1-5 The Importance of Doctrine
There is, therefore, a tremendous power in the basic doctrines of the One Faith. We come, over time in our spiritual growth, to acknowledge " the Truth" (2 Tim. 2:25), to be led to a Godly way of life by not only knowing the Truth but acknowledging its power (Tit. 1:1). The NIV in Tit. 1:1 speaks of " the truth which leads to Godliness" . Thus true understanding is related to true Godly living- if we translate the doctrines into practice. The Passover would only be properly kept, Moses explained, if the meaning of it was understood (Dt. 6:20-25). John writes of doing the Truth (Jn. 3:20,21; 1 Jn. 1:6)- the true doctrines can't exist purely in the abstract, they must be lived. In this sense Jesus was " the Truth" in His life example as well as in His doctrinal teaching. Jude says that we build up ourselves on the foundation / basis of our most holy faith- the doctrinal faith of the Gospel. Titus was told to shew himself " a pattern of good works" through " in doctrine shewing uncorruptness" (Tit. 2:7). Timothy was to be " nourished up in the words of the faith [a reference to 'words' of basic doctrine which comprised a first century Statement of Faith?], and of the good doctrine" (1 Tim. 4:6 RV). True doctrine has the power of growth; it is the seed which is sown, leading to the fruit of good works. The basic Gospel (" doctrine" , mg.) of the cross is the active, outstretched arm of Yahweh the Almighty (Is. 53:1). We must let that power work. " Let your conversation (way of life) be as it becometh the gospel of Christ" (Phil. 1:27). By taking heed unto himself and unto his doctrine, Timothy would be brought to salvation; 1 Tim. 4:16 speaks as if doctrinal purity and way of life are interconnected, seeing that our life is a reflection of the doctrine we believe. We must walk " uprightly (Gk. 'with straight feet', like the cherubim) according to the true Gospel" (Gal. 2:14 Gk.). Correct walk / behaviour is therefore related to the fact we have believed the true Gospel, i.e. we hold the right doctrines rather than the wrong ones. In this lies the importance of doctrine. This is why Is. 29:13,24 speaks of repentance as 'learning doctrine'; Israel went astray morally because they allowed themselves to be taught wrong doctrine.
The important doctrines of the basic Gospel bring forth the fruit of spirituality in the converts (Col. 1:6). The euangelion is pictured in Colossians 1 as a mighty, personal force working powerfully in the lives of men and women. It produced fruit, i.e. concrete actions (Philemon 11). The Gospel gives " understanding that ye might walk worthy" (Col. 1:9,10). We bear fruit and increase in this " by the [increasing] knowledge of God" (Col. 1:10 RVmg.). Thus we are to be renewed in knowledge, finding full assurance of our salvation in understanding (Col. 2:2; 3:10). The Hebrew word for “understanding” is also that for “certainty”- e.g. Josh. 23:13 “Know for a certainty…” [s.w. “understanding”]. To understand is to be sure, in God’s language. Understanding, " being filled with the knowledge of his will" , does have a place in determining our daily walk in Christ. What and how we understand, and thereby what we believe, does therefore matter. To 'hinder the Gospel' is therefore the same as hindering the spiritual growth of others in 1 Cor. 9:12; " the Gospel" is put by a figure for 'the spirituality which the doctrines of the Gospel brings forth, so close is the link between the Gospel and the inculcation of spirituality. We must walk worthy of that pure doctrine, in the abstract sense of doctrine, which we have received (Eph. 4:4-6). The purpose of keeping our understanding of the basic principles clear is that this will lead to true love and faith (1 Tim. 1:3-5). Timothy was to " charge" some that they didn't teach false doctrine, and the " end" of this charge [s.w. v.5] was " charity out of a pure heart…a good conscience…love unfeigned" . This is what the true Gospel enables, and this is why it should be defended. Peter writes of " your obedience of the truth unto [issuing in] unfeigned love of the brethren…having been begotten again…of incorruptible seed, through the word of God" (1 Pet. 1:21,22 RV). The purity and truth of the " word of God" - and by this he surely refers to the Gospel message- is what issues in a true love for others, in comparison to the pseudo-love that fills our human experience in this world. Truth leads to true love- that's the message. This is the importance of doctrine. And yet how often have we used the concept of 'truth' to hate and divide our brethren…? John's writings reflect many struggles. But in the end they all forge into one ultimate struggle- between light and darkness, love and hatred, truth and error, life and death. Hence the struggle for purity of doctrine becomes parallel with the struggle between love and hatred. Love is therefore and thereby connected with purity of doctrine. Like John, Paul makes a seamless connection between defending true doctrine, and spiritually minded living in practice. Through destroying arguments and “every pretension that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God”, we can “bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5 RV). This is because, as Neville Smart put it, “of the radical part played in the salvation of the individual by the ideas and beliefs he holds in his mind. They are in fact the roots from which his fixed attitudes and his daily actions spring, and from which they take their particular tone and colouring”(1).
The way of the flesh, be it wanton immorality or simply living in the vanity of the mind, is not as the Ephesians had been taught the Gospel of Christ before their baptisms. That basic Gospel had very practical implications (Eph. 4:17-27). And more than this. The new wine of the Gospel will destroy a man who holds it unless he changes his life (cp. the bottle), so that it too is new. The new cloth of the Gospel will rip a man apart who doesn't change from his old clothing. Leaven is an apt symbol of the Gospel, in that it corrupts terribly if it is left idle. If the principles of the Truth lie dormant in our lives, they can only destroy us.
It seems to me that many of the classic wrong doctrines of Christendom are what have turned many people away from 'church', despite their evident interest in the person and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. The importance of doctrine hasn't been perceived. Threats of an orthodox hell, wild fantasies of a 'heaven', vain hopes of miracles, fears of getting possessed by demons…these ideas, I submit, all lead to people not having control over their lives, relationships, emotions, behaviours and thoughts. If our understanding of these things is believed rather than merely known or assented to, there is a real and exciting power for change made possible in our human lives. And moreover, if we can show the power of our unique understanding of the Gospel in our lives, we ought to have the ultimate means of converting the 'unchurched but interested'. The practical result of false doctrine has been well summarized: " Religions with angry and aggressive theologies have caused people to act out in a hostile and aggressive manner…a good example of this is the Islamic belief of Jihad, or holy war. Our forefathers believed that witches were evil and possessed by the devil. Given that belief and the belief that God was at war with Satan, then the appropriate treatment would be punishment or to put that unholy individual to death…the people who burned witches were not mean or bad people. They were influenced and controlled by a destructive belief system. They truly believed in demons and that those possessed were evil and dangerous. These demon-possessed individuals were condemned by God anyway, so it made sense to sacrifice them" (2).
" The power thereof"
Inevitably we are prone to the boredom factor when it comes to our doctrines; we tend to use the same phrases to describe and explain them; the poetry of the ideas makes them almost slip over us; we know those doctrines. And there can arise a feeling that it's boring to hear the doctrines explained yet once again. We can think we know it all. And in some ways we do. But perhaps we only know on a surface level; perhaps we are only 'holding on' to our understanding because it's not convenient to shift to anything else. There was the same tendency under the old covenant. Solomon urged his son to " let not mercy and truth (a common idiom for the promises to Abraham) forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart" (Prov. 3:3). The small seed of the Gospel of the Kingdom can produce a mighty tree in the Kingdom (Lk. 13:18,19). It is easy to under-estimate the power of that seed- the Lord's parable seems to be making that point. I would seriously suggest that all of us ought to regularly study the basic doctrines of our One Faith for ourselves, personally. Paul told the Hebrews that he would have to lay again the foundation teachings of the Gospel, in order to renew them again unto repentance (Heb. 6:1-4). Chapter 2 is an all too abbreviated list of the very basic doctrines of the One Faith, and the effect they ought to have on us if we seriously believe them rather than simply know them.
God will work in our lives, to make us realize " the power thereof" , the importance of doctrine, which lies in the basic principles which we accepted in our instruction and baptism. We will go through the pattern of Job. He knew all the right principles, he understood right at the outset that God can bring trials upon us regardless of our moral behaviour. But as those tragedies deepened and lengthened in his life, he came to object to the degree to which he had to apply the principles which he understood. And finally he had to admit that he had only heard of God by the hearing of the ear; although in the end, he saw God. His experience of God in this life, thanks to those basic principles and his correct response to them, was a foretaste of the experience he knew he would have in the Kingdom (Job 42:5 cp. 19:25-27). According to Ps. 119:34, correct understanding is related to empowerment to obedience: “Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law: yea, I shall observe it”. The more we understand why, the more likely we are to do it. David asks God to explain to him His word, because he is worried that he isn’t obedient enough to it (Ps. 119:135,136). And there is an upward spiral here. Understanding leads to obedience, but the very practicing of God’s ways grants us yet more understanding into those commands we are obeying: “I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts” in practical, daily life (Ps. 119:99,100). The commandments of God in that sense “help” us (Ps. 119:175 RV). “The way of the Lord is strength to the upright” (Prov. 10:29). This ought to be somewhat disturbing for our community, who can truly say that they have a better understanding of God’s word (at least technically) than anyone else. This, according to what David says, should result in a deeply empowered way of life, which in turn should drive us to yet deeper understanding. One fears that we are left knowing but not ‘understanding’ in the experiential sense of which David speaks.
Summing up, we have argued that 'faith' comes from a hearing of " the word of God" in the sense of 'the true Gospel'. This is why 'the doctrines of the one faith' and 'faith' are linked. This is the importance of doctrine. But faith never exists alone. James argues that there is no essential difference between faith and works. 'Faith' is not just credulity or a vague feeling of hope, but an active, driving force. There is " the work of faith" (1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:11); faith is something which ought to be 'done', the Lord taught (Mt. 23:23). Knowledge and faith are paralleled in John's thought (Jn. 8:32 cp. 14:1; and 6:69 cp. 11:27)- in stark contrast to this world's emphasis upon works rather than faith. Hence Isaiah's appeals to know and believe Yahweh (43:10); and the Lord's parallel of 'little faith' with little understanding (Mt. 16:7,8). Pistis, one of the NT words for 'faith', is translated in the LXX as both 'faith' (e.g. Dt. 32:20; Prov. 12:22) and 'truth' (Prov. 12:17; 14:22; Jer. 5:1). Indeed, another word used in the LXX is 119 times translated 'truth' and 26 times 'faith'. There is a connection between true knowledge of the Gospel and faith. And this faith is the basis for our works. We don't just learn the propositions of the one faith before baptism, and forget them. The triumphant spiritual life lives them out.
All that I have said about knowledge, of course, should not be read as meaning that knowledge alone can save. The essence of the temptation in Eden was to think that the tree of knowledge could bring salvation; it was an attempt to grasp at equality with God, according to Phil. 2, it was a vain belief that possession of knowledge / truth enables us to play God. And we, with our emphasis on the need for truth, for correct understanding, are especially prone to this major temptation.
Despite this caveat, we are to " repent and believe the Gospel" (Mk. 1:15); not just 'believe and repent'. Conversion means a life of belief in the Gospel. Faith works through love; it naturally, by its very nature, propels action. John's letters link faith and love, as if to show that the two are inextricably linked. Having real faith means that we are not " slothful" (Heb. 6:12); the clawing laziness of our natures will be brushed aside by the imperative to action which faith gives. And in 'the truth', the propositions of 'the one faith', we have the motivating power which no other religion can offer. I call the basic doctrines of the Gospel an " imperative" to action in that they demand action / response from us by implication, rather than for what they specifically in so many words set before us as 'requirements'. Initially, the Corinthians decided of their own volition to take up a collection for their poor Jewish brethren. Paul later encouraged them in this when their will to carry it out flagged, but the initial inspiration was from " the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ" (2 Cor. 9:13 NIV). That Gospel doesn't state that to obey it, one must give money to the poor believers in Jerusalem. But Paul perceived that effectively it did; this was, in their context, part and parcel of confessing the Gospel.
Time and again, faith and works are bracketted together. Abraham was justified by faith, Paul argues in Romans; and by works, says James. Even within Genesis, his faith was counted for righteousness in Gen. 15:6; but Gen. 22:15-18 stress that because he had " done this thing" and been obedient, thereby was he justified. The Centurion meekly said to the Lord: " I am not worthy...neither thought I myself worthy" ; but his faith, not his humility [as we might have expected] was commended by the Lord. That faith brought forth humility; just as John's letters see faith and love as parallel. The woman who washed the Lord's feet was likewise commended for her 'faith', although her actions were surely acts of devotion. But the Lord's analysis cut through to the essence that lay behind them: faith. There is a beauty to all this, in that salvation is by faith that it might be by grace (Rom. 4:16; Eph. 2:8). And therefore Hab. 2:4 says that living by faith is the antithesis of being proud. The life of faith, trusting thereby in grace, is a life of humility. All the fruits of the Spirit thereby come together. In this sense, salvation is not by works. But if we can comprehend something of the purity of that grace, of God's willingness to save us regardless of our works; then we will believe it. And if we believe it, we will live a life of active and humble working for the Lord, not that we might be saved, but in thankful faith and gratitude for the magnitude of our experience of a grace, the height and depth of which, unfathomed, no man knows. We will " live" , i.e. work through life, by faith (Hab. 2:4). If we truly accept God’s ways, then we will walk in them; to not walk in them is to reject them (Ez. 5:6). This ultimately is the importance of doctrine.
I have explained that ‘The faith’ in terms of doctrinal propositions is related to faith as in the verb, to believe. And yet faith in practice, as you suddenly face a crisis demanding faith, isn’t a question of quoting theology to yourself, instantly quoting part of your creed or statement of faith in order to have faith. Faith in practice is related to our experience, encounters, and friendship with God. It seems to me impossible in practice to distinguish between the element of faith which is doctrinal, intellectual, involving agreement to a set of propositions… and this latter element of faith which is subjective. But the two are inter-related. Neither is irrelevant, neither can the one exist without the other. This means that ‘doctrine doesn’t matter’ is not a path which helps faith; but neither is the view that ‘faith’ is merely holding on to a set of propositions about doctrine until the end of our days.
(1) Neville Smart, The Epistles of John (Birmingham: CMPA, 1980) p. 71.
(2) Jerry Harris & Melody Milam, Serpents In The Manger (New York: Barricade Books, 1994) p. 27.