Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
There cannot be any religion without doctrine. That is especially the case with the true religion. In our day there are many advocates of religion without doctrine or any theological pronouncements. This they claim was the simple religion of Jesus. All the doctrinal pronouncements of the church through history are only human scholastic additions. Doctrine leads us away, they say, from the simplicity of faith in Christ Jesus. Sometimes sincere Christians might also be inclined to imagine that doctrine is not very important. Learning and understanding doctrine is hard work. It takes a lot of effort. Furthermore, those who seek to defend sound doctrine are often engaged in great, unpleasant debates. When the church insists on sound doctrine she draws lines, she offends those who do not agree with that doctrine. Doctrinal controversies in the church have caused grievous division. Brother has been set against brother, families have been divided, those who were once close friends have become bitter enemies. Are we not better off to avoid all of this by ignoring questions of doctrine? We are not saved, it is emphasized, by theology and doctrine but by a right relationship with Jesus Christ and by following His simple life style. Cannot we all be one happy family by allowing everyone to have his own opinion about doctrine? Or, perhaps, can we not just leave doctrine to the theologians of the church, since it really has nothing to do with our daily lives as Christians anyway? The important thing, it is claimed, is not the doctrine you believe but how you live and how sincere you are. All of that may sound good and even rather pious, but is it right? Is it possible?
Sometimes the word “doctrine” is used in a limited and narrow sense to refer to a cold abstract intellectual debate among theologians that is pretty well totally irrelevant to the Christian life of the common ordinary child of God. We are particularly anxious that we are not misunderstood in this regard. That is not the meaning of the word “doctrine” when it is used in the Scriptures. As we pointed out in our last article, according to Scripture, doctrine is simply “sound teaching.” It is carefully formulated and expressed teaching about the truth of God and His Son Jesus Christ and the way of salvation. If we truly understand this as Christians, we will also see the importance of maintaining sound doctrine.
It is true that at times in the history of the church, doctrinal discussion has degenerated into cold scholastic debate. Doctrinal discussion has at times fallen into arid, dry-as-dust discussion or hair-splitting, theological wrangling without regard to the personal living God and rich and blessed and vibrant truth of salvation of which this doctrine speaks. The fault of this does not lie in the true doctrine of God itself but rather in the evil attitude of those handling that doctrine. Neither ought this drive the church to the foolish and radical position that all doctrine must be rejected.
The true doctrine of God can be known only through the power of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of men. It can only be spiritually discerned by the born again child of God. Its blessed reality can only be known by the humble child of God who prayerfully searches the Scriptures under the guidance of the Spirit of God in complete submission to God’s own revelation of Himself. The child of God earnestly prays that God will reveal to him all the riches and wonder of the doctrine of the Scriptures. But he also prays that God will teach him to be silent before God’s Word and to add nothing to it which is the product merely of his own imagination or reason. He prays to be kept totally within the limits of God’s own revelation and not to be allowed to go beyond that revelation into all sorts of vain speculation of his own mind.
It is important that we know the true doctrine of God. God has revealed Himself to us that we might know Him and worship and serve Him rightly. The truth that God has revealed concerning Himself is the doctrine of God. He has revealed who and what He is. He has revealed His mighty and wonderful and glorious attributes, His absolute sovereignty, perfect holiness and infinite goodness. Knowing God involves gathering the true knowledge of God from all Scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is necessary for our faith to gather and summarize that knowledge as it is found throughout the Scriptures and not merely in one verse here and there. Through such labors we come to know the truth of God. All our thoughts of God, all our worship of God, our fear and love of God, our faith in God, is and must be based on the true doctrine of God, that God Himself has given us in the Bible. God has performed many mighty and wonderful acts through history, wonders of creation and providence, and wonders of our salvation. Doctrine means nothing more than a right knowledge and understanding of the works of God. It is impossible truly to know God without knowing the true doctrine concerning Him. When we rightly consider the doctrine of God in the Scriptures, in a spiritual way, our knowledge of Him will grow more and more blessed and wonderful.
Almost all false doctrine is an attack on God, on His glorious majesty and the wonderful truth concerning who and what He is as God. That is why false doctrine is so very serious. That is why saints of God who love God have been ready to die for the cause of the true doctrine of God. Those who suggest that we can have a religion without doctrine want to reduce Christianity to nothing more than a mystic, subjective religion in which every one thinks his own thoughts about God, supposedly according to his own individual experience or perhaps the experience of the age he lives in.
God cannot be known except through the true doctrine He has revealed concerning Himself in the Bible. When men reject that doctrine or say that it is not important, they really make a god after their own imagination. The liberal drive to do away with doctrine strives to do exactly that. Modem man rejects the sovereign almighty and holy God of the Bible because he hates that God. In place of Him he makes a false image of his own imagination. The true child of God, together with the church of Jesus Christ, maintains and confesses the true doctrine of God whereby he in love knows and confesses the true God, and glories in and worships Him alone.
In our last article we emphasized that the essence of Christianity is not a vague and undefined relationship with Jesus. It does not consist of merely following the example of a humanistic Jesus by obeying a few generally defined ethical principles which He espoused. We are saved not first of all by what we do or by how we live but by believing who Jesus Christ is and what He did. Jesus is the Holy and Almighty Son of God who came to earth to reveal the true God. He came to earth to save His people from their sins. When Jesus was on earth He declared the truth concerning Himself. Through His ministry on earth He performed the mighty works of God. He was crucified, He died, He was buried. He arose from the dead on the third day. He ascended into heaven and was exalted at the right hand of God. He promised His church that He would come again at the end of the ages to establish His everlasting kingdom of righteousness in the new heavens and earth. These are all mighty historic works that Jesus performed. They are the wonderful works of our salvation which He accomplished. Doctrine is nothing more than a true understanding of who Jesus really is as the Son of God and our Savior. Doctrine is the right understanding of the tremendous work of salvation that He performed and the hope of salvation that we have in that work.
At the time when Jesus walked on earth, and when He was crucified, even His disciples had only a limited understanding of who really Jesus was and of the meaning and purpose of His work. There were still many things that they did not yet understand. Therefore they were thrown into confusion when Jesus was crucified and they were not expecting His resurrection. On the day of Pentecost Jesus poured out His Holy Spirit upon His disciples, and suddenly they could understand and they could speak of the wonderful works of God. The Spirit which was poured out on the apostles according to the promise of Jesus instructed them in the true doctrine of Jesus and of the great significance of His work of salvation. The apostles later wrote of that doctrine by the inspiration of God. The letters of the apostles contain the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. God gave the apostles to understand in a profound way the finished and absolutely perfect work of Christ on the cross and the substitutionary and vicarious nature of that work. He gave the apostles to understand the perfect and unchangeable righteousness that was imputed to the saints through faith in the work of Christ. Above all, God revealed to them the glory of His sovereign grace and mercy that shines forth in that work. All of this belongs to the true doctrine of Christ.
The doctrine of Christ is exceedingly important. Without that doctrine we cannot know Christ nor the blessed significance of His work of salvation. We are not saved first of all by following Jesus’ example nor by living according to the ethical principles that He taught. We are saved first of all through faith in Christ and the truth that is in Him. We are saved by believing that Jesus is truly the Son of God and by trusting in His perfect work. True Christian living follows out of such faith. True Christian living is based on the true doctrine of Christ; Doctrine is a right understanding of who Christ is and what His work means. Through the history of the church many heresies have arisen in the church to deny and oppose parts of the doctrine of Christ. These heresies deny the glory of Christ and the perfection of His work. We cannot confess Christ and continue to believe in Him unless we confess and maintain the doctrine of Christ. If we deny that doctrine we deny Him.
Some imagine that though it might be important to maintain certain basic truths concerning who Christ is and what He did, it is still not important to be so concerned about sound doctrine. All the doctrinal controversies that have plagued the church have been about unimportant truths, they imagine. This is however a grave mistake. It is true of course that some doctrines of Scripture are more major and fundamental than others. The great doctrinal controversies that have plagued the church through history have been so major that the truth of God and Jesus Christ and the right understanding of salvation have been at stake. That still is true today. The issues of doctrinal controversy that divide various denominations and churches from each other are so fundamental that they involve, a denial of the true God and His Son Jesus Christ.
Doctrinal questions are of greatest importance for true Christianity. Today, for example, even the doctrinal differences between Reformed and Calvinistic churches and Arminianism are imagined to be of little importance. Even members in Reformed churches imagine these differences, to be of only secondary importance. They imagine that most of these differences can be reduced to only slightly different perspectives and emphases. In reality however the differences are so great that the one system of doctrine, namely the Arminian system current in most modern-day churches, is thoroughly man-centered and man glorifying. It essentially teaches man to save himself through his own will and by his own works – whereas the true, historic doctrine of the Reformed faith exalts the truth that God saves His people whom He loves with everlasting love by sovereign grace and mercy alone and for His glory. These two systems of doctrine are diametrically opposed to each other. The one is false and the other represents the only true doctrine revealed in Scripture.
We intend to continue our discussion in our next article with the subject: “Maintaining Sound Doctrine in the Church.”
True revival does not come to the church by a mystical wave of the “Spirit” that sweeps the church, nor by the stirring up of a false feeling of brotherhood among all men. It does not come through a resurgence of interest in evangelism or by getting the church involved in social action. True revival comes when the church, by the mighty operation of the Spirit of God, returns to the true doctrine of the Scriptures.