Is doctrine compatible with Jesus?

This has been an interesting week so far, and it’s only half over.  I can’t remember being exposed to this much discussion about the place of doctrine in the life of a Christian and/or in the life of a church since I was in Bible college.  And that was in the early ’90s. 

I do remember one particular chapel service at college where the speaker was dealing with the topic of doctrine to some extent and made a statement that has stuck with me through the years.  “Truth without love is brutality.  Love without truth is hypocrisy.”  Obviously, or it should be obvious, God is both love (1 John 4:7-8) and truth (John 14:6), and is lacking in neither.  People on the other hand, tend to lean in one direction or another; either towards love or truth.  Personally, I’m a truth guy, and a big part of my sanctification process has been in the “love” department.  By God’s grace I do believe, and Amy would back me on this, that I am making some measureable progress in this, incremental as it may be at times.

Without revealing too many details, here are brief summaries of two conversations I had earlier this week.

The first happened in a coffee shop, and we covered a variety of topics in an engaging conversation, one of the topics being doctrine.  This person had a formative background in a parachurch organization which, by necessity, emphasizes the essential, core doctrines of the gospel and deemphazises the more nonessential doctrines.  And in keeping with the mission of that organization and many others like it, I think that’s OK.  I personally spent a number of years working in Christian camping at three different camps and I can testify to the importance of focusing on the essentials while working and serving side-by-side with Christians of many backgrounds and denominations.

The local church, on the other hand, is not a parachurch organization, and, I believe, the New Testament has given the church and its leaders a weighty responsibility to ensure that its members are learning and being taught doctrine (truth) and that it is right doctrine (true truth).  See, for example, John 8:32; Romans 6:17; Acts 20:27; 2 Timothy 1:13-14; 2 John 1:9; 1 Timothy 4:16; and Titus 1:9.  Most of this list came from this article by John Piper which appeared on Desiring God’s website today.  I also realize that this list looks like a series of proof-texts, which is why I encourage you to look them up and read at least the immediate context of each text, if not more.

The second conversation happened by means of Facebook’s chat feature, and it was with a former college classmate of ours.  In my estimation this person has embraced those doctrines that appeal personally to them and is minimizing those doctrines that are not so pleasant, such as the cross, the shed blood of Christ, and the reality of hell.  A comment was left on my Facebook wall which reads like this:

From a biblical standpoint studying and thinking and knowing are never ends in themselves; they always stand in the service of feeling and willing and doing. The mind is the servant of the heart. Knowledge exists for the sake of love. And all theology worth its salt produces doxology.
Five separate statements, and in that order I agree, maybe agree, strongly disagree, need clarification, and strongly agree.  Regarding the mind being the servant of the heart, God said in Jeremiah 17:9-10 that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”  What we must learn from that statement is that we cannot trust our hearts for even a moment.  If the mind really is the servant of the heart, then we’re in trouble.
Though now that I think about it, perhaps that is the condition that all humans find themselves in as a result of sin: the mind is the servant of the heart.  It is not until God shines his light into their minds that the situation can begin to reverse itself.  2 Corinthians 4:1-6 reads like this, with the italics as my emphasis:
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.  But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.  And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
So for the unsaved person, the mind is the servant of the heart (the will), but for the person who has seen “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” and as a result believes on Jesus Christ and is trusting him for their salvation, the process is reversed, and the heart becomes the servant of the mind.  It’s not complete and finished, but the process has begun.
A third circumstance this week that has contributed to this post is the arrival at our house on Tuesday of the ESV Study Bible.  To say that I typically do not like study Bibles is an understatement, but on the advice of two people, my good friend Richard in New Orleans, and Chad Knudson who’s blogging at The Road to Emmaus and wrote this article about it, I took the plunge.  The fact that there is a study Bible, or hundreds of study Bibles, implies that there is something in the Bible worth studying, namely doctrine.

A fourth contribution to this post is found in the opening paragraph of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.  An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities.  Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.
There are many more places we could turn in this discussion, but I’ll go to the gospel of John and the words of Jesus to bring this back to the title of this post and then draw it to a close.  In John 5:39-40 Jesus tells the Jewish religious leaders, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” 
Obviously these men were students of the Scriptures and believed in the importance of right doctrine.  They thought that they would find eternal life in the Scriptures, or by studying the Scriptures, and so were passionate about their study and the doctrine they found there.  But they had missed the essential truth that the Scriptures, and all the doctrine that they contain, point to Jesus and “bear witness” or tell about Jesus, and that unless they come to Jesus they will not have eternal life. 
Modern evangelicalism, on the other hand, has moved in an opposite direction.  Many people who call themselves Christians today take the position of avoiding doctrine but embracing Jesus.  On a surface level it sounds good and even pietistic, but in reality a Jesus who has been separated from biblical doctrine (truth) becomes a Jesus of our own invention.  And a Jesus of our own invention cannot save and is not God.  No doctrine, no Jesus.  No Jesus, no eternal life. 
So my conclusion is that doctrine is compatible with Jesus; and not only is it compatible, it is essential to knowing him rightly, if at all. 

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