Hold Fast

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2, ESV)

Location: Cochrane, Alberta, Canada

Friday, July 29, 2005

That Dirty “D” Word – DOCTRINE.... (Part 1)

Oh, how I used to hate that word and what I thought it stood for!

I was raised in Reformed churches. When I was between eleven and thirteen, I really didn’t like going to church. To me, the sermons were long, and dull, and boring, and full of "legalistic" doctrine.

When my parents moved us to a nondenominational community church, I thought I was in heaven. Finally, it seemed like fun to go to church! The music was contemporary and upbeat, and I didn’t have to worry about any of that stuffy doctrine stuff. No one was trying to make me memorize creeds, or confessions...

Fast forward ten years. I’d just arrived in the Fredericton area, and by then I had been drifting in my faith for some time. My lifestyle was decidedly non-Christian, and I felt deep down inside that something was wrong. I found a new church in Fredericton to go to, where the people were open and friendly, committed to Christ, and enthusiastic about spreading the Gospel. The teaching from the pulpit was, and is, solid and Biblical. God used this church to draw me back to Himself.

That said, however, when I first arrived, I began attending the young adults group. One of the first times there, the small group leader, who was probably my age, said something that I KNEW was wrong. She didn’t believe people were born evil. She thought everyone was basically good.

Those of you reading who know something about Church history and theology recognize this girl’s position – the “doctrine” she was teaching. (I’ll stop and point out quickly that this is decidedly NOT the doctrine taught by my church – this girl was simply a university student with little theological knowledge, who was acting as a facilitator.) She was teaching (unknowingly) the heresy of Pelagius – the idea that there is no original sin, that the Fall had no effect on anyone else, that everyone is born morally innocent and that therefore God’s grace isn’t required for salvation. The heresy Augustine fought so hard against. The heresy condemned by the Church at the Councils of Orange, Florence, and Carthage, and still considered heretical by most Protestants and Catholics alike.

At the time, though, I didn’t know all that stuff, and I had been gone from church so long and was now so Biblically illiterate that I couldn’t come up with any verses to back myself up. I tried to argue, but my argument was disorganized and unconvincing, and I had to give up. I just knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t really say why. And I couldn’t understand how anyone could believe something that seemed, to be, to be a self-evident part of the faith. How could anyone believe human beings are basically good, looking at the world we live in? How could anyone be born good or neutral, if everyone – no exceptions (Romans 3:23) sins?

Since then, I’ve found that many people in the evangelical church – including many Baptists, Pentecostals, and others I have the opportunity to meet from time to time – have very little appreciation for the ancient doctrines and confessions of the church. Their theology tends to reflect the songs popular in the church today – short, repetitive, and very little profound teaching – than it does the old catechisms and confessions. And that’s a shame.

Ask yourself, while you read this: Can I explain what these words mean? I’m convinced the average Christian in a contemporary, evangelical church these days would not be able to define words like Atonement, Justification, Sanctification, Propitiation, or Glorification. And these “big theological words” are vital to a correct understanding of the most important issue there is – human salvation!

The poor girl didn’t know, and probably doesn’t to this day, the Biblical teaching about man’s sinful state. Most evangelical Christians these days, especially in non-denominational churches, but increasingly in the mainline denominations, aren’t taught a confession, or a catechism, or any system of theology or doctrine. When pressed, most couldn’t explain why, for instance, it was important that Jesus be born of a virgin. An understanding of doctrine would go a long way toward restoring the health of the Church.

Why the anecdote? Well, those “boring and dull” sermons, the congregational responsive reading of the Heidelburg Catechism that I didn’t really understand, the history lessons about all those heretics and controversies and doctrinal battles – they sunk in! By the grace of God, and without realizing it until much later, I had been taught enough of the fundamental Christian doctrines to discern and keep myself from error.

Doctrine sounds so stuffy and boring to many Christians. But it’s so vital.

Satan has used heresies to confuse and divide the Church ever since the beginning. The Arians tried to convince the Church that Jesus wasn’t fully God. The Gnostics claimed that hidden knowledge imparted to a select few was the key to salvation. The Pelagians, saying that humanity is basically good, went so far as to say that there are people who could live sinless lives without God’s help!

The way to stay safe from heresy, and to ensure that our beliefs reflect the Bible, is to pay attention to sound doctrine. This concept is so vital that the Apostle Paul spoke of good and bad doctrine no less than ten times in the Epistles – and half of those to Timothy and Titus, men he was training to be pastors!

“But doctrine divides!” Yes! It does! That's the point!!

It divides truth from error. It is the line between accuracy and falsehood. It is the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. If preaching doctrine is divisive, it isn’t the fault of doctrine – it’s the fault of the heresy or inaccurate theology that tries to change the teaching of Christ.

When you play hockey, you follow the rules and regulations (the "doctrine") of hockey. If you try to pick up the puck and skate with it, it's wrong and it's not part of the game. You're importing rules ("doctrine") from other sports, like rugby and football, just as heresies import foreign doctrines into Christianity. Now, if the referee blows the whistle on this behaviour, does the player have any right to complain, "Your rules are divisive! I should do what I want!"? Of course not!

If you want to play hockey, follow the rules of the game. If you want to be a Christian, heed its teachings and submit it its doctrines - you can't import your own.

“Don’t give me doctrine – just give me Jesus!”

A Jesus without doctrine... So why not the New Age Jesus? Or John Dominic Crossan's Jesus, who never rose from the dead and was eaten by dogs? Or how about the Jehovah's Witnesses' Jesus, who wasn't eternal, but was a created being, and thus isn't God?

"Wait, that's not what I meant..." Exactly! - without doctrine, you don't mean anything! "Jesus" becomes just an empty word, without meaning.

With apologies to James, you show me Jesus without doctrine, and I will show you Jesus BY my doctrine. Just as faith without works is a dead and false faith, so Christianity without doctrine is not Christianity at all. Doctrine is truth, and is our standard when judging truth. For the Christian faith to have any meaning, for the word “Christian” to actually mean anything at all, there must be a system of truth that it represents. And that truth can’t be simply whatever we want it to be – it must defined by the teaching of Scripture.

Now, in another post I’ll talk about the distinctions between essential and nonessential doctrine. Not every difference is worth a battle or a separation. But make no mistake – the Bible is a book full of doctrine. If we want to know God better, we should strive daily to understand His Word accurately and truthfully.


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