How Important Is Doctrine? – Part 3
by Jonathan Hamilton
Doctrine is vital for every Christian. I’ve been attempting to demonstrate its connectedness to right loves and right actions. Let me re-state that: it is not merely connected to the latter two, it is the foundation for them. Or as we called it in Part 2, the fuel. Christians tend to favor one or two of these, but it is the rare believer who highly values all three. And of the three, doctrine is often the first one forsaken. Hopefully our series is showing why that is a devastating mistake. We continue here into two more significant subdivisions of Scripture to see how the Bible itself views doctrine, love, and practice.
GOSPEL NARRATIVES (Jesus): John 14
How did Jesus view doctrine? In one of His best known (and least followed) statements, He tells us in verse 15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” He, with supreme authority, connects right love, practice, and doctrine in a mere handful words. But wait, aren’t only two of those elements, love and practice, represented here? Where’s the doctrine? Let’s remember the lesson we learned earlier. What are God’s commandments? At minimum, they are doctrines. If we love Jesus, according to His definition of love, we will keep His commandments (practice). And in order to keep them, we have to know what they are (doctrine). Christ defined love for Him as a love that results in right practice. And both the love and the practice are based on right doctrine. Any “love” that does not account for the authoritative words of Christ is anemic. It is powerless. It is false.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly used OT doctrine to attack false teaching. Most often this was aimed at the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and even Satan himself (all of whom, ironically, contrived their own ideas by the twisting of Scripture into false doctrines). Here’s a link to an article filled with several more references to Christ’s use of the OT and its doctrines for your own study.
[Note: Jesus said much about Scripture, and thereby doctrine. One excellent sermon on Christ’s view of Scripture is Kevin DeYoung’s 2014 address: “Christ’s Unbreakable Bible.” I commend it to you for watching or listening, it would be a great daily commute audio file for this week.]
EPISTLES (Paul): 2 Timothy 3, Philippians 1
I know we mentioned 2 Timothy 3 briefly in passing early on in this series, but it deserves another treatment here:
16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
Scripture is God-breathed. To deny that is to call into question one’s claims of faith, for if Scripture is not from God, and thereby inerrant, on what grounds does your faith stand? A faith built on a Bible that is less than God’s very word to us has no foundation.
Beyond its necessity to our salvation, this God-breathed Scripture is beneficial to us for some other very specific things; things like teaching (general instruction), reproof (rebuke, refutation), correction (improvement), and training in righteousness. What do we call the truths that are used to teach, reprove, correct, and train us? We call them doctrines. When a pastor preaches a text of Scripture (hopefully your pastor does this every Sunday at minimum), we could say he is doctrinizing. A pastor does not simply stand up and read a text of Scripture and then sit down, calling that a sermon. As a matter of fact if he did this he would be derelict in his duty. The New Testament expects that a pastor is going to explain the sense of the text. This explanation is doctrinal (this type of activity occurred in the OT as well: Nehemiah 8:5-8). And insofar as he is faithful to the original meaning of the text, he is preaching (doctrinizing) well. And insofar as he strays from the meaning of the text, he is not. But proper preaching and teaching of the Word assume that doctrine is being communicated.
You might object, “But verse 17 applies this to the ‘man of God,’ not me the pew-sitter. That’s for the pastor. He’s the one who the God-breathed Scripture is adequately equipping to teach, reprove, correct, and train.” I hope the way I phrased your objection renders it self-answered. But just in case it didn’t, my response would be: “Who is he being adequately equipped to profitably teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness? Is it not mainly for you, the flock member entrusted to his care?” He teaches you. He reproves you. He corrects you. He trains you in righteousness. And he does it by proclaiming and explaining the doctrines of God’s Word.
In Philippians 1:9-11, Paul provides what might be my favorite passage in Scripture related to this topic. It directly ties love to real knowledge and all discernment. For Paul, they could not be separated. Take a look:
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
I take verse 9 to imply that love (read: true, biblical love) is bounded, or hemmed in, by real knowledge and discernment. He prays that their love would abound within this fence. And that fence is doctrinal. This verse tells us that anything that exists outside of that fence is not love. Call it love if you want, but it does not make it so. He goes on to say why this is important: so that we would approve only excellent things. If our love is not fenced by real knowledge and all discernment we will approve things that are not excellent. Paul does not want us to approve of bad things. He doesn’t even want us to merely approve of good things. He wants us to approve of the best things. His instruction here is showing us how.
But he’s not finished. The result of loving rightly (meaning, within the proper doctrinal boundaries) is standing sincere and blameless in our walk in this world. And if we don’t maintain the proper boundaries, we will surely not be so! Finally, Paul states that all of this leads to our sanctification and fruit-bearing, which is ultimately through Jesus and for God. It is His glory and praise that motivate us to fence in our love with real knowledge and all discernment. There can be no greater motivation for a true Christian. A refusal to heed Paul’s words here leads to pollution, lack of fruit, and worst of all, bringing less glory to God than He has made us capable of bringing. Do we need any more motivation to pursue pure doctrine?
My conclusion is this: doctrine and practice and love cannot be divided. They are inseparable. To divide doctrine from right loves and right living is exactly to forfeit the word “right” from the equation. You can strip doctrine away and continue to live, but it won’t be rightly. And there are severe consequences for this. How do I know? Because the Bible gives us examples. In our next (and final) post of this series, I’ll give you two.