I have, from time to time, encountered statements such as “We aren’t saved by right doctrine, we’re saved by Jesus.” Or it may be stated, “Doctrine divides, Christ unites.” Several have pointed out that affirmations such as these are presented as something to believe—a doctrine. But to have both Jesus and right theology are not competing priorities. An emphasis on the relationship we need with the Lord Jesus doesn’t mean God’s revelation about him, and the teaching in that revelation, is of less importance. The Gospels record Jesus’ life, the Acts expand on the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, and the epistles explain all the implications of the Gospel for the lives of believers.
The Old Testament is, also, not just a record of God’s dealings with Israel, but a book of promises about the coming Messiah. All these things are teaching. They are doctrine. Through many centuries, the church has grappled with the meaning of the text of Scripture. Still, the underlying belief has always been that God has spoken in his Word, and has given us an understandable and important revelation, one that carries his authority. This underlying assumption is crumbling in parts of evangelicalism.
Favoring Experience over Revelation
In an effort to minister to those who are hurting or who have been marginalized in the church, it’s easy to look at the people around us and make their experience—their happiness—the measure of what is true and right. Experiences are real, but they are diverse and cannot serve as a standard, a canon, for what is true. Christianity is a revealed faith. We know about the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ only through the record of Holy Scripture. This is why it is facile to assert, as some have, that Jesus is the true Word of God and not the Bible. My wife and I attended a ministry seminar a few years ago, and one of the speakers, a youth pastor, said that the number one thing he hears from parents of the kids he ministers to is, “make it relevant.” While parents weren’t asking this pastor to eliminate truth, they were asking him to subordinate truth to relevance—that is, as defined by culture.
Paul’s aspiration was “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection” (Phil 3:10). But just prior to this, Paul wrote of “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9). Verse 9 is a condensation of a lot of truth about righteousness and how it is applied to believers. If we ask what the New Testament means by righteousness, there are several chapters where the apostle explains this. Paul says that his experiential goal of knowing Christ rests on the doctrinal foundation of righteousness by faith. Indeed, at the end of the doctrinally dense first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom 11:33). Doctrine and truth enrich our experience of the Lord.
The Primary and the Secondary
To suggest that doctrine is important and vital to our faith is not to say that all things are equally important. Doctrines about the person and work of Christ, that he is truly man and truly God, are more important than whether a local church uses unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper. Everyone has examples of those who make something minor into what is major. On the other side of that, it seems now an annual event that every Easter some influencer or “thought leader” makes a statement that the physical resurrection of Jesus is not a definitive doctrine. Look at the book of Acts and you will not find a single example of the Gospel preached that does not include the physical resurrection of Jesus. The rest of the New Testament also demonstrates this is an essential element of the Gospel.
As students of God’s Word, we need to distinguish what Scripture foregrounds from what may be less clear. As Herbert Lockyer wrote in his book All the Doctrines of the Bible, “Make nothing a matter of necessary faith which is not a matter of revelation.” Some churches today have resolved the issue of distinguishing primary from secondary by making all doctrine secondary. To see what Scripture makes a matter of necessary faith requires a whole Bible approach to doctrine. Crossway Publishers survey of Bible reading habits done a few years back shows that readers are visiting some parts of Scripture rarely. We arrive at a synthesis of what the Bible teaches only by considering all of God’s revelation. This synthesis is important to be able to understand where the Holy Spirit has used the highlighter in God’s Word.
There Is No Gospel Without Doctrine
If I present the Gospel to anyone, there is no escaping an explanation of who Jesus is and what he has done. Moreover, there’s a need to explain sin and guilt, and why pardon and salvation are necessary. I cannot do any of this without entering into doctrine and explaining from the Scriptures the revelation God has given. The Bible gives us a rich vocabulary of terms to describe God and his saving work. Words such as propitiation, justification, redemption, reconciliation all convey different aspects of the truth that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Exploring the differences in these terms is not an invitation to bicker with others about their nuance. Rather, it is to appreciate the panoply of truth given to us to inform our relationship with God, and our worship of him in Spirit and truth.
At several points in his letters, Paul refers to “sound doctrine” or “sound words.” The word translated sound means to be well and in good health. When we are specific about the things Scripture teaches, we promote not only our own spiritual health, but that of our local churches. The Lifeway/Ligonier State of Theology survey done over the past several years provides evidence of the unhealthy doctrines to which many self-described evangelicals adhere. If we can’t explain the Gospel without being specific in what the Bible teaches, neither can we worship God rightly without understanding the teaching of Scripture. The New Testament encourages believers to know the truth, to study the truth. To rightly know him who is the truth means that we should draw from the well of doctrinal truths in God’s Word. If we try to make doctrine relevant, we will miss the mark. But if we focus on what Scripture presents as its teaching—its doctrine—we’ll find it is always relevant.
Matt Ferris lives in Wheaton, Illinois and is involved in Bible study ministry in his local church. He is also active in children's ministry and has written a number of hymns. His books include Evangelicals Adrift: Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life and Losing Religion, Finding Jesus: Moving beyond Cultural Christianity. He and his wife have been married since 1987 and have four adult children and six grandchildren. He blogs at gentlemantheologian.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrismattic.