Why Sound Doctrine Matters

Why Sound Doctrine Matters

Why Sound Doctrine Matters

While it is true that one can study theology and be devoid of sanctifying grace in the heart, it is wrong to denigrate theology and reduce Christianity to a religion of feeling and pure emotionalism. Christianity is not pure rationalism but neither is it pure emotionalism.

While we are called to know God in the sense of loving him in a personal relationship, knowing God in the sense of having the right theology is essential to the former. The attempt to undermine theology, silence every concern about theological faithfulness, and permit every theological aberration in the name of the experience they give is contrary to biblical Christianity.

As I studied through the pastoral letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus) this outgoing week, I discovered that for Paul, theology is important to worship, devotion, and morality. While Paul was concerned about having godly elders pastoring godly people who love God, he consistently grounds that on faithfulness to the sound doctrine and deposit that have been committed to those elders. For him, theology is vital and foundational.

The truth sanctifies

When Jesus was with his disciples, he committed to them the words he had received from the Father. The disciples accepted these words as coming from the Father (John 17:6-8) and believed that indeed Jesus was sent by the Father.

Now that Jesus was about to leave, he prayed that the Father would protect his disciples since the world hated them because of the words of the Father he gave to them (verses 14-16). How will the Father keep them from the world and the evil one who hated them because of the word? He would do so by sanctifying them by the same word, the truth from God that Jesus had given them (John 17:17).

According to Adam Clarke, this prayer might be understood in two senses: “that they might be fully consecrated to the work of the ministry, and separated from all worldly concerns” and “that they might be holy, and patterns of holiness to those to whom they announced the salvation of God.”[1]

For Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, this is a prayer for the “advancement and completion of their begun sanctification” and Albert Barnes agrees with Clarke that Jesus prayed that they might be “made personally more holy, and might be truly consecrated to God as the ministers of his religion.”[2]

The point here is that the words of Jesus committed to his disciples were the medium of their consecration and holiness. The truth sanctifies.

But we can even go further backward (logically) in the Christian experience to see the importance of the word of God, the truth. Regeneration, the new birth, is the work of the Spirit (John 3:5, Titus 3:5) but he does it through the “word of truth” (James 1:18), what Peter calls the “living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). Or as Jesus said to the Jews, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The Spirit of God works through the truth, the word of God, to regenerate hearts, setting them free from slavery to sin, flesh, law, and death, into the freedom to repent, believe, and obey God.[3]

The pastoral epistles also emphasise the sanctifying power of the truth.

In 1 Timothy 1:5, we see that aim of Paul’s charge/injunction/command to Timothy is “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” But what precedes this verse is Paul’s call to Timothy to hold forth to sound doctrine and “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies” (verse 4).

The aim of Paul’s charge to doctrinal faithfulness and abstinence from unwholesome myths and endless genealogies is to foster genuine love in believers. That is, holding on to the truth and staying away from errors is a good recipe to make us more loving.

In the second letter to Timothy, Paul admonished him to continue in what he has firmly believed remembering from whom he learnt them. But this goes beyond what Paul himself had taught him; the remembrance must reach the OT scriptures that he was taught as a child. But why should he continue in what he had learnt and remember his early instructions in sacred writings? Because the sacred writings “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:14-16).

What Paul has in mind here is not just justification; rather, he talks about salvation in a comprehensive manner – not just the salvation we have already experienced in justification but the one we continue to experience in sanctification and will experience in glorification.

How do we know this? In the next two verses, Paul shows how Scripture is for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, and the end goal is that “the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Therefore, the salvation in verse 15 is comprehensive and includes sanctification. But how does Scripture make us wise for salvation? It is by faith in Christ Jesus. Scripture invites us to put faith in Christ, the one who is able to forgive our sins, cleanse us from them, and empower us to live as those dead to sin and alive to righteousness (Romans 6).

Reading and knowing the truth alone does not save. However, the truth, as revealed in Scripture, is still the instrument that God uses to bring us to faith and the end of faith – salvation.

We see this same connection between truth and sanctification in Paul’s letter to Titus. Paul wanted Titus to insist on the fact that we have been justified by faith and not by our works and that the grace of God that accomplishes this justification also transforms us from who we used to be to who we now are (Titus 3:1-8). Why should Titus insist on this double cure? It is “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (verse 8). Donald Guthrie puts it best: “These affirmations are particularly to be directed towards those who have trusted in God, for a true belief is an indispensable basis for the right ordering of conduct.”[4]

What Paul is teaching Titus here is that Christianity is neither antinomianism (those who have been justified do leave the old life behind – verses 1-3) nor legalism (justification is by faith not works – verses 4-7). Knowing what true Christianity is in this way, Paul says, is crucial to producing good works in believers.

When you bring all these verses together, it is evident that while truth itself can do nothing on its own, it is the means that God uses to sanctify us. Knowing the truth about God is a tool in God’s hand for sanctification. While truth can be in the head without faith in the heart, this does not undermine the role of truth in sanctification or the fact that the Spirit uses it to regenerate and sanctify.

Where faith is present and the Spirit is working, the more we know about God, the more we know God.

Sound doctrine reveals the will of God

Seeking to know more of the truth of God’s word is not inimical to holiness for it is through God’s revealed word that we know how we are meant to please him.

When we wander into false doctrine, we will misconstrue God and his will and we’ll begin to approve what he disapproves and disapprove what he approves. This was Jesus’s challenge to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 15.

According to Christ, these ones held on to their extra-biblical traditions even when it made void the word of God. The fifth commandment in the decalogue was made subordinate to the tradition of the elders. By holding on to traditions contradictory to God’s truth, they became confused about the will of God.

For example, they forgot that what truly defiles is what comes out of the heart and instead prioritised external defilements and made different laws about ceremonial cleansing.

Failure to know the truths of God’s word can also lead us into the same confusion about God’s will. We begin to adhere to human traditions, making God’s word void as a result. Instead of holding to God’s revealed will, we begin to manufacture our own holiness standards.  On the one hand, instead of freedom, we are drawn into bondage. And on the other hand, instead of freedom, we are drawn into license and libertinism. That is, we either impose standards God didn’t or use our clever traditions to ignore standards he has actually imposed.

For Paul, the way we know what is unlawful and immoral is to pay attention to biblical doctrine.  After listing some sins that are contrary to God’s moral laws (1 Timothy 1:8-10), Paul concludes that anything that is contrary to “sound doctrine in accordance with the gospel” should also be included in this list of unlawfulness.

This reminds me of Galatians 2 where Paul rebuked Peter not for disobeying any particular moral law but because he was not “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:12).

Paul considers Christian morality to go beyond natural law/moral law. Everything that is contradictory to the sound doctrine of the gospel – anything that is anti-gospel – is immoral. A Jew refusing to eat with a gentile when God has reconciled both in one (Ephesians 2:11-21) is wrong because it is anti-gospel.

We find this connection between doctrine and morality again in Titus. Paul wants Titus to teach believers what accords with sound doctrine. According to Guthrie, this means, what is suitable or fitting to sound doctrine.[5] Paul then goes on in verses 2-10 to list moral virtues that older men, older women, young women, and young men should manifest and exemplify.

Paul’s point is that the sound doctrine of the gospel has moral implications; there are moral virtues that are suitable to the gospel and only by teaching the sound doctrine of the gospel can these moral virtues be known and then manifested.

How do we know how to live in this world? It’s not by creating our own traditions and holiness standards but by knowing the sound doctrine of the gospel and the moral virtues that that doctrine entails. When we slide away from this sound doctrine, we create wrong entailments and our morality is muddled up.

Of course, one can know the entailments of the gospel without paying attention to them. However, true Christian morality that is free from the fads of various Christian movements (traditions) can only be rooted in a correct understanding of the gospel and its entailments. 

False doctrines lead to ungodliness and apostasy

Apostle John identified the antichrists who departed from the church as those who denied that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22-23). To protect his readers from the same apostasy, he encouraged them to abide by what they heard in the beginning. In essence, staying faithful to the true doctrine about Christ is the way to avoid the path of the antichrists.

We see this same connection in the pastoral epistles.

Paul called on Titus to warn his people from listening to the doctrines and commands of people who turn away from the truth (Titus 1:14). The only way for them to avoid the fate of these ones is to be “sound in the faith” (verse 13).

In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul told Timothy that the Spirit expressly said that many will depart from the faith. But how will that happen? It’ll happen when these ones devote themselves to “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). Some of these teachings of demons include forbidding marriage and requiring abstinence from certain foods (which goes back to the point made in the previous section). Start off on that path and apostasy is a real threat.

Two chapters later, we also see that many who gave themselves to irreverent babble and contradictions swerved from the faith (1 Timothy 6:20-21). Those who disregarded the sound words of Jesus Christ to teach false doctrines are described by Paul as those who love controversy and quarrels (6:3,4). And where does this love for controversy and quarrels (and the consequent false doctrines it breeds) lead? Envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicion, and constant friction (6:4,5).

In 2 Timothy 2:16-19, we also see the connection between false doctrine (irreverent babbling) and ungodliness and then apostasy. These false teachers ended up defecting from the true path. [6]

The false prophets and teachers that Peter warned about in 2 Peter 2:1-3 were also marked by their sensuality. And Peter was confident that their judgment was imminent.

Finally, Paul wrote to Titus that those who end up stirring divisions by quarreling about foolish controversies and genealogies are warped, sinful, and self-condemned (Titus 1:9-10).

False doctrines reveal ungodliness, instability, immaturity, and ignorance

But for Paul, false doctrines reveal ungodliness as much as they lead to them. And many times, it’s hard to even know which one causes the other.

In 2 Timothy 3, we learn that the false teachings of the false teachers appealed to a particular set of people: “weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions” (verse 6). Paul’s point is that these women were more amenable to false doctrines because they were already walking the path of ungodliness – led astray by various passions.

Also, in the next chapter, those who accumulate false teachers for themselves are those who need to hear things that “suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3). These ones ended up wandering off into myths (verse 4). Peter also noticed that false teachers attract those who are seized by the “sensual passions of the flesh” (2 Peter 2:18). He also described these ones as immature in the faith: barely escaping from those who live in error. Paul also sees immaturity and infantility in the faith as breeding grounds for false doctrines (Romans 16:18, Ephesians 4:14) and the author of Hebrews agrees (Hebrews 5:11-14)

In like manner, people who are ignorant and unstable are more prone to distort the truth or accept such distortions (2 Peter 3:16; 2:14, Hosea 4:6, Matthew 13:1-23).[7]

Knowing and loving God

When you read Psalms 119, you see a David who is in love with God’s word. To take just one verse: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” David constantly desired to grow in his knowledge of who God is as revealed in his word.

But David’s “supreme desire was to know and enjoy God himself … he wanted to understand God’s truth in order that his heart might respond to it and his life be confirmed to it … he was interested in truth and orthodoxy in biblical teaching and theology, not as ends in themselves, but as means to the further ends of life and godliness.”[8]

Notice that though knowledge about God can be sought for its own sake, in itself, it is foundational to growing in love for God and fellowship with him. David desired to know more theology to quench his thirst for more of God (Psalms 63).

“There can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge” even though mere doctrinal knowledge can exist without leading to spiritual health.[9]

The point here is that while doctrinal knowledge in itself won’t lead to love and fellowship, it is crucial to such growth in love and fellowship with God. As Peter commanded us, we are to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Conclusion

In the first chapter of his book on the holy spirit, J.I. Packer began by acknowledging that “just as notional knowledge may outrun spiritual experience, so a person’s spiritual experience may be ahead of his notional knowledge”.[10] For example, Jesus was able to transform the disciples beyond what they could understand and grasp before his death and resurrection.

God, in his grace, can even “deepen our life in the Spirit even when our ideas about this life are non-existent or quite wrong, provided only that we are truly and wholeheartedly seeking his face and wanting to come closer to him”[11]

Does this then mean that we can ignore the truthfulness or falseness of our ideas about the triune God? Can we depend on having the right emotional connection with God and care less about theology?

“I am not saying that God blesses the ignorant and erring by reason of their ignorance and error. Nor am I saying that God does not care whether or not we know and grasp his revealed purposes. Nor do I suggest that ignorance and error are unimportant for spiritual health so long as one has an honest heart and a genuine passion for God. It is certain that God blesses believers precisely and invariably by blessing to them something of his truth and that misbelief as such is in its own nature spiritually barren and destructive.”

Packer’s point is that while God can overlook our ignorance and error and still give us spiritually refreshing fellowship with himself, we must not idealise ignorance and error since, as we have seen, they can lead to spiritual barrenness and destroy us.

Put simply, don’t take the grace of God in vain. Seek the sound doctrine of the gospel that sanctifies and reveals the will of God. Also, seek the sound doctrine of the gospel so you can escape from false doctrines that lead to ungodliness and apostasy. And seek holiness, purity, and spiritual maturity so you don’t become easy prey for destructive heresies.

In essence, knowledge of God sought with faith leads to growth in holiness and holiness makes us less immune to false knowledge of God.  In seeking one, we are seeking the other.

May we all grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, our saviour and Lord. 

More about Jesus would I know,

More of his grace to others show;

More of his saving fullness see,

More of his love who died for me.

More, more about Jesus,

More, more about Jesus;

More of his saving fullness see,

More of his love who died for me.

More about Jesus let me learn,

More of his holy will discern;

Spirit of God, my teacher be,

Showing the things of Christ to me.

More about Jesus; in his word,

Holding communion with my Lord;

Hearing his voice in ev’ry line,

Making each faithful saying mine.

More about Jesus on his throne,

Riches in glory all his own;

More of his kingdom’s sure increase;

More of his coming, Prince of Peace.


Footnotes

[1] Riversoft Systems (2022). My Sword Bible. Retrieved from https://www.mysword.info/

[2] Ibid

[3] For more on regeneration and the role of the word, see Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 114-138.

[4] Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 229.

[5] Ibid, 212.

[6] Ibid, 166.

[7] For more on the reasons why people are easily deceived, see The Renewed Mind, 3 Reasons Why You Are Easily Deceived, Available at https://therenewedmind.org/why-you-are-easily-deceived/

[8] J.I Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973), 25-26, Scribd.

[9] Ibid, 25.

[10] J.I Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, second edition (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 20.

[11] Ibid, 21.

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