Why take heed to doctrine? The title of this rubric is “Taking Heed to the Doctrine.” Writing for this rubric, I must take heed to doctrine. Reading this rubric, you take heed to doctrine. Before writing one article in explanation of the doctrine of the Reformed faith, an examination of the reason for the whole enterprise of theology and the importance of doctrine should be conducted. In any endeavor it is good to ask “why? Why do you do what you do?” And because young pastor Timothy, who was exhorted to take heed to the doctrine, was first exhorted to take heed to himself
(I Tim. 4:16, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine….”), it will be good to examine the Scriptures and ask, “Why should I take heed to doctrine?” But with that, also to examine my (our) own heart and ask, “Why do I take heed to doctrine?”
The biblical term “doctrine” means “teaching.” To “take heed” means “to hold onto and pay close attention to.” Why hold tightly and pay close attention to the teachings of the Bible?
Jesus did. Upon the commencement of Jesus’ earthly ministry, a wave of astonishment rolled over Palestine because of his doctrine. Matthew concludes his inspired telling of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount with this notice repeated often by the gospel writers: “…the people were astonished at his doctrine,” (Matt.7:28). Regardless of what the audiences did with Jesus’ doctrine, it is clear that Jesus took heed to the doctrine. Why?
Why should the officebearer like Paul or Timothy and even the individual believer in an unofficial capacity, especially amid all the busyness and responsibilities of life, eagerly study, diligently read, rigorously defend, carefully write, and enthusiastically teach and bear witness to doctrine?
Why should we continually pursue exactness of theological expression in the finer and broader points of the essentials truths of Scripture, both personally and ecclesiastically?
Why have, maintain, and use creeds of doctrinal statements and seek communion with other churches only on the basis of complete agreement with those statements?
Why should the preacher labor to bring the meat of sound, carefully explained and edifying doctrine into the pulpit each week? And why should the believer expect and seek such doctrine?
Of all the profitable things to teach children about themselves and their world, why teach them doctrine and require them to know terms like “imputation” or “propitiation” and memorize doctrinal formulations? And why teach them that, according to our Reformed confession, the first criterion for determining whether a church is a true church of Christ is if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein? And why train them with a view to standing up in the assembly of the saints one day to promise, “I acknowledge the doctrine contained in the Old and New Testaments and in the Articles of the Christian faith and taught here in this Christian church to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation and I am resolved by the grace of God to adhere to this doctrine and reject all heresies repugnant thereto”?
Why charge some doctrines as being false, even heretical and wicked, declaring that not everything is true and not everyone is right? Why promise to do this as an officebearer?
When a friend or family member desires to separate from your congregation because of an alleged excessiveness in taking heed to doctrine, what do you say?
Taking heed to doctrine likely will not immediately benefit the physical condition and improve the felt needs of one human being. Giving a thirsty man a drink or a shivering woman a garment will immediately improve their condition. But spending an entire evening struggling through 25 pages of Luther’s Bondage of the Will or memorizing an answer from the Heidelberg Catechism will not immediately improve the felt condition of anyone; in fact, focusing intensely and intelligibly upon the sense of each sentence will probably give one a headache, making his felt condition worse.
Taking heed to doctrine may even bring a sword of division in homes and relationships.
In this article and the next I intend to present six answers to the question “why?”
1. Confession: Because doctrine is what we say about God and what we say about God is enormously important.
Doctrine is a thematic summary of what the Bible teaches on a certain subject. Because the Bible is God’s revelation of Himself, the Bible’s teaching is a description in words of who God is, what God does, and what God commands. Jesus called His doctrine (teachings) “God’s words” (John 8:47) because those words were not only from God but about God. Doctrine is what we say about God.
With our tongues and from our hearts we must say something about God. The Bible calls this a confession (Rom. 10:9-10). God did not graciously reveal Himself in His Son our Lord Jesus Christ or even manifest Himself in the creation around us so that we keep silent before that revelation. Silence is wicked. Misspeaking is worse. Deliberate blasphemy is worst of all, for God will not hold him guiltless who profanes His revelation.
We must speak of God in confession of doctrine and what we say about God is enormously important, for God is God.
Even what we say about people is important. Misspell someone’s name, and they will spot it a mile away. Mispronounce someone’s first name, and they will hear it from the next town over. Unintentionally misspeak and misrepresent a politician’s educational credentials and career accomplishments while introducing him to an audience, and he will quietly grind in his soul. Maliciously slander another’s character or work, and you will draw his ire and provoke God to wrath. The Bible exhorts us to speak the truth in love, and an entire commandment—the ninth—is devoted to what we say about other people.
We are infinitesimally small specks of dust in the vast expanse of the universe. We are not infinitely glorious. We did not create heaven and earth. We did not redeem elect humanity unto everlasting life. And yet it is universally recognized—by believers, by heathens, and by professing Christians who have an aversion to doctrine and the zealous maintenance of it—that what we say about the identity, character, and work of our fellow human beings is very important.
What about God? God is God! God is the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, the awesomely holy Creator of matchless glory, the God of redemption in Jesus Christ, whose mercy is as great as the heaven is high above the earth. Why take heed to doctrine? Because doctrine is what we say about God, and what we say about God is more important than anything else.
If, for example, we say that regeneration is the Spirit’s sovereign and gracious work of pervading the inmost recesses of the spiritually dead, elect sinner and creating spiritual life in him, or if we say regeneration is the Spirit’s work of bestowing life upon a sinner in response to his request for it through his decision to devote his life to Jesus, we are making two radically different, mutually exclusive doctrinal statements. Both cannot be right. Does it even matter? Most definitely! What we say about a doctrine such as regeneration is what we say about God, for He is the Author of regeneration. God has revealed to us in Scripture this highly celebrated, supernatural, most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable work that is not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from dead. We must say something about it! We must confess it! And every doctrinal statement we make of regeneration or any other work of God is enormously important because we are saying something about God Himself. In doctrinal controversies the church of Christ is not engaged in an inconsequential and trivial war over words, but is battling for the honor of the Most High who reveals Himself in the person of the incarnate Word Jesus Christ and through written words in Scripture.
2. Love: Because knowing doctrine is knowing the God whom we love.
Doctrine describes our God. We come to know our God and all the greatness of His being and the wonders of His love through the teachings of the Bible. The doctrine of creation reveals the matchless power and wisdom of Jehovah in whom our help stands. The doctrine of the passion and death of Christ reveals the boundless love of the God who gave His Son to that inexpressible suffering on our behalf; it reveals the burning holiness of God who so hates sin and loves Himself as the highest good that He must punish sin with extreme, that is, everlasting punishment of body and soul; and it reveals the heavenly righteousness of God whose justice required such suffering for complete satisfaction. Biblical doctrine reveals our God as He really is—a consuming fire to His despisers and a compassionate Father to His adopted children and heirs.
To be saved by grace is to be incorporated into the everlasting fellowship of God’s covenant, so that we know Him savingly and cleave to Him in love. We eat and drink with Him. Like righteous Abraham, we are His friends. All those who truly love and walk with God take heed to doctrine because through their knowledge of doctrine they grow in their knowledge of and love for their covenant Friend.
If a young man takes a young woman to a restaurant and loses himself in his phone or the football game on the wall behind her head, then his words “I love you” are empty. The proof is that he has no interest in knowing her. But if he really loved her, he would find such pleasure in getting to know everything about her, her background, her education, her family, her work, her interests, her spiritual convictions, and even such petty things as whether she prefers dark or milk chocolate. If it concerns her, he wants to know it because he loves her.
If the Christian takes the name of God and Jesus Christ upon his lips but loses himself in his earthly life, then his words “I love God” are empty. The proof is that he has no interest in knowing God. If we really love God—and, praise God, we do!—then we find pleasure in the reading, studying, hearing, and discussing of sound doctrine because through knowing that doctrine we come to know better and love deeper our God.
It is very discouraging for elders to hear a church member, or for parents to hear a child, or for companions to hear a friend say, “I don’t really care about doctrine,” or to demonstrate the same by their conduct because they are essentially saying, “I don’t care about and love God and His Son Jesus Christ.” How can you know and love God without knowing doctrine?
It is a gracious privilege almost too wonderful to believe that the triune God of transcendent glory and infinite perfections, who dwells in supremely blessed communion in His own eternal being, should take knowledge of us contemptible rebels, who are nothing of ourselves and even less than vanity, and by the precious blood of His beloved Son take us into His communion, transform us into His likeness, and give us true knowledge of Him by sharing His secrets with us so that we might know Him intimately in love. Why take heed to doctrine? Because knowing doctrine is knowing God whom we love.
Naboth the Jezreelite loved and therefore took heed to (held onto and paid close attention to) his inheritance as a parcel of land in Canaan—a type of his covenant salvation in Christ. For refusing to sell his heritage Naboth was murdered by the king and queen. God is our heritage. God’s people sing in Psalm 16:5, “The Lord is the portion of my inheritance…” and in Psalm 73:26, “My flesh and my heart faileth, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Inasmuch as the biblical doctrine of God is the revelation of our God—whom to know is life eternal—doctrine is our heritage. Every spiritual Naboth prizes his doctrinal heritage and is willing to die for it.
Why take heed to doctrine? Because we love God.
“And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.” Ephesians 2:20-21
John Calvin comments:
They are built on the foundation—they are founded on the doctrine, of the apostles and prophets. We are thus enabled to distinguish between a true and a false church. This is of the greatest importance; for the tendency to error is always strong, and the consequences of mistake are dangerous in the extreme. No churches boast more loudly of the name than those which bear a false and empty title; as may be seen in our own times. To guard us against mistake, the mark of a true church is pointed out. Foundation, in this passage, unquestionably means doctrine; for no mention is made of patriarchs or pious kings, but only of those who held the office of teachers, and whom God had appointed to superintend the edification of his church. It is laid down by Paul that the faith of the church ought to be founded on this doctrine. What opinion, then, must we form of those who rest entirely on the contrivances of men, and yet accuse us of revolt, because we embrace the pure doctrine of God?
We are answering the question: Why take heed to doctrine? Doctrine is a thematic summary in formulated propositions of what the Bible teaches on a certain subject. Reformed doctrine is the system of the truths of divine revelation that are embodied in the Reformed standards and declared by Reformed churches to be the expression of their faith. Why hold on to and pay close attention to this doctrine? Our first two answers given were:
- Confession: Because doctrine is what we say about God, and what we say about God is enormously important.
- Love: Because knowing doctrine is knowing the God whom we love.
We continue with four additional answers derived from the reality that the foundation of the church is the pure doctrine of Christ as taught in Ephesians 2:20-21; therefore, the whole structure of the church in her faith and life is determined by her doctrinal foundation. Asking the question “Why take heed to doctrine?” then, is like asking the builder “Why take heed to the foundation?”
3. Worship: Because doctrine is the foundation for worship.
The goal of all things is the worship of God. The redeemed church exists for God’s glory. Unlike the reprobate wicked whom God uses to glorify Himself in spite of their hatred for Him, and unlike the brute creation that gives glory to God without conscious awareness of it, believers in the church have an intellectual understanding of God by faith and willingly, consciously, and joyfully extol Him from the heart. But how can we arrive at an understanding of our covenant God apart from a careful study of His revelation to us in the doctrines (teachings) of the Bible? We must worship God in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24); therefore, doctrinal knowledge is a sine qua non for worship.
To put it differently, doctrine exists for the purpose of doxology and is necessary for doxology even as the foundation exists for the house and is necessary for the house. No doctrine means no doxology, and false doctrine tends to idolatry. We take heed to doctrine so that we might rightly know and then fittingly praise our God. The energetic worshiper producing spirited worship is an abomination to God if he is not baptized with the fire of the Holy Spirit kindled in the heart by sound intellectual knowledge of the doctrine of God in Christ. If the Spirit is generating fervor in a man’s heart and doxologies from his lips, it is because his heart is being warmed at the fire of God’s Word rightly interpreted.
Careful attention to doctrine in public worship—as opposed to whatever else it may be that man in his vanity craves, like the inspirational pep talks or gospel jams of “contemporary worship”—does not make worship dull and barren. When a congregation of believing sinners is brought to stand under the shadow of the cross and see the eternal, unchangeable, particular, saving love of God through a faithfully explained, sensibly applied, and dynamically delivered exposition of Scripture by a preacher who cries, “Behold your God!” hearts come alive in fruitful worship.
Who exclaims in doxology, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!…for of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever, Amen”! (Rom. 11:33-36), but that blessed Jewish or Grecian soul that has sat spellbound at the feet of the holy apostle listening to him explain with careful doctrinal precision the righteousness of God that is revealed from faith to faith?
Who sings in doxology, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen”! (I Tim. 1:17), but that humble speck of dust who has first given himself to serious contemplation of the loaded doctrinal statement, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief” (I Tim. 1:15), and made it his own?
Who cries in doxology, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is. 6:3) and cries so loudly that the posts of the doors move (Is. 6:4), but that creature, heavenly or other, who has stood in the immediate presence of the enthroned God?
We take heed to doctrine. Why? It is the foundation of our worship. The church must take heed to sound doctrine, for only the foundation of sound doctrine—Christ Himself being the Chief Cornerstone—makes possible a fitly framed building of doxology to God. Orthodoxy! Orthodoxy not for the sake of orthodoxy; orthodoxy for the sake of doxology.
4. Salvation: Because doctrine is the foundation for the enjoyment of salvation.
While it is possible for an infant or a severely mentally handicapped child of believing parents to be saved and taken to glory apart from an intellectual apprehension of the doctrines revealed in Scripture, the rule is that God saves His people by an active, conscious faith in the Lord Jesus, whereby the elect, believing sinner smites his breast and urgently pleads, “I cry in deep need and Thy help I implore, make hast to the rescue I pray! My Savior Thou art, and my strength evermore, no longer Thy coming delay!” (Psalter, #188). Romans 10:13 states, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Those who call upon the Lord are those who have been given faith, and faith is worked to activity by God through the preaching of the holy gospel, so that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:14-17). God saves us by faith in the teachings (doctrines) of His Word—Christ being the Word incarnate. Therefore, doctrine is foundational for salvation—for the personal enjoyment of salvation’s comfort and peace.
How can it be that an individual says he is a Christian who enjoys salvation in a personal relationship with Christ, but is ignorant of the teachings of the Bible or has an aversion to doctrine? How can any possess assurance of salvation when with conviction they believe in erroneous doctrine that makes salvation dependent upon their own worth, will, or works? Where you find a building of spiritually healthy saints enjoying communion with God, you find beneath a foundation of true doctrine.
That doctrine is the foundation of the enjoyment of salvation is what makes the pastoral ministry not only possible but a privilege. To be pitied is the poor pastor or congregation that disparages or is deprived of doctrine. What comfort is there apart from knowledge of the truth? The pastor visits the diseased, the lonely, the betrayed, the heartbroken, the grieving, the frustrated, the doubting, the dying, and the wayward and he comes with one thing—the doctrine of Christ in the Scripture. To a spiritually battered woman plagued by doubts and fears, to a grief-stricken family in a cold cemetery, or to a physically broken and discouraged young man suffering from the ravages of months of chemo treatments that did not knock his cancer numbers down one point, the Reformed pastor, like the apostles and prophets before him, comes with the doctrine of God’s Word, which the Comforter, through prayer, applies to the troubled heart. If all that one can offer suffering sinners are pills, drugs, massages, exercises, hugs, oft-repeated mantras, or psychological tricks to help them escape to their mind’s happy place, even though some of those means actually are helps, their souls will never rise out of their mire. God’s people need doctrine. God’s people need right doctrine, or they will be buried in their sins. The Spirit gives comfort to the believing heart through the reading of Scripture and the explanation of such glorious doctrines as divine providence, the preservation of the saints, the attributes of God, and always the effectual redemption of the cross from which victory was announced, “It is finished.”
To live and die happily we must know the doctrines of sin (how bad we all by nature really are), deliverance (how gracious, comprehensive, and precious our everlasting salvation in Christ really is), and gratitude (how liberating it really is to keep the law and pray from a grateful heart of praise).
We take heed to doctrine. Why? Right doctrine is the foundation for the enjoyment of salvation.
5. Life: Because doctrine is the foundation for the Christian life.
There must be an active, antithetical, fruitful Christian life of holiness. What good is the doctrinal foundation shaped by creeds, preaching, catechism, good books, and polemics if there is no holy temple sitting on that foundation? What good is maintaining doctrine if there is no serious devotional life, no hatred for evil, no humble witnessing of the gospel, no gracious tongue, no love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance, but a house of adulteries, unclean mouths, lasciviousness, hatred, bickering, strife, seditions, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, laziness, and haughty self-righteousness doctrine-confessors? To the great shame of the church, sometimes this filth flows out her doors in the lives of those who profess to know God but deny Him in their works. But this is not the doctrine’s fault! Nor is the command to take heed to the doctrine at fault. The sinner is at fault. Shame on you, sinner, for marring Christ’s name and church and doctrine! Are you that sinner? Am I? Bow your head and plead for mercy right now if you are.
An active, antithetical, fruitful Christian life of holiness has only one foundation and it is the saving knowledge of and proper appreciation for the doctrine of God. Hosea 4:1 says there was “no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land,” and in verse 6 God declares, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” The evidence of Israel’s lack of knowledge was obvious, and it was not merely their ignorance of God; it was their appalling wickedness of life described in verse 2 as swearing, lying, killing, stealing, committing adultery, and breaking out with blood touching blood.
Where true doctrine is faithfully taught there might be instances of wickedness for a variety of reasons; but where true doctrine is minimized, ignored, rejected, or corrupted there will necessarily be indifferent lives devoid of serious convictions and profane lives of wickedness. There is only one foundation for a building fitly framed together in holiness and that is the doctrinal foundation of Christ. Where there is no Christ, there is no life.
Some professing Christians have a serious misunderstanding of doctrine when they say that doctrine is a collection of irrelevant, abstract, heady propositions stifling a free and happy life of godliness. They claim they are doers while others are hearers and their church is practical while others are doctrinal. Doctrine is the truth concerning God and man and sin and the world and Christ and salvation and the church and the future of all things, and as such it is the only foundation for life.
What we believe determines how we live. If your doctrine is that a monthly trip to the chiropractor is the key to a wholesome life, and you really believe it and have even experienced the truth of it, then you will adapt your whole life, including finances and time, to live according to that doctrine. If you operate a burger chain and your doctrine or core business philosophy is “customer-friendly service at all costs,” then you live accordingly and keep your restaurant clean, your food hot, and your workers cheery. If your doctrine is that there is no God, no final judgment, and no hell, then you live for the flesh. If your doctrine is that the whole or part of your righteousness with God is founded upon your good works, then you live your life arrogantly, trying to merit with God and, consequently, have a poor conscience that is continually vexed. If your doctrine is that doctrine is evil, then you, ironically, criticize people who maintain doctrine.
But if your doctrine is the doctrine of Christ that you hear preached, believe by faith, and confess in sincerity, then the Spirit will see to it that you live an active, antithetical, fruitful life. For example, sovereign, eternal election is a lofty subject. When you begin to grasp the truth of your own election by faith, then you do not believe you may safely perpetuate every species of the most atrocious crimes under the sun, but your heart is overwhelmed, you adore the depths of God’s mercies, cleanse yourself, and walk with a humble heart and willing hands.
We take heed to doctrine. Why? Right doctrine is the foundation for the Christian life.
6. Unity: Because doctrine is the foundation for unity.
It is commonly said that love unites and doctrine divides. Doctrine does not divide. Sin divides. Doctrinal deviance divides. Right doctrine unifies by giving a solid basis for true spiritual agreement.
Throughout the ages, Christians have always united on the basis of doctrinal truth and separated from those who do not agree in those doctrines. This is not strange. A gang of notoriously violent thugs in Mexico or worshipers in a Buddhist monastery in Asia or campaigners for an American political party are not held together by their dress or language or feelings, but by some objective, propositional truth-claims, written or unwritten, to which everyone in the group implicitly or explicitly agrees; otherwise they leave or are excluded. This is how groups form and stay united. Yet when a Reformed church pursues and seeks to express unity only on the basis of the essential truths of God’s Word, she is regarded as proud, divisive, and narrow-minded.
Unity is especially the emphasis at the end of Ephesians 2. Former curious art-using, impious book-reading, fornicating, idolatrous Gentiles from afar off and Law-of-Moses-observing, bullock-sacrificing, Passover-keeping Jews could come together in Ephesus as one habitation of God builded together through the Spirit. For, in spite of all their differences, they were fitly framed together upon the foundation of “by grace in Jesus Christ are we saved through faith and that not of ourselves it is the gift of God, not of works lest any of us should boast.”
We take heed to doctrine. Why? It is the foundation of our unity together.
The urgency in earnestly taking heed to doctrine is that Satan knows sound doctrine is the foundation of the church he detests and, therefore, he will fiendishly contend against it until his time is up.
The comfort in taking heed to doctrine is that God loves Himself and, therefore, loves right doctrine. No more than it is possible for God to be destroyed is the absolute and universal deprivation of His doctrine possible on earth. God will always preserve a remnant that steadfastly holds to true doctrine. By this doctrine the true church is known.