Rev. denHartog is pastor of the Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
In our two previous articles we have considered the importance of doctrine for our Christian faith. True Christianity is based on sound doctrine. Christianity is more than merely living by several vaguely defined principles of ethics taught by Jesus which have little more than human and earthly good as their object. Christianity without doctrine leads to humanism and modernism. True Christianity is knowing and believing, confessing and living by the true doctrine of God. Doctrine, according to Scripture, is nothing more than sound teaching. It is the careful understanding of the truth of God and of His Son Jesus Christ. It is a correct knowledge of the only way of salvation through Jesus Christ the Lord and by the grace of God. Sound doctrine is the truth of God clearly distinguished from the lie of the devil taught by false teachers. Sound doctrine glorifies God, His truth and His salvation. The attitude that the church has towards doctrine, the zeal and devotion with which she maintains that doctrine, reveals her love and devotion to the glory of God. The church of Jesus Christ has the calling to maintain sound doctrine. She is ordained by God to be the “pillar and ground of the truth.”
The church and her members maintain sound doctrine by knowing that doctrine. That doctrine can be known only through careful and diligent study of the Scriptures. It is hard work to learn the doctrine of the Scriptures. It takes much effort and application. It requires a lot of study of the whole of Scripture and not merely isolated verses. We believe that the Scriptures are clear and plain. They can be understood by every Spirit-filled child of God. This is not however the same as saying that the Scriptures can be understood with little or no effort. The Christian learns the doctrine of the Scriptures by a comparison of Scripture with Scripture, through the careful consideration of the meaning of words and phrases in Scripture, and by the serious study of the great and central concepts of Scripture. We need to know the precise meaning of such great biblical truths as the sovereignty of God, predestination, regeneration, justification, reconciliation, sanctification, etc.
How many of those who are reading this article could give a careful, biblical definition of these concepts? The work of maintaining sound doctrine is the responsibility of every child of God. It is true that God has called ministers “to give themselves to the word and doctrine.” They must devote their whole lives to the study of doctrine. They must be teachers of sound doctrine in the church. But this must also to a lesser degree be the concern of every Christian. He needs to be equipped with sound doctrine for his own personal spiritual welfare as a Christian and for his calling as member of the church. It is an irony of our age that in spite of the fact that on the average the members of the church today have much more formal education than in former ages, many are sadly ignorant of the doctrines of the Word of God.
There were great saints of God in the past who had very little formal education and yet far surpassed many in our day in their knowledge and understanding of the doctrines of Scripture. The reason for this is often spiritual laziness and carelessness on the part of many Christians. Every Christian must grow up unto a mature understanding of the doctrine of God according to the grace and abilities that God gives to each. If he is not concerned about this he will, according to the words of the apostle of the Lord, be like a child, “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” (Eph. 4:14). To be doctrinally ignorant is spiritually dangerous. It leaves one open to the attacks of the devil and of evil men whose purpose is to lead professing Christians astray, away from God and His Son Jesus Christ and to spiritual ruin.
The church maintains sound doctrine by maintaining a spiritual attitude toward that doctrine. The church must guard against the danger of dead orthodoxy. There is a danger that the business of maintaining sound doctrine is reduced to heartless, formal, intellectual debate that is of no profit and causes spiritual death in the church. Such spiritual death is loathsome in God’s sight. This death does not, however, come because of some inherent evil in the study of doctrine, from which we are best delivered by abandoning altogether the study of doctrine. But rather such coldness and deadness comes because of the lack of a spiritual attitude towards the doctrine of God. The Lord will severely judge those who study the doctrine of His Word in such a manner. Doctrine can be rightly known only through the Spirit of God and in living communion with God. As the church maintains sound doctrine she must walk in the Spirit and be filled with the Spirit. We have not yet rightly understood the doctrine of God until we understand this doctrine to be the personal and living, blessed truth of the God of our salvation. The doctrine of God revealed in the Scriptures must fill the heart of the child of God and not only his mind. It must cause him to rejoice in, hope in, and glory in the wonderful and blessed God of his salvation.
Sound doctrine is maintained in the church of Jesus Christ through the preaching of the Word. That preaching must teach God’s people sound doctrine. God’s people must not become weary of that or complain about doctrinal preaching. But they must know that they need this for their own spiritual welfare. The church must insist on doctrinal preaching by its ministers. Elders must not only guard the preaching of the ministers to keep false doctrine out of the church, but they must also positively require of ministers of the Word that they preach doctrine that builds up the members of the congregation to maturity in the faith. They may not allow the preaching to be reduced to moralisms and little stories which might excite the interest of the congregation but do not build them up in the faith.
We must have systematic doctrinal preaching in the church. All the doctrines of Gods Word must be preached, with none of them left out. God’s people must have a sense of the glorious unity and harmony of all of the truth of Gods Word. We know no better way to do that than regular preaching with the Heidelberg Catechism as our guide.
We learn doctrine through the preaching of the Word when we listen carefully and earnestly to the preaching of the Word. Listening to a sermon is not a form of entertainment and relaxation. It requires great spiritual application.
We learn doctrine as children and young people in the catechism class. We can be thankful to the Lord for the strong catechism programs which we maintain in our churches. These classes have done much to keep our churches strong from generation to generation. Children and young people ought to appreciate what a blessing of God it is to be so instructed in the faith over a period of many years. This will equip them for life in this ungodly world in an age of great apostasy. Children should be encouraged to learn their lessons well and to take a very serious attitude towards catechism.
Sound doctrine is maintained in the church when she takes a clear and unequivocal stand on the truth of Scripture. The church must stand on the foundation of the historic faith of the church that God through the ages has given to her and maintained in her. It is rather common in our day for churches to refuse to take a stand. To avoid doctrinal controversy, churches like to make their positions as ambiguous as possible, so that there is room for all sorts of interpretation and differences. The historic creeds of the church are by the grace of God careful and precise statements of the doctrine of God’s Word. Today it is said that these creeds must be changed and replaced. Truth must not be stated so absolutely. It is the mark of piety, according to many in our day, to suggest that we cannot know truth absolutely. We are not to imagine that we can know the truth absolutely but must understand that the truth of God is an indefinite thing that we can never be sure about. Everything is in a state of flux and change. Each age must have new creeds to remain relevant in the world. How wrong this way of thinking is and how destructive to the doctrinal foundation of the church. The church must stand upon the unchangeable foundation of the doctrine of Scripture. Indeed, she must also grow in a richer understanding of that doctrine. She is not to become stagnant or proud or self-confident in her knowledge of the truth of God.
The church does not however grow richer by abandoning the historic faith of the true church of all ages. Rather she does this by receiving the great historic creeds of the true church of the ages and comparing these creeds again and again with the Scriptures. She studies the Scriptures with the help of these creeds, and by the grace and Spirit of God gains a richer and more blessed knowledge of the Word of God. She then takes a firmer and clearer stand. From that stand she refuses to be moved.
Sound doctrine is maintained in the church by distinguishing that doctrine from false teaching. That is absolutely necessary. False teaching must be exposed and condemned. Our modern age has little stomach for this. Ours is a day of “tolerance,” and let everyone believe what he will. It is imagined that the greatest evil is to judge what someone else believes. When false doctrine is tolerated, then truth is trampled in the streets. There are abundant examples, in Scripture, of the need for exposing and condemning false doctrine. The prophets of the Old Testament were constantly engaged in condemning false doctrine. Our Lord condemned the false doctrine of the Scribes and Pharisees in the strongest language. The apostle Paul said concerning those who brought any other gospel than the gospel that he as the apostle of the Lord preached, “let him be accursed.” Paul was on the one hand very magnanimous in tolerating those in Philippi who were preaching the gospel out of evil motives. As long as Christ was preached he rejoiced. On the other hand, he severely condemned false teachers in no uncertain terms. Much of the epistles of that apostle of our Lord are polemics against false teachers who were troubling the church. We stand for the glory of God when we condemn doctrines that deny God and His salvation. We love God when we hate false doctrine. The apostles of the Lord exhort the church to separate herself from those who do not receive sound doctrine, to discipline and reject heretics, and not to receive into her fellowship anyone who does not receive the truth.
Doctrine and true Christian living are inseparably related. It is a big lie to suggest that in order to have genuine spirituality you must at least minimize the emphasis on doctrine. Christian living is based on sound doctrine. It flows forth from it. Without such sound doctrine we will end up with a life of mysticism and humanism and not genuine Christianity. The most profound and sincere Christian living comes from the living spiritual knowledge of the greatest doctrines of God’s Word. It has repeatedly happened in the history of the church that when spiritual death has come to the church there have been movements to revive the church, by mere emphasis on “the Spirit,” without doctrine. There have been those who have equated revival with mere emotional arousal and the feeling of enthusiasm. True revival comes only when the church through the Spirit of God returns to the study of the doctrine of the Word of God. The greatest demonstration of that was the great Protestant Reformation. In the Protestant Reformation the church was formed again on the basis of the great doctrines of the Word of God. Sincere Christian living followed when God’s people by the Spirit of God returned to the true doctrine of the Word of God. The same will happen today by the grace of God when God’s people return to an earnest study of the doctrines of Scripture.
Maintaining sound doctrine in the church involves a great spiritual battle. The devil and the wicked world always go about to destroy the church by seeking to lead her to compromise her doctrinal foundation. Through all the history of the Christian churches thousands of valiant men of God have fought great spiritual battles to maintain sound doctrine. Thousands have suffered and died for the cause of sound doctrine. We must continue in that great spiritual battle as churches unto the end of time. We fight for the glory of God. God Himself is our help and strength.