When I was an undergraduate student in college, I decided early on that I would pursue a major in religious studies so that I could begin to prepare for ministry. My education was at a public university and, needless to say, affirming classical Christian orthodoxy was not the primary goal of most of the faculty in my department. To be honest, I cannot disparage my instructors too much, because they always listened respectfully and were polite whenever we engaged in an argument. Nevertheless, we did have disagreements about things like the authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, and other non-negotiable elements of biblical Christianity.
As I began my studies, I knew that I would have to make the conscious decision to remain orthodox if I was to honor God and if I was to make it through the program with my faith intact. However, this was not the only time I had to make such a decision, and I am not the only believer who has had to make it. Each of us began our Christian walk with the decision to trust Jesus and submit to His Lordship over our hearts and minds. This involves the conscious decision to accept Him at His word — to believe in His self-revelation found in the pages of Scripture no matter how appealing any alternative may seem. If we do not make this decision to trust God at His word, the consequences will be disastrous. In fact, the fall of man can be traced to the one moment when Adam decided not to take God at His word, instead believing the serpent knew better than the sovereign God.
I did not grow up in a Reformed church; I am Reformed by choice (indeed, by God’s choice). While I can appreciate some of the gifts other Christian traditions bring, no other system of theology is so self-consciously committed to Scripture as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The greatest Reformed theologians have never been willing to sacrifice one element of biblical teaching in order to make their faith more acceptable to the prevailing culture. Instead of making God into a manageable deity, Reformed theology has enthusiastically affirmed all of God’s attributes, even when doing so makes it hard to understand His ways at times.
As we observed in 2 Peter, and as we will see in 1 John, the Word of God calls us to trust and affirm its propositions, even when doing so is not palatable to the culture. Knowing Scripture and Theology requires diligent study and the use of the wisdom provided by the greatest teachers of the church. We do well to remember our need to know and understand classical Christian theology.
However, as we learned in 2 Peter, and as we will observe in 1 John, to know and understand classical Christian theology does not mean only that we can provide correct formulations of doctrine. Biblical theology is a living and breathing theology that transforms our entire being. True Christianity is far more than an intellectual assent. For example, it is important to affirm a coherent, orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ, but if we do this without following His example, we have not really formulated an orthodox doctrine at all (1 John 2:22–23, 26).
Few other books of the Bible present this understanding of theology as comprehensively as the apostle John. Again and again he repeats the essential marks of a Christian — right thinking (the incarnation), right living (obedience), and right attitude (love). Our theology is not truly God-centered if we emphasize one of these at the expense of another.
Personally, I have not always had so much difficulty with the formulations of correct doctrine. It is making sure that this doctrine helps me to obey God and to love others that is the hard part. I suspect that is true for many others as well. We can manage knowledge far better than we can manage our own lives. We can control our thinking, but we cannot make others more lovable.
As Reformed Christians we should be grateful for the great doctrinal heritage that has been passed down to us. We should be pleased that the works of our heroes are the ones by which others are measured. We should be grateful for the humble submission to Scripture evident in our tradition.
But let us not forget that our tradition has also understood the transformative nature of doctrine. For instance, John Calvin is revered as a man of great piety. Christians in the Reformed tradition have shown love for God and for others by starting hospitals in this country and around the world. The most cogent Christian ethicists today remain thinkers who are firmly established in Reformed theology.
As we seek to be true to Scripture, we must never cease asking God to conform us to His Word. As we study 1 John over the next few months let us be careful to affirm classical orthodoxy, but let us never think that right thinking alone will lead us to self-sacrificial acts of love and obedience. Let us endeavor to build Christian fellowship with believers who differ from us on non-essential matters of the faith. Let us seek to obey Scripture so that we are not only passionate about doctrinal precision but passionate about love and obedience as well.