Theology Drives Methodology


Theology —> Methodology

Doctrine —> Practice

(Bible) —> Method

In contemporary evangelicalism, it is often asserted that methodology does not matter as long as the message does not change. In theological terms, it is thought that evangelistic methods fall in the category of adiaphora, or things indifferent. . . this is not the case. . . methods mattered greatly because depending upon the methods employed, one would find themselves working in harmony with the revealed will of God and furthering the work of His Church, or placing oneself in opposition to the workings of His Spirit and harming the cause of Christ. 

This understanding of the intimate relationship between theology and methodology, however, has been largely lost in the contemporary Church.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 6).  . Kindle Edition.

We must not begin our study of evangelism and discipleship with methods, practices, or strategies first. That is not the order of things. Methods, practices, and strategies are not neutral. They have a basis. There are presuppositions, convictions that are foundational to them. Behind every practice is a theory. Behind every evangelistic method there is a theology that created it. Underneath every discipleship strategy is a theology that gave rise to it.

. . . by their very nature, different methodologies send different messages. If we are to assume the correctness of a certain theological system, then there are certain methods which naturally flow out of, and promote, that system. Particular methodologies have embedded within them particular theologies.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 112).  . Kindle Edition.

This is the relationship between theology and practice. This should be the order for all the “practical theology” courses. In the Reformed world, we let our theology control our practice. That’s what makes Reformed theology and Reformed churches different. To demonstrate this, and preview what we will study in the future, we’ll look at the Reformed doctrine of God and other doctrines, and briefly apply them to evangelism and discipleship:

R.C. Sproul began his lecture, “The Doctrine of God in the Confession” (The Westminster Confession for Today Conference, 2007, RTS) with a paradox. Speaking of the Reformed faith, our doctrine of God is not very distinctive. It’s pretty catholic. We recognize one God in three persons, with his attributes, just as many other streams of Christianity.
At the same time, but not in the same relationship, Dr. Sproul says, that the single most distinctive aspect of Reformed theology is the doctrine of God.

What does that mean? Our doctrine of God is not very distinctive, yet it is the most distinctive aspect of Reformed theology? R.C. Sproul explains:

What is so distinctive about Reformed theology and the doctrine of God is that in our theology the doctrine of God is the controlling concept that defines all of our theology and practice.
He further explains the difference between Reformed theology and non-Reformed theologies. For other Christian communions/denominations, they will cite what they believe about the doctrine of God in their confession or creed, but by the time they move on to the next subdivision of theology, they have forgotten the doctrine of God. This results in inconsistency between the doctrine of God and other points of their theology. For our purposes, this inconsistency especially affects their practice. They have their doctrine of God, theology inconsistent with it, and as a result inconsistent practice.
Reformed theology, on the other hand, is controlled by our understanding of God. The doctrine of God permeates and determines every subdivision of our theology. This includes our doctrine of the creation, man, the church, salvation, Christ, worship, etc. Reformed theology strives to maintain consistency between the doctrine of God and all other subdivisions of theology.

And, we should add, the doctrine of God, controlling all subdivisions of theology, must also control our practice. Consistent Reformed theology drives Reformed methodology.

Doctrine of God (theology proper) → Reformed Theology (subdivisions) → Reformed practice

Here are some points of doctrine to demonstrate this relationship between Reformed theology and making disciples.

Our doctrine of God controls what we believe about salvation. As the Confession says, God is “most free” (WCF 2.1). This is why we accept the doctrine of unconditional election. God has the freedom to elect some people to everlasting life, from eternity. God’s free to choose, and the decision is completely in him. There is no condition in man that affects God’s decision to save. There is nothing desirable in us. The creature contributes nothing to the Creator’s decision. It is completely God’s choice. His actions are not determined, or influenced. Has not the potter freedom over the clay?

Related to our practice of evangelism and discipleship. God is most free, and elects who will be saved. This should give us confidence that evangelism and discipleship will be successful. We don’t panic when the biblical method doesn’t work, and scramble for a better method, because we know God has elected some to salvation, already. Ultimately, the conversion of sinners is not dependant on us.

Also, as we proclaim the Gospel to all people, we will not even imply that election is in any way conditioned on them. Not even their faith and repentance influences God’s decision. Likewise, in our offer of the Gospel we cannot contradict Jesus’ words, “you didn’t choose me, but I chose you.” Therefore, we may not call people to “choose Jesus,” as if that settles the matter. Rather, using the biblical language, we call people to repent and believe.

God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice determines our view of repentance. There is no salvation without repentance of sin. There is no reconciliation of sinful man to a holy God without God’s righteous justice. That is why Jesus needed to die. And that is why believers are dead to sin. God will never compromise his holiness. The Holy Spirit breaks the power of sin over us initially, and then purifies us progressively. Repentance is not only in the beginning of the Christian life but throughout it. That is why there are no adulterous Christians, or murdering Christians, or “homosexual Christians.” God is holy.

This certainly impacts our practice of evangelism and discipleship. Repentance is half of conversion. It is because God is holy that we call, indeed, command that all people everywhere repent (Acts 17:30). So in evangelism, we call people to repent of sin, and particular sins, and their sinfulness. These could very well require us to call out specific cultural sins, sins that are popular to our hearers. Throughout discipleship, repentance is daily. As Martin Luther said, the whole Christian life is one of repentance. All this, based on our doctrine of God.

Church Discipline
God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice also determine our doctrine of the church, specifically the mark of church discipline. We don’t allow unrepentant sinners into church membership. We are a holy nation. And when someone in the church is unrepentant, we execute church discipline in the hope of repentance and restoration. This is why there can be no tolerance of the sin of homosexuality within the church of Jesus Christ. We are God’s people, set apart in Christ who died for our sins, taken out of sin by God, freed from sin’s power by the Holy Spirit, dying to sin daily, and to be glorified and completely clean from sin after death.

Church discipline is the negative side of discipleship. As the church engages in making disciples, she also obeys Christ’s command to keep pure, to rebuke and correct, the goal being restoration and greater holiness. If God was not righteous or just, this wouldn’t matter. But he is, so it does. A church that does not practice church discipline is simply not making disciples.

Particular Redemption
Understanding the Tri-unity of God is vital to understanding Christ’s atonement.

In general, the doctrine of the Trinity may be stated thus: In the Godhead, three distinct persons, who are the same in substance and equal in power and glory, subsist in a single indivisible essence. —Beattie, loc. 771

The persons of the Trinity are always in agreement in all divine acts. Christ says that the Father has given him a flock, and that he won’t lose any of them. Who does the Holy Spirit save? Clearly not everybody, since some will end up in hell. The Holy Spirit unites those to Christ who believe in Jesus Christ. No one can see the kingdom of God, unless he is born again. So we have the Father choosing a particular number of people, out of all sinners, to deliver from sin and misery into salvation, by a Redeemer: Jesus Christ. What about the 2nd Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ? Who did Christ make atonement for? Did Jesus Christ die for all people? If he did, suddenly the agreement between the divine persons is broken in the divine act of redemption. The Father gave a specific number to the Son, and the Holy Spirit only applies the benefits of Christ’s work to the elect. How can the Son then be doing his own thing, so to speak, in dying for the sins of people not chosen and not to be regenerated? No, Christ died for the elect, and the elect only. The redemption purchased by Christ was particular.

And so in making disciples we must have this understanding. A key practical effect of this doctrine of God is that we don’t communicate, even implicitly, that God loves everybody equally, or that Jesus Christ died for everyone. That would be to lie.

A word regarding worship: God is worshiped in spirit and truth, according to who he truly is. This is a clear connection between the doctrine of God and the rest of our theology. R.C. Sproul always says,

“Nothing reveals more clearly to the watching world what your doctrine of God is more than how you worship Him.”

How we worship announces who we think God is and what is pleasing to him. Unfortunately, even in Presbyterian churches, worship is more about what pleases us. The nature and character of God should regulate and control our worship. The songs that are being sung in your congregation, do their words contradict our doctrine of God in the Standards? Do the prayers accurately reflect who God is? Are the elements of worship consistent with the doctrine of God? The entirety of our worship must be consciously and intentionally determined by who God is.

As we will see, the worship of the church is essential to discipleship. The means of saving and building up the saints are the ordinances that the Lord Jesus gave to his church. So if we are to make disciples correctly, God’s way, then our worship needs to be correct. And that means our practice of worship, how we do it, must be consistent with our theology. The church’s worship cannot contradict who God is, and what he’s revealed in Scripture. If it does, then all the Christians are being taught false doctrine through the worship! They are not being instructed rightly, and they are not actually being discipled, at that point. And if any unbelievers are present, they are not being presented with the right message, either.

Theology drives methodology. This is true of worship, apologetics, missions, and evangelism and discipleship. We must begin this course with our theology. Because if we don’t, you will choose a method of evangelism and discipleship that will probably contradict Reformed theology. You’ll adopt a method that is based on a different theology (meaning, unbiblical beliefs). And this is what has happened in our context. People who are supposed to be Presbyterian are using evangelism and discipleship methods that are based on Arminian theology!

If man can repent at any time, and God is already doing as much as he can, then the onus of bringing about conversions necessarily falls upon man. It is up to man to come up with the best possible methods in order to save as many people as possible. A failure to use the best and most innovative methods is equivalent to a failure to truly desire men’s salvation.

Locating the source of man’s salvation in man and his methods also places upon the backs of Christians a crushing burden of responsibility that has the potential to lead to imbalance and burnout. If your lack of action in pursuing the salvation of men could result in their damnation, then it is imperative that you exhaust yourself at all times in seeking their salvation. Devoting time to discipleship, recreation, or family, are of secondary importance, by far. Lives are on the line. The time spent on a family picnic might have been the only opportunity that someone had to hear the Gospel from you. But because you went on a picnic, someone is now going to hell.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 108).  . Kindle Edition.

We begin with theology. Meaning, we begin with the teaching of the Bible. As Presbyterians, we have that teaching written down in an orderly form. We have a summary of biblical doctrine, and they are the doctrinal standards of Presbyterians everywhere: the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. They are the system of doctrine contained in the Bible. They set out the system of doctrine, practice, and ethics of Scripture. So we will begin this course with a study of relevant doctrines from these Standards. We’ll also complement them with the other Reformed creeds: the Three Forms of Unity.

After nailing down our theology, we will look at application. The “how” of evangelism and discipleship, consistent with what we believe. It will be a Reformed or Presbyterian method of evangelism and discipleship. Because we are starting with Reformed theology, the method of evangelism and discipleship will probably be different than what you are familiar with.

If . . . we believe that God is sovereign in the calling, regeneration, and conversion of sinners, then a high pressure system that presses for conversion is unnecessary, unbiblical, and harmful. The Bench should be abandoned. If one were to share [the] conviction that God is the author of salvation, and that he will save sinners in the way that he has prescribed, then a consistent implementation of those views would lead one to arrive at a belief in the importance of the ordinary means of grace in the local ministry of the Church. Such beliefs also foster an attitude of humble dependence upon God, and a comfort and reassurance that He is a loving heavenly Father who is both powerful and willing to care for the souls of men.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 109).  . Kindle Edition.

Share the love