The Importance of Sound Doctrine
CrossWay Community Church
September 8th, 2019
“Practice is the most proper evidence of trusting in Christ for salvation. The proper signification of the word trust, according to the more ordinary use of it, both in common speech and in the Holy Scriptures, is the emboldening and encouragement of a person’s mind, to run some venture in practice, or in something that he does, on the credit of another’s sufficiency and faithfulness. And therefore the proper evidence of his trusting, is the venture he runs in what he does. He is not properly said to run any venture in a dependence on any thing, who does nothing on that dependence, or whose practice is no otherwise than if he had no dependence. For a man to run a venture in dependence on another, is for him to do something from that dependence, by which he seems to expose himself, and which he would not do were it not for that dependence. And therefore it is in complying with the difficulties and seeming dangers of christian practice, in a dependence on Christ’s sufficiency and faithfulness to bestow eternal life, that persons are said to venture themselves upon Christ, and trust in him for happiness and life. They depend on such promises as that, Matt. 10:39. ‘He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.’ And so they part with all, and venture their all, in a dependence on Christ’s sufficiency and truth. And this is the scripture notion of trusting in Christ, in the exercise of a saving faith in him. Thus Abraham, the father of believers, trusted in Christ, and by faith forsook his own country, in a reliance on the covenant of grace which God established with him, Heb. 11:8, 9.”
~ Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, III.XIV.
On Wednesday mornings I volunteer at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission and teach a basic doctrine class in their New Journey rehabilitation program, as well as preach chapel. Attached is a zip file to the full slides and handouts I use for the class, as well as other resources. There are 24 lessons total (originally composed Spring of 2018).
I’m looking at establishing a ministry at our church where we’d form a group that would read and discuss various works of theology and Biblical studies together. The following comes from a document I was working on this morning in which I outline various convictions and commitments underlying this pursuit.
We strongly believe that growth in Christian understanding plays a vital and central role in our development as maturing worshipers of Jesus. When we ignore the pursuit of Christian understanding, we do so to our detriment, and the detriment of our churches (IOW, our churches our healthier when its members are growing in Christian understanding). In an age where Biblical and theological illiteracy abounds, we are committed to standing against this tide. Amidst a prevailing Christian culture that downplays the importance of theology and doctrine, we unashamedly and counter-culturally commit ourselves to this discipline.
We believe that rigorous Biblical and theological study is not something reserved for pastors and theologians, but is the right and privilege of all believers.
To be clear, we are not interested in a version of “theological mastery” which simply knows concepts or engages ideas as something like a hobby or mere intellectual exercise. We are after theological maturity. Such theological maturity entails not only (1) a right understanding of Biblical teaching and its theological import, but also (2) a deep conviction and belief in these things, as well as (3) a correlating theological discernment — the ability and inclination of character (virtue) to apply such theological knowledge to new and complex situations (what the Bible at times calls “wisdom”).
The apostle Paul says, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1), and “the one who thinks he knows obviously doesn’t know as he ought” (8:2). We want to take this seriously. As John Calvin said in his Institutes (paraphrasing), A genuine knowledge of God necessarily entails transforming us into worshipers of God. Legit theology is more than just ideas entering our minds for contemplation. To truly apprehend God is necessarily to be into made a worshiper of God and walk away transformed by the encounter. Or as Augustine said in his classic work on Doctrine (paraphrasing), all proper doctrine promotes the two-fold love of God and neighbor. If we are not increasing in our love of God and neighbor in our study of scripture and theology, we’re doing it wrong.
We understand that the way we are transformed as followers of Christ is through the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:1-2) and reorientation of our loves. Both scripture and experience testify to the impactful role that our thinking (our beliefs about God, the world, and ourselves — our “worldview”) has on the way we live. We were created to be worshipers. As such, we are always in awe of something (our god), and our imaginations captured by some vision of the good, the true, and ultimate. The direction of our lives ultimately follows the compass of our hearts and the rudder of our beliefs. Because of sin, however, our mind and affections have been colonized by false gods (idolatry) and deceived into false visions of the good life. We need a rehabilitation of heart and mind. We believe we that the avenue to our affections, among other things, is through the engagement and transformation of the mind.
As outlined above, we wholeheartedly believe in the practicality and life-impactful significance of theology. Without the goal of life-impact (the very telos of theology, i.e., the very reason God has made himself known to us), we have actually distorted the very nature of theology and we exhibit an audacious affront to the design of God’s self-revelation. In other words, it’s no small slight, but actually an incredibly serious transgression (Mt 15:8; cf. Titus 1:16).
At the same time, however, we reject the current popular sentiment (a very American attitude) that theology’s value is to be measured by our own preset notion of what is “practical” (i.e., our felt-needs), and setting up application as our starting point for our approach and what we deem worthwhile. Yes, we expect to be transformed as we encounter God (and with that comes “application”). But we also understand that God knows what we need far more than we do, and that none of his self-disclosure was given in vain (none of it is unimportant for our study). Simply knowing and enjoying God (the very end for which we were created) is a good enough end in and of itself, notwithstanding its life-impacting benefits which surely do also follow. Moreover, the most impactful thing we can experience is not actually more “practical instruction” (prescriptions on “what to do”) — the history of Israel under the law bears this out — as good as sound practical instruction is; but to have our hearts convinced of the worth of God as we are struck with the awe of God. Our deepest problem is a disorder of worship; and therefore that which will meet us at the deepest, most life-impacting level is to walk away from our study as increasing worshipers and enjoyers of God.
We enter our pursuit with the belief that God has gifted the church across the ages with men and women who are great resources to us in understanding God’s Word and his truth. Although the central tenets of the Bible are clear (perspicuity) and the Bible is sufficient for knowing these things adequately, we reject that hubris which ignores the help of others and the collective wisdom found in the communion of the saints. We uphold the Biblical place of teachers, and value learning from the writings of others, even those who may be outside our exact tradition, as they can serve to broaden our perspective. In distinction from such presentist tendencies that place nearly exclusive attention on contemporary productions, we especially value the historical authors, whose works have proven worth, having stood the test of time, who give us a sense of rootedness in the Christian tradition, and whose voice cuts through our sometimes near-sighted contemporary perspectives.
We live at a crossroads which only increases the urgency of this pursuit. We live in an age in which the plausibility structures that once gave Christianity credence are quickly deteriorating and in which we are regularly being desensitized to sin and acclimated to false outlooks on life. The pressure to cave and compromise Biblical truth is potent. False teaching abounds. And the contemporary issues that challenge us are proliferating at a pace that’s dizzying. For those of us who are parents, we also face the task of discipling our children through this ethically and religiously volatile maze. At the same time, many in a previous generation moved away from certain traditional practices of theological education (e.g., catechisms, creeds, pedagogical hymns, etc.) at precisely the time when we now feel we may actually need them most. That crowd sought more “fresh” and pragmatic approaches. Among other things though, we see the damage caused by what was left behind and the void this abandonment has now created. We therefore desire to recover / retrieve the pursuit of theology for both ourselves, our families, and our churches.
A friend of mine recently contacted me asking for help with the following the question:
Hey Kirk! I’m in the beginning phase of researching if nature can connect people to God. Do you have any thoughts or good references?
This is a pretty common sentiment today — i.e., that we can connect to God through nature — especially as “spirituality” (but not religion) grows increasingly popular.
My response is to my friend is below. I thought I would share it here as well in case it can be of help to anyone else.
The short summary version of the historic orthodox Christian view on this is this:
God is incomprehensible, and is only knowable to us because he himself has chosen to make himself known (what is called “divine revelation,” i.e., him revealing himself). Revelation in other words is an act of God’s grace. He does this self-revealing through special or supernatural revelation (like scripture) and general or natural revelation (like nature).
God is made known through his creation, yet distinct from his creation (so not pantheism or panentheism — most claims that we can “connect” with God though nature hold to these ideas). Creation itself is not God. It merely gives witness to God. And so we don’t “connect to God through nature” in the sense of nature itself being an experience of God himself. It only mediates knowledge of God.
Furthermore, scripture teaches that general revelation (like nature) proves insufficient for us to come to know God as he truly is and enable us to respond properly (worship). Why? Not because God hasn’t sufficiently made himself known through nature. He has, even enough to make us culpable for our disobedience to him. It proves insufficient because our sin blinds us, and we refuse to believe nature’s testimony to God. We are willfully blind, and hence responsible, not excused. Our hearts bend us to turn to idols, and instead we take the truth in nature and distort it.
Natural revelation, in short, is enough knowledge about God to make us condemnable and responsible for our rebellion—we know there’s a God who deserves our worshipful obedience, but we don’t give it to him as we ought—but not enough knowledge to save us (there’s no gospel message in nature) and “(re)connect us to God” as we properly should.
So the answer is yes and no.
If I were to direct you to some subjects of study on this, I’d suggest finding some good systematic theology books and looking up the sections on “general revelation.” The other subjects I’d look up are maybe God’s immanence (God’s transcendence refers to the fact that God is so far above us; his immanence refers to the fact that he is still yet near to us), and his providence — that he oversees all of history and creation, such as nature, and can be known through this oversight.
Key biblical passages are Psalm 19 and Romans 1.