The practice of God’s word can only be rightly understood when we recognize these two truths: God’s word gets to define all the words we use and all our words are part of a system of truth, apart from which we cannot arrive at these definitions. Everyone has a system of truth, or a systematic theology, whether they know it or not, by which they arrive at their definitions of the words they use. And everyone’s system of truth has an ultimate, final and authoritative resting point.
One of the common pleas made of preachers and teachers of God’s word is for them to be practical or relevant. The pleas are not without warrant. One merely need consider the alternative. Do we want them to be impractical? Obviously, not. Well, on second thought, maybe so. It depends. What do we mean by practical and impractical?
Some will simply assume that the answers are obvious. Such obviousness can often amount to simply repeating the term practical: “You know make it practical!” Perhaps they will expand on that statement with: “Make it something we can put into practice! Show us how to do it!” Again, the pleas are not without merit. But in a culture that has largely rejected the One True Living Triune God the desire for practicality is often controlled by pragmatism. The latter is the chasing after the results one wants based on the means one has for achieving them for the purposes that one wants to achieve. God’s Word is practical, but its notion of practicality confronts human idolatry and its pragmatism. That is another way of saying that the practicality of God’s Word exposes human pride, presumption and impotence that masquerades as gospel humility, truth and power. Among other things this raises the question: How does God’s word mandate that we define the word practical? Put another way: What does God word teach us about how we ought to think about putting it into practice?
The practice of God’s word can only be rightly understood when we recognize these two truths: God’s word gets to define all the words we use and all our words are part of a system of truth, apart from which we cannot arrive at these definitions. Everyone has a system of truth, or a systematic theology, whether they know it or not, by which they arrive at their definitions of the words they use. And everyone’s system of truth has an ultimate, final and authoritative resting point. Systems of truth that are rooted in and the reflection of nothing more than what finite humans can achieve are left with an insurmountable problem. This problem is simply that they are left groping in an endless search for a final reference point by which they can define anything. Apart from reliance upon the One True & Living Triune Infinite and Eternal God one is left with only endless questions. But humans cannot live without answers. So, in the face of this dilemma, the non-Christian must simply choose an answer.
Oh, of course, he or she will offer any number of rationalizations or justifications for their answers. But as the apostle Paul stated in Romans 1:20, “they are anapologetous,” that is, they are without a rational justification for their beliefs and practices. This term in Romans 1:20 that is often translated “excuse” is a form of the Greek term from which we derive apologetics. While Peter wrote in 1Peter 3:15 that the Christian is to always be ready to give an apologian—a term that can be translated reason, answer or defense—Paul tells us that the one who rejects God’s Truth has anapologetous—no justifiable answer, reason or defense for what they believe and do. Paul is not saying that they don’t give one. Paul obviously heard and refuted many of the answers given by non-Christians. Paul’s statement must be understood within the whole system of truth given by God’s Word that is the reflection of Him Who is the Truth & the Word of God in human flesh.
In essence what Paul affirms is that the non-Christian’s explanation for their thinking and behavior is ultimately irrational, or does not correspond to God’s word or system of truth. Does the non-Christian believe in being practical? Sure they do. And what is practical to them fits within their system of truth. The non-Christian does not stop using many of the same terms the Christian will and should use. The difference between the two uses of the terms has to do with how they fit (or at least should in the case of the Christian) within a particular system of truth. Among other things, this raises the question as to the Christian’s knowledge and use of the system of truth mandated by God’s Word. You see, systematic theology that is warranted by God’s word is very practical.
One of the demonstrations of the rejection of God’s Word that is put on display in so much of American culture is the resistance to defining terms in relation to a standard outside of individual personal preference. Reject God and his system of truth and all you are left with is yourself as the standard of truth. Among other things, it means that the results an individual or institution wants to achieve, and the way they will measure whether such results have been achieved becomes the test for practicality. When God and his system of truth define the results we want to achieve, then measuring whether such results have been achieved looks quite different then what is on display within humanistic systems of truth.
We in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ are particularly susceptible to pragmatism—the pandering after the results we want by the means we want to use to achieve them. After all, it is our Lord who is at work building his kingdom on earth, bringing the knowledge of himself that will one day cover the earth like the water covers the sea. Jesus is all about results, and he gives his disciples, his covenant people the eternal privilege to participate with him in bringing those results. But these kingdom results are brought in the way Jesus’ chooses, when he chooses to bring them, with whom he chooses to bring them and for the reasons he chooses to bring them. What we are constantly tempted to do because of our proud and arrogant hearts, and the pragmatic pride and arrogance in which we are immersed in American culture, is to think that we can harness God’s word to grow the church and God’s kingdom according to our strategies, methods or programs. Give something to the Christian so that they know what to do, go do it and see measurable results. It is dressing up in Christian clothes the idols of the culture.
How is God’s Word practical? By God’s Spirit giving knowledge of God’s truth we are convicted of sin, given the gift of repentance—no, not just once, but continuously—so that we believe the gospel—no, not just once, but continuously—so that we grow or mature in the grace and knowledge of Christ so that the fruit of God’s Spirit marks our lives. The non-Christian does not understand this; it is foolishness to them (1Cor. 1:18). They cannot make sense of it. It appears to them as utterly impractical. It is not measured by mere numbers, dollar signs, or verbal decisions to follow Jesus. It is not demonstrated by the kind of power that the non-Christian defines as power. It will not put our greatness, or our congregation’s greatness, or our pastor’s greatness, or our denominations greatness on display. It will put the Triune God’s greatness on display, and this is a greatness that is defined according to him and his system of truth. It is a greatness that the world finds weak, foolish and quite impractical.
David P. Smith is a minister in the Associate Presbyterian Church and serves as the pastor of Covenant Fellowship ARP Church in Greensboro, NC. This article appeared on The Confessional ARP and is used with permission.