I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but there is a rising trend in the Church today to focus on the theology of grace: Pure, unearned favor from God, based not on anything we have done but purely on what Christ has done. Naturally, this kind of message from the “grace teachers” has given rise to some who care very little about personal holiness. After all, if my salvation is based purely on Christ’s perfection rather than my own, why try to be perfect?
And this excess — which has earned for this message the label “hyper-grace” — has incited a reaction from the more traditional “holiness preachers” in the Church who are equally as passionate about purity and the undefiled nature of God.
Thus the grace teachers and the holiness preachers duke it out on Facebook, in blog articles, on the radio, in podcasts, and even on TV.
Allow me to shift gears for a moment, and then I’ll give you the answer you probably never expected…
Snake-Handlers have Theology Too!
Last month, Charisma News republished an article from USA Today about modern-day snake handlers. The article offers a look at a 21-year-old snake-handling preacher from LaFollette, Tennessee, named Andrew Hamblin. Citing Mark 16:18, which says that “those who believe…will pick up snakes with their hands,” Hamblin and his contemporaries come to church with buckets and boxes in hand, ready to worship Jesus with the contained rattlesnakes slithering about in their arms.
I know what you’re thinking: He’s crazy. Right? The fact is, Hamblin almost died a few years ago when a yellow timber rattlesnake he was handling bit him and left him hospitalized. And the article ends with Hamblin preaching at the funeral of his mentor, who had — you guessed it — died of a snakebite.
But before you call him completely nuts, notice how he addressed the tragedy the same way I (or any other healing minister) would handle the funeral of someone who died of a disease that wasn’t healed:
Hamblin said he planned to tell mourners not to lose faith in their grief.
“The only thing I know to do is to encourage the people of God to keep on,” he said, “keep doing the signs of God.”
What do snake handlers have to do with the debate between grace teachers and holiness preachers?
In my mind: Everything. I’ll explain in a moment.
Before that, let me briefly explain that while Hamblin does handle snakes on a regular basis and hasn’t been killed (yet?), I hesitate to call this dangerous practice a “sign of God.” The scripture about picking up snakes is really about supernatural protection in the midst of danger — not about testing God by putting oneself into harm’s way. (Consider Luke 4:9-12.) When the Apostle Paul was stoking a fire on the island of Malta, a viper bit and latched onto his hand. The islanders expected him to drop dead; but when he remained unharmed, they decided he must be a god. (See Acts 28:1-7.) Paul was protected. Paul believed, and the sign accompanied him just as Jesus had promised.
Paul didn’t need a bucket or a box. When you live a life sold-out for the Gospel, signs will follow you. You won’t need to force them or conjure them up. Jesus had Judas carry the money-bag, not the snake bucket. As you live for the Gospel, dangers will come naturally, and God will protect you supernaturally (though persecution is still to be expected).
Nevertheless, snake handlers still exist throughout the southern United States (even though the only state where it’s legal is West Virginia).
Why? Because they have a theology. And their theology is backed up by what appears to be evidence! I’m sure God would rather them go out and heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the leper, and cast out demons while preaching the good news about the Kingdom of God. (See Matthew 10:5.) But instead they’re busy dancing with snakes that could potentially kill them.
Let me be clear: Theology is not a bad thing. Every person has a personal theology — even atheists. In it’s truest definition, theology is the study of God’s nature; and ultimately this study forms the system of beliefs we hold given our present understanding of His nature.
Theology: Understanding God
Our understanding of God generally becomes the lens through which we interpret life. For example, if you believe that God’s nature is to put His children in harm’s way for the sake of impressing people with His power, then you will likely find yourself handling snakes in West Virginia. (You certainly wouldn’t do it in one of the States where it’s illegal, right?) On the other hand, if you believe that God is a loving Father who wants to protect His children from this fallen world, then you will likely find yourself living confidently for the sake of the Gospel — unafraid of what might lurk around the next bush. Our understanding of God influences the way we try to relate to Him.
Often times, what happens is that one person receives a revelation of who God is (whether it’s actually true or not), and then they preach that revelation so that others might also experience that facet of God. The person’s “revelation” — whether from the Holy Spirit, from their own intellect, from demons, or from circumstances — thus forms a theology (a perspective of God). That theology is then articulated so that others might share the same beliefs and enjoy the same thrill the preacher did upon their own discovery.
But we must understand that the very nature of the word “theology” is that it’s nothing more than a study. Theology is an ever-changing perspective as we study our never-changing God. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the more we put our lives or reputations on the line for a theology, the more we feel the need to defend that theology. And when your focus shifts from “forming theology” to “defending theology,” your focus will easily shift off of God and onto the theology itself. Suddenly, the theology stops changing, which is a trait that can only ever be attributed to God. Thus the unchanging theology even becomes “god” for us. Anything God reveals that contradicts our theology is immediately discarded because we have come to idolize our perspective of God above the Person of God.
One of the greatest tragedies that happens over and over in the Body of Christ is the inner descent from “forming theology through interaction with God” to serving the theology that was formed. Theology is not meant to stagnate. If your theology has remained unchanged for too long, then you are technically saying that you believe you perfectly understand God. But since none of us perfectly understands God, our personal theologies should constantly be growing and changing.
I wish I didn’t have to say this, but to put some of you at ease, I’m not talking about forming a different Gospel or believing anything that is not clearly revealed in Scripture. What I’m talking about is diving into that Scripture, believing 100% of it, and there encountering God in such a way that He reveals more about Himself to us than we had ever realized.
God — the Person — is my theology. Theology is not my god. God never changes. Theology does.
While I cannot know the true motives of specific individuals, what I have noticed in many cases is that differing theologies tend to clash viciously when theology becomes god. That’s why we have so many different denominations. That’s why we see so many churches split over petty doctrinal disputes. That’s why there are some grace teachers and holiness preachers at each others’ throats over which perspective is right.
You Don’t Have to Fit In to Have Unity
A friend of mine recently joked that I tend to make everyone mad. To the grace teachers, I sound like a die-hard holiness guy. And to the holiness preachers, I sound like a mushy grace guy. I don’t fully fit either mold, and I tend to lose popularity points for it. (A great example is the message I recently preached in Georgia that taught both grace and holiness).
I recognize that I don’t fit into any molds, and there’s a reason for it: I’m constantly trying very hard to remember that theology is the study of a Person, not mere information. As I study this Person, there are some things I have come to see consistently throughout Scripture and history — for example, God’s desire to save everyone, the effectiveness of Christ’s work on the cross, and God’s power to heal. These things are so clearly revealed that I can’t back down on them — not because I am defending these impersonal perspectives, but because I am declaring what I know to be true about the Person I love and study.
Do you see the difference?
It’s very easy for a “theology of grace” to take the place of God. Suddenly, the disciple of Jesus becomes a disciple of grace. Before long, the person has all manner of beliefs that contradict Scripture. And I’ve been seeing this happen in the “grace movement” for some time — influential voices (even friends of mine) teaching that certain Scriptures simply aren’t true because those scriptures are inconsistent with their personal theology of grace.
Since when does personal theology dictate the meaning of Scripture? Something is terribly backwards.
But on the other side of the fence, we have the holiness preachers, many of whom are in the same hot water. Many have preached holiness and right-living for so long that they can no longer fathom a Gospel where God’s grace might continue beyond the moment of conversion. Accordingly, these holiness preachers stand on their own understanding of their own pet scriptures and proclaim the god of their own making.
I know my words are strong here, but I believe it’s necessary. Can you imagine how God feels in the midst of all this? His children are arguing over His attributes while rarely looking at Him to find out if those attributes are actually there! Rather than fixing their eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, many of us have fixed our eyes on the “faith” that He’s trying to author and perfect!
Fix your eyes…
I cannot become more like Jesus by studying what someone believes to be true about Jesus. I only become more like Jesus by studying Jesus. He is clearly revealed in Scripture, and He is actively alive today. Just as you need two eyes in order to see in three dimensions, so you must also see Jesus both in Scripture and in His present, active reality (i.e. what He’s doing in the earth today). If you only have one of those two, then you have poor depth-perception. You cannot grasp His magnitude or adequately describe His fullness.
My desire in this lengthy article is that we would take our eyes off of our pet theologies and fix them firmly on Christ — the Jesus of Scripture and the Jesus performing wonders throughout the earth today. I want us to see our personal theologies as being fluid again. It is entirely possible to be fully certain about Jesus without also being fully certain about everything you believe to be true about Him. I’m fully certain of my wife’s character and love for me, but she would probably be the first to smack me if I ever claimed that I had her completely figured out!
Start investigating God again. Go to the four Gospels and study the life and teachings of Jesus. Read through the epistles again — not to learn another man’s theology, but to encounter more of Jesus there for yourself. Spend time with Christians who are demonstrating God’s power and presence in the world today. Make time to dialogue with God. And every time you discover something you never saw before, open your mouth and worship Him for it!
God didn’t give us theology so that we could have faith in theology. God gave us Himself in the body and blood of His own Son so that we could know Him intimately.
Knowing God is the study of His nature. True theology, therefore, is a relationship.