What we believe, our creeds and doctrine is of vital importance.
A few years ago, whilst stuck in traffic, I saw a noticeboard outside a church. The words on it were few, but it gave a clear message. It said: Deeds not Creeds. I remember chuckling to myself as I read it, as I considered the irony that may have been lost on whoever placed it on the noticeboard. Clearly, unbeknown to them, this was their creed!
However much we may try, we cannot escape the need for a creed. Those who would seek to separate deeds from creeds are in danger of seeking to divide bedfellows; for our creeds inform our deeds.
What we believe, our creeds and doctrine, is of vital importance. It is our beliefs that drive us, motivate us, and move us to action. Wrong belief will inevitably lead to wrong action just as right belief will lead us to right action.
This is hugely significant to those who call themselves Christian. What Christians believe will impact how they think, how they live and what they do. This is why doctrine is so important.
Why Doctrine is Essential
Doctrine is important because the Bible says it is. The New Testament is replete with warnings to Christians about what they are to teach, and how to respond to those who teach falsehood. It is a constant theme in the letters of the Apostle Paul:
‘But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.’ Titus 2:1
‘So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.’ Ephesians 4:14
‘Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’ 2 Timothy 2:15
‘If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness.’ 1 Timothy 6:3
‘For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.’ 2 Timothy 4:3-4
Paul argues that sound teaching/doctrine is a vital component of true biblical Christianity. Without it, whatever is being taught is false and something other than Christianity. The question that now must be asked is ‘what doctrine?’
What Doctrine is Essential?
The Greek word translated doctrine διδαχή (didaché), means teaching. Doctrine is teaching. What is this teaching and where can it be found? Speaking to Timothy, the Apostle says:
‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.’ 2 Timothy 3:14-17
Paul tells Timothy to teach Scripture. He emphasises the importance of passing on the essential doctrine of the faith. The Bible is God’s Word and everything we need to know and teach can be found there. Doctrine is tested by Scripture and sound doctrine comes from Scripture.
Though Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”, it does not mean that everything in Scripture is of equal importance. Before you pick up stones, please allow me to explain. Theologians speak of primary and secondary doctrines. What is the difference?
Primary doctrines are those which are to be believed by all who would call themselves Christian. These teachings are signs of orthodoxy. A failure to believe in these doctrines would put a person outside of the Christian community.
This does not always mean that we can fully comprehend and articulate the finer points of these primary biblical doctrines, but we are to agree with them. An example of this may be the doctrine of the Trinity. This is a primary doctrine and, as such, must be believed by any who would claim to be an orthodox Christian. However, believing in the doctrine of the Trinity does not mean that we need to grasp it fully intellectually (how can we fully understand and explain the nature of God?) or even articulate it well. But, by the Spirit of God, we will testify that this is the teaching of Scripture.
Other examples of primary doctrine would be the Sinfulness of Man, the Deity of Christ, the Person of the Holy Spirit, the Death and Physical Resurrection of Christ, and Salvation by Faith Alone. These are primary doctrines because they are of salvific significance.
Secondary Doctrines are not unimportant but are those which may be disagreed upon by true believers. Examples of this may be the method and mode of baptism, the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, views of the end time (eschatology), and issues relating to the work of the Holy Spirit. These doctrines do not affect a person’s standing before God and their salvation.
With these distinctions of primary and secondary doctrine in mind, we need to concern ourselves with that which is most important: Christians must hold to doctrine that saves.
‘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. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.’ 1 Corinthians 15:1-5
Notice Paul here speaks of that which is of first importance. He reminds the Corinthian Church of the gospel he preached to them, telling them that if they hold fast to this teaching they are saved. What did he teach them? He taught ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day accordance with the Scriptures.’
This is thought to be the earliest Christian creed, an early doctrinal statement used by the Church. If this teaching is not believed, or is changed, you do not have Christianity – you have something else! Something which cannot save.
As I am writing this, a question has arisen in my mind, that may well be in yours. Tony, are you saying that we are saved by believing in a set of propositions, rather than faith in Jesus? Is salvation dependent upon an intellectual exercise – just believe the ‘right’ doctrine and you are in?
If I am giving the impression that Peter will be stood at the gates of heaven, only allowing in those who pass the doctrinal entrance test, then please forgive me. That is not what I am saying at all. Then what am I suggesting?
Previously I mentioned that just as those who seek to separate creeds and deeds are in error, so are those who seek to separate Jesus and doctrine. What we believe and teach about Jesus is of first importance.
What do Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Christadelphians, Scientologists, Baha’i, Muslims, and New Agers etc. have in common? They all believe in Jesus. What separates us from all these groups is our doctrine – who we believe Jesus to be and what we believe Jesus to have done.
Having made that clear (I hope); I would now like to consider three modern objections to doctrine.
All you Need is…Creeds?
‘We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.’ Isaiah 64:6
I have already briefly addressed the issue that deeds need creeds but underpinning the idea that all we need is deeds is the idea that we must save ourselves.
Most people believe that, if there is a heaven, entrance is predicated upon their deeds. God will let me in because I am a good person as evidenced by my good deeds. The Bible speaks about the need for good works:
‘Jesus said: In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’ Matthew 5:16
‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ James 2:18
‘For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.’ James 2:26
But the Bible does not teach that it is good works that saves. Rather they are an extension of, and they flow from, our salvation: We are saved by faith and not by works.
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ Ephesians 2:8-10
The belief that all you need is deeds, suggests that what we believe is irrelevant and our doctrine inconsequential. This cannot be reconciled with biblical truth.
All you Need is…Love?
All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need.The Beatles
Have you heard the oft quoted saying ‘Doctrine divides whereas love unites’? Sadly, this appears to sum up the current ecclesiastical zeitgeist. Ironically, this is a doctrinal statement and, though this sounds good (and very loving), it has far reaching implications.
Christians who advocate love over doctrine would suggest that we lay aside anything (in this case biblical truth) that would cause division and just accept one other. Inclusion is in and exclusion is out. What is the problem with that? There is much.
To achieve this, we must lay aside Biblical truth, lay aside the gospel that saves and lay aside the Christ of Christianity himself. We must accept anyone and everyone, regardless of what they believe, how they live, and what they think of Jesus. This is something we cannot, and must not, do.
There is no doubt that Christians are to love people, but not at the expense of truth. We are to speak the truth in love1 and point people to the one who said he was the Way, and the Truth and the Life2.
All you Need is…Jesus?
A few years back a spoken word video went viral. It was called ‘Why I hate religion but love Jesus.’ Now I had some sympathy with some of the lyrics, but it also made me nervous. Why? Because it implied that all you need is Jesus. Again, before you pick up stones, let me explain.
I wholeheartedly agree that all we need is Jesus, but what does that mean? For a start, who is this Jesus that we need? and why do I need him? The moment we ask those questions, we realise that we need doctrine.
“But I do not want doctrine, I just want Jesus”. Sorry to burst your bubble but you cannot have Jesus without doctrine.
All three of these positions try to bypass the need for doctrine. They claim that doctrine divides, but they could not be further from the truth. True biblical doctrine unites – it is false doctrine which divides.
‘I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.’ Romans 16:17
Teaching either no doctrine or contrary doctrine, rather than biblical doctrine, divides the church. True unity exists when we hold firm to the historic biblical doctrines of the Christian faith.
‘He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and to rebuke those who contradict it.’ Titus 1:9
Just as those early believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching3, we too must believe and teach biblical truth, contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints4.
1 Ephesians 4:15
2 John 14:6
3 Acts 2:42
4 Jude 3