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doctrine lies at the roots of faith

"In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following."  (1 Timothy 4:6 NASV)

There is an ongoing concern in many evangelical churches that we need to move on from Christian doctrine to the more practical aspects of the Christian life.  After all, Christianity is more relational and practical.  It's more about life and relationships than it is about the content of the teachings of the church.  This is a fair enough concern, since all biblical doctrine needs to be worked out in real life.  

But the danger here is that we separate doctrine from faith and life, and so remove the very foundation (and motivation) for living faithfully to God in this world. Those of us who are studying Romans together are seeing that the Apostle Paul lays out eleven chapters of doctrinal groundwork before he comes to the more practical section in Romans chapter 12.  In Gresham Machen's classic work, Christianity and Liberalism, the author has this to say about doctrine:  

"The truth is that when men speak of trust in Jesus’ Person, as being possible without acceptance of the message of His death and resurrection, they do not really mean trust at all. What they designate as trust is really admiration or reverence. They reverence Jesus as the supreme Person of all history and the supreme revealer of God. But trust can come only when the supreme Person extends His saving power to us. ‘He went about doing good,’ ‘He spake words such as never man spake,’ ‘He is the express image of God’—that is reverence; ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me’—that is faith.

"But the words ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me’ are in historical form; they constitute an account of something that happened. And they add to the fact the meaning of the fact; they contain in essence the whole profound theology of redemption through the blood of Christ. Christian doctrine lies at the very roots of faith. It must be admitted, then, that if we are to have a non-doctrinal religion, or a doctrinal religion founded merely on general truth, we must give up not only Paul, not only the primitive Jerusalem Church, but also Jesus Himself. 

"But what is meant by doctrine? It has been interpreted here as meaning any presentation of the facts which lie at the basis of the Christian religion with the true meaning of the facts. But is that the only sense of the word? May the word not also be taken in a narrower sense? May it not also mean a systematic and minute and one-sidedly scientific presentation of the facts? And if the word is taken in this narrower sense, may not the modern objection to doctrine involve merely an objection to the excessive subtlety of controversial theology, and not at all an objection to the glowing words of the New Testament, an objection to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and not at all to the first century? 

"Undoubtedly the word is so taken by many occupants of the pews when they listen to the modern exaltation of ‘life’ at the expense of ‘doctrine.’ The pious hearer labors under the impression that he is merely being asked to return to the simplicity of the New Testament, instead of attending to the subtleties of the theologians. Since it has never occurred to him to attend to the subtleties of the theologians, he has that comfortable feeling which always comes to the churchgoer when some one else’s sins are being attacked. It is no wonder that the modern invectives against doctrine constitute a popular type of preaching. At any rate, an attack upon Calvin or Turretin or the Westminster divines does not seem to the modern churchgoer to be a very dangerous thing. In point of fact, however, the attack upon doctrine is not nearly so innocent a matter as our simple churchgoer supposes; for the things objected to in the theology of the Church are also at the very heart of the New Testament. Ultimately the attack is not against the seventeenth century, but against the Bible and against Jesus Himself.

"Even if it were an attack not upon the Bible but only upon the great historic presentations of Biblical teaching, it would still be unfortunate. If the Church were led to wipe out of existence all products of the thinking of nineteen Christian centuries and start fresh, the loss, even if the Bible were retained, would be immense. When it is once admitted that a body of facts lies at the basis of the Christian religion, the efforts which past generations have made toward the classification of the facts will have to be treated with respect. In no branch of science would there be any real advance if every generation started fresh with no dependence upon what past generations have achieved. Yet in theology, vituperation of the past seems to be thought essential to progress. And upon what base slanders the vituperation is based! After listening to modern tirades against the great creeds of the Church, one receives rather a shock when one turns to the Westminster Confession, for example, or to that tenderest and most theological of books, the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ of John Bunyan, and discovers that in doing so one has turned from shallow modern phrases to a ‘dead orthodoxy’ that is pulsating with life in every word. In such orthodoxy there is life enough to set the whole world aglow with Christian love.

"As a matter of fact, however, in the modern vituperation of ‘doctrine,’ it is not merely the great theologians or the great creeds that are being attacked, but the New Testament and our Lord Himself. In rejecting doctrine, the liberal preacher is rejecting the simple words of Paul, ‘Who loved me and gave Himself for me,’ just as much as the homoousion of the Nicene Creed. For the word ‘doctrine’ is really used not in its narrowest, but in its broadest sense. The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts. Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God."

~ J. Gresham Machen, from Christianity and Liberalism (1923).  Read more of the context here.






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