“The Importance of Doctrine” – Philippians 2:5-11
Palm Sunday of the Passion – March 25, 2018
Introduction: The question & a true story
For the last six weeks I have been addressing topics that YOU have asked about. The last one for now is this question: “What exactly is doctrine and why is an accurate / clear God’s road map so important?”
First a true story… My theological interview at the end of seminary: “If you could keep only one of theology or doctrine, which would you keep and why?” [show of hands… you don’t have to explain] [I won’t tell you my answer yet… but I will tell you that I got it wrong!!]
So, let’s explore – what is the difference between theology and doctrine?
First a little etymology lesson. Any word that ends in “ology” is a branch of study or learning, the subject of which is defined by the first part of the word. So the first thing I did was look up the etymology of ‘etymology!’ It means the study of the true or original meaning of a word. Other examples are:
Biology – the study of living things or of life
Cardiology – the study of the structure, function, and disorders of the heart
Psychology – the study of mental processes and behaviour
Archaeology – the study of ancient things
Theology – since ‘theos’ means God in Greek, words about or the study of God.
In general – study of God, but also ‘god’ or ‘gods’ of other religions, even the study of different religions. So other religions can also study theology, but it is subjective theology based on their sources and resources of the divine. For instance, we do not consult the Book of Mormon in our theological studies.
Christian Theology would be the “study of God,” the knowledge of God that is found in the Bible. The term is used to refer to a large range of Bible-related subjects, and it includes all aspects of God, things like His: deity, nature, purpose, attributes, relationship to the world and other beings, and more. But it is just the study of God. The word ‘theology’ is not found in the Bible, but then again neither is the word ‘Trinity.’ The doctrine of the Trinity IS found in the Bible, but now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Don’t think that “theology” is either irrelevant, or not for you. If you are having a spiritual conversation with someone you are doing theology. If you are talking about basic beliefs … that there is one God who created the world… that comes from theology. No one can evangelize without theology, because the gospel is theology. The heart of Christianity is that we are all sinful, but Jesus, who was not just a great and wise man, but God in human flesh who, by His death, paid the penalty of our sin, thus saving us from God’s wrath, and giving us eternal life – that is nothing but 100% theology.
Let me tell you now that I answered the question by saying that I would keep theology. It sounds good, doesn’t it? So, why did I get the answer wrong? Because doctrine is not just talking about God, not just studying God. It is what we believe, teach and confess about God. The word ‘doctrine’ comes from the Latin word ‘doctrina’ which means ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction.’ Whereas the word ‘theology’ is not found in the Bible, the Greek equivalents of doctrine – didaktoV and didach – are found over 50 times, and the verb forms are found another 100 times. So, doctrine is very common in the Bible, and it refers to what is taught.
Let me give you some examples of its use:
In the Gospels, often it was said of Jesus that the people were astonished or amazed at His teaching (doctrine).
In the Gospel of John, Jesus acknowledged, “My teaching (doctrine) is not my own. It comes from Him who sent me.”
After the Holy Spirit had been sent on Pentecost Day, the group of believers were said to be “[devoting] themselves to the apostles’ teaching (doctrine).”
Paul, writing to Timothy said, “You know all about my teaching (doctrine)…” and then he explains that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching (doctrine).”
And Paul encouraged Titus to teach elders in the church to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught [that’s the word for doctrine], so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine [the other noun for doctrine… in the very same sentence].”
Bible doctrine is the teaching that comes directly out of the word of God and is founded on the very words of God. To teach doctrine is to begin with full faith in the words of the Bible, to dig out all that the Bible says about a subject, and to organize that material in the way that best agrees with the approach God Himself makes on the subject. In seminary, my doctrine course was called “Systematic Theology.” It addressed subjects one at a time – subjects like sin or faith or the nature of Christ or Baptism – and pulled out and systematically collated all the teachings of Scripture about that topic no matter where they were found. That’s what helps us to have a full picture of, a doctrine of, a certain theological topic.
- Fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines
Now, there are some doctrines that are fundamental or essential to our Christian faith, and others that, while being doctrines, are not necessary for our salvation. The fundamental doctrines are the ones that are at the core of our Christian faith and that all Christians must agree on and be united on in order to be part of the one true Christian and apostolic church, and in order that the foundation of our faith and salvation is not lost, or denied or discarded. Even among the fundamental doctrines, there are primary ones and secondary ones.
Some of the primary fundamental doctrines of our Christian faith are:
– the doctrine of the true, inspired and inerrant Word of God which is the object of and the means of saving faith (this is we why don’t follow the teachings of other world religions that don’t consider the Bible God’s own Word)
– the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three persons (the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do not hold this doctrine to be Biblically evident is the reason we don’t consider those religions to be Christian, this is a fundamental Christian doctrine)
– the doctrine of justification by grace, through faith in Christ (this means that we are saved by God’s work, not by our own) (and that doctrine presupposes some others…)
– the doctrine of original and actual sins that condemn us
– the doctrine of the deity and humanity of the person of Christ (He was fully God and fully man)
– the doctrine of Christ’s in-our-place sacrifice of Himself as a ransom for many and as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world
– the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead (that’s NEXT Sunday!)
Some of the secondary fundamental doctrines – still important, but not crucial to saving faith – are the teachings on Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
Besides that, there are also some non-fundamental doctrines – ones that do not bring us forgiveness of sins, and so do not affect our salvation, one way or the other. These include things like the doctrine of angels, the doctrine of church authority or polity, the doctrine concerning what exactly will happen at the end times. We do not want to overlook these things entirely, but they are not the foundation of justifying faith.
- False Doctrines
Now there have also been and still are false doctrines within the Christian faith. The Bible teaches that doctrine has three common sources: man, devils, and God. In Mark 7, Jesus contrasts the doctrines of God with the teachings and rules taught by men, which He says are not authoritative or binding. Paul advised the Colossian Christians to avoid the self-imposed, falsely created doctrines of men. Likewise, Paul urged Timothy to have nothing to do with godless myths, old wives’ tales and things taught by demons. The doctrine of God is often called “sound doctrine” and it can only be based on Divine revelation and cannot, in any part, come from human experience, ideas, or imagination. Someone might say, “Well, my idea of God is…” The problem with that is that people’s idea of God just might be idolatry if it is not based squarely on the Word of God, and on sound doctrine. The word we use for false teaching is heresy.
You can find many, many different heresies from the past 2,000 years. A few big name ones include:
Arianism – the 4th century heresy that taught that Jesus Christ was created by the Father, that He had a beginning in time, and that the title “Son of God” was a courtesy one. This heresy was addressed and condemned by the 325 Council of Nicaea.
Pelagianism – the 5th century heresy that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without divine aid.
Docetism – the belief that Jesus’ physical body and his crucifixion were both illusions.
Gnosticism – the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect god, and that you need special knowledge (gnosis) to be freed from this material world.
Antinomianism – the teaching that Christians are freed by grace from obligations of any moral law… basically a rejection of the Ten Commandments.
Of course, Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church as a heretic, because he did not see doctrines like papal infallibility, purgatory, indulgences, and the worship of Mary and saints as having their origin and foundation in God’s Word. Don’t be worried that we are all part of a heretical church – Luther’s writings and interpretations are all squarely founded on the sound doctrine of God’s holy Word.
More modern heresies include, as I’ve mentioned before, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Latter Day Saints who do not acknowledge the Trinity, and even the Prosperity Gospel preachers that I mentioned last Sunday.
We are called to be aware of and to beware of all of these false teachings.
- Why is doctrine important?
Let’s get back to the original question… Why is doctrine important? Why is God’s road map important? It is important because it is the true and collated teachings of God’s Word.
If we want to compare life to traveling down a road… well, there are many roads that take people through life, and we don’t want to be travelling the wrong road. Jesus actually used that analogy once Himself. He said, the road to destruction is wide and many travel it, but the road to life is narrow and only a few are travelling that road. That narrow road is the road of true teaching, true doctrine, true faith. The Bible is God’s Road Map – yes!! There is a place that God’s road wants to lead us – to heaven, to His presence, eternally. There are other paths in life, and you can be as sincere as can be in following a road, but if that road doesn’t lead you to God… if it leads you to the city dump… well, that’s just not what God desires for you, and I suspect it’s not where you want to end up either!
We get some pretty sound doctrine in our Philippians 2 lesson today. There we hear that Jesus was in very nature God – His divinity… sound doctrine. We hear that He was found in human nature – His humanity… sound doctrine. We find that he took the nature of a servant, and humbled Himself right to death on a cross – His sacrifice of Himself for our forgiveness… sound doctrine. We read that God exalted Him, and that implies His resurrection from the dead (oh, that’s NEXT Sunday)… but it’s sound doctrine. And we hear that at the last day Jesus will be proclaimed and worshiped as Lord – some hope of heaven for all who bow and confess… and that’s sounds doctrine, and full of comfort and joy.
So that’s what doctrine is. That’s why it is important. It is the road map that takes us through life, over all the bumps and potholes, through all the detours, past all the wrong turns, and often seeming to go against one way traffic – oh, don’t worry about that… that’s just the wide road that leads to destruction. Sound doctrine based on God’s Word takes us straight through life into the arms of Jesus. And that’s where we want to end up! Amen.