“And Now for Something Completely Different”: Exploring Christian Theology

ECTnewSoon Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing Group) will begin releasing a trilogy of mini-theologies entitled Exploring Christian Theology edited by Dr. Nathan Holsteen and me, with significant contributions by our colleagues in the theological studies department of Dallas Theological Seminary: Dr. Douglas Blount, Dr. Scott Horrell, Dr. Lanier Burns, and Dr. Glenn Kreider. We’re starting with what is actually the third volume in the series (The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times), then releasing volumes 1 and 2 in the next couple of years.

But wait a second . . . Why another “systematic theology” when the market is flooded with them? To answer this question, let me say that ECT is not another systematic theology. In fact, I can honestly say that this series is something completely different. 

Let me explain.

Like any good introduction to evangelical theology, the three volumes in ECT will present believers with much-needed introductions, overviews, and reviews of key tenets of orthodox protestant evangelical theology without getting bogged down in confusing details or distracted by mean, campy debates. These three simple and succinct books will provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes of evangelical Christian doctrine, reorienting believers to the essential truths of the classic faith while providing vital guidebooks for a theologically illiterate church.

But isn’t that what every entry-level theological intro promises? Yes, but let give you six reasons Exploring Christian Theology really is completely different.

First, we wrote Exploring Christian Theology for a genuinely inter-denominational evangelical audience. And when we say “inter-denominational,” we don’t mean that we’re trying to get conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, and Charismatics to read our theology in order to persuade them to leave their branch of evangelicalism and climb onto ours. Not at all! Instead, we’re descriptively presenting the whole tree of evangelical orthodoxy—as dispassionately and positively as possible. This means pastors, teachers, students, lay-leaders, new believers, and mature saints of every orthodox protestant evangelical church can use these volumes without feeling like they have to constantly counter our assertions with their own views on the matter. Simply put, we’re so interdenominational that if a reader doesn’t agree with our central assertions, they’re probably not orthodox, protestant, or evangelical.

Second, the style of this series will be genuinely popular, informal, and accessible. Sometimes extremely so. Think contractions . . . illustrations . . . alliteration. You’ll see generous bullet points, charts, and graphs instead of just walls of impenetrably dense text on every page. Brace yourself for the pace of a hockey game rather than a golf tournament (sorry, golfers, but . . . YAWN). We wrote this for people who don’t necessarily carry around a large arsenal of biblical, theological, and historical facts in a side holster.

Third, you’ll find this series to be worth every penny you spend on it and, more importantly, every minute you spend reading it. Let’s face it, some mini-theologies with a broad appeal are just fancy-wrapped junk food with very little spiritually nutritional value. Yes, these volumes are intended to be “stepping stools” to the bottom shelf—brief, succinct summaries of specific areas of doctrine that can each be read quickly, consulted easily, and grasped by anybody. But at the same time you’ll find them to be comprehensive, thorough, careful, and—if you bother to explore the endnotes—well-researched and documented.

Fourth, this is a community-authored theology. Rather than presenting the perspectives and opinions of an individual teacher, tradition, or denomination, Exploring Christian Theology is planned, written, and edited by several theologians who are experts in their various fields. We hold each other accountable to avoid personal hobby horses, pet peeves, and doctrinal idiosyncrasies. In other words, you’ll never get one man’s opinion about this or that doctrine. Instead, you’ll get a clear explanation of the classic orthodox, protestant, evangelical consensus and a dispassionate presentation of points of allowable disagreement and diversity within evangelicalism. As such, these handbooks can be confidently used for discipleship, catechesis, membership training, preview or review of doctrine, or personal quick reference by any orthodox, protestant, evangelical church or Christian.

Fifth, these volumes will serve as a foyer into a broader and deeper study of the Christian tradition. We didn’t design Exploring Christian Theology to compete with other systematic theologies in the marketplace. There are a lot of great ones out there—some reflecting the views of certain confessions or traditions, others the perspectives of specific teachers or preachers. Our volumes are designed to supplement (not supplant) more detailed systematic theologies . . . to complement (not compete with) intermediate and advanced works. We promise that after thumbing through ECT, you’ll be much better prepared to read more advanced systematic theologies with informed discernment and a firm grasp on  central tenets as well as an understanding of ancillary discussions.

Finally, there are unique features in Exploring Christian Theology you’ll have a hard time finding all together anywhere else. Right up front we present a high altitude survey of the doctrine in order to set forth the unity of the faith among numerous diverse evangelical traditions. Then you’ll find no-nonsense discussions of key Scripture passages related to that volume’s specific areas of theology. You’ll also find a very helpful narrative of the history of the doctrine throughout the patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern eras. We also provide a glossary of important terms related to the doctrines as well as a feature called “Shelf Space” with recommended resources for probing deeper. By the end of each part of the volume dedicated to a particular area of doctrine, you’ll be warned about the most prominent false teachings related to the doctrine and encouraged with practical application points flowing from a right understanding of the doctrine. Besides all this and more, I’ve been told that the generous first-hand quotations from church fathers, theologians, scholars, reformers, pastors, and teachers from the whole span of church history is worth the entire volume.

In short, Exploring Christian Theology is not my theology, but our theology—the theology of the orthodox, protestant, evangelical tradition. It’s presented in a winsome (and sometimes whimsical) way. It balances biblical, theological, historical, and practical perspectives. And it’s written with the whole evangelical tradition in view.

You can pre-order Exploring Christian Theology today from these sellers:

Dallas Seminary bookstore


Barnes & Noble




New Book Scheduled for Release in January, 2014

ExploringChristianTheology_RD3Exploring Christian Theology: The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times by Nathan D. Holsteen and Michael J. Svigel. Bethany House, 2014.

From the Introduction:

For some people, the word “doctrine” summons yawns of dullness, shudders of trepidation, or frowns of suspicion. Dogmatic preachers exasperate them, feuding denominations weary them, and droning scholars bore them. When people hear the word “theology,” the condition sometimes worsens. They picture massive tomes packed with irrelevant data, incomprehensible footnotes, and technical discussions—useless information that distracts people from God rather than draws them nearer to Him. Most people want practical principles instead of theoretical theology. They want to know God, not just know about Him.

Yet the fact is Christians can’t experience real spiritual growth without solid spiritual truth. We can’t know the true God without knowing God truly. But where do we start? How can we begin to harvest the fruitful field of Christian theology without getting caught in the tangled underbrush of doctrinal idiosyncrasies? How can we sort through the countless contradictory opinions to find the essential truths necessary for believing and living the Christian faith?

The volumes in Exploring Christian Theology present believers with much-needed introductions, overviews, and reviews of key tenets of orthodox protestant evangelical doctrines without droning on about details or drowning in debates. The three volumes in this series provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes of evangelical Christian theology, reorienting believers to the essential truths of the classic faith while providing vital guidebooks for a church that’s starving for the very doctrine it’s too long avoided.

Each book in this series is compact but substantial, including introductions to main issues, major perspectives, key biblical texts, a history of each doctrine, relevant charts and graphs, practical implications, a helpful glossary, and a guide to important literature you might want to consider for your library.

Each section can stand alone as an introductory essay as a quick orientation (or re-orientation). Or you can study through all the sections related to a particular area of theology and walk away with a handle on its biblical, theological, historical, and practical dimensions. In other words, this book can be used in a number of ways suitable to your needs or interests.

This series differs from other “mini theologies” in that it strives to present a broadly protestant evangelical consensus, not the condensed systematic theology of only one teacher or tradition. The series may therefore be used for discipleship, catechism, membership training, preview or review of doctrine, or personal quick reference guides by any conservative evangelical tradition. Like the evangelical movement itself, we seek to be orthodox and interdenominational within a classic protestant consensus.

Each volume can be used as a simple primer, supplementing (not supplanting) more detailed treatments of theology . . . complementing (not competing with) intermediate and advanced works. As such, regardless of one’s denominational or confessional commitments, Exploring Christian Theology can be used by ministry training programs, Bible Colleges, or Seminaries as introductory primers to quickly orient students in preparation for a more in-depth study of theology. Whatever your background, degree of interest, or level of expertise, we hope this volume won’t be the end of a brief jaunt but either the beginning of a lifelong journey into—or a helpful aid alongside your ongoing immersion in—the exciting world of Christian theology.


[Stay tuned for more updates…]

My Accordion and My Christian Life

Several years ago I took up the accordion. Since then, I’ve considered whether this was a good idea. I acquired the very old two-reed Hohner for $25 from an older gentleman from Germany who wanted to encourage me in my curiosity about the instrument. (Yes, that’s it on the right.) I had no lessons, no familiarity with the machine, and didn’t know buttons from keys or leathers from reeds. I had no clue that those buttons were arranged in fifths, no idea that the three switches in the front were supposed to modify the tone, and I had absolutely no understanding of accordion lingo. I didn’t even know how to hold it!

Over the course of several months, as I slowly moved from absolute ignorance and incompetence to adequate awareness and limited skill, I began to notice intriguing parallels between my poor, junky accordion and the Christian life—or at least my Christian life.

You see, some musical instruments run by air (trumpets, flutes), others by percussion (drums, tambourines), others by vibrating strings (violins, cellos). However, I’m convinced that my antique accordion runs on grace. Unlike well-cared-for and finely-tuned instruments, my accordion operates less on the unalterable principles of music theory and more on the unpredictable and flexible principles of mercy. When I pick up the accordion and pump out a tune, the result is far, far less than mediocre—and even this negative phrasing is itself a grossly optimistic appraisal. Even if I push all the right keys and buttons at the right times, the accordion does only what it can do, leaving a large portion of the performance to the imagination.

Yet somehow that’s okay. My mind is able to envision some dusty decade long ago when that machine would have stunned listeners even in my novice hands . . . or I sometimes look forward to a day when I can afford the extreme makeover the poor thing deserves: repairing its leathers, replacing its reeds, and renewing its bellows. Until that day, it will continue to squawk its first note, moo and caw its belabored melodies, and growl to a halt. Yet amazingly, people continue to call it “music” even though I know it’s really more of an ordered pattern of tones which, given a slightly modified rhythm, order, and pace, might be mistaken for a traffic jam on Broadway.

As I reflect on the profound spiritual significance of that shabby apparatus running on grace, I can’t help but think of myself as a beat-up, quasi-functional accordion in the Savior’s hands. I’m fallen, damaged, dented, tarnished, and broken. I often fail to function as designed and need frequent invasive internal work to get me back to “barely tolerable.” I’m in desperate need of repair, restoration, and renewal. Yet for some reason the Great Musician continues to pick me up, breath fresh air through me, and manage a melody or two that inexplicably stirs His audience. By sheer grace and mercy I am what I am and I do what I do: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit”
(2 Cor. 3:5–6, ESV).

[Y’all] Be Filled with the Spirit

Probably a dozen times a year I’m asked, “How can I be filled with the Spirit”? The motivations behind this question, I think, are two: First, many traditions of sanctification have emphasized the filling of the Spirit as the key that unlocks the spiritual life. Being filled with (or by) the Spirit has been set forth as the one thing a believer must do to experience the fullness of the spiritual life. Second, believers struggling against temptation and sin are looking for an antidote. Like an immunization against a nagging illness, the experience of being filled with the Spirit sounds a lot like a spiritual booster shot against chronic temptation and sin.

But have we misunderstood the filling of the Spirit? Does that classic text have something more to say to the way we live together as a church rather than how we behave as individuals?

Certainly, we have clear examples of the Spirit filling individuals for service (Exod 31:3; Acts 4:8; 13:9). The filling of the Holy Spirit is always manifested through observable effects. These include wisdom, understanding, knowledge, skill, power, prophecy, healing, boldness, faith, joy, hope, and peace, among others (Exod 31:3; 35:31; Micah 3:8; Luke 1:67; Acts 2:4; 4:31; 6:5; 9:17; 13:52; Rom 15:13). So, one knows that an individual is filled with the Spirit based on the effects of the Spirit, which often correspond to the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22–23). If you see the fruit, you know the root. But this individual indwelling and enabling is only one aspect of the filling of the Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Paul also refers to a community aspect of the Spirit’s filling. He describes the church in Corinth as a temple of God, indwelled corporately by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). So, the filling of the Spirit occurs in individuals, but it also occurs in the Church community (Acts 2:4; Eph 2:22).

Almost everything I read about Ephesians 5:18 relates it to the Christian’s individual surrender, yielding, decision, or action that fulfills the command to “be filled with the Spirit.” But could Paul’s primary intention in that passage be the community’s experience of the Spirit rather than the individual’s empowering? When he uses the second person plural, is Paul saying, “Each and every one of you must be filled individually” or is he saying, “Let you all as a community be filled”? The negative command, “Do not be drunk with wine” is also plural, but its possible that Paul was contrasting an inherently selfish, individualistic pleasure (drunkenness) with a selfless, corporate participation (spiritual life). Possible . . . but we need to let the context of Ephesians 5:18 guide our interpretation.

Many point out that Ephesians 5:18 is a passive command. How do we obey a passive command—regardless of whether it’s addressing an individual or a community? Well, we may have to stop doing something that obstructs the Spirit, or otherwise allow the Spirit to do what the Spirit wants. If we emphasize the individual aspect of this command, the problem is a bit more difficult—I must personally must stop or start something to allow the Spirit to fill me. But if Paul intended to emphasize the corporate aspect of the Spirit’s filling, this opens up the fulfillment of the command to reflect mutuality—“one another” living in community, among which the Spirit is producing corporate effects.

In any case, the Spirit’s filling must involve both individual and community elements, though I believe the broader context of Ephesians 5 points us toward a corporate filling of the Spirit. In Ephesians 2, Paul compared the Church as a corporate body to a holy temple, “in whom you [all] also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). The rest of the epistle emphasizes togetherness, unity of the one body, corporate giftedness, and spiritual growth together (see especially Eph 4). Thus, the letter as a whole focuses on the corporate spiritual life. In fact, the immediate context of Ephesians 5:18 emphasizes this same corporate mutuality. Following the passive plural command to be filled with the Spirit, Paul attaches a series of participles indicating what being filled with the Spirit looks like. Note the corporate effects of this Spirit filling: speaking to one another with melodious thankfulness (5:19–20) and being subject to one another after the example of Christ (5:21–6:9).

Thus, it appears that the command to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” refers primarily to allowing the Spirit to work in and through our relationships with each other in the Church community. Of course, this requires individual responses and responsibilities as we submit to each other, look out for each other’s interests, meet each other’s needs, and allow others to reciprocate their love and concern for us. But Ephesians 5:18 has little to do with being filled by the Spirit in order to resist temptation, conquer sin, or lick a bad habit. That worn-out application of the passage doesn’t quite fit Paul’s point.

Read in this light, Ephesians 5:18 is extremely convicting to us as we consider our own local churches. It demands that we answer several probing questions. Is our church community filled with the Spirit? Do we exude the attractive aroma of unity, care, support, encouragement, subjection to one another, and uplifting, joyful attitudes? Or do we exude an odor of disunity, selfishness, criticism, discouragement, rebellion, and destructive, pessimistic cynicism? Ask yourself, as you wander the halls of your church, overhear conversations, or whiff the “whine” from the grapevine—do you sense the warm breeze of the Spirit? Or, instead of being continually filled with the Spirit, does your community seem to have outposts of the Spirit battling against a lingering insurgency of the flesh? Or is it even worse than that? Is our church building just a whitewashed tomb, impressive on the outside but lacking Spirit-enabled community life within? Think about your church—and about your participation in its spiritual health. Then answer this important question for yourself: Are we filled with the Spirit?

Working Out the Inner Work (or, "Sancti-fried… Revisited")

If you’ve ever had your vehicle stuck in the mud, you’ll remember trying anything to get out: shifting into low gear, jerking the steering wheel to the right or left, spinning the wheels in reverse, pushing the gas pedal to the floor, even emptying extra weight to lighten your load. Finally, with mud covering every square inch of your vehicle, you admit defeat. You accept the fact that the only solution to your inextricable dilemma is to call for help.

Whether we like it or not, that’s life. Each of us, left to ourselves, is hopelessly stuck in the mire of our own depravity. Apart from God’s sovereign acts of grace, we’re helpless. Without God pulling us free from the muck and washing us clean, we would continue to wallow in the slime of our own filth.

But thankfully, God didn’t leave us to ourselves. He provided the death and resurrection of Christ to pay the penalty for our sins and to grant us new life. He sent His Spirit to regenerate us—not merely on our spiritual birthday, but continually. We have an eternal relationship with the Spirit of Life, who continues His regenerating work in us. Yes, God has declared us righteous once and for all in Christ (“justification”). But we too often forget that God is also making us righteous by His Spirit (“sanctification”).

But if God does the work, what part to we play in sanctification? Is there nothing we can do to affect our spiritual growth?

More than Methods

Methods of nullifying the old nature and nurturing the new are almost as plentiful as the people who peddle them. Whole systems of sanctification have grown up over the centuries, each promising the most effective way. The victorious Christian life, exchanged life, Methodism, holiness, second blessing, sacramentalism, personal disciplines, corporate disciplines, mysticism, asceticism, monasticism, asceticism, contemplation . . . the list goes on.

My complaint about these various approaches is not that they are wrong, but that they often claim to be too right. Most of them have something true to contribute to a diverse tradition of Christian spirituality, but none of them can claim to be the sole biblical path to spiritual maturity. Some of the models of sanctification came on the scene when individual Christians (or small communities) experienced remarkable spiritual blessing while engaged in a particular approach to the Christian life. However, instead of viewing their method as a neutral means through which God chose to work His sanctifying grace, their gaze became fixated on the method itself.

Yet if the means of sanctification does not include some method, what should we do? Is the solution to be passive, to “wait on the Lord” for an instant change of heart?

This idea of passive sanctification reminds me of one of my Bible College roommates who would return to the dorm after a weekend of shameless fornication. When I confronted him about it, he responded, “God’s in control. When He wants me to stop living this way, He’ll take those desires away.” Yes, God is in control. And in His sovereignty He cast my roommate out of Bible College.

The answer is obviously not to passively wait for God to suddenly, instantly, and miraculously change us. Though that kind of deliverance may happen to some, it probably won’t happen to you and me. Instead, my own answer to the question of what we should do in response to God’s sovereignty over our sanctification is quite simple.

Do whatever it takes and do it now!

God’s Inner Work

In Philippians 2:12, Paul wrote, “Just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” I can’t think of a clearer text regarding our responsibility to obey. The verb “work out” in Greek is a simple command. This passage emphasizes working, not waiting; being productive, not passive. According to Paul, our responsibility for sanctification is to simply obey.

Paul could have stopped at verse 12 and his practical intentions would have been perfectly clear. But instead, he removed the service panel from the Christian life and revealed the inner workings of sanctification. In just a few powerful words we see that our work of willing, active obedience in salvation is not the cause of sanctification, but the effect. Paul said, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 3:12–13).

All too often I meet Christians who want to somehow soften this language, to read into it some foreign concept of cooperation, of God’s response to our willing hearts, of the Spirit’s work of lending a helping hand to our honest efforts. Too many believers want to live the Christian life as if God were holding back His provision of power until we take the first step. This idea is completely contrary to what Paul says in Philippians 2 about our obedience in salvation. It is God who is at work in us, not only to work, but also to will. At the same time, God works all things in this world together for our good (Romans 8:28). So, by both inward and outward means, God affects our sanctification.

However, rather than instantly zapping us into mature saints, God gradually affects our spiritual growth through several means of sanctification that stir faith in us. That faith, itself granted by God, then manifests itself through the fruit of the Spirit.

What are these means of sanctification?

Means of Sanctification

One crucial means is God’s church. Yes, that place, or, more accurately, those people. Whether you’re ready to accept it or not, the gathering of a local church community is the primary means God uses to sanctify you. Hebrews 10:24–25 says, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” Within the community believers exercise their spiritual gifts for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). Within the community gifted teachers grow believers into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11–16). And within the church community, God’s Spirit works through our observance of the Lord’s Supper, confirming our covenant relationship with God and others (1 Corinthians 11:20–32).

Another means of sanctification is personal discipline. Paul told Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things” (1 Timothy 4:7–8). Spiritual discipline includes positive things like reading Scripture, prayer, fasting, and the like. But it also includes things you might do to protect yourself from temptation or break a pattern of sin. In my experience sin is like a fire—the more you feed it by, the stronger it gets. But if, by whatever means, you can keep from obsessively engaging in a particular sin, its controling power will wane. Spiritual disciplines are perhaps the most personal aspect of sanctification, for no believer’s struggles are the same, and not all individuals respond the same way to the same means. The key is to keep hard at it, engaging in spiritual disciplines that move you closer to God and to His people. Any of the numerous methods of spiritual growth may work well for many people. But it’s not ultimately the method itself that does the work. Through these means God works in you and for you. Instead of fixing your gaze on the method that seems to work for you, fix your gaze on “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2, KJV), for it is God at work in us to conform us to the image of Christ by the power of His Spirit.

To Him, not us, be the glory forever.