Moses evidently had a most gracious conception of the vital necessity and refreshing power of true doctrine when he declared “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as showers upon the grass: Because I will publish the name of the LORD: ascribe ye greatness unto our God” (Deut. 32.2-3). For him, doctrine was the essential foundation of his personal testimony to the glory of God and a motivating influence in deep spiritual worship of the God he had come to know so well.
It is nothing new but nonetheless sad that in many religious circles today the very word ‘doctrine’ is treated with suspicion or downright hostility. It is argued that doctrine is unecessarily divisive and sadly stifling to spiritual life; that those who are concerned about doctrine are narrow, bigoted and scholastic in their attitudes and that what we need today is “life not doctrine”!
Very often connected with such attitudes to doctrine there is a weak view of the inspiration, infallibility and authority of the Scriptures. With some there is a complete denial of scripture authority and with others a ready acceptance of such translations and paraphrases as tend to undermine the confidence of many in the verbal trustworthiness of God’s written word.
What is doctrine?
In both Old and New Testaments the word doctrine simply means teaching or the truths being taught. It carries with it the sense that the truths being taught are truths which have been received. How vital it is then that what is taught should be the truth; true, God-given doctrine taught by those who speak ‘the truth in love’.
The use of the word in scripture and amongst believers today has this scriptural sense of that body of truth received from God and believed by His people as it has been delivered to them by God-appointed and inspired teachers. In the New Testament we read of the apostles’ doctrine and of the faith. It is evident that the earliest Christian believers who formed the first Christian churches were carefully instructed as to the ‘truth’, and that this was in direct fulfillment of the Saviour’s command to the disciples to ‘teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’. This could be expressed as ‘discipling’ all nations, baptizing them, then indoctrinating them.
It follows from the way in which the Bible speaks of doctrine, teaching, and the faith that this is something which can be clearly
expressed and plainly taught. This inevitably means that there is going to be difference and disagreement with those who do not accept the teaching. Indeed, this separation for the truth’s sake is an essential part of the life and discipline of a truly Christian church which seeks to ‘contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints’ and which believes with John that ‘no lie is of the truth’ (1 John 2.21).
A distinction must be drawn between the wholly inspired and completely infallible teachings of the written word of God and the continuing preaching and teaching which has been a means of such rich blessing in the church ever since the days of the Apostles. Preaching and teaching today is not verbally inspired and infallible but, under the blessing of the Holy Spirit it will be consistent with scripture and will carry with it a ring of authority and sense of unction to the hearts of gracious hearers. It will be used by God for the conviction and instruction of His children who will increasingly be able to discern that which is according to Scripture and that which is not.
The need of this emphasis today.
We live in a period of history when any dogmatic statement of the difference between truth and error in religion is looked upon with deep suspicion as being so divisive. The ecumenical spirit is very strong in its attempt to obtain a visible unity amongst professing ‘Christians’ at almost any cost to truth, and there is a strong tendency to move away from definitive statements of doctrine. The suggestion is made that such concerns only give rise to bitterness and division with each side using their favourite texts of scripture rather like ammunition in a verbal battle, whilst what are considered to be the really important aspects of Christianity are lost in the dust of conflict.
There is today a flood of books concerned with person and work of the Holy Spirit. Where such literature is faithful to scripture there is reason for deep thankfulness, for there is so evidently a distressing lack of evidence of the blessed Spirits’ influence. We deeply need the outpoured blessing of the Holy Spirit who teaches of Jesus Christ; who is truth and who powerfully uses the truth in the sanctification of God’s people. How sad then to find in some of this literature, attempts to disparage the proper place of the written and infallible word of God. There is a very real danger in exalting emotional experiences and religious feelings so as to lose sight of the absolutely necessary influence of scripture truth to guide and guard us in the way of faith. The work of the Holy Spirit in a believer can never be inconsistent with Holy Scripture since it was He who controlled and directed the writing of the scriptures. Some are claiming to be ‘led by the Lord’ to do things which on examination prove to be quite contrary to the teaching and spirit of the gospel and, what is even more serious, there are those who claim to speak under the
direct influence of the Spirit in such a way as to supersede the use of the written word, effectively claiming a divine authority for their utterances. The origin of many heretical sects can be quickly traced to such claims of a revelation and an authority for writings apart from the scriptures. It is essential to retain the strongest conviction as to the unique authority of the written word of God by which all other utterances and experiences are to be tested.
Looking at this question from another direction, it it important to emphasize that the written word of God and the doctrines expressed therein are not to be accepted in a merely intellectual way so that a persons’ religious position is rather like that of a mathematician who works out his answer and writes Q.E.D. at the end. No! there is a vital need for the blessed Spirit to open the understanding, to quicken the soul into spiritual life, to convince of sin, to reveal God’s Son in us, to fill us with true joy and peace in believing, to lead us into all truth and to feed our souls with the spiritual food of truth right down to the end of our days. There is nothing cold, unemotional and merely academic in real religion, though there may well be in some who have professed the Christian name.
Let us consider now a few of the areas of fundamental Biblical doctrine and attempt to see the way this doctrine is emphasized and stressed.
The Doctrine of Christ.
All Christians would agree that this is the central and glorious theme of Scripture, and the vital point in anyone’s religion. To be wrong here is to be altogether wrong.
It was evidently not sufficient in New Testament days, and certainly not today, for a person to be accepted as a Christian simply because he says he believes in Jesus Christ. Many have done that who, on examination, have shown that the Jesus Christ they profess is certainly not the Jesus Christ of Scripture. In 2 John 7-11 it is clear that the reception of such a person professing Christianity is made to depend most specifically on what he actually believes about Jesus Christ. In other words, his doctrine is to be compared with the Apostles’ doctrine and if it fails that test the person is not to be received as a Christian.
Impressive claims have been made in the past about visions of Jesus Christ together with audible messages from Him, but it must be said quite categorically that this is no infallible proof of a person’s Christianity. Nor, indeed, does this mean that such a person’s experience is more significant than that of a simple believer who is quietly yet graciously taught the truth of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul had a necessary and remarkable revelation of Christ and even heard the voice of the ascended Saviour, but he says “Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.” What could be more emphatic or solemn than the words of John, “Whosoever
transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God ? Or the words of Paul, in perfect agreement, “If any man love not the LORD Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.”
Since gospel means good news there must needs be a most significant meaning and content to the gospel. There is a wonderful fulness of doctrine in the gospel, and preaching the gospel is simply to proclaim truth or doctrine. If anyone should come to us purporting to preach the gospel and even claim that he had received his message from an angel, it may sound very impressive; but hear what Paul had to say to the Galatians, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1.6-8). Would not some be inclined to say of the Galatian heresy, “O it is not so important, we only want to avoid offending the Jews, so we teach circumcision for the sake of peace”. But we do well to take heed to Paul’s strong words and be sure that what we hear or preach is consistent with the gospel Paul preached, this is comparing doctrine with doctrine, and using truth as our guide.
In the great matter of the soul’s standing before God, Paul makes it abundantly clear that it is entirely by grace that we are saved through faith which is God’s gift (Eph. 2). In Romans 5 he declares that we are justified by faith. But who or what is to be believed? Is it just some vague idea about a possible salvation through some kind of general feeling of the mercy of a God of love? No! It is a God-given faith which is sincere and heartfelt in the Lord Jesus Christ of scripture, the Jesus of scripture doctrine, the Jesus who is indeed the Son of God and truly the Son of man, whose death on Calvary was a real atonement for sin (Rom. 5.21); the Jesus who is risen, ascended and glorified and who will come again to this earth, according to the scriptures.
The Apostle’s tradition.
The word tradition is used to signify the teaching and practise of the Apostles, as in 2 Thess. 3.6-14. Here he is dealing with what might at first be considered a minor question. Some had misunderstood Paul’s teaching regarding the second coming of Christ and had decided that there was no point in working since He might return at any time. However, so serious is Paul’s view of the matter that a person who persisted in such laziness was to be
rejected from the company of believers until he was penitent. Again in Titus 3.10 a man who would not submit to apostolic doctrine after the first and second admonition was to be rejected. We cannot say that apostolic doctrine is of little importance.
The Holy Spirit of truth has not left us in ignorance as to the principles which are to govern our way of life. There are clear standards of personal conduct laid down on the word of God. Wrong doctrine is so often linked with a wrong way of life. For instance, the doctrine of the believers’ liberty so clearly taught by Paul was, very early in church history, sadly abused.” Shall we sin that grace may abound?” is the most blatant example of this. Peter sounds a note of warning, “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God” (1 Peter 2.16). In the second epistle Peter reminds believers of the “words which were spoken before by the Holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour” (3.2). He goes on to exhort them to a holy life (4.W.11-14), and warns them against being led away with the error of the wicked (v.l7). We see in this chapter the startling contrast of true and false doctrine with their consequent effects.
Over and again the Bible warns of the dangers of the last days especially in regard to false teaching. The spiritual conflict is to be fought with “the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God” (Eph. 6.17). Satan is going about transforming himself into an angel of light (2 Cor. 11.14), and his influence is seen in “false apostles; deceitful workers transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.” The true apostles were teachers of true doctrines. Peter warns of the need to beware of false prophets, and says “there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2.1).
We need to ask some old-fashioned questions again in these days, especially regarding the uniqueness and divine dignity of Jesus Christ. Can it be a small error, for instance, to say that Mary shares with Jesus the work of redemption? Has an organization which claims that the pope is Christ’s vicar on earth, that the real body and blood of Jesus Christ is actually present in the repeated sacrifice of the mass, and that the priest stands between a man’s soul and the Saviour, the right to call itself a Christian church, or not?
Can it be an insignificant departure from truth to say that a man’s salvation depends upon some decision of his own fallen will rather than upon the eternal choice of God and the sovereign intervention of the Holy Spirit to change the heart and renew the will?
Does the Holy Spirit work in one person’s life to make him believe in and love the holy doctrines of Scripture, drawing him to real and deep devotion to the eternal Son of God, and then in another person to encourage a deeper devotion to Mary, a more frequent attendance at the confessional and a deeper sense of worship in the mass?
These are a few of many questions vital to a person’s spiritual life but, even more important, vital for the honour and glory of God. The word of God is timeless, its authority divine and unalterable, its contents divinely determined for the good of every generation of believers. The same blessed Spirit who inspired the writers still leads poor ignorant sinful men into the knowledge of the truth, that they might have the comfort of the exceeding great and precious promises and at last be found in that new Jerusalem where the Living Word is the light thereof.
* Notes of a lecture given at Evington Strict Baptist Chapel on March 14th 1979 and published by request.