,” we’d say. Then, we’d fold our hands and wait for the bus to heaven. Paul, however, never ended his letters before attaching a few practical exhortations. You know that you’re saved,” he says. Therefore, it’s time to live like it.”

There’s a vital balance between these two categories (i.e., theology and practice). We can’t separate them, and we should never neglect one for the sake of the other.

In contemporary Christianity, it has been increasingly popular for many years to embrace what we might call doctrinal minimalism. In large part, people reject the first three chapters of Ephesians, the first eleven chapters of Romans, or the first four chapters of Galatians. They have no interest in church creeds or formal confessions. Theology, they think, is for the Pharisees. Christians don’t need to know all of that stuff. Doctrinal convictions only create divisions. Christianity is all about loving people and doing good works.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who reduce the Christian faith to what we know. For them, it’s almost as though your depth of theological understanding determines by your redemption. I suppose if they were to meet Peter, John, or one of the other apostles in the early days of their calling, then they would find it hard to believe that the apostles were even saved. They were incredibly ignorant men in the beginning. They didn’t even understand the death and resurrection of Christ.

Worse yet, believers of this kind are prone to think of righteousness as synonymous with theological understanding. They may walk around as blatant hypocrites when it comes to their behavior. Yet, they know everything there is to know about God’s sovereignty, the various covenants of Scripture, eschatology, or some of the finer points of Bible doctrine.

According to Paul, there must be a balance. Perfect harmony exists between the theology of the Bible and its practical instructions. As Jesus once said, These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mt 23:23). Perhaps we could also apply his teaching on divorce to this situation: What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19:6).

What we know about God and our salvation should lead to faithful, righteous Christian behavior. At the same time, righteous Christian behavior must be shaped by what we know about God and salvation. The first three chapters of Ephesians are the foundation of the last three chapters. A foundation by itself isn’t much use, but a house without foundation is just asking for trouble. We cannot separate what Paul has joined together in this letter.

I love what Paul said to the Philippians. He wrote:

Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)

Think about what he said: Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ. How can our lives be worthy of the gospel if we don’t know the gospel? The implication is that we should know it well enough to define and shape how we live our lives. Of course, Paul’s primary point is that we change how we live to reflect the gospel. He stresses that we become people who work in unity to uphold the gospel.

My point is, it’s nothing short of spiritual immaturity to promote doctrinal minimalism where the only thing that matters is how we conduct our behavior. At the same time, it’s also spiritual immaturity to think that systematic theology is the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith. What did James say? Even the demons believe (Jas 2:19). They probably understand more than the average Christian. Becoming a master theologian doesn’t mean much unless your life (not just your words) reflect Jesus Christ and his gospel.

Further discussion

Will Glover on June 9, 2020:

Orthodoxy, orthpraxy, orthopathy.