Joining the bandwagon of resolution-ists, I have decided to make my reading more structured. I plan to be reading at least 3 books a month and with my impending 3 month anniversary in my pastoral calling, this week I’ll be reading Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology written by Mark Dever and others affiliated with The Gospel Coalition.
An Anti-Doctrinal Age
“We live and minister in an anti-doctrinal age or, at least, an age that thinks it’s anti-doctrinal” so begins J. Ligon Duncan III in the first essay written to show the importance of sound doctrine for pastoral ministry. Although written for pastors, I think that there are great insights for the believing Christian. Anyone who says that “theology (or doctrine) doesn’t matter” in essence, goes on to make a theological statement. They end up betraying the very premise that they make. Additionally, our contemporary appeal for professionalized Christianity, charismatic and emotive preaching, teaching and music as well as the dislike for rational thinking commends a Christianity that is theologically weak, pragmatically oriented and mushy than robust. You will hear phrases such as “people are more important than truth”, “it doesn’t matter what you believe but how you live” and “how people feel matters more than what people think” and be tempted to cut the tree together with the roots.
The Bible’s Emphasis on Doctrine
All of these common phrases try to get to the heart of something crucial: bad theology is dangerous and kills people. Yet the solution to “bad theology” is not “no theology at all” but rather “good theology.” Good theology as seen in the pages of Scripture is both horizontal and vertical and balances grace and truth, love and justice, law and grace, head and heart.
He answered “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk. 10:27)
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1)
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim. 4:16)
“So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the Law. . . Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD Almighty.” (Malachi 2:9, 3:7)
From these passages and many more in scripture, we can see the following positives of doctrine:
- Doctrine Exalts God’s Glory and Our Joy
If there is a theme that underlies the whole of the Scriptural revelation, it is the truth that God is Sovereign. In the creation of the cosmos, the fall of man, his redemption and his coming glorification, God is not aloof. All of Scripture in its different genres, writers, audiences and locations points to this. In fact, after Paul’s heavyweight theology in Romans 9-11, he ends in doxology/praise: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen!” (Rom. 11:36). If the glory of God is the manifestation of his divine perfections, then surely exalting his glory is our highest good.
- Doctrine helps us to Develop Biblical Thinking
Located within different cultures, there are ideas and patterns of life and thought that are contrary to Scripture. To say that we should not focus on doctrine is to cut ourselves from the cure for our intellectual, psychological, emotional and spiritual malaise. If we agree with the fact that we are what we believe, then in order to change wrong perceptions, premises and prejudices, we need the marrow of doctrine. Peter for instance draws the relationship between Christ’s second coming and how that should change our thinking and living when he says “The end of all things is near. Therefore, be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray” (1 Pet. 4:7). Jesus himself shows us how the systematic analysis of what the entire Scriptures say about any topic, in this case Christ, can aid our faith and wisdom:
He said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).
- Doctrine helps us to Grow in Godliness
Peter traces how the teaching of the New Birth should impact our lives in the first chapter of 1 Peter. “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Pet. 1:16). Through the suffering of Christ on the Cross, his resurrection and ascension, believers are bought at a great price. In the light of the suffering of the dispersed Christians of Peter’s time, and our own trials and suffering today, we are reminded that proper doctrine leads to godliness. This is the reason Paul urges Timothy to persevere in doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). Good theology produces godliness and bad theology produces license to sin. Many times in our efforts to grow in godliness and in ministry, we use worldly and carnal methods which stand in opposition to the fruitfulness that biblical spirituality steeped in doctrine brings. Proper doctrine balances grace and truth, and is at odds with intellectual pride or “knowledge that puffs up.” Francis Schaeffer puts it well:
Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world
Instead, “the doctrines of grace create a culture of grace, a social environment of acceptance and hope and freedom and joy.” Individuals, marriages, homes, churches, institutions and societies that have these ingredients are the kind of spaces where godliness thrives.
- Doctrine helps us to Respond to False Teaching
Especially relevant for the healthy ministry of the Church, proper doctrine guards against false teaching. The whole purpose of Paul’s pastoral letter to Timothy is precisely this: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1 Tim. 1:3). Proper doctrine, we learn, is based on the life, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord (1 Cor. 15:17, 1 Tim. 1:15-17, 2 Tim. 1:9-11, 1 Jn. 4:2-3). We are to be careful because false teachers are in the past and present church. We learn that because humans prefer truths that affirm their sin, many popular teachers use the Scriptures for material and psychological gain. The converted Christian who is studious in the Word of God will be able to discern the spirits of the age.
- Doctrine helps us to have Assurance
Ligon Duncan observes that in the High Priestly prayer before his crucifixion, Jesus’ prayer for believers is anchored on doctrine. His prayer links the doctrine of election and the joy of assurance: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you may ask in my name, he may give it to you.” (Jn. 15:16) The disciples must have been downcast and they did not need an encouragement based on their feelings but based on God’s truth especially for the task and challenges that lay ahead of them. In the Romans 5:1 passage quoted above, our peace with God is based on the fact that we are “declared righteous” because of Christ’s atoning and meritorious work on the cross. Because of this we are freed from the shame and guilt of our sin and are strengthened by faith in Jesus Christ to pursue godliness.
- Doctrine helps us to enjoy Marriage
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her . . . so that she might be holy without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians. 5:25-28)
Having recently celebrated our 1 year marriage anniversary with Jessica, I am not ignorant of the practical implication of this verse. Many had warned us as they will warn you that marriage doesn’t work and that the first years of marriage are hell on earth, but I can say that by the grace of God, marriage is a joy even with the common disagreements, differing opinions and darkness of our hearts. Counsellors have noted financial disunity, impoverished communication, marital infidelity and unresolved conflict as the evils ailing marriages. All these however are symptoms pointing to the root cause of sin in the hearts of human beings: selfishness, pride, lust and anger among others. Christ’s atoning work on the Cross on behalf of sinful people points to the subversive nature of grace – how love, humility and purity can restore and heal helpless people. Applied to marriage, such doctrines can yield joy in the face of hopelessness. This is evident in the murkiness of two people becoming one flesh, which has a sandpaper effect of refining imperfect husband and wife into Christlikeness.
- Doctrine Encourages us in Life and Ministry
Finally, doctrine helps us to face the everydayness of life and ministry. Understanding the theology of evil and suffering, for instance, can help us to navigate painful losses that afflict the human condition. When faced with hardships in ministry, we can have a fresh taste and appetite for God’s sovereignty over our lives. With Paul, we can see how the doctrine of God anchors us in the turbulent waves of life’s greatest challenges. Jesus’ thirsty gasps on the cross show us that suffering is the agent of redemption. In the death bringing despondency of horrendous pain and evil, somehow we are only left to cling at the life-giving hope of the resurrection: “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).
Doctrine is for Life
It is no mistake or coincidence that Paul spent his better days in jail cells and was almost killed. It is because of his experience with the entire human experience that his life, theology and doctrine agrees with the life of Jesus Christ. Because we are in the world but not of it, as human beings who wait on the consummation of all things, we will be exposed to the whole gamut of human joy and pain. Time will tell whether our doctrines are good or bad, but make no mistake, our doctrines will either prove fruitful or faulty. Whether pastor or not, these words ring true:
[We] need truth, theology and doctrine for God’s glory, for [our] assurance, for the Christian life, for marriage and for joy. You need to preach that truth because truth matters. Doctrine matters. Theology is for life. Good, biblical, systematic theology is not an encumbrance to the Christian life but a blessed and necessary aid. If you are a faithful [Christian], you are a good systematic theologian.
Everyone’s a theologian. A good or bad theologian. Does your life show the former or latter? May God help us to grow in the knowledge and love of God and others.
 John Piper (ed.), Still Not Professionals: Ten Pleas for Today’s Pastors (Minneapolis: Desiring God, 2013), 38
 J. Ligon Duncan III, “Sound Doctrine: Essential to Faithful Pastoral Ministry,” in Mark Dever et al., Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009): 17-58.