By Francine Grace Tan, Class of ’19
“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to doctrine. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching… Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:13,16).
From Sunday school to Sunday sermons, the decline of doctrinal teaching and preaching in the church is prevalent in today’s consumerist culture. Most people merely desire for practical sound bites, and as a result, the subtle lure of liberalism has made mainline Protestant Christianity progressive, tolerant, and moderate. The doctrine of God is reduced into statements about man; the Gospel is diminished to its lowest common denominator, and the church is no longer marked by holiness. Scripture teaches that we must be sound in the faith—which means doctrine matters a lot (1 Timothy 4:6; 6:3-4, 2 Timothy 4:2-3, Titus 1:9). Sound doctrine is a necessary characteristic of authentic faith and true wisdom. In Hebrews 5:11-14, the writer of Hebrews addresses Christians who are stuck at the baby stage of development and still requires milk instead of solid food. In order to prevent ourselves from becoming dull in hearing, we ought to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, and become mature, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
In the 16th century, Luther also maintained that there could be no Christianity without assertions because the content of our faith is crucial. By assertions, he meant “ a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and invincible persevering… in those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings.” Therefore, here are a few reasons why we ought to build our faith in sound, biblical doctrines:
To Understand His Word
It is true that Scripture is not itself a systematic theology organized according to topics; rather, it is a diverse collection of writings having both God and specific human beings as its authors. As Princeton theologian Charles Hodge underscored, “The Bible is no more a system of theology than nature is a system of chemistry or of mechanics.” So we must be careful to keep our systems open to correction by accurate interpretation of biblical passages. On the other hand, we often read Scripture in light of our presuppositions of Scripture’s general teaching. We deduce how to interpret particular passages from our general knowledge of the Bible as well as examine the particular passages in order to reach general conclusions about the Word of God. This back-and-forth deduction and induction in theology is called “the hermeneutic spiral”, which helps us to better understand the whole counsel of God. According to the Westminster Confession, “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” Drawing examples from the doctrines of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, “Scripture alone” is a “good and necessary” deduction from Scripture’s whole teaching about these doctrines.
In other words, we need to first recognize that we read Scripture both exegetically and systematically. Second, we ought to constantly strive to subject our presuppositions and interpretive frameworks to the whole counsel of God so that we can “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
To Guard Against Unsound Doctrine
The Reformation recovered the biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness alone. However, about one hundred and fifty years after the Reformation, the Protestants faced another doctrinal crisis. The Enlightenment movement began their thinking with human experience and reason apart from God’s self-revelation. This movement laid siege to the reliability of the Scriptures as God’s inerrant Word, which grounds our Christian faith and life. The ecclesiastical version of this movement is known as liberalism, and liberals ridiculed doctrine as impractical, dry and overly academic. Under the guise of denying doctrine, the liberals brought in heretical views into the church. Even until today, there are those who promote theological views, which, on the surface, appear to be biblical, but on closer examination, can be found heretical. Thus, a rigorous study of doctrine is needed so that we won’t be tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).
Doctrine Gives Us a Right Knowledge of God
Now you might ask which doctrines are missing in this present age? I contend that we need to first and foremost recover the doctrine of God. People have lost a sense of reverence when they come to worship and commune with God in the Holy of Holies. Karl Menninger asked the question years ago with his classic book, “Whatever Became of Sin?” He argued that when we banished God from our cultural landscape we changed sin into crime because it is no longer an offense against God but an offense against the state, and then we changed crimes into symptoms. Environment, upbringing, genes or anything else now causes sin. David Wells is spot on when he says, “holiness fundamentally defines the character of God. But when you robbed of such a God, God’s holiness weighs lightly upon us, and our worship loses its awe, the truth of his Word loses its ability to compel, obedience loses its virtue, and the church loses its moral authority.” Without the preaching of the Law, the treatment of God’s holiness in the demands of the law is not understood, the Gospel loses its power, and God becomes a celestial pal who indulges us in the banalities of our lives. By recovering a transcendent, high and holy view of God in this man-centered age, we would have an accurate view of the wretchedness of our sin, and that God intervened to save us is because salvation is to the praise of the glory of His grace.
Doctrine is Practical
J.I Packer rightly notes that when you “disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.” In other words, doctrine is to Christian living what bones are to the body. Without it, the body is useless, and likewise, bones without the body are nothing but a dead skeleton. The book of Romans is the clearest example of the importance of sound doctrine. After 11 chapters of profound theology, Paul exhorts each believer to an act of spiritual worship by presenting oneself as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2). Similarly, in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and 1 Thessalonians, practical application follows after doctrines. No one can apply truth without first learning about it. We cannot prevent ourselves from conformity to this world, if we are not first transformed by the renewing of our minds, and hence, we would be incapable of discerning God’s good, acceptable and perfect will for us (Romans 12:2). The principle of first doctrine, then life, is not just in Paul’s epistles but also everywhere in the Bible. For instance, the Ten Commandments did not begin with commandments but they begin with this doctrine—“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exodus 20:1) Another example is seen in the book Deuteronomy, we are commanded to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” because “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) Only because there is one God and only because that one God is our Savior, we are commanded to love Him with all our heart, soul and strength.
Doctrine Leads to Sanctification
After learning sound doctrines, how do we ensure that doctrine doesn’t become mere head knowledge? We turn it into prayer. We need to turn to God in prayer, and constantly ask ourselves if this truth has worked itself into my heart that I am transforming into the image of Christ because of it?
Consider Paul’s deep personal thirst for Christ-likeness expressed in Philippians 3:10 “that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Paul is telling us that theology, doctrine, and biblical teaching is important because God’s truth is given to us to cultivate godliness and to fuel our meditation on the Scriptures so that we would be transformed into the image of Christ (Titus 1:1-2). Having a doctrinal foundation means nothing without a devotional house. As the study of God’s truth is not an end in itself, we need to devote ourselves to the private communion with our Lord so that we can recover the reality, presence, will and glory of God in our own private lives.
On January 7, 1855, Charles Spurgeon preached the following words in a Sunday sermon:
“It has been said by someone that the proper study of mankind is man. I will not oppose that idea, but I believe that it is equally true that the proper study of God’s people is God. The proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy which can ever engage the attention of a child of God is the name, the nature, the person, the word, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the divinity. It is a subject so vast that our thoughts are lost in its immensity, and so deep that our pride is drowned by our infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of content. But no subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind than thoughts of God. But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands the mind. He who often thinks of God will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around the narrow globe. And while humbling and expanding the mind, the subject is immanently consolatory. Oh! There is in contemplating Christ a balm for every wound! In musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief, and in the influence of the Holy Ghost there is a balsam for every sore. Would you lose your sorrow? Would you drown your cares? Then go plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea. Be lost in His immensity, and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul, so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief, so speak peace to the winds of trial, than a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.”
The point of this excerpt from Spurgeon is that doctrine is practical and crucial to our Christian life. Without truth, what do we meditate on and what do we practice? It is my prayer that as disciples of Christ, we would continue to sharpen ourselves doctrinally so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, and together with all His saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God! (Ephesians 3:16-19)