"Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine." "Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. " 1 Timothy 4:13,16
These two passages of scripture bring together what should never be separated, that is, doctrine and devotion; belief and practice; biblical truth clothed with genuine Christian experience. What God has joined together let no man put asunder.
Doctrine is to Christian experience what bones are to the body. A body without bones would be a lump of "glob"utterly useless. Likewise, Christian experience without roots is like cut flowers stuck in the ground--they may look pleasant for awhile, but ultimately they will wither and die.
The other side of this truth must also taken into account, that is, bones without flesh are but a dead skeleton
The Westminster Confession, the 2nd London Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism are the clearest expressions of the doctrinal truth from the Bible. However, there is one thing lacking in these respected confessions. What is lacking? People! Christian experience! It has been a life-time goal and desire to bring together sound biblical doctrine and genuine Christian experience, both in my own life and in my teaching and practice. I have not arrived at this goal but I am still seeking, desiring and yearning for this rare combination.
There are those who cry "down doctrine" and cry "up experience." Some think it quite pious to say, "Christ is our creed and the Bible is our text book." On the surface that sounds good. But which Christ are they talking about? There are a thousand Christs on the religious market. The Jehovah Witnesses have a Christ but it is not the Christ of the Bible. The Mormons have a Christ but it is not the Christ of the Bible. Christian Science has a Christ but it is not the Christ of the Bible. The liberals have a Christ but not the One who came to us by a virgin's womb, suffered vicariously on a Roman cross and rose victoriously from a borrowed grave. But there is only one biblical Christ. The cults also say the Bible is their text book. You see, some one must proclaim what this infallible Bible says and what it means and how it applies to our lives and the life of the church.
B. H. Carroll, in his commentary on Ephesians, underscores the importance of doctrine and creeds:
A church with a little creed is a church with a little life. The more divine doctrines a church can agree on, the greater its power, and the wider its usefulness. The fewer its articles of faith, the fewer its bonds of union and compactness.
The modern cry: 'Less creed and more liberty,' is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy. Definitive truth does not create heresy--it only exposes and corrects. Shut off the creed and the Christian world would fill up with heresy unsuspected and uncorrected, but none the less deadly.
Just so it is not good discipline that created backsliding and other sins of Christians. But discipline is oftentimes the only means of saving a church. To hold to discipline for immoralities and relax it on doctrine puts the cart before the horse and attempts to heal a stream while leaving the fountain impure. To Christ and the apostles false creeds were the most deadly things, and called most for the use of the knife. . . .
Again, I solemnly warn the reader against all who depreciate creeds, or who would reduce them to a minimum of entrance qualifications into the church (An Interpretation of the English Bible: Colossians, Ephesians, and Hebrews, pp. 140-41, 150).
Now, I hope we are all against substituting a dead, doctrinal creed for a living Christ. But our creed need not be dead--just as our faith should not be dead faith. We do not reject true faith because there is dead faith (James 2:20: "faith without works is dead").
It is not enough to speak of a mystical experience with God without doctrinal knowledge. We must worship God in truth as well as Spirit. Truth can be stated in real words, and when truth is stated in real words, it is doctrine.
This effort to be a practicing Christian without knowing what Christianity is all about will always fail. The true Christian has a doctrinal foundation. The conflict between our Lord and the Pharisees was over the question of Who He was--the doctrine of the Messiah.
To believe savingly in Christ involves believing the right things about him. Who He Was--the virgin born Son of God. What He Did--suffered vicariously on a Roman cross. Why He Died on that cross--because of a covenant with God the Father to redeem an innumerable company of sheep from every tribe, nation and tongue.
What is true religion? It is not some mystical, nebulous thing, floating around in the sky. True religion cannot be less than:
Right thinking in respect to God
Right feeling in respect to God
Right acting in respect to God
True religion must reach the whole man: his mind--what he thinks with; his affections--what he feels with, and his will--what he decides with.
What Is Christian Experience?
Christian experience is the influence of sound biblical doctrine applied to the mind, affections and will by the Holy Spirit. J.C. Ryle said, "You can talk about Christian experience all you wish, but without doctrinal roots it is like cut flowers stuck in the ground--it will wither and die."
It is impossible therefore, to over-emphasize the importance of sound doctrine in the Christian life. Right thinking about all spiritual matters is imperative if we are to have right living. As men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles, so sound Christian character does not grow out of unsound doctrine.
Someone may ask, "How do we test true Christian experience in the midst of so much spurious experience and religious confusion?" Let me suggest three tests:
- Is this professed religious experience produced by the truth plainly and faithfully presented? It must be biblical truth--not only feeling and emotion or religious excitement.
- Is this professed religious experience regulated and governed by biblical truth?
- Do the subjects of this professed religious experience manifest a general and cordial love of biblical truth?
Biblical doctrine is more important than most church members realize. Doctrine not only expresses our experiences and beliefs, it also determines our direction. Doctrine shapes our lives and church programs. Doctrine to the Christian and the church is what the bones are to the body. It gives unity and stability.
The church that neglects to teach sound biblical doctrine weakens the church membership. It works against true unity. It invites instability in its fellowship, lessens conviction and stalemates true progress in the church.
I suppose that not many would disagree with what I have said up until now. But I do not just want to speak in general, nebulous terms. Take, for example, the word "doctrine." By itself it is almost meaningless. All the cults have a doctrine. I want to be more specific and speak of the doctrines believed and preached by our Baptist fathers--men such as James P. Boyce, John A Broadus, B.H. Carroll, John L. Dagg, Luther Rice, P.H. Mell, John Bunyan, Charles H. Spurgeon, William Carey, Andrew Fuller. Yes, those doctrines expressed by The Philadelphia Association out of which we came. The doctrines that were the foundation of their devotion, of their worship, their witness, and all their service to Christ and His church.
Before I mention specifically some foundational doctrines let me just make one simple but weighty point: if what our Baptist fathers believed and taught was true then it is just as true and just as important today because the Bible has not changed, truth is unchanged, and God is unchanged. The minds of men are like porous sieves out of which truth can leak and into which error may seep to dilute the truth. But truth does not change because God Himself does not change.
Specifically, What Doctrines Am I Talking About?
Foundational doctrines. Not secondary matters. I am talking about those doctrines that were set forth, defined and defended at the Synod of Dort in 1618--later expressed in The Westminster Confession and The Baptist Confession of 1689, called The Second London Confession.
I mean those doctrines that set forth a God who saves. Not this little god who just helps man to save himself. Those doctrines that reveal the three great acts of the Trinity for the recovering of poor, helpless, lost men. What are these three great acts?
Election by the Father
Redemption by the Son
Calling by the Spirit
All directed to the same individuals and secure their salvation infallibly. Away with this wicked idea of giving each act of the Trinity a different reference:
- The objects of redemption being ALL mankind.
- The objects of calling being those who hear the gospel.
- The objects of election being those hearers who respond.
God saves sinners! We must not weaken this great truth that God saves sinners by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity, or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man. Jonah had it straight in Jonah 2:9: "Salvation [past, present, and future] is of the Lord."
These doctrines trace the source of every spiritual blessing--faith included--back to that great transaction between God and His Son which was carried out on Calvary's Hill.
The Spirit's gift is not just an enlightening work. It is also a regenerating work of God in men: taking away their heart of stone and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills; and by His almighty power determining them and causing them to come--not against their will, but to come most freely, being made willing by His grace.
"Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee, that he may dwell in thy courts: we shall be satisfied with the goodness of thy house, even of thy holy temple," Psalm 65:4.
And in this sense grace proves to be irresistible. Why? Just because grace destroys man's power to resist.
Though this is all the sovereign work of God let us not suppose that God's decision to save a man by a decree leaves man passive and inert. It is the opposite that takes place! The covenant of grace does not kill man, it does not regard man as a tin can, a piece of wood or a robot. It takes possession of the man, it lays hold of his whole being with all his faculties and power of soul and body, for time and eternity.
- It does not annihilate his powers, but it does remove his powerlessness.
- It does not destroy his will, but frees it from sin.
- It does not stifle or obliterate his conscience, but sets it free from darkness.
- It regenerates and recreates man in his entirety, and in renewing him by grace, causes him to love and consecrate himself to God most freely.
These doctrines show the cross as revealing God's power to save, not His impotence. The cross was not a place just to make salvation possible, but to actually secure the salvation of sinners, fulfilling that prophecy of the great evangelical prophet Isaiah. Isa. 53:11: "He shall see the travail of his soul and be satisfied." God was not frustrated at the cross.
The Bible says, "Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain" (Acts 2:23). God was the Master of Ceremonies at the cross!
William Cowper expressed it in his hymn, "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood"--"Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power, till all the ransomed Church of God be saved to sin no more."
These doctrines will drive us to proclaim to every one:
- All are sinners--not sick and need help, but DEAD and need life.
- That Jesus Christ, God's Son is a perfect, able and willing Saviour of sinners, even the worst, yea, even the chiefest.
- That the Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be such sinners and put their faith in Christ as Saviour shall be received into favor and none cast out.
- That God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man, who hears the the gospel, a serious and full casting of the soul upon Christ as an all-sufficient Saviour. Ready, able, and willing to save ALL that come to God by Him.
He Will Give What He Requires
To the question, "How am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting if I have no natural ability to do these things?"
ANSWER: Look to Christ--Seek Him--Cry out to Christ just as you are, casting yourself upon His mercy. He will give what He requires. Turn to Him. Trust Him as best you can and pray for grace to trust more. Use the means of grace, expectantly looking for Christ to draw near to you as you seek to draw near to Him.
Watch and pray. Read and hear God's Word. Worship and commune with God's people, and so continue until you know within, without a doubt, that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, believing the new heart that you desired has been put within you. Calling upon Him directly is the first step.
The hymn writer put it like this:
Let not conscience make you linger
Nor of fitness fondly dream,
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
Christ is not passively waiting, but working with and through the Word to bring His people to Himself.
Much of contemporary Christianity is sick because it lacks a doctrinal foundation. The religion of our day is a curious mixture of Bible, philosophy, notions of the day, and a strange combination of methods. In spite of its numerical increase and the millions of dollars raised for religious purposes, much of present-day religion is spiritually and morally sick; it is like a body without bones. Doctrine is to Christian experience what bones are to the body.