by John H. Gerstner
Christian laymen, the average persons sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning, sometimes think they need not be theologians. That, however, is a very great mistake. They do need to be theologians–at least they should be amateur theologians. In fact, that is the one vocation every man is obliged to follow. A layman does not need to be a plumber, a carpenter, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a laborer, or a housewife. These are all possibilities, but not necessities. A layman may be one or the other of these as he chooses. But he must be a theologian. This is not an option for him, but a requirement!
A Theologian Is One Who Knows About God
Why do we say that a layman must be a theologian? Well, let us first realize what a theologian is, that is, an amateur theologian. A theologian is a person who knows about God. A lay theologian is a person who has a true knowledge of God which he understands in non-technical, non-professional, non-academic terms. However, such a person is truly a theologian.
Is it not clear why a layman must necessarily be a theologian? Is there anyone, layman or otherwise, who does not need to know God? Does the Scripture not say, “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3)? It is no mere option, then, with a layman whether or not he will be a theologian, or whether he will have eternal life or not; it is not an option with him whether he will know God or not. The knowledge of God is necessary to eternal life. And if eternal life is necessary for every man, then theology is also necessary for every man.
If a theologian is a person who knows God, then, by reverse reasoning, a person who is not a theologian is a person who does not know God. There is no shame in a layman’s being told that he does not know carpentry, or plumbing, or medicine, or law, or teaching, or the ways of a housewife; but there is surely the greatest of shame in a layman’s being told that he does not know God. Furthermore, there is more than shame: there is very great danger! The Scripture says that to live apart from God is death. And just as John 17:3 says that it is life eternal to know God and Christ, John 3:36 says that they who do not believe in Jesus shall not see life and, furthermore, that the wrath of God abides on them: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
“Well,” the layman may say, “look here, you’ve slipped in a new term on us. That last passage talks about faith and not knowledge. It says that unless a person ‘believes’ in the Son. It does not say anything there about knowing Jesus.”
True, the passage does not use the word “know.” It speaks about “belief” or “faith” rather than “knowledge” or “reason.” But have you ever believed in someone or something about which you knew nothing? Is it possible to have faith in Christ unless we know who Christ is? Is it not clear, then, that this passage, though it does not state expressly the necessity of the knowledge of Christ, certainly states it implicitly? So we say that if a person does not have a knowledge of God and Christ it is not only a shame, but a peril to his soul, not only in this life, but in the eternity which begins at death.
Everyone May Be a Theologian Without Being Saved!
“But,” the layman exclaims, “do you mean to tell me that if I do not have the knowledge of God I shall perish, and that if I do have the knowledge of God I will live forever? Do you mean to tell me that if I am a lay theologian all is well with my soul, whereas, if I am not, I am doomed forever?”
No, I have not said that exactly. Let me call your attention to what I actually did say, and then let me add a comment relevant to one of your questions. I did say that without the knowledge of God there is no eternal life, but only eternal death. That is true. And I did say that if we do not know God and Christ we will perish. That also is true. However, it needs to be brought out now that there is knowledge, and then there is knowledge. The knowledge of which Scripture speaks so approvingly we may call “saving knowledge.” But we gather from other passages of Scripture which have not yet been cited that there is also a false knowledge that, far from being saving knowledge, is actually damning knowledge.
But we are ready now for a closer consideration of this theme. Therefore let me lay down this statement, and devote the rest of this chapter to demonstrating it: A layman may have knowledge of God and not be saved, but he can never be saved without knowledge of God.
There is much to show that a layman may have theology without having salvation. For one thing, the Bible says in many places that persons frequently have a knowledge about God but do not know God. Thus, for example, the Scripture exhorts us to be not only hearers of the Word, but doers as well (James 1:22). This implies that it is possible to hear, learn, or know with-out doing. It goes on to tell us that only the doing of the Word profits us anything, again carrying the implication that persons may hear the Word and understand it without actually doing it, and therefore without its being profitable.
Again, in Romans 1:18 Paul speaks of those who hold the truth in unrighteousness. That is the same as to say that some persons know God–and indeed in this very context Paul does speak of knowing God–and yet do not worship Him, nor are they being saved by Him. So we learn that while their knowledge is sufficient to condemn them, they are not saved by it.
In the parable of the sower and the seed recorded in Matthew 13, our Lord tells us of differing responses to the presentation of the gospel. While the wayside soil represents those persons who seem virtually not to hear what is preached or to learn what is taught, still the other two types of useless soil represent persons who do hear and do understand, but who nevertheless do not bring forth fruit. Thus the shallow, rocky soil represents a person who receives the Word, as Jesus says. He receives it with gladness, and even seems to respond favorably to it for a while; but when he is beset by difficulties he repudiates the knowledge which he does have.
So we see in his case an individual who knows, but does not do; who understands the way of salvation, but does not attain to salvation. The thorny soil represents a person who understands, and apparently even very deliberately understands and accepts the message, but whose knowledge is crushed out in the subsequent con-test between that message and his lusts represented by thorns in the soil. But there can be no doubt that he not only has knowledge, but deep and penetrating and not merely superficial knowledge. Nonetheless his knowledge is choked out and the man does not obtain to salvation.
There are many other instances of the possibility of knowing the truth without being saved. But we will take just one, that of the Pharisees, and use it as our prime exhibit.
The layman will immediately say, “Ah, but the Pharisees were religious teachers and cannot fairly be called laymen.”
This I admit, but I will also go on to insist that my point is certified all the more by the fact that the Pharisees, as professional theologians, had even greater knowledge than laymen could be expected to have, and yet they perished.
Remember, I am attempting to show that it is possible to have theological knowledge without being saved. If I can show that one who is regarded as a professional–who has far more religious knowledge than a layman may be expected to have–may yet perish, how much more evident is it that any knowledge that a layman can reasonably be expected to obtain can by no means guarantee his salvation? Jesus approved of the Pharisees in many ways because they attempted to honor Moses’ law, and often succeeded; they attempted to teach his precepts to the people. However they came under Christ’s withering indictment, “Woe unto you, Pharisees, hypocrites,” so often that we are led to believe that as a class these highly knowledgeable individuals were not practitioners of their science, and were therefore doomed to condemnation. In Matthew 23:33 Jesus said to them, “How can you escape the damnation of hell?”
From Theology for Everyman by John H. Gerstner