Written by: John H. Gerstner
LAYMEN 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, a housewife. These are all possibilities, not necessities. A layman may be one of these or the other as he chooses. But he must be a theologian. This is not an option with him but a requirement.
I. A Theologian Is One Who Knows About God
Why do we say that a layman must be a theologian? Well, let us first of all 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 nontechnical, nonprofessional, nonacademic 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 has sent” (John 17:3)? It is, then, no mere option with a layman whether he will be a theologian or not, whether he will have eternal life or not; it is no 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 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 surely is 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 the text quoted says it is life eternal to know God and Christ, another passage in the same book says that they who do not believe in Jesus shall not see life and, furthermore, the wrath of God abides upon 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” (John 3:36).
“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 except a person ‘believe‘ in the Son. It does not say anything there about ‘knowing‘ Jesus.” That is true, the passage does not use the word “know.” It does speak about “belief” or “faith” rather than “knowledge” or “reason.” But have you ever believed in somebody 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, therefore, 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.
II. Everyman 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, we have not said exactly that. Let me call your attention to what we did actually say, and then let me add a comment relevant to one of your questions. We did say that without knowledge of God there is no eternal life, but only eternal death. That is true. And we did say that if we do not know God and Christ we will perish. That is true. However, it needs to be brought out now that there is knowledge and knowledge. The knowledge of which the Scripture speaks so approvingly we may call “saving knowledge.” But we gather from other passages of Scripture which we have not yet cited that there is also a false knowledge which, far from being saving knowledge, is actually damning knowledge. But it seems to me we are now ready for a closer consideration of this theme. Let me, therefore, lay down this statement and devote the rest of this chapter to demonstrating it. The statement is this: 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 frequently persons 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 also (cf. James 1:22).
This implies that it is possible to hear, or learn, or know, without doing. It goes on to tell us that only the doing of the Word is profitable, again carrying the implication that persons may hear the Word and understand it without actually doing it and therefore without being profitable.
Again, Paul speaks in Romans of those who hold the truth in unrighteousness (1:18). 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 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 not to learn what they are 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 does represent 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 contest between that message and his lusts, which are 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 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 we admit. But we will also go on to insist that our 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 the Pharisees perished. Remember, we are attempting to show that it is possible to have theological knowledge without being saved. If we 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 did — and 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 therefore were doomed to condemnation. Jesus said to them, “How can you escape the damnation of hell?” (Matt. 23:33).
III. Everyman Cannot Be Saved Without Being a Theologian!
If the above is enough to indicate that persons may have divine knowledge without being saved, let us on to indicate the still more pertinent truth — that no one can be saved without the knowledge of divine truth or theology. This is stated very explicitly in Romans 10:17. Here Paul says, “Faith cometh by hearing.” That is as much as to affirm that there can be no belief except first the Word of the gospel is proclaimed. The context of this explicit statement confirms that implication. It is a missionary context in which Paul is urging Christians to take the gospel to the world, reminding them that if they do not do so these people cannot be saved — because faith comes by hearing. In I Corinthians we read that it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save men. Again, says Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). And, after commanding the disciples to teach whatsoever He had taught them, our Lord Jesus commissioned them to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). That is the same as to say that it is by means of the faithful proclamation of the whole counsel of God that the world is to be discipled to Jesus Christ. Consider again how our Lord prays in His farewell discourse, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). In this final prayer for those who were not yet of His fold but who were to come into His fold, our Lord prayed that they might be made holy by means of the Word of God. Though the Spirit of God was to be given anew as soon as Christ went to Heaven, even the Holy Spirit was not to sanctify except by means of the Word of God. So that while the letter of the Word may be devoid of the Spirit and therefore futile, the Spirit does not work savingly apart from the Word. The Word is called “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17) Again, in II Thessalonians 2:13 we read, “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” There we are told very plainly that even the eternal predestination of God is accomplished by the instrumentality of truth. People are not brought to life whether they know or do not know. They are not given salvation whether they believe the truth or not. On the contrary, God chose them to salvation through “belief of the truth.”
The Scripture abounds in so many passages which indicate this same truth that it seems to be laboring the matter unduly to add any further discussion of this emphatic point of the Bible. We may safely conclude that though men may know the truth and not be saved, they cannot be saved except they know the truth.
My dear laymen, laymen must be theologians. No, they need not be professional theologians. They need not study Greek and Hebrew. They need not necessarily be able to teach other people. But they must he theologians. That is, they must know God. They must have sound knowledge about God. They may not excuse themselves from having clear and correct opinions about the Deity on the ground that they are not ordained to full-time church work but have been called to some other service.
The duty to be theologians is common to all of us. The difference at this point between laymen and ministers is a difference not of kind but of degree. It is an error of Rome which teaches that there is a difference of kind between priests and people. With the Bible, the Protestant church teaches that the Bible itself was given not solely to the clergy but to all the people of God. We of the clergy have greater obligation, not sole obligation. So far as time permits, and to the degree that your obligations to this world allow, in that measure must you be familiar with the truth of God. For that knowledge, God will hold you responsible in the day of judgment. While you need not read this book or any other particular book except the Book, the Word of God itself, I hope you will read this book to help you in your study of the Bible and in your gaining a sound knowledge of God. But I remind you that while this book may give you some knowledge of God by means of which you may be saved, this book and no other book (indeed, not even the Bible itself) can save you. This truth of God must be loved, must be embraced, and must be yielded to if the person who has saving knowledge is to be saved by it. One theologian has written that it is not enough to “understand” but you must also “stand under.” For the truth of God is a Person — a Person who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). A true theologian, therefore, is a person who knows The Person. Everyman must be a theologian.
Dr. John H. Gerstner (1914-1996) was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. This article is taken from his book, Theology for Everyman.