The Importance of a Doctrinal Christianity

Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

One of the main characteristic features of modern-day liberal Christianity is its aversion to doctrine. It not only rejects almost all the great fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith but it wants to go even further than this. It wants to do away with doctrine altogether. According to its teachers, doctrine is not important for Christianity. The historic creeds of the church are set aside as not being relevant for our age. These creeds are at best interesting historical documents. They may be considered interesting expressions of the faith of the church of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But today the church expresses her faith in a different way. When the church insists on maintaining certain doctrines, she only causes offense and division. The church must rather be united on certain vague general principles of religion such as the love of God for all men, the universal fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all men, and a few broad moral principles. On the basis of these general principles the church must be united in the cause of evangelism and social action and in seeking to change the world.

Even these general principles are not to be too carefully defined, because then some in the church will be offended. Really almost everyone is to be recognized as a Christian, no matter what he believes or how he lives. We need a simple Christian faith without theological pronouncements. This, it is claimed, is the religion that Jesus taught. This is the religion of the Sermon on the Mount and of the golden rule. This religion is supposedly inspired only by the person of Jesus. He is the inspiring example for all men to follow. Jesus, as a person, lives on today through the words that He spoke when on earth (though much of what the church has commonly believed to be the words of Jesus were not actually spoken by Him) and through the example He left us. The essence of Christianity is to follow the moral ethical principles that Jesus taught.

That is how you become and are a Christian, nothing more than that. That is how you re-live the life of Jesus. We do not need all that theology about the Trinity, the natures and offices of Christ, the atonement of Christ, predestination, justification and sanctification, etc. All of that is nothing but scholasticism. Insistence on sound doctrine produces useless debate and causes unnecessary divisions. The more radical proponents of this philosophy suggest that we must limit ourselves strictly to the words and example of Jesus. The apostle Paul and some of the other apostles really introduced a new form of religion when they wrote all their doctrinal treatises (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, etc.). These might have had value for the church at that time; but now we are advanced beyond the need of all this. We can follow the example of Jesus directly.

To the serious Christian reader, all of this might sound so far out that it is hardly considered to be a threat to the church. However, we had better realize that this whole way of thinking, whether explicitly or implicitly, is much more prevalent in the church today than we might imagine. In many churches today there is less and less emphasis on doctrine in the preaching. Preaching is little more than teaching on human psychology. It deals with all kinds of human problems, problems man faces in marriage, in raising children, in human relationships, and his life in society. It might even address supposedly Christian principles on money management, maintaining good health in exercising regularly, and all sorts of other things. Just listen to the subjects dealt with by modern-day radio preachers and you will realize how far this whole line of thinking has taken hold in the church today. Try to find a preacher that today still talks about the doctrines of God and salvation and you will find them to be very scarce, almost unheard of. The vast majority of professing Christians today are doctrinally ignorant and have little interest in discussion and debate on the great doctrines of the Word of God. There is little instruction of the youth in the church. Even many Reformed churches have dropped catechism programs, or at least greatly reduced or simplified them. If there is still instruction of the children it is by means of Sunday School rather than catechism; and there is a distinct difference between these two if properly understood. Some churches still have several “Bible studies” that a number of people attend; but, in these, doctrinal discussion of any sort is avoided like a plague. Churches have no interest inbeing distinctive. They have long forgotten their creeds. There is little or nothing that makes them different from other churches except that one has a “more active ministry” than another and the members of one church are “more friendly” than others. What denomination you belong to is of very little consequence. People change denominations with very little consideration. Un-denominational churches flourish and boast membership in the thousands. Many laud the “tolerance” their church has for all sorts of different viewpoints and the “brotherly love” that exists among her members.

Those who advocate a non-doctrinal Christianity often sound pious and convincing. They speak much about a living, personal relationship with the Lord as being the most important thing. Doctrine is not important. Too much emphasis on doctrine will kill the spirit and lead to arid scholastic debate. We must allow the spirit to be free. And by the freedom of the spirit is often meant the “freedom” for everyone to think and act independently and to express religious feelings and emotions and ideas as he or she pleases. Those who insist on sound doctrine are considered unloving and uncaring, cold and formal. Love, vaguely defined, is more important than doctrinal soundness. When doctrinal differences are forgotten, people will be more warm, personal, and friendly, which is more important than everything else. On the basis of such “love” we can consider all men to be brethren.

When we are in a church that seeks by the grace of God to maintain sound doctrine we can at times become discouraged. Maintaining sound doctrine will involve a great spiritual battle. There will be strife in that battle. There will be those who are offended. There might even be loved ones, relatives and friends, that leave the church. All of this is not pleasant to experience. We would much rather see peace and harmony in the church. There is always a real temptation to give up the fight. But sound doctrine is important. The above way of thinking is grievously in error. The church that forsakes or neglects the doctrine of the Scriptures will come to ruin. The evil one will destroy that church. The fact of the matter is that even those who say that doctrine is not important will nevertheless teach a doctrine of their own. When the doctrine of the Scripture is rejected, it is replaced by an evil and false doctrine devised by man. That is inevitable. The most radical liberal has a doctrine that he teaches and seeks to propagate. He will deceive the church by putting on a front of being a friendly and pleasant person, and he will pretend that he seeks the peace and unity of the church. But for all of that he will lead the church away from God and from the hope of her salvation.

The word doctrine is the translation of a biblical word which means simply “sound teaching.” That is what doctrine is; it is sound teaching about God, about who and what He is, about the Lord Jesus Christ, and about God’s great works of creation, providence, and salvation. True doctrine is nothing more than the Bible’s teaching about God and salvation. It is the truth of God clearly distinguished from the lie of the devil. Sound doctrine is a clear and systematic presentation of the truth that is found in the Bible. That truth is the same for every age, because it is the unchangeable truth of God Himself. Doctrine, correctly understood, is not first of all the church’s subjective expression of her faith in God at a given time and in a given culture. Doctrine is the absolute and unchanging truth of God as He has revealed Himself in His infallible Word, the Bible. Doctrine rightly considered is not what men themselves have devised through abstract scholastic debate among themselves. Doctrine is the living, blessed, and glorious truth of God that He by His Spirit has caused His church to know. That truth may offend carnal man. He may not like it because it condemns man in his sin and destroys all his boasting pride in himself. The true doctrine of the Bible glorifies God.

The church must know and embrace, love and confess the truth of God. She must diligently study the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discover and understand its doctrine. She must defend that doctrine over against all of the attacks of the evil one and of false prophets. She does not do that by abandoning the historic position of the true Christian church. She does not do that by reducing her faith to the lowest common denominator and to a few vaguely defined supposedly Christian principles so that she can enjoy a “beautiful” unity and brotherhood with all sorts of men. The church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” She grows increasingly rich and strong as she acknowledges and confesses more and more of the wonderful doctrine of the Scriptures. That doctrine is worth fighting and dying for on her part because it is the doctrine of God and His Son Jesus Christ. It is the truth about salvation, the hope and life and joy of the church.

It is absolutely absurd to suggest that Jesus taught only a “simple” religion of a few moral principles by which man can and will save himself if only he will follow them. Jesus does not merely inspire men by the example of His person. Jesus came to reveal the truth, the truth of God. He declared; “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). He declared the truth concerning Himself. He is the embodiment of the true doctrine of God. He insisted on the great truth that He is the eternal and only begotten Son of God. He died because of the confession of the truth. He came to this earth to reveal the true doctrine of God. He performed the perfect work of salvation in His cross and resurrection and exaltation. True doctrine is simply the setting forth of the meaning and great significance of the work of Christ and all the blessed implications of that work. He taught the only way of salvation, which necessarily involves the true doctrine of salvation. He was always ready to condemn severely the false and carnal doctrines of men, and to distinguish the truth from them. He taught the doctrine of why He came to this earth, and the doctrine of the nature and purpose of His work on the cross. He taught the doctrine of man’s sin and depravity and of his absolute need of salvation. He taught the doctrine of election and predestination, and of the sovereign grace of God whereby He infallibly saves all those whom the Father has given to Him. To believe in Jesus necessarily means that we believe and embrace the distinctive doctrines which He taught. Before our Lord left this earth He promised to send the “Spirit of truth” to His church, to lead and guide His church into all truth.

The apostles of the Lord were inspired by the Holy Spirit to know and understand the doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ. They did not write abstract doctrinal treatises by which they began a new form of religion of human origin. They wrote of the doctrine of Christ, of His person and work, of His great salvation. They were led by the Spirit of God to understand the truth concerning God Himself and concerning the only true doctrine of salvation. This doctrine is unchangeable and glorious. It is in exhaustible in its riches. It is the foundation of the church upon which she must stand. It is the hope of her salvation. It is the truth she must confess to the glory of God.

We shall continue our discussion of this subject in our next article.

“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine… and they shall turn away their ears from the truth…”

II Timothy 4:2-4