If I am a believer (that is, if I am an incurable God-lover), then I have been saved by grace. I was so helplessly and hopelessly locked up in my own self-centered God-hating little world that I didn’t realize or didn’t care that the God of the universe was my enemy. My whole life was an offense to our perfect Creator. He sees and knows every sinful and shameful thing I have ever thought or done. He is always right in all of his judgments and action and, well, I’m not. If you were to call me an ignorant twit in comparison to God, it would be the highest compliment you could pay me and it would far overestimate my abilities and virtues. God is not only able to squash me like a bug, but I deserve to be squashed. I deserve to be in hell forever and ever because I have rebelled against God. But God, “who is rich in mercy,” decided not to squash me like a bug. While I was still insulting God and living as His enemy, God decided to give me mercy. He decided to satisfy His wrath, which He was storing up for me, on His innocent Son so that I might live for Him and enjoy Him forever. I received grace—the undeserved, unearned and inexhaustible love of God. As we stand basking in the love and mercy shown us through the cross of Christ, let me ask the question again: What do I owe someone with whom I am discussing theology? If the answer hasn’t leapt to your mind just yet, let’s consider some Scripture that might help us grasp just what we owe everyone with whom we interact:
1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! 9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father
34A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).
29Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4:29-32).
7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves
has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God,
because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12)
Listening to Understand: The First Step in Theological Discussion
It seems rather obvious, but since it is violated so often (as I write this I am cringing at the memory of my own sin in this area) it is worth making some remarks about. How can I put the needs of the person I am talking with above my own if I am not willing to actually listen,understand, and consider his point of view? How can I claim to love my brother and yet not be willing to let him fully explain himself? If I am actually going to seek to love the person with whom I am discussing theology, I need to understand his point of view thoroughly. I may disagree with every part of his theological position, but I need to understand his point of view so well that I am able to explain it to him in such a way that he can honestly say, “I couldn’t have represented my view better myself.” For those of us who are theological veterans, there is a danger in dismissing this point. There are few theological positions that we have not been exposed to and do not thoroughly understand. If someone tells me he does not believe in limited atonement, I can be fairly certain that I know all of the texts that the person will go to in order to prove his point of view and I am also pretty sure how he will attempt to explain away all those texts that seem to point in the other direction. Why should I bother listening to him explain a point of view I already understand perhaps better than he does? The reason I need to bother listening to him is because God has commanded me to love him self-sacrificially. Even if I have heard his theological position stated a thousand times before by other people, there is no excuse for me not to listen to him state his point of view with the patience and attention that I owe him (always keeping in mind how God is so patient and attentive to me).
But we can’t stop simply at listening in order to understand someone’s theological position. In order to truly love this person, I need to do more than simply understand his point of view academically. I need to understand how he understands his point of view. I need to draw out of him why he believes it and what he thinks the implications of his view are. If I am actually striving to love this person (which, as a Christian is my obligation to everyone, even to my enemies) then I desire to serve him in some way in our discussion about the things of God. This means that I need to get to know what makes him tick.
A person’s theology is not formed in an academic vacuum. Our lives actually inform our theology just as our theology informs our lives. For example, some time ago I had a discussion with a very bright man who is an able interpreter of Scripture about the biblical basis for the doctrine commonly called “the age of accountability,” wherein some believe that Scripture teaches that young children automatically go to heaven up to a certain age. They believe that when children reach an age when they have a clear understanding of right and wrong, only then does God holds children accountable for sin (their own sin and the imputed sin of Adam). We examined several passages of Scripture and I was shocked at what I believed were flimsy and irrational arguments. It made little sense to me how such a bright and knowledgeable person could hold what was a theological position seemingly without biblical warrant. Then we began to chat about his family and he told me about how his wife had one miscarriage and his first child died soon after birth. Suddenly I understood that his theological conviction was most likely not grounded in Scripture but in a traumatic experience. I was then able to point him away from the “age of accountability” and toward the hope that Scripture gives us in the midst of such a tragedy like losing a child. The point is simply this: theological discussion is not only about the text but about the person as well. It is not only about winning a point but also about showing love and concern for one of God’s servants. It is about listening to understand the point of view and the person.
Steve Lehrer is the director of biblical counseling at In-Depth Studies.