Why Study Doctrine
"If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" Psalms 11:3
Why should we study doctrine?
People often object to any talk about doctrine and the study of doctrine, because they wrongly imagine that it is an unnecessary cause of strife and division. The fact is, we cannot have any unity at all if we do not have doctrinal unity. Doctrine is not everything in Christianity; but nothing is more important than doctrine. Gospel doctrine is the foundation of all true faith, the basis of all real comfort, and the inspiration for all worship, obedience, and devotion.
I often hear people say, “Let’s not discuss doctrine. Let’s just get on with evangelism.” “Let’s not talk about doctrine. Let’s just worship the Lord.” “Don’t preach doctrine. Just preach Christ.” That makes about as much sense as a basketball coach saying to his team, “Boys, don’t worry about the baskets, or the ball, or those lines out there on the court. Let’s just play basketball.” You cannot have basketball without the baskets, the ball, and the lines; and you cannot have evangelism, worship, and Christianity without doctrine.
The study of doctrine is important, because it is foundational. In Psalm 11:3, David asked, "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" Obviously, we recognize that “the foundation of God standeth sure” (2 Tim. 2:19). Yet, we also know that in this dark, apostate age in which wicked religious men and women walk in darkness, without knowledge and without understanding, “all the foundations of the earth are out of course” (Ps. 82:5). The religion of the world constantly attacks, assaults, and seeks to destroy the foundation of doctrinal truth. When men seek to destroy the very foundations of our faith, what can the righteous do? Here are three things we can and must do…
1. We must recognize and assert the importance of doctrine in the Word of God. “Doctrine” is not a dirty word. When we talk about the doctrine of the Bible, we are simply talking about the “teaching” of the Bible. To say, “Doctrine is insignificant,” is to say that the teachings of the Bible are insignificant. Doctrine is not insignificant. It is vital.
Gospel doctrine is absolutely necessary to saving faith. Faith in Christ is not a leap in the dark. It is walking in the light. That person who is not taught the doctrine of Christ or believes that which is contrary to the doctrine of Christ does not know Christ. This is not a matter of speculation, but of revelation (Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Tim. 4:16; 2 John 1:9).
Sound doctrine is necessary for godly behavior, too. I do not doubt that people may live in an outwardly moral, religious manner without doctrine; but you cannot live for Christ, to the glory of Christ, and after the example of Christ, without the doctrine of Christ. Paul tells us that the doctrine of Christ is that doctrine which is according to godliness (1 Tim. 6:3).
Our comfort as believers living in this world of woe greatly depends upon our grasp of the doctrine of Holy Scripture (Rom. 15:4). Were it not for the teachings of Scripture regarding God’s sovereignty and grace in predestination and providence, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and the Spirit’s efficacious grace, where would we find the strength and comfort we need to face and deal with life in this world?
2. We must recognize the importance of doctrine; and when men would destroy the foundations upon which our souls are built, we must cling to the Word of God.
In this world of chaos, the one thing that stands unchanged, unchanging, and unchangeable is the Word of God. Here is a foundation that cannot be destroyed. “The foundation of God standeth sure” (Ps. 119:89; Isa. 40:8). Our house of faith is built not upon the shifting sand of human philosophy, but upon the solid rock of God’s own Word.
3. When the foundations are being assaulted from every quarter, we must earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3-4).
If, in these dark days, we would contend for the integrity of the Scriptures and the faith of the saints, we must prayerfully study and seek, by the grace of God, to comprehend the teaching (the doctrine) of the Word of God.
The study of doctrine is important, because it is foundational and because the doctrine we are studying is of God. The doctrines we believe, those doctrines taught in Holy Scripture and believed by all true Christians, are not of men, but of God. These are not mere denominational dogmas, church confessions, doctrinal debates, and theological theses, but the teachings of God himself. Those things which are vital to our souls, vital to the knowledge of God, and vital to salvation are things which could not be known except by divine revelation (1 Pet. 1:21)
They can be understood only by divine illumination (1 Cor. 2:13-14). Both the man who attempts to teach and those who seek to learn the doctrine of Holy Scripture are totally dependent upon the grace, wisdom, and power of God the Holy Spirit. If he is our Teacher, we shall be taught well; for we are taught of God.
What is the source of true doctrine?
To those who read these pages that question may, at first, appear to be redundant, perhaps even silly; but it is not. The fact is, in the minds of most men there are many sources for true doctrine. None, other than the most outlandishly ignorant would suggest that the Bible is not a source of doctrine. Most would assert that it is the primary source. However, very few look upon the Word of God as the only source of doctrine. Even among those who say they do, very few truly look upon the Scriptures alone as our only source for true doctrine.
Many, like the Pharisees, build their doctrine upon the Bible and tradition. Those who do so, by their tradition, make void the Word of God. Whenever people attempt to build their doctrine on both the Word of God and tradition, they soon prefer tradition to the Word and make the Word of God to be of non-effect. (Matt. 15:6-9; 16:12; Mk. 7:7, 13).
Others build their doctrine on the Word of God and the creeds of the church. While there may be a proper place and use for creeds and confessions of faith, our faith must not be determined by the creeds of even the best of men. Our faith must stand in the Word of God alone. Bible doctrine is the teaching of Holy Scripture. Dogma is teaching that is laid down by and imposed upon men by churches. Whenever a churches dogma contradicts the Bible’s doctrine, or adds anything to it, it must be rejected as false.
Many build their doctrine upon the plain statements of Holy Scripture and those things which may be reasonably inferred from the Scriptures. There is among Protestants a commonly accepted doctrine called “the doctrine of necessary consequence,” which is largely responsible for much of the heresy we have to deal with today. When men attempt to build doctrine upon both the plain statements of Scripture and what they think must be necessarily deduced from Scripture, they try to build upon two foundations, one of sand and the other of rock. The result is destruction. When sinful men make their reason the basis of believing something, there is no limit to the nonsense that will be passed off as Bible doctrine.
In this day of charismatic nonsense, multitudes build their doctrine upon the Word of God and experience. Experience is no basis for faith. Saul had a real experience in the house of a witch in Endor; but that experience is not a basis for our doctrine. Neither are our own experiences, good or bad. Martin Luther was exactly right when he said, “any teaching which does not square with the Scriptures is to be rejected even if it snows miracles every day.”
The only basis for doctrine, the only source of divine truth is the Word of God. When we talk about doctrine, the teaching of Holy Scripture, we have no right to even entertain our own thoughts and opinions, much less express them. In these matters, we dare not speak either more or less than that which is expressly written in the Word of God (Isa. 8:20; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
All true doctrine is the doctrine of the Apostles and Prophets. Faithful men teach exactly what they taught. Ours is the doctrine of the Bible, the Old and the New Testaments. We do not simply hold to the doctrine of the New Testament. Our doctrine is the doctrine of the Bible. We recognize that the Bible is one Book, with one Message, and total uniformity of doctrine. The Old Testament teaches exactly the same thing as the New Testament, only with less clarity and fullness. The Old Testament is the shadow. The New Testament is the substance. The Old Testament is the type. The New Testament is the anti-type. The Old Testament is the promise and prophecy. The New Testament is the fulfillment. Someone once said, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed. The New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.”
The Book of Acts is an inspired history of the ministry of the New Testament church for the first thirty years after our Lord’s ascension and exaltation. In that inspired history we are given a running narrative of apostolic doctrine and preaching. Every time we read about the preaching of the Apostles in the Book of Acts (in all 37 references), the subject preached was Jesus Christ and the resurrection. Every summary of gospel doctrine given in the Book of Acts, indeed, in the entire New Testament, reveal an inspired system of doctrine centering around the accomplishment of redemption by the death of Christ and the verification of its accomplishment by his resurrection from the dead. “The apostles’ doctrine,” that which they preached everywhere, had five basic, essential points.
1. The Total Sovereignty of God Over All Things (Acts 2:23; 4:26-28; 13:26-30)
2. The Fact that Jesus of Nazareth is The Christ (Acts 3:13-18)
3. The Accomplishment of Redemption for God’s Elect By The Death of Christ, Verified by His Resurrection from the Dead (Acts 1:22; 2:24, 32)
4. Salvation by Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone, Without Works (Acts 2:38; 3:16; 4:12; 5:11; 16:31)
5. The Believer’s Freedom from the Law in Christ (Acts 15:10-11). See Hebrews 8:1-2 and Romans 10:4.
How should we study Bible doctrine?
I will not attempt to lay down any absolute rules as to the best method of Bible study. Many do things in different ways and seem to get along just fine. So I will not suggest that they should change their method of study. However, no matter what method of study we use, there are some rules or guidelines that ought to be followed in the study of doctrine.
1. Study all doctrines contextually. This cannot be over emphasized. Nothing is more dishonest than to study the Word of God by looking for proof texts. We dare not go to the Word of God to prove our doctrine. We go to the Bible to get our doctrine. If you want to know what the Bible teaches about a given subject, go to the place in the Bible where that subject is explained, interpreting all relevant texts in the light of those passages. Honesty compels us to interpret obscure passages by the obvious, not the obvious by the obscure. For example: -- If you want to study believer’s baptism, you go to Romans 6, not Genesis 17. – If you wish to understand the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, you must go to 1 Corinthians 11, not John 13. – If you desire to know what the Bible teaches about divorce, you must go to 1 Corinthians 7, not Romans 7. – If you want to know what the Scriptures teach about redemption, you go to Romans 5, not John 3. If you are interested in predestination, you go to Romans 8 and 9, and Ephesians 1, not Ezekiel 33.
2. Study the Word of God submissively. May God give us grace to bring all things to the touchstone of Holy Scripture. Let us bow to the Word of God. Always be prepared to give up any doctrine or practice that is not found in Holy Scripture and to embrace anything revealed in the Book of God, no matter what the sacrifice, no matter what the consequence.
3. To the degree that it is possible, we ought to state our doctrine in the very language of the Bible. I realize that for the sake of clarification and faithful exposition, we sometimes use terms that are not specifically used in the Bible (sovereignty, satisfaction, trinity, substitution, etc.); but we must not allow ourselves to get caught in the trap of either requiring others or of being required by others to say things in a specific way. Bible doctrine is both simple and clearly revealed. It is not given in “code.” The Word of God is not the secreting of God, but the Revelation of God. If a man has to take you around the world to get you around the corner, trying to prove his doctrine, his doctrine is probably false.
4. Give no doctrine greater or less prominence and importance than it is given in the Scriptures. The dominant theme of Holy Scripture is the gospel of the grace of God, the message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The message of the Bible is Jesus Christ and him crucified (Lk. 24:27, 44-47; John 1:45; Acts 10:43). If Satan gets our focus off of him and on something else, he has won the day.
5. “Adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Tit. 2:10). Let us take great care to conform our lives to our doctrine. Doctrine and duty cannot be separated. Every truth discovered in the Word of God ought to be applied to our lives. If our character and conduct does not reflect the grace and glory of God revealed in the gospel, our doctrine is utterly meaningless.
Test all doctrine by two things, two simple questions. First, Who gets the glory - God or man? Second, Does the doctrine lead you and cause you to rest in Christ? All true doctrine gives glory to God and abases man, and directs sinners to Christ, to find rest for their souls in him (Jer. 6:16).