by Jerod Gilcher | May 05, 2020
Every generation has blind spots. The church is no exception. The church has always had rough edges and areas in need of reform. That being said, every generation of Christian has also had their strengths, and those strengths often serve as correctives to the blind spots of other generations.
One of the major blind spots of the twenty-first-century American church is its view of theology. For many in the church, theology is little more than fuel for controversy or a complicated, wet blanket for Christian sincerity and zeal. We live in an age when pastors are expected to be all things to all men—that is, except theologians.
Many churches and Christians today have filed for theological divorce—making clear distinctions between the rigors of the mind and the affections of the soul. Many sigh in exasperation: give me what my soul needs, not complicated doctrines! The reality is, however, theology was never intended for such abuse. This is our generation’s tragic blind spot.
But another generation has answers and cures for our doctrinal deficiencies—the generation of the Puritans. For these sixteenth and seventeeth-century Protestants, theology was not intellectual rough-housing, but the very soul of the Christian life. The Puritan Thomas Watson writes that doctrine “directs the whole course of Christianity, as the eye directs the body…. [It] is to the soul as the anchor to the ship, that holds it steady in the midst of the rolling waves of error, or the violent winds of persecution.”1
The Puritans understood that reflection about God should produce affection for God
They knew that the head is meant to serve the heart. They were gripped by the reality that theology enjoyed in the soul would kindle worship and prayer. The Puritans were bent on making theology transformative for the soul.
And so, I wish to offer an example of a Puritan doing theology to answer a pressing question: how do I actually change and grow?
How does a Christian gain a practical, genuine holiness is the question of every age—a love-your-spouse and think-less-of-yourself kind of holiness. A holiness very much available to (and expected of) us in the here-and-now. Newly regenerated believers enter into the Christian life outmatched, overwhelmed, and often still somewhat enamored by sin. The war has begun. And thus there is an earnestness to the question: how do I practically increase in holiness?
This increasing in holiness is what the NT authors refer to as sanctification.
What is sanctification but the painful, slow carving of our lives into the image of Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:29)? It is the slow, at times minute-by-minute, putting to death of sin by the power of Christ through the instrument of the word.
And yet, the question remains: How does one do this? In other words, what are the means God has given by which one may grow in holiness and victory over sin and temptation?
The grace of God works through very practical means,
which is why we refer to them as means of grace.
This is precisely where the Puritans can help us. I am going to let Henry Scougal (1650-1678) step in. In his soul-nourishing little book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Scougal reveals what is perhaps the deepest secret to sanctification and holiness. And what is that secret?
Follow Scougal’s logic. He writes:
Love is that powerful and prevalent passion by which all the faculties and inclinations of the soul are determined and on which both its perfection and happiness depend.
In other words, what you love the most determines the direction and happiness of your life.
He goes on:
The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love: he who loveth mean2 and sordid things doth thereby become base and vile; but a noble and well-placed affection doth advance and improve the spirit unto a conformity with the perfections with its loves.
Here now is the crux of his argument:
What you love most, you grow to resemble
If you love someone, you will likely begin to absorb some of their interests and passions into yourself. If you develop a passion for gambling, you should not be surprised to find in your life sprouts of greed and recklessness. You slowly, yet assuredly, resemble what you love. This means, then, if we love God most, we will begin to resemble His beauty and holiness.
So if we find deficiencies in our practical holiness, we have to ask ourself, What am I loving? Because I am growing to resemble something that is not God. Therefore, we are to love God more. So then the next question presents itself: how do I increase my affections for God? This is nearing the heart of what it really means to change. Answer: you must expose yourself to Him and His beauty. How? In the pages of Scripture. You must gaze upon the beauty of His perfections and character in the pages of Scripture.
Scougal put it this way:
The true way to improve and ennoble our souls is, by fixing our love on the divine perfections, that we may have them always before us, and derive an impression of them on ourselves…. He who, with a generous and holy ambition, hath raised his eyes toward that uncreated beauty and goodness, and fixed his affection there, is quite of another spirit, of a more excellent and heroic temper than the rest of the world, and cannot but infinitely disdain all mean and unworthy things; will not entertain any low or base thoughts which might disparage his high and noble pretentions.
Far too often, we think of theology as useless quibbles that will all sort themselves out in the end. But a theologian is one who thinks rigorous thoughts about God. We are all theologians. Some of us, as theologians, have just come to the conclusion (unconsciously) that my understanding of the character of God has little to do with my arguments with my wife. That could not be more wrong. Scougal teaches us that the secret to our day-in-day-out holiness is not to avoid thinking deeply about God, but to push ourselves deeper into who God is.
The more of God’s glory you see, the more you will love Him
And the more you love Him, the more you will begin to resemble your Father, or—to state it negatively—the more liberation you will experience from the sins that entangle you.
Scougal demonstrates that precise, robust theology is anything but a wet blanket to Christian zeal. Instead, all of the life-change that we long to see in ourselves and in others is produced through careful meditation and theological reflection. Here is but one small example of why we should not only read the Puritans, but emulate their enjoyment of theology. The church would be healthier for it.
Editor’s Note: For more on the intersection of theology and everyday life, see our free resource: Reformed Practical Theology.
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1983), 4.
 That is, low in dignity, worth, or value.