In Praise of Doctrine

In his newest book Christless Christianity, Michael Horton makes this intriguing claim: “Secularism cannot be blamed on the secularists, many of whom were raised in the church. We are the problem.” Just what does he mean by that? He goes on to explain,

“If most churchgoers cannot tell us anything specific about the God they consider meaningful or explain basic doctrines of creation in God’s image, original sin, the atonement, justification, sanctification, the means of grace, or the hope of glory, then the blame can hardly be placed at the feet of secular humanists.”

Of course there certainly is such a thing as secular humanism which poses a very real threat to biblical Christianity. I write about it all the time. But those who follow my writings will notice that increasingly I am addressing basic theological and doctrinal issues – core Christian beliefs.

doctrine 5From my vantage point, one of the biggest problems facing the church today is the fact that most believers do not even have a rudimentary understanding of basic Christian beliefs. We seem to know very little about what we believe or why we believe. Thus more and more of my articles of late have been going back to the basics – the essential Christian beliefs that all followers of Jesus should understand.

Of course Scripture enjoins us not to be in such a condition of theological immaturity. Consider just one of many passages that speak to this issue. Hebrews 5:12-14 says this: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”

There are many reasons for this biblical illiteracy amongst God’s people today. I won’t here address them all. Suffice it to say that theology, doctrine and basic Christian teaching do not get a very good rap nowadays. The church has more or less followed the spirit of the age in downplaying any sure word or any absolute truths.

This is a hallmark especially of postmodernism. Yet sadly, whole sections of the church have embraced postmodernism, hook, line and sinker. Many in the emerging church movement have taken pride in how postmodern they are. And many of the emergent church leaders admit to having little time for theology and doctrine.

Indeed, they often have this annoying habit of creating false distinctions. They claim that believers must for some reason make a choice: either embrace love and relationships, or embrace doctrine and theology. They seem to think the former rule out the latter, and vice versa. They seem to think these are polar opposites which cannot live in harmony.

Of course the Bible knows nothing of such false dilemmas. The Bible over and over commands us to do both. The Christian life is to be characterised by both orthopraxis (right living) and orthodoxy (right belief). A classic text in this regard is 1Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

There are in fact hundreds of passages in Scripture which make the case for the importance of sound doctrine, proper teaching, good theology and maintaining the truth. Along with these are numerous warnings against false prophets, false teachers, false doctrine and false beliefs.

Let me explore just one of them. Ep. 4:14,15: “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”

Verse 14 is similar in content to Heb. 5:12-14. Both speak of the need to press on to spiritual maturity, and a vital part of this maturation process involves knowing and understanding biblical doctrine and truth. Failure to do so will mean we will succumb to false teachers and deceptive teachings.

The second half of verse 14 uses three prepositional phrases to emphasise this threat. As Andrew Lincoln notes, “behind the threatening teachings, making them so dangerous, are deceitful people, ready to manipulate and take advantage of immature and unstable believers.”

But as Peter O’Brien reminds us, there is even something more behind the false teachers: “behind the false teaching are not simply evil men and women who pursue their unscrupulous goals with a scheming that produces error. There is also a supernatural, evil power who seeks to deceive them with devilish cunning; his ‘intrigues’ are to be resisted energetically with the aid of God’s armour (6:11).”

Verse 15, about speaking the truth in love, is a wonderful rejoinder to those who would ask us to artificially choose one or the other. Contrary to much emerging church teaching, in this area, what God has joined together no man is to put asunder. As John Stott notes, “What Paul calls for is a balanced combination of the two”. The Greek verb literally “means, ‘truthing in love’, and includes the notions of ‘maintaining’, ‘living’, and ‘doing’ the truth.”

Of course we all know of people who are gung-ho on truth and doctrine, but are cold, hard and unloving. We also know of people who couldn’t care less about doctrine and truth, and are just wishy-washy and sentimental. Says Stott, “Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. The apostle calls us to hold the two together.”

Or as C. Leslie Mitton remarked, “concern for individuals is no less important than devotion to principle, though it is not always easy to do full justice to both. John saw the two perfectly harmonised in Jesus whom he described as ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14) and able to communicate both qualities to his disciples (Jn 1:17).”

The Christian church can always use truckloads of more love. We all are far from loving like Jesus loved. But we also need truckloads of truth. Sound doctrine and clear biblical teaching is absolutely essential. Let us make it our aim to strive for both. A needy world very much needs to see and receive both.

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10 Replies to “In Praise of Doctrine”

  1. “The church has more or less followed the spirit of the age in downplaying any sure word or any absolute truths.”

    Francis Schaeffer wrote much on this of course and traced its roots in the late 17th/early 18th century shift away from absolutes – Hegel and those who followed him.

    So we have had a good two hundred years to erode the framework of absolutes, to the point that most people can’t recognise the basic idea even when we talk about the speed of light!

    John Angelico

  2. But the whole Christian life is predicated by the word, by scripture, by theory, by the Truth. We do not walk according to sight or the flesh; we walk by faith.

    Romans 14: 23 ……everything that does not come from faith is sin

    When Christ was tempted by Satan, to follow his human instincts, he answered three times,” It is written.”

    Mark 4:13ff : Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”

    As for there being an either faith or works, this is a load of tosh:

    2 Peter 1:5ff: For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness..

    It is not faith in faith but faith in the truth of what God has said about Himself, the world, Satan and ourselves.

    David Skinner, UK

  3. Michael Horton has an excellent radio broadcast, and a podcast, picking up these kind of issues. It’s called, ‘The White Horse Inn’ after the Cambridge Inn where reformation ideas were first discussed in England. It’s well worth downloading for some solid food.
    Andrew Campbell

  4. Hi Bill,

    I have not read Michael’s book, but nonetheless agree that we are the problem. However, the nature of the problem is not primarily doctrinal, it is spiritual. At the heart of it lie the questions of whether so called “believers” are genuinely born again and if so, whether they are living in accordance with the Lord’s life within them.

    It is of little surprise to read about a poor grasp of doctrine. It may surprise some to discover that many “believers” have never been born again. It will be a shock to discover that vast majority of us who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit are living rebelliously. Herein lies the reason society is crumbling around us and we are powerless to do anything about it. It is the elephant in the room and something that contemporary church attendance inculcates.

    What is needed is repentance amongst regenerate believers. We need to surrender our lives afresh to the Lord, seeking forgiveness for our sin and rebellion, and praying that he deals with our hearts. It is abiding in him that bears fruit, not sound doctrine alone.

    Interestingly, history suggests that should the church get its act together – is once again identified with Jesus through the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit – persecution will result; however, persecution will not originate from the world but rather the religious and moral intelligentsia who neither know Jesus or whence he came.

    Paul Radford

  5. Thanks Paul

    Yes you are right – it is not doctrine alone that is the problem, but how we live as well. Both are out of kilter, and both need to be corrected. As the Apostle Paul warned, “Watch your life and your doctrine closely”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. I witnessed another example of the false split between doctrine and love at a men’s breakfast last Saturday. A dear brother, a doctorate-level psychologist, was giving his personal testimony, which in and of itself was quite inspirational, having been a refugee.

    However, I became increasingly uncomfortable when the psychologist within him emerged and he recounted his solution to the hundreds upon hundreds of men and women he has counselled, many of them damaged by cruel and oppressive (perceived or real) fathering. His answer, “Just show them/your children (especially your daughters) love. Don’t be harsh, and please don’t portray God as being anything other than fully loving and accepting.”

    Steve Swartz

  7. Thanks Steve

    I was not at the event you mention but a few thoughts. A “word spoken in due season” can be a good thing, and tailoring one’s remarks may have its place. For abuse victims, yes, the love of God is an attribute one would certainly wish to push.

    Hopefully however this Christian psychologist does indeed proclaim “the whole counsel of God” as needed. That is, words of rebuke and admonishment should have their place as well. Paul for example urges us to be in the business of both encouraging and rebuking as the case may be:

    “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority.” (Titus 2:15)

    “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)

    Thus both a “hard word” and a “soft word” have their place in the Christian vocabulary.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Ahhhhhhhh, Billy my brother, you knock it right on the head with this one. There are not only “Christless Christians” sitting in the pews, but “Christless Pastors” preaching behind the pulpit as well. Just like me, you’re probably being strongly disliked by certain people – maybe more so – for writing stuff like this. But then, its a previledge to be hated for speaking up, aye? I wonder when they’re gonna decide to crucify you first or me…HAHAHAHA. Keep it up, Brother!!!
    Eddie Sim

  9. Bill, today the few churches that will defend doctrines and preach expository sermons are likely to be the reformed churches but they are considered dry and not relevant to today’s world. I recently heard a pentecostal pastor say that he is not too concerned about doctrines but cares more about preaching sermons that ‘minister’ to people and ‘meet’ their needs. And crowds really prefer positive self help and challenging motivational sermons. Preach anything the ears itched to hear and you will get a crowd. With an emphasis on ‘prophecy and new revelation’, health and wealth sermons, and a hunger for sign and wonders, who needs doctrines?

    It is therefore not surprising that Christians today are not sound in the word and doctrine and cannot discern truth from falsehood and are easily deceived. Sadly today we have a new breed of confused ‘believers’ called confusedmatics. Come the emergents and the church will go cuckoo and the enemy will rejoice. Christians who care about the word and sound doctrines/teachings will need to continuously speak up and very loudly too.

    Barry Koh

  10. Like Andrew Campbell above, I also listen to the White Horse Inn weekly radio show. It is all about knowing “what you believe and why you believe it”. It is a free download with registration.

    There is also an archive of past shows here but they don’t stay up for ever – only the past 30 shows are available. I have the past two + years worth of shows if anyone wants a copy.

    Ewan McDonald.

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