On Doctrine and Practice: Theology in the Service of Piety

Gospel DrivenThe Book of Philippians is about the Gospel. It’s not quite an exposition of the doctrinal content of the Gospel, like Romans is. And it’s not quite a defense of the Gospel in the face of heresy, like Galatians is. Philippians is more about the implications the Gospel has on the various aspects of our lives as believers. It’s about how we are to live in light of the Gospel. The thesis verse of the letter is Philippians 1:27, in which Paul commands his dear friends to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”

And in the context of the opposition the Philippians were facing because of their commitment to Christ, living in a manner worthy of the Gospel chiefly involved being united with one another. If the people of God are to have any hope of standing firm in the face of opposition (1:27b)—if they are to have any hope of propagating this Gospel of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ amidst a hostile society (1:27c)—they will need to be unified. And so in the opening verses of chapter 2, Paul calls them to unity—as well as to the humility without which that unity won’t ever be achieved.

Then, in verses 5 to 11, he pens perhaps the loftiest and most precise Christology anywhere else in Scripture. He speaks in detail about the Lord’s pre-existence as the eternal Son of God, the mystery of the incarnation and the kenosis, the hypostatic union—Christ’s being fully God and fully man, having two natures “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation” bound up in a single person. He speaks of the mystery of the sinless God-man dying: God cursed and forsaken by God. And he speaks of His glorious resurrection from the dead, ascension into heaven, and His exaltation to the Father’s right hand.

But even though all that is there in this text, Paul’s primary point isn’t to discourse on the finer points of Christology. His design is to give us a concrete example of the kind humility that will achieve true unity—a picture worth more than a thousand words. And it’s not just any example, but the supreme example of self-sacrificing humility: Jesus Himself. And so we are to “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5).

All of that theology is there to serve as a magnificent illustration and example of the humility that Paul has called us to in verses 3 and 4. Christians are to be marked by a Gospel-driven humility because we have been saved by a humility-driven Gospel. The whole point of explaining the fine points of Christ’s pre-existence and incarnation is to demonstrate the heights from which the Lord came, and the depths to which He humbled Himself in the service of others: so that we would have the clearest picture of His example to follow as we pursue humility and service to our brothers and sisters.

Inextricably Linked

And the point I want to make is this. I want you to notice how the Word of God weaves the most practical instruction with the loftiest and most unsearchable theology. The most practical, mundane, applicable matters of Christianity—like personal humility and unity within the church—are wedded to the deepest and most difficult doctrines for the mind even to conceive of.

So many professing Christians say things like: “I don’t want to hear about doctrinal debates and theological controversies. I want practical teaching. I want a Christianity that shows me how to live right where I’m at.” Well in the light of Philippians 2, that is a statement of pure foolishness. There is no such dichotomy between theology and practice. True theology must always lead to piety. And there is no path to true piety but by theology. Or, to say it another way, “practical theology” is redundant. If Philippians 2:1-11 teaches us anything, it’s that a Christianity focused on the heart, on practice, and on application cannot be divorced from deep thinking and hard truths. They are inextricably woven together. It is by thinking deeply, it is by meditating on this difficult theology, that we understand our great God and the life He’s called us to in greater fullness. It is only then that we are equipped to live in a way that is most pleasing and most honorable to God—to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.

Because practical instruction is inextricably linked to exalted theology, it is the Christian’s challenge to understand the hard truths and doctrines of Scripture in order to be maximally affected in our daily lives. As we delve into the technical points of high Christology, or of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, or of the doctrines of eschatology, we need to be reminded that we are not engaging in a cold, detached intellectualism. Studying the theology revealed in Scripture is never simply an academic exercise. Rather, it is the summoning all of our faculties in an endeavor to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

  • LC

    “Christians are to be marked by a Gospel-driven humility because we have been saved by a humility-driven Gospel.” I love this! This is a great post, thank you!

  • kevin2184

    Another great post, Mike; and great preaching on Sunday night too!

  • Wow..how many golden nugget-quotes can fit into one post? Well done, brother!
    I love how this forces us to see where the theological “knowledge” part ends (as such) and the love and unity meant to be borne of these truths–the eternal— begin. All glory to God our Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    On another note-really looking forward to hearing your message from “big church” 😉

  • METOWNSEND Townsend

    As we study to show ourselves approved of God – we learn and we grow. It is when one will not take the time to study His Word that misinterpretation and deception begins and doubt and disbelief creeps in.
    I pray the Holy Spirit will give His church a hunger for His Word.

  • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

    Amazing article!!! I have read it at least three times, and plan on reading it yet again.

    Mary Elizabeth Palshan Posted as guest.

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