We live in an era in which vast sums of knowledge, previously unavailable to earlier generations, are just a few mouse clicks away from the majority of human beings who populate this planet. In spite of this, we find ourselves in an age in which the doctrinal understanding of far too many professing Christians seems to be woefully lagging that of Christians three and four centuries ago, long before the internet. Worse, the very term, “doctrine”, is now used in a pejorative sense and castigated as “unnecessarily divisive”, “serving only to divide us”.
This short paper will hopefully serve to convince those who view doctrine in such a manner of the error of their ways.
First, we need to define the term “doctrine”. What is it? The simplest meaning is that doctrine is the statement of what Christians believe about God, Christ, human nature, sin, evil, atonement, redemption, salvation, righteousness, etc. In short, doctrine is truth as defined by Scripture.
For example – If I use the word, “sin”, what does that mean to you? What does it mean to someone outside of the gospel? The only way to properly define it is through DOCTRINE. If not, it is just some vague concept of wrong-doing which falls far short of the enormity of the offense against God which Scripture clearly defines it to be.
Or consider the word, “redemption”. What does it mean? When the apostle Paul states that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law having become a curse of us” (Gal 3: 3:13). How can one have the least bit of understanding of what he is reading here if they haven’t the faintest idea of what the word, “redeemed” means? The answer – they cannot and they will not.
What is “the curse of the law”? Without doctrine it is impossible to understand it.
The point in this is not difficult to grasp. The purpose of all gospel teaching is edification. To edify means to build up. One cannot be “built up” or edified if they do not understand what they are reading! In order to impart understanding, teaching must explain the meaning of Scripture and that in turn necessitates that doctrine be communicated to the mind.
Consider the question asked of Jesus by one of the scribes of Israel of that day:
“And one of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him ( Jesus), “What commandment is the foremost of all?”
Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength” ( Mark 12: 28-30)
Question – how can one love God with all of their mind if their mind is not informed of truth???
I cannot love anything that I do not appreciate or understand or know. The human heart does not love in a void. It loves that which it admires, values, appreciates or understands. It is doctrine which defines, which informs, which instructs, which teaches. Without a doctrinal understanding, it is not possible for anyone to love God with their mind.
How can I love God with all my “mind”, if I refuse to make the effort to instruct my mind in who He is, what His nature and character is like, what He has done for me, what He has planned for my eternal future, what did Christ do and why did He have to assume human nature, and on and on and on. How can I “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” ( 2 Peter 3:18)
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus or Lord” ( 2 Peter 1:2)
Without knowledge, no Christian can GROW nor they can have true peace or understand grace. Since the gospel is called the “gospel of the grace of God”…
“how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” ( Acts 20: 24)
…how can anyone understand the gospel in truth if they do not really understand grace and how can grace be understood in all its beauty without doctrine?
This is why it is especially bewildering and tragic that there are those in this modern church which will tell “their disciples” ( not Christ’s disciples) to “love God and their neighbor” yet will in the same breath denigrate doctrine and avoid it for fear of offending. They fail to see the glaring impossibly of such a thing.
That is what makes the new covenant so marvelous, of its many benefits of which it is stated,
“They shall all know Me” (Jer 31:34)
“It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God” ( John 6:45)
The knowledge, the teaching of God, comes via doctrine. The Holy Spirit, in His ministry to the church, shines His light upon the Scriptures and imparts an understanding of the truths contained therein so that the people of God may come to truly know the God of all grace. In so doing, the foundation of a doctrinal understanding is laid in their lives, one which will keep and protect them from falsehood and error.
That which marks the church of this generation is its anemic doctrinal foundation which is the direct result of the failure of those who profess to be ministers of the gospel. It is my opinion that this is the reason that the church is so powerless in society today. It has lost its doctrinal mooring in favor of so-called “pragmatic” or “practical” teaching, which avoids doctrine out of fear of offense. Additionally, it is the reason that the church has embraced the current societal norms instead of testifying against such.
The result is what Paul warned against in his letter to the Ephesian church:
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of which belongs to the fulness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming… “ ( Eph 4: 11-14)
The role of the ministry was to equip the church for its labors. To accomplish this, it would be necessary to impart to its members, “the knowledge of the Son of God”. This is not possible if doctrine is avoided or neglected.
I find it rather tragic that those today who downplay doctrine in favor of avoiding conflict are employing the same rationale that Pope Leo X and his advisors used against Martin Luther at the beginnings of what would be eventually called the Protestant Reformation. They accused Luther of “rending the garment of Christ” - a reference to the tunic of Christ which was not torn during His sufferings leading to His crucifixion – by his attacks on the Catholic Church and its teachings and assertions. For them, it was all about UNITY. Along comes Luther ( prior to him there was Jan Hus) and conflict arises and by necessity, division.
To remind the reader – Luther attacked the Catholic church for its doctrine of indulgences, the pernicious teaching that money put into the collection box could free the soul from punishment in purgatory. He attacked the doctrine of purgatory. He attacked the doctrine of justification held by the Catholic church. He denied that the priests of the Catholic church could forgive sin. He also made the then audacious claim that the Pope was fallible.
Consider this those of you who still refuse to teach doctrine or learn doctrine – if Luther and the other Protestant Reformers had held to your wrongheaded view, we would all still be genuflecting in front of a man-made altar in a Catholic church, doing our penance and asking the priest to absolve us from sins, all the while having our justification in a constant state of flux with no true lasting peace or joy except that which the sacraments of the Catholic church could provide.
Here is a simple, inescapable fact – doctrine by its nature divides. It is meant to do so. It divides light from darkness and truth from error. The notion that division within the church is to be avoided at all costs is reproved at the very beginning of the Bible where it is stated that God Himself separated light from darkness. ( Gen 1:4)
Furthermore, when the True Light of the World came embarked upon the time of His earthly ministry, He told his generation:
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness…” ( John 3: 19).
Notice again, the distinction, the division, the separation between light and darkness
Doctrine/ truth, by its nature, separates and divides. It divides truth from error. Without it, darkness remains undisturbed and men’s eyes closed to truth.
Any professing Christian with even a scintilla of biblical understanding, cannot help but to notice that the vast majority of New Testament letters deal with false teachings/doctrine that have infected the body of Christ. Whether it was the early forms of Gnosticism, whether it was the perverse teachings of the Judaizers, whether it took the form of attacks on the very nature and person of Christ, the apostles vigorously and constantly attacked and tore down these heretical teachings that threatened to corrupt the church’s banner of truth. There method was always the same – they tore down the false and built again the true.
This is what the apostle Paul meant when he stated:
“There must be factions/divisions/heresies among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you” (1 Cor 11:19)
The conflict over truth in the church is necessary to clearly define what is truth and what is error.
The apostle John speaks of “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” ( 1 John 4:6). What else could he be referring to if not doctrine, both false doctrine and true doctrine, in this instance defining the nature of Christ’s person and His incarnation.
The apostle Paul speaks thusly:
“the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” ( 2 Cor 10: 4-5).
He is referring to the use of the gospel truth shattering the philosophies of this world and its false image of God/gods.
Read his sermon to the Greek philosophers of Athens on Mars Hill in Acts 17. There he speaks of the God who made all things, who is above all things, who is a Righteous Judge of all men, of his sending a Savior, both Man and God, who died for sins providing atonement and was raised from the dead ( the resurrection) and a final day of judgment for all. Doctrine, doctrine and more doctrine.
Here you see the apostle doing exactly what he speaks to in the passage from 2 Cor 10 quoted above. He is using the hammer of doctrinal truth, the weapon God gave him, to destroy the foolish speculations of the age and inform lost men of the true nature of God and of His Christ.
Now try to imagine this same apostle telling these men of Athens to “just love God and love their fellow man” What God? The god of their myths, the god/gods of their philosophies, some nebulous spirit they have concocted in their sin-darkened minds? Perish the thought! He first must tear down every “proud and lofty thing that raises itself against the knowledge of God”, and as Isaiah stated:
“ And the pride of man will be humbled, and the loftiness of men will be abased, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” ( Isaiah 2: 17).
Or again, view the same apostle attacking the false Christ that was being preached among some in the early Corinth church:
“For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.” ( 2 Cor 11: 2-4)
Notice what Paul says – the error they were in danger of embracing was in their minds. They were learning FALSE DOCTRINE which was misrepresenting the true Jesus that the apostle and his fellow workers had so diligently taught them during their stay in that city.
Please note – Paul never stated the following:
“Oh never you mind – as long as you are worshipping and loving Jesus, it does not matter one whit which Jesus He really is. He could be the Jesus of the Gnostics or He could be the Jesus of the Judaizers; it did not matter as long as you love Him.”
When Paul speaks of the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ, he is speaking of the simplicity and purity of devotion to the TRUE CHRIST, the Jesus, that the apostles taught them through doctrine. This would not be possible for those Corinthian saints to observe without a true understanding of who He was and without a proper doctrinal foundation, they would find themselves worshipping a false Jesus, a figment of their own imagination, a graven image of their own making.
There is much more that could be said on this critical and yet tragically neglected topic but for the sake of brevity, I will leave the reader with the following thoughts.
In Pauls’ letter to the Hebrews, he rebukes the Jewish believers for their lack of progress in the faith and the shallowness of their understanding:
“Concerning him ( Melchizedek) we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. . For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” ( Hebrews 5: 11-14)
Here is the same passage in the Living Bible, which really does a good job of capturing the essence of Paul’s rebuke:
“There is much more I would like to say along these lines, but you don’t seem to listen, so it’s hard to make you understand. You have been Christians a long time now, and you ought to be teaching others, but instead you have dropped back to the place where you need someone to teach you all over again the very first principles in God’s Word. You are like babies, who can drink only milk, not old enough for solid food. And when a person is still living on milk it shows he isn’t very far along in the Christian life, and doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong. He is still a baby-Christian! You will never be able to eat solid spiritual food and understand the deeper things of God’s Word until you become better Christians and learn right from wrong by practicing doing right.” ( Hebrews 5: 11-14 Living Bible)
Does any reader of this passage with an honest heart believe that this is a compliment that the great apostle is giving these believers? Of course he is not! What is stunning is that Paul categorically states that milk-sipping Christians will never get far along in the Christian life. They will never gain the discernment that mature, well-read and well instructed Christians possess and thus will easily fall prey to every wind and wave of doctrine that blows through the church.
What makes this so sobering is that it perfectly explains the reason for the lack of discernment in the modern church and among far too many professing Christians who seem to be completely unable to spot false teaching when it rears its head as it inevitably does. All the while they continue to prattle on about “loving God and loving their neighbor” oblivious to the storms of error and falsehood wreaking havoc in the church.
Furthermore, they are unable to give a reason for the hope that is within them. By that I mean they are unable to answer the question long ago posed by Bildad in the book of Job:
“How then can a man be just with God or how can he be clean who is born of woman?” (Job 25:4)
The answer to this question is the topic of Paul’s letter to the Roman church in which he speaks of the method of Justification and explains the righteousness of God which comes through faith in Christ.
Ask some of these doctrine-avoiding professing Christians, what does it mean to be “justified through faith” or what is “the righteousness of God” and their eyes glaze over with an empty appearance. Yet the entirety of the Old Covenant and the law of Moses was the preparation for the righteousness that God would bring in Himself through the person and work of His Son. How can one read the Scriptures without an understanding of the concept of righteousness and the nature of the righteous Judge of Heaven and Earth and get the least bit of edification out of it? He or she reads the words but their minds are devoid of the light provided by the Holy Spirit. They never really experience the power of truth as it is written in their minds and on their hearts nor its sweetness.
As David wrote so long ago:
“How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)
Alas, poor untaught Christian. You are a stranger to this experience of David, and not only of David, but to the saints of all generations who have come before you and those who will come after you long after your journey on this earth is finished. You have an entire inheritance provided to you through the bounty of your gracious Lord, a feast of fat things, a table of plenty set before you so that you may fill your soul to the utmost and satisfy the longing of your heart and yet you go hungry and empty because you do not yearn after truth. You have been misled into believing that doctrine is somehow unnecessary and without purpose, not knowing that those who tell you such things have robbed you of that which delights the soul.
How can you behold the glory of Christ, the glory of the First-Born of all Creation, the Alpha and the Omega, the Lion and the Lamb, The First and the Last, the One who was dead but is alive forevermore, the One whose image you are destined to bear, if you neglect the very means by which your eyes will behold Him?
“Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; they will behold a far-distant land.” ( Isaiah 33:17).
Doctrine/truth, as taught by God, as revealed by the work of His gracious Spirit, will enable you to see, and seeing, will fill your heart with the joy and peace that comes from the true knowledge and vision of Christ, who fills all things with His presence and glory.
Sit at the feet of Jesus, and learn from Him and these things will be yours.
“But the Lord answered the said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:41)
Dan Norcini SS
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