We have all heard some version of the statement: “I love Jesus, I’m just not into theology.” Or, “I know the gospel, which is all the doctrine I need.” Or, “learning doctrine and theology is for those stuffy seminary types.” Or, “Jesus + Nothing = Everything.”
Statements like these have an initial appeal. They sound Christ-focused and gospel-centric. They sound bite-sized and simple. They seem to have an air of humility about them. They draw us in. They sound like they could be right.
But it is a long leap from “could be” to “are.” And so when the anti-doctrine guy is asked, “Is Jesus God?,” or “Does God accept the worship of all religions?,” or “Is man inherently good in his nature?” he buckles. Having spent years floating around in the tepid waters of American evangelicalism, and experiencing the piercing gaze of increasingly anti-Christian and anti-gospel forces in our culture, he gives the wrong answer, or he freezes up and finds himself unable to answer.
Sadly, this is no abstract or hypothetical scenario. Instead, this is exactly what happened when Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research joined forces for their 2020 survey on “The State of Theology.” According to the results of that survey, a significant slice of professed American evangelicals do not believe that Jesus is God, but they do believe that God accepts the worship of all religions, and they do believe that mankind is inherently good by nature. The truths of John 1:1, John 14:6, and Jeremiah 17:9 have been forgotten. Or worse, they were never learned.
The lack of doctrinal depth and sound theological convictions are sad and shameful realities in many modern-day churches. Our modern-day downgrade is no new development, either. Writing in 1986, James Montgomery Boice observed: “Ask an average Christian to talk about God. After getting past the expected answers you will find that his god is a little god of vacillating sentiments. He is a god who would like to save the world, but cannot. He would like to restrain evil, but somehow he finds it beyond his power. So he has withdrawn into semiretirement, being willing to give good advice in a grandfatherly sort of way, but for the most part, he has left his children to fend for themselves in a dangerous environment. Such a god is not the God of the Bible.”
Boice is dead on. Such a “god” comes nowhere close to resembling the God of Scripture. This is why the study of Christian theology (which has been rightly defined as “the science of God and his relations to the universe”) is of vital importance.
Here are 3 reasons that prove it:
1. THE CLEAR WITNESS OF SCRIPTURE
The Christian faith is not a mystical, rudderless journey that is to be measured by its sincerity. Rather, ours is a clearly-articulated and content-laden faith that is rooted in Scripture. Specifically, the Christian religion is anchored in what the Bible teaches us about God’s person, God’s plan of redemption through Christ, and God’s purposes for each one of us as we seek to live as faithful and holy ambassadors of Christ in response to His call on our lives. Further, the Bible repeatedly testifies to the importance of God’s people being doctrinally-discerning and theologically-minded, so that we might be able to develop a clearer perspective on God’s person, plans, and purposes.
The wisdom literature of the Old Testament, for instance, is filled with references to the importance of gaining increasing knowledge of God for the sake of rightly fearing Him and properly worshiping Him in all wisdom and truth. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” says the human author of Psalm 111:10. The sentiment is echoed in Job 28:28: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” And the father described in Proverbs 2 charges his son both to “receive my words” and to “treasure my commandments” (Proverbs 2:1) so that his son “will discern the fear of the LORD and discover the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:5). Acquiring knowledge about God, learning about His character, and growing in the fear of the Lord as we more deeply appreciate the wide gulf that exists between ourselves and an eminently holy God are each fundamentally doctrinal pursuits.
Shifting to the New Testament, consider the undoubtedly theological teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, who during His earthly ministry taught on the nature and character of God (John 4:24), Scripture (Matthew 5:18; John 10:35), sin (John 8:34), salvation (Matthew 16:24-26; John 3:16), angels (Matthew 18:10), the church (Matthew 16:18), and His own second coming (Matthew 24:1-14). What this shows us is that in addition to being our Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), Jesus is our Chief Theologian! To depart from doctrinal devotion is to depart from the example set for us by Christ Himself.
And then there are the words and the writings of the apostles. In Acts 20:28-31, Paul charged the Ephesian elders to “be on the alert” for the “savage wolves” who would eventually enter into their midst. Paul would later instruct Timothy to “be a good servant of Jesus Christ” by being “constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following” (1 Timothy 4:6). To Titus, Paul taught him to “exhort in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9) and to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). James addressed the “wisdom from above” (James 3:17) which all Christians are called both to seek and to live out. Peter said he was “stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles” (2 Peter 3:1-2). John called on his audience to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1), and in doing so develop the ability to distinguish between “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). And then there was Jude, who directed his audience to “remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17) and commit to “building yourselves up on your most holy faith” (Jude 20).
Putting these puzzle pieces together, the study of doctrine and theology is not an extra-biblical pursuit reserved for eggheads with several letters after their names. Far from it. Scripture teaches that all Christians are to be both theologically-aware and doctrinally-diligent.
2. THE CHILLING WARNINGS OF CHURCH HISTORY
Paul’s prophetic warning to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28-31) that “savage wolves” would eventually enter their midst was fulfilled. Scripture testifies that “evil men” who were masquerading as “apostles” later attempted to infiltrate the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:2), as did a libertine sect of false teachers (the Nicolaitans) (Revelation 2:6).
Sadly, the run of such “savage wolves” did not end in first-century Ephesus, but instead continued throughout the earliest centuries of church history and into the most recent centuries of church history. The pages of church history, right up to the present day, chronicle the carnage that has been caused by false teachers through their promotion of unsound doctrine and aberrant theology. A few examples of the savagery brought about by these “wolves” are highlighted below.
- The Ebionite doctrine of the first century and the teachings of Arius in the late-third and early-fourth century each denied the deity of Jesus Christ. These heresies not only directly contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture (John 1:1; Colossians 2:9; Titus 2:13), they guided countless misguided adherents toward the flames of hell, while at the same time paving the way for modern-day cults (e.g., Muslims and Mormons) to do the same.
- On the opposite side of the spectrum from the Ebionites and the Arians were the Docetic and Apollinarian heresies, which denied that Jesus was fully human. By attempting to jam Scripture’s teaching into their Platonic presuppositions that all flesh is evil, these groups denied that Jesus had truly come in the flesh (John 1:14), and in doing so demonstrated that they were “not from God” (1 John 4:2-3).
- Then there was Marcion, a second-century heretic who, because he disliked the way the Old Testament portrays God, decided that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were, in fact, two different “Gods,” with the former being angry and wrathful, and the latter being loving and merciful. Based on these beliefs, Marcion cut out the entire Old Testament from his Bible, while selectively editing much of the New Testament, as well. Marcion paved the way for men like Thomas Jefferson to create their versions of the Bible, for the efforts of German liberal scholars to undermine the reliability of Scripture in the nineteenth century, and for cult groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses to create new “translations” of the Bible that are more suited to the false teachings they promote.
- Last to be mentioned here is the fourth-century Pelagian error, which denied original sin, taught that man is good and advanced the idea that man can earn his way to God through his good works. The Pelagian heresy is not only directly refuted by Scripture (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:23), it was roundly refuted by Augustine and officially condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Despite being formally condemned as heretical in 431, Pelagian errors live on in each of the world’s works-based religions. Around the world today, billions of people are futilely working their way to their conception of “God,” by offering worthless animal sacrifices, rigidly adhering to man-made sacraments, and living by their self-defined conception of what it means to be a “good person.”
What each of these chilling warnings from church history shows us is how essential it is to be firmly established in sound doctrine, as revealed in Scripture, so that we are not “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
3. THE CRASHING WAVES OF THE CULTURE
As noted at the outset, correct theological convictions and sound doctrinal beliefs are vanishing from the church. However, this has been no sudden, Rapture-like disappearance. Rather, the disappearance of sound doctrinal convictions from American evangelicalism has been gradual. In the words of David Wells, this disappearance “is not the same as the abduction of a child who is happily playing at home one minute and then is no longer to be found the next. No one has abducted theology in this sense. The disappearance is closer to what happens in homes where the children are ignored and abandoned. They remain in the home, but they have no place in the family. So it is with theology in the Church. It remains on the edges of evangelical life, but it has been dislodged from the center.”
That being so, the need is as great in our day – a day in which nations are raging, protests are forming, governments are tottering, families are breaking, churches are splitting, and fears are multiplying – as it ever has been for Christians to devote themselves to doctrine by re-centering themselves within the stabilizing guardrails of theological orthodoxy. While the waves of the culture are crashing all around us, it is as important now as it ever has been to recognize the faith-deepening and faith-fortifying benefits of theological learning and doctrinal study. What benefits can we gain from this?
First, pursuing a deepening understanding of Christian doctrine enables one to know God more intimately, as what He has revealed to us in Scripture about His character, purposes, and plans become more readily known as it takes shape in our minds. Fellow follower of Jesus, there is no greater subject of study than this! Why spend hours per week with your nose buried in sports statistics, romance novels, Instagram stories, or Twitter feeds, when those same hours can be devoted to studying the inexhaustible riches (Psalm 145:3) of our Creator-God?
Second, pursuing a deepening understanding of Christian doctrine enables us to know ourselves and the world in which we live with greater clarity and color. So many of the modern secular disciplines (e.g., anthropology, sociology, psychology) are aimed at helping us to learn about ourselves and our environment. Why not instead appeal to a higher authority, theology (which historically has been known as the “queen of the sciences”) to obtain an accurate (and more rewarding) explanation of these matters?
Third, pursuing a deepening understanding of Christian doctrine generally will drive a Spirit-indwelt follower of Christ to an increased pursuit of holiness. Pursuing heightened doctrinal awareness as a genuine heart-level act of worship will inevitably lead the student of theology to an increased pursuit of holiness. Theology, in other words, goes beyond the merely theoretical. Sound doctrine positively impacts all areas of life, including marriage, parenting, the workplace, and our walks with the Lord. Doctrine and life are never to be divorced (1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Timothy 1:10). Good theology produces godliness in all areas of life.
With the inroads that secularism and liberalism have made into the modern-day church, there is no more important time than now for God’s people to commit to “preparing our minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13), recognizing that the “adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Don’t get devoured, Christian. Instead, shore up your faith by devoting yourself to the study, and living out, of sound doctrine.