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.

 

 

Being in Relationship With God

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:2) (NIV)

What a fantastic Scripture reference. It speaks of a profound desire to commune with God. As I often do, I grabbed Eugene H. Peterson’s The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language, and I turned to Psalm 42. Peterson translates the first few verses as follows: “A White-tailed deer drinks from the creek; I want to drink God, deep drafts of God. I’m thirsty for God – alive. I wonder, ‘Will I ever make it – arrive and drink in God’s presence?'” (The Message)

Let’s consider what it means to be in a relationship. Dictionary.com says relationship is “a connection, association, or involvement…an emotional or other connection.” We are social animals. God created us that way. Genesis 2:18 tells us God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.” (NLT) So it is only natural that we are created for being in relationship with God. Obviously, all relationships require work. They don’t just happen. When it comes to a relationship with God, we tend to feel as though we inherited our faith from our parents, and that we are one of His. Although family does have an impact on what we believe, the time comes when we must decide for ourselves. Until we make that decision, there is no real basis for relationship.

Foundation is important in all things, including relationships. Decide what you truly feel about God and tell Him. He’s big enough. He can take it. You can’t tell Him something He hasn’t already heard. My mentor and friend from church  believes in writing a letter to God. You might be thinking, as I did initially, “But God must know this stuff already, right? He knows the number of hairs on my head.” True, but the letter will serve as a cement slab on which you can erect your relationship with God. (Write out your concerns, doubts, and feelings in long-hand. I recommend not using your laptop for this exercise. A handwritten note is more personal.)

The number-one key in a good relationship is knowing your expectations.  Once you establish the base for your relationship with God, you can begin to build upon it every day through prayer and devotional reading of the Scriptures. I can’t overstate this point: Don’t sit on negative feelings too long. Otherwise, you will develop an offense or resentment toward God. Satan loves this because it tends to cut us off from God. As much as this is true in relationships with friends, family, or spouses, it is more so in a relationship with your Heavenly Father. The longer you wait to talk, the harder it gets. If you’re mad at God, go to Him as soon as possible. Preferably in a private place.

Man-Kneeling-In-Prayer-Silhouette

Relationship is about finding and meeting God. As Perrott puts it, “It’s about starting and nurturing an honest relationship with our Creator. It’s about coming to terms with ourselves.” Sarah Young is the author of a daily devotional titled Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence.” Her reading for March 17, says, in part, “Come to Me for understanding since I know you far better than you know yourself. I comprehend you in all your complexity; no detail of your life is hidden from Me. I view you through eyes of grace, so don’t be afraid…when no one else seems to understand you, simply draw closer to Me. Rejoice in the One who understands you completely and loves you perfectly.”

The following comments are from Chip Ingram, Teaching Pastor at Living on the Edge. I was truly shocked by how much I could relate, minus the Marine upbringing part. Relationships, whether with a spouse or Almighty God, cannot be fear-based. Having a real, intimate relationship with God is not about using the right words, spiritual techniques, twisting God’s arm, or trying to live a perfect life. As we grow closer to Him, we come to see that He already knows our heart.

I spent many years living under a performance mentality, partly due to my “Marine” upbringing. I was taught from a young age that discipline and performance were paramount, so when I became a Christian I approached my relationship with God the same way. I remember I used to go through a long prayer list every day, worrying that I’d make a mistake and leave someone or something out. I also thought that in order to “get God on my team” there must be a certain formula, or specific actions that I needed to follow. But nothing I tried seemed to bring me feeling closer to God. Living on the Edge

Naturally, there are some basics we need to consider. For example, we need to make a daily habit of confessing our sin. If sin is the barrier in our relationship with God, then confession removes that barrier. When we confess our sins, He promises to forgive us of those sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (See 1 John 1:9) Forgiveness is what restores a strained relationship. However, confession is more than simply saying, “I’m sorry for my sin, God.” It is heartfelt contrition out of recognition that our sin is an offense to a Holy God. It is confession born out of realizing our sin nailed Jesus to the cross.

Of course, to have a closer relationship with God we need to listen when He speaks. Many people today are chasing a supernatural experience of hearing God’s voice, but Peter tells us we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which we would do well to pay attention. That “more sure prophetic word” is the Bible. In the Bible, we hear God’s voice to us. It is through the God-breathed Scriptures that we become “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17) If we want to grow closer to God, we should read His Word regularly. When we read Scripture, we are listening to God speak through it by his Spirit who illuminates the Word to us.

Another critical component is to speak to God daily through prayer.  The Gospels provide many examples of Jesus secreting Himself away to commune with the Heavenly Father. Prayer is much more than simply a way to ask God for things we need or want. Consider the model prayer that Jesus gives His disciples in Matthew 6:9-13. The first three petitions in that prayer are directed toward God (may His name be hallowed, may His kingdom come, may His will be done). The last three petitions are requests we make of God after we’ve taken care of the first three (give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins, lead us not into temptation). I have found that reading the Psalms on a regular basis has enhanced my prayer life. Many of the Psalms are heartfelt cries to God with adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication.

Obedience will help us grow closer to God. Jesus told His disciples in the upper room, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (See John 14:23) James tells us that as we submit ourselves to God through obedience, resist the devil, and draw near to God, He will draw near to us. (See James 4:7-8) Paul tells us in Romans 12:1 that our obedience is our “living sacrifice” of thanksgiving to God. I believe obedience is our proper response to the grace of God we received through salvation. We don’t earn salvation through our obedience, but we were bought with a price. Oh, what a tremendous price it was! The only true way we can show our love and gratitude toward God is to honor His Word.

It might sound simplistic, but consider how we develop a closer relationship with other human beings. We spend time with them in conversation, opening our hearts to them and listening to them at the same time. We acknowledge when we’ve done wrong and seek forgiveness. We love them. We treat them well and sacrifice our own needs to fulfill theirs. It’s not really that different with our relationship to our Heavenly Father. Surely, we have to admit to ourselves that we are social beings in need of relationship. Furthermore, we need to see relationship with God as critical to joy, peace, fulfillment, and a sense of belonging in an otherwise vast and scary universe.

How few people we know, or even know of, who experience the kind of closeness with God that our hearts long for. Even in Scripture only a handful of people seemed to have a special relationship with the Father. Abraham was called a friend of God. The Lord spoke with Moses face to face. Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne. Paul was taken up into the third heaven, and the Apostle John had an incredible vision, which he recorded in the book of Revelation. These are not every day encounters with Jesus. Each of these individuals developed a closeness with God that ultimately changed their lives, as well as hundreds of millions of others over the last 2,000 years.

God does not have a secret society of intimate friends. We are as intimate with God as we choose to be. It is our desire, our abiding, our purity that will determine the depth of our intimacy with Him. Intimacy is understanding that I may feel “hinged” or “unhinged.” It is knowing that I must sit at the feet of Jesus, so that I can walk with integrity as His friend. It is experiencing the closeness of the Lord and at other times wondering if He is near. Essentially, intimacy is abandonment of ourselves to the Lord—abandonment born out of trust and an intense longing to know the living God.

Communion With God

Perfection and liberation come from aligning one’s self with the “highest intelligence.” The powers of contemplation are attained through one’s relationship and devotion to God.

When we have an emotional crisis, it’s natural to want to call out to someone for help. Thoughts and prayers flow automatically. In any difficult time, there is a longing to find comfort and to search for a higher reason or power. We look to God, the Creator, for guidance. We long for His voice. We thirst for communion with Him. We should never let the how of conversation stop us from simply talking to Him. We need only to begin. Say to Him, “God, for the next few minutes, I just want to be alone with You” Relax. Breathe. Become aware of His presence. You will eventually find something to say. Once the conversation begins, it’s easy to continue. Trust yourself. You’ll know what to say. The effects you get will be linked to your focus.

Ask God to help you be closer to Him. And tell Him how much closer you’d like to be. Tell Him how you feel. You can’t bore God, so have the same conversation again and again if you wish. You can’t offend God either, so rant and rave. Cry. Sob. Tell God exactly how you feel. The more relaxed and honest your conversation, the easier it gets and the deeper your experience becomes. Do your best, and then surrender. Leave the rest to God. If this process seems difficult, remind yourself that with God there is no such thing as failure. The only failure here is when you abandon the effort. Then, you only fail yourself by affirming your obstacles.

Praying in Tongues

I belong to a Pentecostal church. A good number of our members practice what they call praying in tongues. I presently do not pray or speak in tongues, and have sometimes wondered if that means the others are more spiritually mature than I. More in touch with God. This, of course, made me question my spirituality. I have prayed and asked God to baptize me in the Holy Spirit with the “evidence” of speaking or praying in tongues. When that didn’t happen, I considered myself the odd man out. Satan used this opportunity to get me to question my Christian maturity and whether I should remain at my church. Since this was a big question, I decided to talk to someone at the church whose opinion I value. Also, I did some research on praying in tongues versus speaking in tongues. I want to share my research with you, my blog followers.

My first question was what is the difference between praying in the spirit and praying in tongues? I have been told by some Christians that these were the same thing. Praying in the spirit is mentioned three times in Scripture. 1 Cor. 14:15 says, “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind.” Ephesians 6:18 says, “And pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Jude 20 says, “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.” So, what exactly does it mean to pray in the spirit?

The Greek word “pray in” can have several different meanings. It can mean “by means of,” “with the help of,” “in the sphere of,” and “in connection to.” Praying in the spirit does not refer to the words we’re saying. Rather, it refers to how we are praying. Praying in the spirit is praying according to the Spirit’s leading. It is praying for things the Spirit leads us to pray for. Romans 8:26 tells us, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes with us in groans that words cannot express.”

Some, based on 1 Cor. 14:15, equate praying in the Spirit with praying in tongues. Discussing the gift of tongues, Paul mentions “praying with my spirit.” 1 Cor. 14:14 states that when a person prays in tongues, he does not know what he is saying, since it is a language he does not know. Further, no one else can understand what is being said unless there is an interpreter of the tongues. In Ephesians 6:18, Paul tells us to pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of requests. How are we to pray for the saints if no one, including the person praying, understands what’s being said? Therefore, praying in the Spirit should be understood as praying in the power of the Spirit, by the leading of the Spirit, and according to His will, not praying in tongues.

There are four primary Scripture passages that are cited as evidence for praying in tongues. Romans 8:26, 1 Cor. 14:4-17, Ephesians 6:18 and Jude 20. The passages in Ephesians and Jude mention praying in the Spirit. However, praying in tongues as a prayer language is not a likely interpretation of praying in the spirit. Romans 8:26 teaches us, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” I see two key reasons why it is unlikely that this Scripture is referring to tongues as a prayer language. First of all, the passage says that it is the Spirit that groans, not the believer. Second, Romans 8:26 states that the groans of the Spirit cannot be expressed. The very essence of speaking in tongues is uttering words.

That leaves us with 1 Cor 14:4-17, and verse 14 specifically, which says, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” This verse says “praying in tongues.” What does that mean? First, we need to see the context in which this is mentioned. 1 Cor. 14 is primarily a comparison of the gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy. Versus 2-5 make it clear that Paul views prophecy as a gift superior to tongues. At the same time, he speaks of the value of tongues and declares that he is glad that he speaks in tongues more than anyone (Verse 18.)

Acts Chapter 2 describes the first occurrence of the gift of tongues. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles spoke in tongues. Chapter 2 makes it clear that the apostles were speaking in a human language. (Acts 2:6-8) The word translated “tongues” in both Acts Chapter 2 and 1 Cor. Chapter 14 is glossa, which means “language.” It is the word from which we get the modern English word “glossary.” Speaking in tongues was the ability to speak in a language the speaker does not know, in order to communicate the Gospel to one who does speak that language. Corinth was a city of many cultures and languages at the time. The gift of tongues was extremely valuable. The Corinthian believers were better able to communicate the Gospel and God’s Word as a result of the gift of tongues. Regardless, it is important to note that Paul made it abundantly clear that even in this usage of tongues, the utterance was interpreted or translated. A Corinthian believer would speak in tongues, proclaiming God’s word to someone who spoke that language, then that believer, or another believer in the church, was to interpret what was spoken so that the entire assembly was edified.

This does not agree with those who view tongues as a prayer language. This alternative understanding can be summarized as follows: praying in tongues is a personal prayer language between a believer and God (1 Cor. 13:1) that a believer uses to edify himself (1 Cor. 14:4) I don’t believe this is biblical. How can praying in tongues be a private prayer language if it has to be interpreted? (1 Cor. 14:13-17) How can praying in tongues be for self-edification when Scripture says that the spiritual gifts are for the edification of the church, not the self? (1 Cor. 12:7) How can praying in tongues be a private prayer language if the “gift of tongues” is a sign for non-believers? (1 Cor. 14:22) The Bible makes it clear that not every believer possesses the gift of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:11, 28-30) How can tongues be a gift for self-edification if not every believer can speak in tongues?

Some believers believe praying in tongues is a “secret language” that prevents Satan from understanding our prayers and thereby gaining an advantage over us. This interpretation is not biblical. The New Testament consistently describes tongues as a human language. It is unlikely that Satan and his minions are unable to understand human languages. The Bible records countless believers praying in their own language, out loud, with no concern of Satan interpreting the prayer. The devil and his demons hear and understand the prayers we pray. But they have absolutely no power to prevent God from answering the prayers in accordance with His will. We know that God hears our prayers, and that fact makes it irrelevant whether Satan and his demons hear and understand our prayers.

What do we say then about the many Christians who experience praying in tongues and find it very personally edifying? First, we must base our faith and our practice on Scripture, not experience. We must view our experiences in light of Scripture, not interpret Scripture in light of how we feel. Second, many of the cults and false religions of the world also report occurrences of speaking and praying in tongues. Obviously, the Holy Spirit is not gifting these non-believers with praying in tongues or speaking in tongues. So, it seems that demons are able to counterfeit the gift of speaking in tongues. This should cause us to compare even more carefully our experiences with what the Bible has to say about those experiences. I also read that speaking in tongues can actually be a learned behavior. Through hearing and observing others speak in tongues, a person can learn the procedure, even subconsciously. Also, the feeling of “self-edification” is natural. The human body produces adrenaline and endorphins when it experiences something new, exciting and emotional.

Praying in tongues is most definitely an issue on which Christians can respectfully and lovingly agree to disagree. Praying in tongues is not what determines salvation. Praying in tongues is not what separates a mature Christian from an immature Christian. I am glad I’ve been able to come to this conclusion. Whether or not there is such a thing as praying in tongues as a personal prayer language is not a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. So, while we believe the biblical interpretation of praying in tongues leads away from the idea of a private prayer language for personal edification, we also recognize that many who practice such are our brothers and sisters in Christ and are worthy of our love and respect.

It is for this reason that I am willing to remain at my Pentecostal church and not run to something new. First of all, what I have now is a known quantity. I understand what the Scriptures have to say about the idea of praying in tongues. I am vested in the relationship I have with my pastor and the elders of the church. I have made many fine Christian friends over the seven years I’ve been attending. If I jump ship and go to a new church, I run the risk of landing at a church that has no instances of spiritual gifts, or one that is dead. I have to focus on my own personal relationship with the Lord and not feel like I am “less than” the other believers in my church who seem to be practicing praying in tongues. I am so grateful for the leading of the Holy Spirit during this study. I pray that this post has been helpful to those of you who may have some of the same questions.