One of the things I love about G3 is the focus on theology for the church. Christians need to learn theology. We need to be teaching other Christians sound doctrine. In this series of blog posts, I argue that making disciples is one of the ways we can strengthen Christians and churches. We need to incorporate intentional and clear discussion about theology into our discipleship methodology. R. C. Sproul says, “Theology is an attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us. It’s not a question if we’re going to be engaged in theology or not; it’s a question of whether our theology is going to be sound or unsound.”1R. C. Sproul in “Foundations: An Overview of Systematic Theology,” lecture 2.
In the last blog post I suggested a basic format for a discipleship meeting with another believer. Here’s how you could structure a one hour meeting:
Prayer requests and opening prayer, 5 minutes
Scripture reading, discussion, and application, 35 minutes
Christian literature (book) discussion, 15 minutes
Closing prayer, 5 minutes
In this methodology, two people (or a small group) spend 35 minutes reading, discussing, and applying a section of Scripture together. Using this method, you systematically work through a book of the Bible together. It can be wise and helpful to supplement this teaching with some sessions focusing on biblical and systematic theology. For instance, after you complete the Gospel of Mark, you could spend 4 weeks studying biblical theology. Or after going through the book of Malachi, you spend 8 weeks studying a systematic approach to the doctrine of salvation (see below for an example).
Use Biblical Theology in your Discipleship
Biblical theology examines the progressive storylines found throughout Scripture. It reveals the framework or superstructure of God’s unfolding plans revealed in Scripture. This approach to theology examines how different authors of Scripture contribute to the major narratives throughout God’s Word. This treatment of Scripture employs a wide-angle lens to help us understand how all of God’s Word fits together. It helps us see the unity and consistency of God’s work.
Biblical theology often focuses on the progressive revelation of Jesus Christ evident throughout Scripture. An example of this may look like this:
- The Old Testament anticipates and promises the coming of Jesus.
- In the Gospels, Jesus comes to earth and reveals his identity and purposes.
- In Acts, the proclamation about Jesus goes throughout the world.
- The Epistles explain Jesus and define how to follow Him.
In this rubric, you could study passages in the Old Testament that point to Jesus, and then find the fulfillment of those passages in the Gospels, Acts, or the Epistles.
Biblical Theology also highlights the covenants found throughout the Scripture. In discipleship, this helps people grasp the “big picture” of the Bible. One can trace the promise made in the Abrahamic covenant all the way through the OT, see how it is fulfilled in Christ and then finds its ultimate consummation in the book of Revelation. You could spend some discipleship sessions studying how the New Covenant relates to the Lord’s Supper (an important regular practice in our worship services). Many Christians remain ignorant about the covenantal promises of God found throughout Scripture. Incorporating biblical theology into our discipleship can help address this deficiency.
Use Systematic Theology in Discipleship
In my first year of seminary, I took a course in systematic theology. It sounded cool, but I had no idea what it was. I went to the bookstore to pick up my textbooks (that’s always fun) and was shocked to discover the size of the systematic theology text. It was the largest tome I had ever bought. After some fleeting dismay at the size and price of the book, I resolved to read the entire work—and I did. Reading this textbook changed my life and kindled my love for theology that still burns to this day. As a Christian growing up in church, I hadn’t received much personal discipleship. I believed the Gospel, trusted God’s Word, and knew some things about Jesus and the church; but that was about it. My understanding of Scripture was very limited and fuzzy. When I discovered a systematic approach to doctrines like the deity of Christ, the sufficiency of Scripture, and so many more, I wondered, “Where have you been all my life—this is amazing!” It reinforced the faith I had in God’s Word and clarified so many of my vague beliefs.
Systematic theology seeks to provide an orderly, careful, and coherent treatment of a doctrine through an examination of Bible passages related to that doctrine. Doctrines are arranged systematically under headings like, “the doctrine of God,” or “the doctrine of salvation.” These large headings quickly break down into smaller, more specific topics like this:
The Doctrine of Salvation
- Effectual Call/Regeneration
- Conversion (Repentance and Faith)
Think of systematic theology like a filing cabinet where each file represents a different doctrine. When you study the Scripture, you consider where to “file” a given verse or teaching. Each major file (like the doctrine of salvation) contains smaller files within it—like justification. This helps you organize (systematize) doctrines. This can be very useful in apologetics—especially when dealing with people who twist one verse without reference to the rest of God’s Word. In this way, systematic theology functions like the rule: Scripture interprets Scripture (called by some, “The Analogy of Faith”). This means that no part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught by another part of God’s Word.2R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1977, 46. Thus, knowing how several verses support one doctrine can be very helpful.
Systematic theology functions like a keyword search: you input a doctrine in the search bar, and study/read all the verses related to that doctrine. Doing systematic theology is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You begin with the border to provide a framework. The more pieces you have in place, the clearer the image becomes. As the picture comes together, the easier it becomes to find the proper place for the remaining pieces. You shouldn’t force pieces in where they don’t fit.
Historic confessions of faith also serve as excellent tools for studying systematic theology. Most of the confessions organize around major doctrines. They include clear explanations of each teaching with Scripture references. You could supplement studying books of the Bible with considering sections in a confession of faith. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith works great for this!
What about Historical Theology?
Historical theology examines how Christians throughout the centuries have thought about theology and practice. The benefits of studying and discussing historical theology are legion. In historical theology we learn how faithful Christians have articulated, defended, and lived out the truth. In the paradigm of a discipleship meeting suggested above, I think this fits best in the time slot for studying Christian literature.
Reading biographies provides numerous insights into historical theology and church history. Find a good biography on a champion for the truth like Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, or Lloyd-Jones (ask your pastor for recommendations on biographies). I would also recommend the recent biography: R. C. Sproul: A Life by Stephen Nichols. In good biographies you learn about the real-life experiences of imperfect people (like us), and how theology impacted their lives, their times, and their churches. The best biographies inspire us to be more faithful. They provide examples of living out virtues like humility, courage, and patience. We also learn from the failings, flaws, and errors of imperfect people. For all these reasons (and many more) we should incorporate the reading of biographies into our process of discipleship. Historical theology and biographies can help us understand Scripture and live more faithful lives for our Lord Jesus Christ. Who are you meeting with next week for discipleship?
Who are you discipling? Talk to your pastor about making disciples in your church and get to it.