It seems like we can say with certainty that the more the Word of God stresses something, the more the compromised, carnal and trendy church of today will ignore it or downplay it. Happens all the time regrettably. And one thing stressed repeatedly and empathetically in the Bible is the importance of right teaching or sound doctrine.
The New Testament over and over again speaks to the vital importance of making sure we have and believe correct teaching, and warns in the strongest terms against false teachers and false doctrine. These numerous passages make it clear that wrong thinking, like wrong living, can and will exclude people from the Kingdom.
I have written on these matters quite often now, but it seems there is always more need to repeat some of these basic biblical truths, given all the rampant biblical illiteracy which exists – and I am not talking about the world here, but the Christian church!
All the time I am getting Christians who tell me that doctrine does not matter, that theology is unimportant, and so on. Examples of this are legion. One guy recently told me that the only criteria for salvation is faith. He went on to say this: “We are not saved by correct doctrine (otherwise none of us would be saved; for we all have blind spots)”.
Another fellow said something similar: “If we are only saved by right understanding, we have no hope, and Christ has no role.” Of course with both these remarks we have some truth being spoken, but some real error as well. A simple reply to the latter remark would be this:
Who said we are only saved by right understanding? Creating straw men to shoot down helps nothing in this debate. Everywhere the New Testament stresses right belief and right behaviour as indicators of whether we are really saved or not. We are of course saved by grace through faith, but biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxis are held up as of the highest importance in Scripture.
As to the unhelpful idea that faith alone is all that’s needed for salvation, a few things can be said. Right doctrine is absolutely essential in this. If this were not the case, then why did Paul for example actually bring down a curse of eternal damnation on those who proclaimed “another gospel”? I can’t see how Paul could be any plainer than this, as he said in Galatians 1:6-9:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
We find nothing here about mere faith or just being a good person or anything else. What can damn a person to hell is promoting a false gospel – wrong teaching in other words. And the implication is clear: to believe in such a false gospel equally puts one in jeopardy. Good doctrine matters – eternally so.
And Paul of course is not alone in stressing over and over again the utter importance of right belief and sound doctrine. Consider what John also says. Try just a few passages on this: 1 John 2:22-23: “Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist – denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.”
Also consider 2 John 7-11:
I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.
False teaching and false doctrine will take you to hell. Biblical faith is always built on biblical truth. There is no other acceptable faith. Faith is never simply just a nebulous feeling or a content-less vapour. Faith is always based solidly on biblical truth. Biblical faith is filled with biblical content.
And the fact that none of us have 100% correct doctrine is a real red herring. Of course no one has 100% perfect doctrine. No one has 100% perfect anything – even born-again believers. But that is not the point. Without basic biblical truth there can be no salvation. Hopefully we all grow in the truth over time, but truth matters – hugely. Believing the wrong thing can send you to a lost eternity.
Sure, we can differ on plenty of secondary doctrines, but primary ones must not be compromised or merely voted on. So in this sense biblical faith is never mere feeling or something lacking in content, but is always based on biblical truth – the ‘faith once delivered to all the saints’ eg, as Jude 1:3 states.
There are different senses then of the term faith. There is personal faith (reliance upon and agreement with what God has spoken) which we must all exercise, but there is also “the faith” (a set of propositions, affirmations and beliefs which we must all adhere to).
Saving faith always involves both elements. There must be a personal commitment to biblical truth, but this truth is not void of content, but features very specific truths which we must affirm (we are all sinners; Christ came to die for our sins; we must turn from sin and exercise repentance and faith in Christ; etc.).
Thus doctrine is vital even in terms of becoming a Christian, let alone in living out the Christian life. Right belief is essential, and it must never be divorced from right living. In fact Paul makes this quite clear in places like 1 Timothy 6:16: “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching”.
Failure to not pay close heed to what we believe and how we live will have a real bearing on whether or not we are actually saved. So yes, doctrine is vitally important. A content-less faith is not biblical faith. The faith that saves and builds us up as believers is a faith built on the foundation of basic biblical teaching.
Back in 1923 J. Gresham Machen penned a very important volume called Christianity and Liberalism. In it he stressed the overwhelming importance of doctrine to the life of the believer and the church. Let me finish with three brief quotes from this valuable work:
“But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine. There should certainly be no debate with regard to Paul himself. Paul was not indifferent to doctrine. On the contrary, doctrine was the very basis of his life.”
“But the tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance in Galatia, for example. There were rival preachers there too. But Paul had no tolerance for them. ‘But though we,’ he said, ‘or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed’ (Gal. 1:8).”
“It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul. Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.”