By Dr Kevin Smith
Like it or not, you have a theology. The question is whether or not it is a good theology. How well does your view of God and his world align with what he has revealed? This is the question. How well does your lifestyle align with what God says is most important and fruitful for living in his world? Every Christian needs to answer these questions. In fact, every Christian does answer them, either consciously or unconsciously, whether biblically or unbiblically. Your answers shape your worldview, which is the sum of your beliefs about God, creation, and the relationship between them. Your worldview encompasses all that you believe to be real and all that you believe to be right. Learning to think like Jesus about what is real and what is right lies close to the heart of every Christian’s calling.
The Lord Jesus Christ himself emphasised the nature of and the necessity for good theology in the Great Commission. His climactic instructions to his followers charged them to “make disciples … teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Every disciple must be taught to (know and) obey all that Jesus commanded the twelve. I added the words “to know” because they cannot obey what they do not know. At a minimum, then, Jesus expects every new disciple to know and to obey all his commandments. Interestingly, Jesus’s priorities for training disciples are more practical than philosophical.
Paul understood Jesus’s emphasis. In the Pastoral Epistles (1–2 Timothy and Titus), he repeatedly speaks about sound doctrine or sound teaching. What does he have in mind when he refers to sound doctrine? Is he referring to the kenosis theory or to the hypostatic union? Certainly not! He means obedience to the gospel. In Titus 2:1 he exhorts: “You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine.” For the remainder of the chapter he spells out the content of this “sound doctrine”—godly conduct (vv. 2–10) in gratitude to the gospel of Christ (vv. 11–14).
In 1 Timothy 1:8–11, Paul lists a series of vices that Christ’s disciples should shun, defining sins as what “is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God” (vv. 10–11). How interesting! To have sound doctrine is to live in conformity to the gospel. The same idea recurs in 1 Timothy 4:6, where “good teaching” is that which nourishes faith and promotes godly living. Paul concludes the chapter by exhorting Timothy to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).
The range of topics that Paul includes under the auspices of sound doctrine is revealing. Sound doctrine includes teaching (a) the church to pray for civil leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–7), (b) women to dress modestly (1 Tim. 2:9–10), (c) pastors to prioritise godliness over gifting when appointing leaders (1 Tim. 3:1–16), (d) churches how to manage their finances in terms of caring for widows (1 Tim. 5:3–16) and elders (1 Tim. 5:17–25), (e) slaves to bring honour to the gospel through faithful service (1 Tim. 6:1–2), (f) believers to value godliness with contentment and to avoid the love of money (1 Tim. 6:6–10), (g) the rich to value eternal wealth and guard their spirits (1 Tim. 6:17–19), and so on.
For Paul, as for Jesus, sound doctrine addresses the everyday questions about how to live for the glory of God in a fallen world. This should still be the focus of good theology. If the study of theology focuses on helping Jesus’s disciples to understand, believe, obey his teachings, as it should, then every follower of Jesus will gain much from studying theology. You need to study theology so that you can live for the glory of God in our fallen world.