Helmut Thielicke's A Little Exercise for Young Theologians was written for nascent theology students in the mid-twentieth century, but it really applies to us all now. In 1959 the academic institutions of these "young theologians" introduced them to theological truths that are only clicks away from us today. The accessibility we have in the West to theological resources is astounding. And it's also dangerous.
The mind moves a little faster than the heart. It's easier for us to intellectually apprehend truth than it is for us to actually embrace it. This creates what Thielicke calls the hiatus between the arena of spiritual growth and what we already know intellectually about this arena (11). In other words, many of us could talk the day lights out of justification, getting the concepts down and the order right, but never really living in the fullness of what it means to be justified.
Thielicke talks about two levels of experience in learning: conceptual and primary. We can read Luther on justification and understand what he's saying, but this understanding never sinks into our primary experience, fooling us to label something we've only perceived as something we deeply understand. Thielicke adds, "Thus one lives at second hand" (11).
Whether Thielicke is right on these levels of experience, one thing is sure: we don't want to live at second hand. We want to stand on Luther's shoulders and say "by faith alone," meaning it just as much as he did. So, then, what do we do? How do we bridge the gap between what we "learn" and what we really believe? How does grace to Luther (or Sproul, or MacArthur, or Piper) become grace to us, transcending the "second hand" mode?
There are at least two things that help: first, pray; second, apply.
Specifically asking the Father to make the wonders of what we read sink in is our simplest approach, and the most vital. And this praying is important not so much because of the things prayed, but because of praying itself. It's the whole act. We come to the cliff and pause, squinting our eyes as we gaze out across the geography. We recognize that there is nothing automatic about trekking the valleys and hills that lay before us. Here is where our presumption is disintegrated. If we're going to understand this chapter or get the main point of this sermon on our iPod, it will only be because God makes it so.
Be eager to hear good content for how it may change your life, not just bulk up your knowledge. We want to be able to take what we've consumed and reproduce it through our faith in action. Think about what you've learned and try to draw connections with your own story. How might what you've learned lead you to be a blessing to others? What are some ways you can demonstrate this truth in your relationships? Prayerfully view all the content you encounter as purposeful. Nothing is happenstance. God, in his sovereign grace, has made it so that you read and watch and hear all that you ever read and watch and hear.
May Jesus give us grace to embrace the truth we apprehend.