My “Neat Little Theological System”

I call it my NLTS, and it works like this: I have my understanding of God worked out so that everything fits, and any reality that tries to intrude, I deny or ignore.

A pastor friend introduced me to the concept, without realizing it.

I was on his church staff, the newest assistant among several young ministers. After having pastored three small churches, serving on the team of the largest congregation in the state was a heady experience. The governor was one of our deacons, former governors sat in the congregation, and state denominational leadership filled many of the pews. Television cameras beamed our live services throughout the state. I knew it would be a rare thing for me to be asked to preach in this church. But it happened, sooner than I expected.

One Saturday night, the pastor called. “I’m coming down with something. Be ready to preach tomorrow morning. I’ll let you know.”

I ended up preaching both services the next day, morning and night. It was the Sunday night sermon that offended the pastor.

With so little advance notice, I had pulled out a couple of sermons I’d used before in previous pastorates, ones I felt confident about. The Sunday night sermon asked the question, “What about those who die without having heard the gospel?” Often when I would speak on college campuses, that question was raised, and I felt I knew the biblical answer.

The answer, for anyone who takes the Bible at face value, is clearly that no one is going to Heaven without believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible is consistent on that, the Holy Spirit verifies it in the Word, the testimonies of missionaries through the centuries bear it out, and sheer logic confirms it. For example, if people who never have heard of Jesus go to Heaven when they die, then ignorance is the best plan of salvation there is. Call in all the missionaries, shut down the mission boards, and cancel all the outreach programs; leave everyone in darkness and we all end up in Heaven. Simple. Also dead wrong.

A day or two later, the pastor, now recovered from his weekend ailment, called me into his office. “I do not agree with your message Sunday night,” he said. He was sure that God had ways for people to be saved and go to Heaven without the precise requirement of knowing of Jesus, trusting the cross, and praying some version of the sinner’s prayer. I was stunned.

He added, “Joe, I have my theology worked out. It’s a circle. And if one part of it is wrong, it changes everything else. And what you preached Sunday night does not fit.”

To his credit, he did not insist that I preach his convictions and silence mine.

When I left the office that day, I determined to proclaim the message of the Scriptures and to let nothing change that. I also committed myself — and this is equally important — to continue studying this subject and to be open to whatever the Holy Spirit wished to teach me on this, or any other, subject.

His NLTS. The pastor had his, and excluded anything that did not fit it.

One of the most important contributions to the debate over gay marriages is the “My Turn” column in Newsweek, February 9, 2009. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, writes that while he voted for Proposition 8 in his state which banned marriage between people of the same sex, he is not anti-gay and not a religious fundamentalist extremist. He says, “I celebrate the fact that we live in a pluralistic society, with many different worldviews and lifestyles.” He watched the demonstrations on television when proponents and opponents hurled insults and epithets at one another, and grew saddened. “The tears welled up.” “It makes me sad.”

Mouw writes, “I have spent several decades of my life trying to spell out an evangelical alternative to (what the editor of Newsweek recently called)

5 thoughts on “My “Neat Little Theological System”

  1. Paul told Timothy, ”Preach the word” not a system of theology.

    As one black bro. once said to me, ”Dat King James Bible sure do shed a lot of light on them there commentaries.” Amen and Amen

  2. Carlyle Marney has a story in one of his sermons about a missionary preaching to an primitive tribe. One ancient elder said to him, “I always knew there must be a God like that. Now you have told me his name.” It has also crossed my mind that if we take the resurrection more seriously than we usually do, the living Christ is able to present himself to anyone, anywhere, anytime, as HE chooses.

  3. I have adapted the adage: “We make our plans and then life happens” to “We make our plans and then God happens” Thankfully He smiles at our errors and corrects them via other souls.

    If He had to smite us for them, there would be nothing of man left on this earth.

    Hate not the correction, or the messenger, but rejoice in the fact that God cares about the tongue that passes His Word.


  4. Well, said Joe! And the Romans passage…it is absolutely one of my all time favorites! I found a cantata based upon this passage a number of years ago for the Koinonia Singers, the Single Adult Choir, at Walnut Street Baptist Church here in Louisville, KY. Whenever this passage comes to mind, I find myself not only “directing,” but singing it as well! I look forward to singing it anew in heaven!!!



  5. Joe: This is a sermon outline that I purloined (see I do know some big words!) from my theology Professor, Dr. J. Morris Ashcraft. He preached it one day in chapel while I was in the seminary.

    It relates to those who try to have everyting in a neat little box, so they think.

    Who is your God?

    1. God is Father Time

    2. God is a Passive God. Wound up the world and has gone off to let it wind down.

    3. God is God of the Box. Everything has to fit in the box.

    4. God is the God of History. The Lord of Lords and the King of Kings.

    Makes a good sermon. Hey, you can add your own stuff. The basic idea came from Dr. Ashcraft. But I added my own stuff along with some of his.

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