Theology. How does that word make you feel? Theology can be an interesting word. For some of us we may smile, stroke our beard, put the pipe in our mouths and open up a 2,000-page tome on the hypostatic union (okay maybe some broad stereotypes there). For others we may cringe when hear the word, it may bring to mind someone we’ve come across who has wielded theology as a club and we still have a few bruises and aren’t sure we want to venture in again. Maybe we think, man I just want to love and follow Jesus, all this talk of theology is for someone else.
Whatever you feel about it is okay. You feel that way for a reason.
If we were to boil it down, theology simply means “thinking about God”. We get the word theology from two Greek words. The first is theo meaning God, the second is logos meaning logic or rational thought. Theology then, simply means that we are giving thought to God. It is our human effort to understand God. Which means: we are all theologians (congratulations you made it!).
We may all be theologians, but not all theology is created equal. We must sort our theology in such a way that we can have unity over theological difference while still holding fast to the essential doctrines of our faith. This can be referred to as theological triage. We are triaging what is of first importance.
So now we ask: what theology is of first importance? What are the things as Christians that we must believe and unite over? Even this question can begin to cause division, because we may disagree on what items belong in which category but if we look to scripture and Christian history I believe we can begin to come to some conclusions about first order theologies.
QUICK RABBIT TRAIL: A nuanced understanding of all of these doctrines is not required to respond to the Gospel in faith. However these are first order doctrines in that they are distinct marks of Christ followers. The thief on the cross next to Jesus did not have to pass a theological exam to be saved (below is one of my favorite clips on this topic) he simply believed that Jesus was who he claimed to be (Romans 10:9). This belief although simple in nature, was itself a theological belief. Remember: we are all theologians!
Back to our triage room. Let’s look at some of those theological doctrines that are of first importance. This is not an exhaustive list necessarily but hopefully helps begin the conversation about the essentials of the Christian faith.
There is one God. He exists as three persons. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God and there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4, 2 Corinthians 13:14).
The nature of Jesus
Jesus is the Son of God who put on flesh and came to earth. He was fully God and fully man in one person who really existed 2,000 years ago (John 1:14, Hebrews 2:17, Acts 2:24).
Salvation by grace through faith
We are justified (made right with God) only by his grace and not because of our own worthiness. This grace is given to us through our faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God whose blood paid for our sins (Ephesians 2:4-6, 1 Peter 2:24).
The death & resurrection of Jesus
Jesus paid the penalty for our sins by living a perfect life on our behalf, dying in our place as the perfect sacrifice for sins, and literally, bodily, rising again to conquer death and give us the hope of new life. All who believe in Jesus are declared forgiven, given the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself and adopted into the family of God (1 Peter 2:24, 1 John 2:2, Hebrews 9:12, Isaiah 53:5, 2 Corinthians 5:21, John 1:12, Galatians 4:5-7).
The Bible is God’s Word
The Bible is the inspired Word of God and is authoritative to our lives (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21).
Jesus was born of the virgin Mary
Jesus, God the Son in human flesh, was born miraculously to the virgin Mary thus fulfilling the prophecy of God (Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:18-20).
The sinful state of mankind
Wayne Grudem defines sin as “failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” Because of Adam all mankind is born in a sinful state, before we ever do anything right or wrong, we are sinful because it is in our nature. We are born in need of saving from our own sin. Sin separates us from God who is holy. We are unable to save ourselves from our own sinfulness, we need a Savior (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8, Romans 5:12, Psalm 51:5, Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:1).
The second coming of Jesus
Jesus Christ will personally, physically, return to the earth to judge the living and the dead and to usher in the new heavens and the new earth (Hebrews 9:28, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Revelation 1:7, John 14:1-3, Revelation 21).
There is eternal life. For all who place their faith in Jesus they will spend eternity with God in the new heaven and new earth. For all who reject the Lordship of Jesus will spend eternity separated from God (Revelation 21, Romans 2:6-8, John 3:16, Matthew 25:46, Romans 6:23, Luke 23:43, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, John 3:36).
If you’ve made it this far you get a gold star on your theologian vest! As we look at these categories, there is room in each of them for a variety of disagreement. Will Jesus return before or after the 1000 years mentioned in Revelation 20? Does our faith initiate the grace of God or does God’s grace initiate our faith? Do we go to heaven or does heaven come down to us? I want to make it clear: these questions matter just as the myriad of other doctrines that we didn’t mention matter! There are many beliefs that shape how we do church, how we interact with one another and how we evangelize, and they matter and we should strive to be as biblical as possible in these areas. And yet we want to make sure we keep the first things the first things.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 – For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
Further Reading Suggestions: