Let’s Go to Theology Class! Week Four

Summary of the fourth week of class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

IT’S ONE THING TO pick up a book and read about theology. And that’s okay. It’s how I got interested in taking the subject on as a graduate student. It all starts with contemplation. We “think” about what it means to be alive, to have purpose. We wonder how we might make a difference in society. We question the “logic” of believing in God. Armed with such a burning desire to know, I enrolled in a master’s program in theology and started out on what so far has proved to be an amazing, breathtaking journey.

In week four of my theology class we considered the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action. Further, we discussed the type of character most conducive to theological insight, and how the systematic study of theology should impact one’s character. Generic “theological” study does not necessarily require any degree of sanctification. Many people choose to study theology or philosophy without any sense of what is meant by redemption or sanctification. These concepts are, however, imperative in Christian theology.

What is the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action?

I was amazed how little I understood about sanctification over the years. I thought it “just happened” when I “got saved.” Considering the decades of sinful behavior and active addiction I went through after accepting Christ (at age 13), I was far from sanctified. Of course, it does start with salvation. When we become redeemed, we are expected to “repent” of our old life. Then sanctification can begin. According to R.E.O. White, sanctification means “to make holy.” [1] It’s not uncommon for a new Christian to think this means he or she is made holy (shazam!) all at once. White further explains that to be sanctified is to be “set apart” from common or secular use.

First Corinthians 1:2 says we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. R.E.O. White writes that sanctification is not merely justification’s endgame; rather, it is justifying faith at work. The new believer is declared to be acquitted and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Through sanctification, God begins to accomplish His will in us. This is often called becoming spiritually mature. We are not saved by good works, but there is little hope of sanctification without submitting to the will of God.

Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae [2] that four of the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel, and that these gifts have a direct impact on the intellect. Isaiah 11:2 says. “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (RSV). David Jeremiah explains that the coming king “will be endowed with the Spirit of the Lord, who provides the wisdom, ability, and allegiance to God that are necessary to accomplish a challenging task.” [3] Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” James reminds us that if we lack wisdom in any circumstance, we are to ask God and He will give it (James 1:5). Thomas Aquinas said any discourse of reason always begins from an understanding. It is critical, therefore, that we never attempt theology while lacking understanding. Although the work of the Spirit is already completed relative to the compiling of Scripture, His work regarding “illumination” is ongoing.

Prayer is the means by which we gain access to God. Just as we speak to the Father, and call upon Jesus, we must request from the Holy Spirit the guidance, understanding, knowledge, illumination, and discernment needed to effectively and accurately undertake systematic theology. It is equally important to pray for guidance regarding God’s call on our lives. When I decided to change my major from the master’s in counseling program to the master’s in theology, I spent weeks in prayer. I consulted with my pastor, several lay ministry friends, family members, my CCU student advisor, two professors, and several elders at my church. I cannot fathom undertaking a systematic study of Christian theology without prayer.

What type of character is most conducive to theological insight, and how should it change as the result of undertaking theological study?

In any theological undertaking, one would expect there to be a change of character. I think of Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017), author, speaker, lecturer, and apologist, who converted to Christianity from Islam after spending nearly two years conducting an exegetical study of the Holy Bible. His character, if you will, was that of a loving, dedicated, well-behaved young man who had been raised in a religious home. In fact, no one in his immediate or extended family were extremists or jihadists. He loved the Qur’an, Allah, and his messenger Muhammad. This “character” coupled with a sharp intellect likely contributed to his willingness to examine the theology of Islam, and, ultimately, compare it to Christianity.

Tradition injects a lot into character, and, when that character matures, one becomes curious about tradition, religion, politics, culture, the meaning of life, and so on. Qureshi said one of the greatest hardships he faced was having to inform his parents he had become a Christian. He was, after all, part of a “community of believers” that were bonded together by solid theological principles and deep-seated tradition. He believed in Islam. He revered Muhammad. Regardless, once he met Jesus Christ, he could no longer reject Him than he could make himself stop breathing. This is precisely the type of character it requires to begin a theological study.

Insight comes from honest, rigorous, open-minded, and thorough study. We’ve been told that theology is in its simplest form “the study of God.” For me, the desire to know God stems from my burning desire to know why my earthly father seemed to hate me so much and, more frighteningly, whether my Heavenly Father was as mean-spirited, vindictive, nasty, judging, and punishing. (Incidentally, I eventually learned that my dad did not hate me, and he did the best he could to keep me from running off the rails and into the gutter.)

If God were to be “the same as” my dad, I would have no time for Him. Regardless, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to know several things. First, exactly who or what was this Christian God I’d heard of at church? Second, was He authoritative—leading from a position of authority and strength, love and longsuffering—or authoritarian—ruling over everyone with a heavenly despotic fist, ready to accuse and condemn? Third, was it true, as my father said many times, that I was worthless, or was there hope that my life had some greater meaning?

As to what type of character should result from theological study, Trevor Hart said, “Faith is not a natural progression from knowledge or experiences available to all, but results from a special dispensation which sets us in the perspective from which the truth may be seen, and demands a response” [4] [italics mine]. In other words, deciding to systematically study Christian theology is both a soulful drive or ambition and a rigorous discipline. I have gone through numerous personal changes as an undergraduate student of psychology at Colorado Christian University. I believe those changes set the stage for my choosing to take on a master’s level study of theology. There is a progression at play. Had I not first chosen to return to college, I would not have discovered CCU; had I not enrolled at CCU, I would not be the Christian I am today; and, had I not grown more mature in Christ as an undergraduate, I would not have undergone the requisite changes conducive to undertaking a master’s degree in theology.

This is the fourth week of my first theology class, and already I feel tectonic shifts within me. My personality has brightened, and my mind has cleared. I am ravenous for information about theology, Christology, eschatology, and apologetics. I see people as God sees them, and I’ve begun to feel a heartache for those who will never see the truth about the life, love, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have started to keep my promises more consistently than I used to, and I exercise greater control over my tongue (which was no easy task!). I even noticed a major change in the amount of television I watch. All of that notwithstanding, I find myself asking God every morning to put a task before me; to lead me where He needs me to go; to break my heart for what breaks His.

Footnotes

[1] R.E.O. White. “Sanctification.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 770

[2] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae, I.II, q. 68, a1

[3] David Jeremiah. The Jeremiah Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2013), 893-94.

[4] Trevor Hart. Faith Thinking. (Eugene:Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 75.

 

 

Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Part Four)

“But sanctify the LORD God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).

Born Again

What is Conversion?

The word conversion when used in a cultural sense typically means buying into acceptance of a religious dogma or belief system. The fundamental biblical meaning of conversion is “to turn” toward God. The key question always is Am I born again? Exactly when did I get converted? It is typical for new believers to assume conversion is an instantaneous event. Someone gave me a suggestion when they learned I was addressing conversion in my series on apologetics. They said, “Read all four Gospels and try to determine when Peter was converted. Was it when he was following Jesus? When he realized Jesus was the Messiah? When he was sent out to preach and heal? When Jesus forgave him for denying him?” Apparently, it’s just not that clear-cut.

Of course conversion is not simply a shift in our relationship with God. Justification is required before conversion can occur. Romans 1:17 reminds us that the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. It is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Conversion, however, is a much larger reality in which our restored relationship with God begins to touch and change every area of our lives. Justification is not something visible. It is purely a work of the heart. The New Testament speaks of conversion as metanoia, which is literally a change of mind, but is not merely altering your opinion about God. Instead, it is a redirection of your fundamental outlook—what we might call mind-set or worldview. Because it involves a change in affection and will, the very core of self, it is not simply a matter of opinion.

The Bible tells us, “You must be born again” (John 3:7, NIV). Colossians 1:13 states, “For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (NIV).  Christian theology speaks of regeneration, which is the fundamental work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the repentant sinner. This “in or out” language finally appears also in the terminology of contemporary sociology of conversion. But the complexity of this phraseology—of conversion, yes, but also of alteration, transference, renewal, affiliation, adhesion, and other terms for religious moves one might make—points to biblical and theological counterparts indicating there is more to conversion than just “getting it.”

What Are We Converted From and Transformed To?

The apostle Peter taught that one needs to “repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19, NKJV). Many believe conversion is just accepting Jesus into your heart or professing Jesus with your mouth. It is true that many today are testifying to religious experiences in which they met true reality. At first glance, the Christian sounds like everyone else because he is also claiming to have experienced ultimate truth. The unbeliever or casual observer needs more than a mere testimony of subjective experience as a criterion to judge who, if anyone, is right.

Christian conversion is linked inextricably to the person of Jesus Christ. It is rooted in fact, not wishful thinking. Of course, this statement is at the very heart of apologetics. Jesus demonstrated that He had the credentials to be called the Son of God. He challenged men and women to put their faith in Him. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). When a person puts his faith in Jesus Christ, he enters into a personal relationship with God Almighty, which leads to changes taking place in his life.

It is not a matter of self-improvement or cultural conditioning. Besides the fact that Christian conversion is based upon something objective—the resurrection of Christ—there is also a universality of Christian conversion. Since the date of his death and resurrection, people from every conceivable background, culture, philosophy, and intellectual stance have been converted by the person of Jesus Christ. Some of the vilest individuals who ever walked the face of the Earth have become some of the most remarkable saints after trusting Jesus Christ. This must be considered. Because of the diversity of the people, it cannot be explained away by simple cultural conditioning. Christian experience is universal regardless of culture.

Concluding Remarks

God looks on the heart, the attitude, the intent. As long as one, in his heart, has a real desire to walk in God’s will—is deeply sorrowful for past sins and repents when he commits the occasional sin—and seeks to overcome sin and make God’s way his way, he will be forgiven. But if, following conversion, he is diligent in his Christian life, his occasional sinning will become less and less. He will make solid progress, maturing, overcoming, growing spiritually and in righteous godly character.

The experience of a new Christian —not just knowledge but experience—of who he is and what has happened to him, is profoundly determined by what he knows about the miracle of conversion. That knowledge is based upon Scripture. God ordained that the miracle of the Christian life be powered by his sovereign grace in the soul, but guided and shaped by His Word in the Bible. It important to note that God does not give the joys of conversion through the conversion alone. The fullness of conversion takes place when the new life within intersects with the old word from without.

On a final note, to “convert” is to repent or “turn away from” one thing and toward something new. When one becomes a Christian, he is given the power to essentially do a 180 and go an entirely different way. Conversion is based solely on faith or belief. Christianity is not a religion; rather, it is a relationship with Christ. Christianity is God offering salvation to anyone who believes and trusts the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Conversion is accepting the gift that God offers and beginning a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that results in the forgiveness of sins and eternity in heaven after death.

 

The Blind Shall See

The following is an excerpt from “As Easy as Drinking Water: A Muslim Forgiven,” by Afshin Javid. Afshin, an extremely devout Muslim boy, had sought to please God in every way by following the words of the Qur’an. Having committed himself to live and die for Islam, at the age of 12 he joined Hezbollah. Later, in obedience to his grandfather’s commission to preach Islam to North Americans, Afshin attempted illegal immigration to the West. Plans went awry when he was arrested and imprisoned in Malaysia’s infamous Pudu Jail.

“As Easy as Drinking Water” is the life story of Afshin Javid, who, in an hour of darkness, had an encounter with Jesus that would change his life forever. As you will see from reading Afshin’s memoir, he cried out to God in desperation in his cell one night. He felt a hand on his shoulder and asked who it was. A voice said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Not sure what this meant, or who the presence was, Afshin again asked, “What is your name?” The voice said, “I am Jesus Christ.” Afshin said he fell immediately to his face on the floor of his cell. From that point on, he was commissioned to tell the world of God’s marvelous love and His desire to forgive. This excerpt is from the chapter titled “The Blind Shall See.”

***

DURING ONE OF OUR Friday evening services, a young blind Bengali man in his late twenties or early thirties tapped his way through the entrance of the church with a cane. He sat and listened to the service, and at the end he came forward during the prayer time. One of our members greeted him at the front.

“How can we pray for you?”

“I was born blind, but I would like to see. Can you pray for me to be able to see?”

“Of course we can pray for this,” someone said.

“Yes,” I said, “there is no reason why you cannot be healed today. There are plenty of stories in the Bible where Jesus healed incurable diseases, including blindness. There is no reason why He can’t do it today.”

There happened to be a doctor in attendance who was visiting our church. Having overheard the story, he felt he needed to protect us from embarrassing ourselves and making God look bad in the process.

“Everyone should know that if this man was born blind, it probably means he had an infection in the womb that destroyed his retina, or maybe he has some other inherited problem. Whatever the cause, the nerves from his eyes cannot carry any signal to his brain. The connections are broken. I don’t think that praying is going to work here.”

“I really don’t understand what you are trying to explain to us, and further, I don’t want your thoughts to stand in the way of us trying to pray for healing,” I said.

“It’s like the plug for a lamp,” he said. “If you cut the cord, you can’t get any power to the lamp. Praying for this man is going to put us all in an awkward position. When nothing happens, we will have to explain why. It would be better to not pray at all.”

I didn’t understand anything about how eyes work, how nerves work, or how the brain works – and I still don’t. What he was saying was all mumbo jumbo. I only knew one thing. James 5:14-15 says, “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.” (NASB)

It does not say, “Pray only for people with certain diseases.” It says, “Pray for the sick.” For me, praying for the sick was as simple as that: “Pray for the sick.” It did not seem all that complicated. It was not my responsibility to be certain that God was going to do what I asked for. It was my responsibility to be obedient to His command, which was to pray.

Sometimes God does not heal but says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), and other times He says, “Yes, I will heal.” Why He says what He says, and how He answers prayers, are His business. These are management decisions. I am a soldier. I don’t get to make management decisions. I just have to do what I am told.

So I turned and said, “Doctor, I don’t care what you say. I am not deterred by the specifics of this man’s medical problems. I am approaching the One who created this man, and I am asking Him for healing. I can assure you I have no power of my own to do anything. I just take orders.” I felt a little bad for the doctor. I understand that as a medical professional and an intellectual, he was trying to help us out. But sometimes, too much knowledge has a negative effect on our ability to take God at His word.

We all gathered around the man and prayed a very simple prayer, short, to the point, in faith, and in obedience. “Lord, would you stretch out your hand and heal this man in the Name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Please give him back his eyesight, Lord.”

The next thing we knew the man said, “I can see something! It’s kind of blurry, but I can see!” We all immediately burst into praise and shouts to the Lord. We were so excited to see such a miracle happen right in front of us.

“Hallelujah!” people were shouting.

“Praise God!” echoed around the room. It sounded like the home team had won a football game. The doctor tried to calm us all down and assure us that we were completely deluded.

“Hey, everyone, just settle down. There is no way this man can see anything,” he assured us. “Look, I will show you.” The doctor raised four fingers in front of the man’s face. “How many fingers am I holding up, sir?” he said. Without waiting for a response, he looked over to us smugly. He was certain that the man would not be able to answer. “Four,” the man said.

“You see? He can’t see anything.” The doctor looked down at his own hand and realized he was holding up four fingers. I must confess that the fact that the doctor could not remember how many fingers he had held up added to the moment in a most gratifying way. I am not sure who was more shocked – the man who had been healed or the doctor. Jesus performed this miracle for the Father’s glory in the same manner as when He was living among us: “As He went along, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.'” (John 9:1-3)

Sometimes, as Christians, we try too hard to protect the reputation of the God we serve. Because we are afraid He might not answer our prayer, we avoid praying altogether. We don’t want anyone to say, “Your god does not exist!” or “Your god never answers!” That day I learned we should never assume the role of God’s protector and defender because it may lead us to misguided inaction, preventing Him from doing a miracle. On the flip side, many have tried to defend God with misguided action, and in so doing have wrongly shed blood in His name. It’s best to let God defend His own reputation, and do only what He commands.

This experience built my faith tremendously. After that day, I fully believed that whenever I had the opportunity to pray for the lame, the blind, or the sick of any sort, they would be healed instantly and restored to health. I thought of these words from Scripture: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18)

Afshin Javid