One thing I have realized in this time of quarantine, when more available time has allowed me to read a bit more extensively some of the nerdy theology books I have, as well as extend training sessions and thus sneak in a few more episodes of “Dividing Line” with James White, theological debates from the 90’s, Greg Bahnsen lectures, or R.C. Sproul teaching moments, is that my own understanding of sound Biblical doctrine was not sufficient for my liking to stand in the public square and be ready with a sound apologia (defense).
As someone who was raised in a Christian home, received incredible Christian instruction as a homeschooled student for several years, attended BSF from a young age, and has always been a member of good churches, this came as a real revelation to me that perhaps many more Christians out there walking around not only have no clue what sound, consistent, glorious Biblical doctrine is, but maybe don’t even, or have at least never tried, to synthesize their beliefs on the core principles of the Christian faith. After all, if I’m out here devouring books and listening to 2 hours of teaching a day (and I don’t mean to say this to boast but rather to warn …. I am in a phase of life where I have more time than most) and I feel like there is a lot to learn and I can’t answer some of the basic questions, how do other people who aren’t as tenaciously chasing these things doing?
In an age where “truth” does not exist, maybe this lackadaisical approach to something like doctrine shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, in an age where information is more readily available than any other time – did you see the monergism.com 600+ texts download that’s available? ….and we all know we can watch any sermon, lecture, debate from almost any time, anywhere, whenever we want – I think it is safe to say that Christians today are without excuse to not have an understanding of sound doctrine.
Perhaps you’ve thought one of the following things:
- I don’t really need sound doctrine, because all that matters is Jesus.
- There is no such thing as sound doctrine (oh boy…is there is no such thing as ‘truth’ either?)
- Doctrine divides.
- Doctrine is complicated.
- Doctrine is not as important (or as fun…or as ‘life giving’) as studying about applications of the scriptures. I need to live out my faith, and doctrine doesn’t encourage me to do so.
I’m already being snarky, and I suppose I should stop! This post isn’t meant to articulate a view that “I have it all figured out,” or that you are a bad person because you don’t know what ‘sola scriptura’ is. I’d rather have it point out the incredible value, for the church and for the individual, of pursuing sound, consistent, Biblical doctrine.
Let’s take a look at a few of these, and hopefully, after this brief read, you will realize that there is so much depth and richness in understanding the most basic, simple, and foundational doctrinal tenants of our faith that they are worth dwelling on day in and day out. Deep study, growing in maturity, I’ve realized, is not reading the same Bible story you read as a kid, only finding a new and exciting interpretation or application because it is the 70th time you’ve read it and this fantastic teacher … er, maybe speaker I should say … stood up and made some great “insight.” No, going deep in your study of the Bible is taking the most basic and simple truth of the Gospel, which can be grasped by a child, and unpeeling the incredible complexity of God’s redemptive plan as it has been clearly laid out in the vast scope of scripture. It requires some blood and sweat, for sure. But the most important thing it requires is the action of, as John Piper said in a recent blog post, having “Scripture alone be our final and decisive authority.” Usually, self professing believers who despise doctrine, or don’t want to deal with doctrine, or see doctrine as something that divides the church, ultimately are not really committed to the Bible as being the sole infallible rule of faith. But that is for another blog post.
So, what is sound doctrine?
“Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.” – Dr. James White –
I love this statement because when you think about it, it isn’t a profound revelation, but rather a simple statement of logic that by definition has to exist. We’ve all really known this about knowledge for a long time. However, sadly, we no longer push it in academia, and therefore, when we teach people how to think and reason, they don’t really hold to this. But, for our topic, for the Christian to have sound doctrine, they must have perfect consistency in their views in accordance with their ultimate authority. This leads us to the next obvious question:
What is the Christian’s ultimate authority?
It is the Bible, of course. 1 Timothy 3:16 says that the Bible is “theoneupstos” or ‘God breathed.’ There are many things to be said on the authority of the scriptures, and I think a great starting point for any Christian desiring to be more solid, consistent, and ready in defending their faith, is to study the canon of scripture. An excellent book by Michael Kruger called “Canon Revisited,” is a good read and contains a large reference list to keep you moving forward on the topic. If you want the basis/summary for his self-authenticating method, listen to this lecture/show on your next commute.
Being able to defend sound doctrine means being able to understand why you can have a basis for trusting and believing it to begin with, and a knowledge of the authenticity of the Bible is what brings peace to the Christian in that respect. Even more so, it brings the Christian to a place of awe and worship, as most deep study of doctrines do, of their Lord and Creator, as the magnificence of his written revelation is truly astounding.
So, sound doctrine are those Christian beliefs which are in perfect accordance with the entirety of the Bible. It probably seems overwhelming to think that every time you say you ‘believe’ something, you ought to be able to ‘check’ it with the whole scriptures. Does anyone actually know what the Bible says that well?! This is why I write this article, primarily. With all of us being deceived into allocating our time into everything but the worship and study of the Word, how much more important is it that when you DO study the Bible and hear it preached, that you are receiving properly exegeted teaching of the text!?!
You might be thinking, how do we know what the Bible says? Aren’t there many interpretations of the scriptures?
James White said this about hermeneutics/exegesis, and it is something which is so fundamental to the Christian faith and I worry not held by many self professing Christians: “Though there may be many applications of a text or passage of Scripture, there is only one correct interpretation. In other words, it doesn’t mean one thing and the exact opposite thing at the same time. Scripture is consistent. Scripture was written down by men, but in reality, there is only one Author, God himself. God does not contradict Himself, He is not the author of confusion. Though, at times, we may be confused about what a passage means, God is never confused, and it is precisely because the Bible has a God inspired consistency that we can study it to find out what it means.”
Why is this so fundamental to the faith? Think about it. What is truth? Truth requires a standard. By definition, truth is exclusive. As I mentioned before, the Christian’s ultimate authority is the Bible, and that is based off of us knowing it is ‘theoneupstos’ or God breathed. God speaking and Scripture are one and the same. This is why there is a beautiful consistency in interpreting the scriptures. This is why true Biblical doctrine is discernable by testing it against Biblical consistency. If what White is saying is false, then we are free, free, free, to come up with any version of Christianity that we want (and…..this is exactly what we do see in modern Christian circles). Ultimately, abandonment of sola scriptura is what leads to every other religion other than the one true religion. This is because every religion, other than the one true religion, is an effort by man to control deity – man-centered. It is a frightening side note to mention that this is characteristic of some segments of “Christianity.” Again, another blog post I suppose. Thus, if you are at a stand still here, doubting the authority and nature of your Bible, I would encourage you to face that head on.
This brings me to a conviction I felt while thinking about writing this article (often, these things come over the course of many weeks and long workouts, which I suppose might be why they also seem to drone on endlessly…but bear with me….this is DOCTRINE – it’s IMPORTANT haha!):
I believe too many Christians today are fascinated by applications from Scripture, and in fact, it guides how they study the word. They read a passage and immediately think, “How does this apply to my life right now?” Then, they might be moved emotionally, say a prayer, and go on their way thinking they just grew in the knowledge of God.
I sympathize with those people – that was me for a lot of my life, too. What I now realize, however, is there is much more peace, faith, and strength when I focus my studying on the Word to the one correct interpretation of Scripture. The more I know of that – throughout all parts of the Bible – the more I can stand firmly on those unshakeable truths about my God in whatever sea, storm, or trial I’m passing through in life. By knowing the interpretation – by knowing my doctrine – sound, consistent doctrine – I’m equipped to make all of the many beautiful applications any verse can make. And I can be confident doing so, too.
And so I felt compelled to cry out to my Christians to make an effort to change your study and focus it in this way. The devil has ingeniously ordered a world where no one has the right amount of time to balance it appropriately, and thus, most of us are not being bathed in the Bible. But then, to make matters worse, when we do hop in the tub, we turn it on cold and fill it with a bunch of spaghetti sauce. ….or…what I’m trying to say is that when we do, we spend that little precious time studying stuff that really isn’t even core truth. Sometimes, it’s even flat out heretical! And that is sometimes by accident – so again, I’m not hear to throw down flaming arrows on those of you who genuinely desire to grow in the knowledge of God and maybe have accidentally entered a Bible study that really didn’t have a lot of substance …or sustenance.
When you meet with brothers and sisters to study the Bible, do you just talk about your ‘feelings’ on a text, or do you first work hard and strive for the meaning of the text FIRST, and then discuss how it can personally be applied to you, right here, right now.
The vast majority of churches today seem to weigh their messages heavily in favor of inspirational messages or ‘applicational’ messages. Most Bible studies are the same way. The result is we have a very poorly educated Christian church, unprepared to defend their beliefs in the public square because…… they don’t even know their beliefs!
Back to this: By knowing the interpretation – by knowing my doctrine – sound, consistent doctrine – I’m equipped to make all of the many beautiful applications any verse can make. And I can be confident doing so, too. In this way, studying doctrine is the real path to finding inspiration and application in the Bible.
However, maybe our focus on that is a little warped to begin with. What is the point of the Bible, anyway? Ephesians 1 says all things are for the “praise of his glory.” All things are being worked out by God, in Christ, in accordance with His good pleasure and Will, for the praise of His glory. The origin is Christ, the agent is Christ, and the end game and end goal is Christ. So, do we come to the Bible with simply the goal of learning lessons to help us be better people? Almost as if the Bible is about us?
Or, do you study the Bible with a desire to actually learn more about the Creator through His revelation? And by learning about who God is, writing His truths on our heart, and allowing those unchanging, non-negotiable truths change us, allowing His revelation to bring us to our knees in awe and worship?
To me, the latter is a fool proof way to study the Bible and effect actual change. If you are trying to do the former, you’ve probably at one point or another sat and thought or felt, “Man, I just wish I had more of a passion for God … or… it’s so hard to make time for studying the Bible … or… I just don’t feel on fire for the Lord right now.” Let me tell you something: nothing will make you more “on-fire” for God than immersing yourself in the glorious truths of sound Biblical doctrine! And it makes sense – it is because it is 100% consistent and real! There is no faking, no wondering if it is true or real, no wishy-washyness. Instead, it is the Creator/creature distinction being further made known, and to the regenerate heart, further realization and understanding of this is such a glorious truth, it brings us to our knees in awe every time.
When we study doctrine, we become enamored with the glory of God because we actually learn about his character and who He is. We become fascinated by the study of who God is – who God truly is….not who Jesus as your relationship/boyfriend is currently ‘revealing’ himself to you as. (Sorry if I offended any teenage girls out there).
There are some people in my life who aren’t fond of music, and thus, they don’t really enjoy worship during church. The thought of heaven being only that is quite frankly, a little discouraging, and I can see why! One thing that has changed for me, the more I’ve studied sound theology (the study of who God is), is that worship has taken on new and better meaning. Worship has simply become any time that the authoritative truths about God, as taken from the Bible through careful and proper exegesis, are proclaimed. Sound exegesis of a Biblical text, applied to a sermon, an article, or a worship song, becomes authoritative truth – whether the listener bows the knee to it or not – and is incredibly worshipful and pleasing to God. I am stirred to pray these things back to God when I read, listen, and learn them. And when I sing a song with doctrinal foundations that match the consistency of the Word, my eagerness to sing them is real, not forced.
A consequence – a good consequence – of this as been an incredible increase in my scrutinizing and testing of ‘Christian’ songs on the radio and at churches. It is baffling to me now to hear a church blast a very reformed, Biblically-sound chorus over their loudspeakers, and then proceed to enter a time of teaching that is so incredibly inconsistent with the words of the song and the Bible! But, it happens. Vice versa, some churches have preachers who teach exegetically and yet, their worship songs are weak, doctrinally speaking.
I’ve been so incredibly fortunate in the last 5-6 years to be in a church where people in worship and in preaching prioritized the authority of Scripture and the accurate hermeneutical approach to it, that I have gradually been “reformed” by Scripture each and every conversation, quiet time with my Bible, and 2 hour bike ride listening to a Christian podcast. I may have not been given private tutelage from Greg Bahnsen himself when I was a toddler, but one thing, by the sovereign Grace of God, that I did receive, was a heart sold out to a belief that the Bible truly was the Word of God. This has been my unshakable, reforming instrument to my doctrine and to my life. I guess maybe I’m just lucky to be bound to that and not a philosophy of man or a tradition of religion, but either way, I just happened to hold fast to the one thing true Christianity, by definition, needs to hold fast to!
So, doctrine is the basis for making inspiration and application because it is the heart and soul of what changes our hearts. It is the rock we cling to when things are confusing to our eyes in this fallen world, or when tragedy strikes, or when frustrations mount.
Is doctrine something that divides?
I would say yes and no to this!
Yes, it divides, because, like any ‘real’ truth, it by definition has to divide. Truth is exclusivistic, and nothing is more truthful than the Word of God and the doctrines it teaches. So, doctrine does divide in that it separates the sheep from the goats.
However, in a Christ following church full of sheep, what could and SHOULD, possibly unite more than the teaching and studying of sound doctrine? I can’t think of anything. Because doctrine is not really a matter of opinion, there isn’t room for division. Now, I understand that for thousands of years, the church has had many disagreements over issues of doctrine. But this almost proves my point even more. The reason theological debates – those from 300 A.D. and 2019 – are beneficial are because we open the Bible and interpret it consistently and bring out and flesh out two sides of an argument. We let the Word do the work – so that the sheep can see what doctrine is consistent and which is not.
Are there debates over doctrine? Of course. Are there divisions? Yes. But they in fact illuminate the soundness and consistency of the Bible and make clear which ‘doctrines’ have holes and which do not. In other words, they illuminate what is sound doctrine and what is false doctrine. In addition, the reason, perhaps, that they cause so much friction is because many of the issues they raise are really important – i.e. salvation, baptism, etc.
If we want to grow in true knowledge of God, though, we should not avoid these topics, but run to them. We should encourage healthy debates between Christian heroes of the faith and hope they are faithful to fleshing out their arguments by walking through the text. This is beneficial to the church (these are not debates like you see on CBS between two presidential candidates…that would not be helpful haha!).
So, doctrine does not divide – it unites those who have been called by the Father, the sheep chosen by the Good Shepherd.
But, isn’t doctrine complicated?
Complicated might not be the best word choice, in my opinion. I would say, complex, but much in the same way an eyeball is complex. Imagine showing a five-year old your eye and telling him that this is how you see. A five year old can grasp the idea that this particular body part is the instrument by which we see. He can look in the mirror and verify that himself, and even discover the color of his eyes. Now, picture those highest level scientists who are studying all of the intricacies of the eyeball. In some ways, this is how doctrine is to me. It is able to be appreciated and understood by the five year old, but it can also be studied for a lifetime by the highest and greatest thinkers, who continue to revel in this beauty, truth, and glory of its innerworkings – historically, eschatologically, and theologically. And, the further you go in studying it, the more amazing it is to you.
I will say, studying doctrine is not really ‘easy’ work. It is a little bit like studying physics. The more you study and learn, the more it is revealed to you that there is a great consistency in all things. Just like when you learn certain principles in physics and are able to apply and make sense of other things in the physical science and physical earth realms, when you study doctrine, the discovery of consistency within the word allows for you to connect and make sense of more and more of the Bible. I have realized now that where some passages in my Bible were confusing, or I didn’t know how to approach them at all (they were seen as “minor” issues and texts that “we don’t need to dwell on), I now see an incredible consistency. Why? Because now my understanding of doctrine can be consistent with the whole Bible, whereas before, it could not. This is fun, it is life-giving, and it is life-changing. Even if studying doctrine is ‘hard,’ it is worth it.
One reason it is worth it is because it allows for the Christian to have peace – with God and with the world.
Another reason is that it allows us to be incredible forces and witnesses to the truth, sort of like Paul was when he debated in the public square. We are equipped to defend reality – because the fact of the matter is that we are all living in God’s world, whether we recognize it or not. When we understand doctrine, we hold the basis for arguing on behalf of the Creator, defending the truths about His world.
Have you ever listened to Greg Bahnsen debate or discuss his presuppositional apologetic method? If you haven’t, you should. You would realize that one reason why defending the Christian faith is almost in a way… easy – that’s right….easy — is because it is the only true worldview. Christians aren’t called to defend something that is as ludicrous as any other opinion or philosophy of man. We are called to defend reality. All evidence is our evidence. All frameworks of thought exist because of our God. Churches, Bible studies, growth groups – they should all be spending 80-90% of their time raising up and disciplining their members in how to articulate, make sense of, and explain these rock solid truths.
Does your church’s pastor walk through the text? Does he fairly and properly exegete the text as he preaches? Or are your sermons 10-minute pick-me ups? Are you filling a paper with notes and drawing Biblical connections? Or, is your pastor a great ‘storyteller’ and that is why you think he is a good ‘teacher?’
Go back to the example of studying the eye for a moment. Think about how long it would take to understand even 40% of everything that goes into the design of the eye. Can you imagine if every day when the scientists showed up to the lab, they sat across from each other and said, “Ok, we are going to spend the first 6 hours today discussing how different color eyeballs make us feel, and then we’ll spend the last 10 minutes looking at the design of the eye. We don’t want to spend too much time on that, though, because, you know…studying that is complicated, and it causes so much arguing, and … all that really matters is that it is an eye, right?”
This is sort of how we approach theology and doctrine. There is an ocean of beauty waiting to be discovered and appreciated in the doctrines of grace. We need to dive in and spend time working with it!
Is Jesus all that matters?
Yes! But remember, the Mormons would agree with you on that! Do the Mormons believe the same thing we do? This situation should immediately bring to light the importance of sound doctrine. The mere Christianity movement is a dangerous one, and this should at least start to help you see why.
Hey, remember when I said this was going to be a short article? Oh well …