The Doctrines of Grace: Thinking About Application
When considering the matter of our application of Scripture, or what we can call our doctrine or theology, we really do need to think about it. Think about this—God only gave us ten commands for all life and then reduced them to two, both about what we love. Every situation you have ever found yourself in, or ever will, is one in which you are to love God and therefore your neighbor by obeying God’s ten commands. Seems simple. Sidestepping the matter of ability for a moment, let us consider that Jesus’ summary of God’s Law regarding love for God and neighbor reveals a unity and simplicity to our applying Scripture. Simplicity does not mean simplistic, though, nor does unity mean without difficulties. What follows is meant to chart a course.
When Jesus (Matt. 7:15-20) said that we could know false prophets, i.e. teachers and preachers by their fruits and illustrated this point with reference to trees bearing fruit and identified by it, he expressed the following truth—what a thing is determines what it does. This expresses a point about the nature of reality (metaphysics is the topic) that lies at the heart of the application of Scripture. Since God is the Creator and Redeemer, we only are able to know through God what things are, and thereby do. All right or true knowledge is truly theological. By creating, sustaining, interpreting, judging and redeeming by his word and Spirit, the Triune God reveals that everything is primarily about who he is and what he does (Col. 1:15-20). Our greatest need is to know whom the one, true and living God is and what he does. Or, since we only know God as creatures in his creation that is conditioned by time and space, we should likely express the point this way: We need to know who God is by what he has done, is doing and will do. What has God made things to be, allowed them to become and making them to be? He reveals this to us in and through his Word written and made flesh and by his Spirit.
Scripture reveals that everything we could or will ever know is known primarily in relation to God. This is true even of sin and Satan. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism affirms, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (SC #14). As a result, when addressing the matter of the practical application of Scripture we must understand that by definition it is pervasively and profoundly theological. Put another way, an accurate theology is practical, and we do not make it that; God has already made it that. The uncreated God, the God from whom, through whom and to whom are all things (Romans 11:36), the Creator and Redeemer, fills heaven and earth with his glory or presence and thereby causes us and all things to be, in a true sense, theological and practical. We do not, in the strictest sense, make these things practical, and we do not create or make opportunities for people to apply Scripture. God has already done this. Our role is one of discerning the truth of God’s word and doing it, not in trying to play God.
We discern the truth of God’s word and do it in the totality of what marks who we are, and our place in God’s creation. God has made his creation a wondrously diverse place that is unified. It all reflects God (Romans 1:20-21) as he is in his Triune being, three diverse persons in one being. Thus, right knowledge of, and reasoning about anything, is a systematic theological enterprise. In our practical application of Scripture we do not leave the doing of systematic theology but rather express systematic theology. Thus, to the degree that we are unsure of the practical application of our theology or doctrine to that same degree we do not rightly know it. Human knowledge of anything cannot be reduced to simply what, as John Calvin put it, “fleets about” in the mind, because as creatures created in God’s image we are not mere minds. We are a unity of body and soul in this earthly life. Human knowledge of anything and everything is, by virtue of who we are, both physical and spiritual simultaneously.
Despite creation’s vast unified network of relationships and our rather small place in it, God has mercifully and graciously revealed that our relationship to him is conditioned by our relationship to the time and place in which he has placed us within his creation, and the human relationships into which he has placed us. Some of the most faithful teachers and preachers of God’s word have put it like this: Our application of God’s word revolves around Sabbath, work and family. By this they mean that our weekly worship of God with his church, our work within the creation, and our relationships and responsibilities to our family form the entirety of our application of Scripture. These three are united and mutually define one another. We see these emphasized at the beginning of creation with God creating in his image the first man, placing him in the garden for work, making the woman from the man, and commanding them to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. God’s resting after he completed his work of creation by his word and Spirit highlights God’s entering into the joy of his work, even as he continued to do the work of sustaining his creational work (Gen. 1-2). As image bearers of God we are image his work.
The truth that we are creatures created in God’s image with some knowledge of God and with the duty and privilege to gain further knowledge of God within the time and space realm of creation reveals that there is a progression that marks our application of Scripture. This progression is wedded to the entire creation so that we can speak of not only a progression of God’s work of redemption in and through the time and space realm he created and redeems, but also of a progression to our application of God’s word, as we progress through various stages of physical life and spiritual maturation. These matters of progress are then also wedded to the corporate life of the church, our work, and our families. Because we share the creation with non-Christians, the lives and aspirations of non-Christians are unavoidably involved in our application of God’s word. There certainly is a distinction between the Christian and non-Christian, the Church and the State, but no disconnect. There is one sphere of creation for both Christian and non-Christian, contrary to what is popular in American evangelical circles in general, largely due to Dispensationalism, and expressed in some manifestations of “Two-Kingdom” theology among some Reformed people in particular.
The Lord giving us only ten commands and then reducing these ten to two for all life reveals with staggering clarity that God requires us to think in order to obey him. But such Christian thinking cannot take place unless God by his word and Spirit resurrects our dead soul, illumines our mind, enlivens our will, and enflames our affections so that we learn his word and put it into practice. As we do, we gain knowledge. Such knowledge is not merely intellectual, but it is at least that. This Christian view of knowledge is equal to what Scripture also calls wisdom. As we act wisely, and faithfully (not perfectly) obey God’s law we learn more of him and his ways. Which is to say, in the end, that all the doctrines of Scripture, of which TULIP is a part, are automatically or inherently practical. What remains is for us to discern and respond rightly to their practical application. Think about it.
David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.