American Christians are standing at a crossroads. Our society is becoming more hostile to Christianity in general and believers individually. In the face of rapid secularization, political uncertainty, economic instability, and ideological confusion, we must decide whether or not we will stand for the truth, or capitulate to the pressure. American society does not want to hear what Christians have to say regarding #loveislove hashtags, the rights of the unborn, extending the draft to women, transgender bathroom use, or LGBT rights in general—unless it corroborates the “Christian” doctrines of “love” and “tolerance.”
Tragically, many Christians are not just sideline participants in our culture’s march away from truth; they are organizing the marches. In many evangelical circles, pleas for “just the simple gospel” can be heard ringing from the steeples. Doctrine is abandoned in the interest of unity, because “doctrine divides.” Many argue that we must focus on banding together and simply preach the gospel, not study doctrine. We can pray together, work together, and evangelize together, but we cannot have doctrinal depth.
This is a common position, but it is fundamentally mistaken. Scripture is unambiguously clear in its insistence on rich, strong doctrine that reflects the beautiful, powerful, and complex God who created it. Sound doctrine is a systematic explanation of biblical truths, without which we cannot have true unity. It’s not sound doctrine, but the departure from doctrine that causes division and strife. Ignoring or perverting its beauty denies the reality of our identity as Christ’s people and remains Satan’s explicit goal. His aim is and always has been to deceive and devour God’s people, and he does so by convincing them to abandon truth. Today more than ever, we must do the hard work of becoming trained in the godliness of doctrine through growth in our knowledge of Christ. We must fight for the whole truth—the complex, rich articulation that reflects the beautiful and intricate story of redemption.
Why Doctrine Matters: Who We Were
Those who call for a movement away from doctrine to promote unity have a fundamental misunderstanding of our identity as humans—who we once were, who we are now, and the battle in which we are engaged. Growing in the knowledge of Christ—learning doctrine—is intimately and necessarily connected to who we once were “in Adam” and who we are now “in Christ.”
Paul explains this in Romans 5:12. He forthrightly states that “all sinned” when Adam sinned. The words are simple, but this little phrase has caused extended debate throughout church history. Theologians have disputed and split over the question of what it actually means that “all sinned” when Adam sinned. Does it mean that men and women inherit Adam’s sinful nature because they are biologically human? Was all humanity somehow present in the garden with Adam when he sinned? Did everyone commit Adam’s exact sin, or are they merely guilty because sin is hereditary? After centuries of debate, the Westminster Confession of Faith VI:III clarified that men and women are guilty of the exact sin that Adam committed. It states: “They [Adam and Eve] being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.”
So what is the big deal? What are the implications of understanding Paul this way? The text does not say that human beings are condemned merely because of their own sinful actions committed in this life, but that they enter the world guilty before God because of Adam’s sin. Paul does not defend or apologize for such a notion; he just states it as a categorical fact. What this means is that everyone is born already programmed with a certain way of being in the world; men and women stand condemned for Adam’s sin before they even come out of the womb.
What should Adam have done in the garden when he was tempted to sin? He knew Satan was lying to him, but he bought it—Adam, the one man on earth who walked with God in a perfect sinless world. You can imagine Adam receiving that first breath of life, opening his eyes to the knowledge that God, the Creator of the universe, was his creator as well. God was his friend, companion, sustainer, even matchmaker—he brought him his wife, Eve, and provided for every possible need. And yet, when faced with the promise of assuming his Creator’s power, what did Adam do? He rebelled against his Father—in following Satan, he hated his God, his Creator, his friend, his love. He allowed his knowledge of God to be perverted and trusted Satan instead.
Christian or not, we all know God. We can’t escape knowing him; he is our Creator! We know the truth, but we pervert that truth, just like Adam. Paul describes this in Romans 1 as humanity’s “natural” way of understanding the world. He states that all men and women know God, but they “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18). This denial is characterized by a unilateral rejection of the revealed truth about God—Paul refers to it as our “darkened understanding.” He says that we naturally live “in the futility of [our] thinking” (Eph. 4:17). This means that our natural way of perceiving the world is corrupt and warped because, in this state, we are separated from the source of our identity, our Creator. The corruption of the natural mind means that there are no “objective” or “neutral” categories of thinking. There is no point of mental inquiry men and women can derive from nature that is unadulterated by sin or by the guilt of rebellion.
Why Doctrine Matters: Who We Are
In Romans 5, Paul makes the ultimate contrast. He states that all men and women fell when Adam fell: “one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people” (Rom. 5:18). But he then contrasts Adam’s one act of rebellion (which resulted in death) with Christ’s one righteous act (which resulted in life). Through Adam’s disobedience, sin and guilt are accounted, but through Christ’s obedience, righteousness is imputed. In the same way that Adam’s guiltiness becomes the guilt of all men and women, so Christ’s righteousness becomes the righteousness of his people when they are united to him through the power of the Holy Spirit.
When Paul describes those who are united to Christ, he says that we have received a new way of understanding the world. We’re no longer bound by the sinful perceptions given to us by our father Adam—our old life is gone and with it our old patterns of thinking. It has been “put off” and we are “made new” in the attitude of our minds (Eph. 4:22–23). Paul frames the shift in identity from Adam to Christ in terms of a mental change—we now have the mind of Christ and are to think according to his mind. Everything has changed; our understanding of reality has been transformed so that we now understand politics, education, history, science, technology, family, relationships, and society differently.
What is the nature of this new mind? The mind of Christ is revealed in the word of Christ—the two are inseparable—so we cannot neglect the study of his word, since this is how we come to understand who we are as new creatures. Paul illustrates this principle in his letter to the Ephesians. Writing to his beloved congregation from prison in Rome, he tells the members that he continually prays that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” (Eph. 1:17–18; italics added). Paul “keeps asking” that God would give them the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you might know him better.” Of all the things Paul could pray for this congregation, it was that they would know God better—the beauty of the hope to which they had been called—that they are God’s treasured and holy people, God’s own inheritance, and that the same power which brought them into God’s family was the same power that raised the very Son of God from the dead and set him on his throne at God’s right hand (Eph. 1:18–20).
As we read through the list of what Paul wants the Ephesians to know, it becomes clear that Paul simply wants them to know and remember who they are! They are redeemed; they are made to be God’s inheritance by the power of the Holy Spirit. He describes the Ephesians’ identity with a summary of essential truths of the Christian faith—i.e., doctrines! Paul states that the Ephesians are God’s treasured and holy people, which is the doctrine of election. He prays that the Ephesians would know that they were brought into God’s family through the same power that raised Christ from the dead, which is a doctrine about the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Knowing doctrine—the truths of Scripture—simply means knowing who we are as a people redeemed out of our identity “in Adam” as rebels against God, now united to Christ and conforming our hearts and minds to his own.
A refusal to study and become competent in doctrine is ultimately a refusal to know who we are. It’s a sort of functional denial of your own identity. It’s like choosing to live and act as a wild animal: eating grass and living outside, instead of consuming proper nourishment and living indoors. The refusal to learn and study doctrine does not promote unity; it fosters division, as people decide for themselves what the Bible says and what it doesn’t.
Why Doctrine Matters: Strength for Our Fight!
The stark contrast between Adam and Christ in Romans 5 is intended to demarcate two positions: we are either in active rebellion against our Creator as we operate out of the guilt of our father Adam, or we have been reconciled to God through the work of Christ and the power of the Spirit with a new mind continually conforming to the word of Christ. Everyone operates out of a theology—either a theology of rebellion according to the flesh or a theology in subjection to the Creator. Those who discourage growing in the knowledge of Christ and scorn the study of doctrine encourage believers to return to their old patterns of thought that are in bondage to Satan.
Paul’s knowledge of Satan’s goal motivated him to sharply warn the elders in Ephesus against the “savage wolves” circling the fold. Like twenty-first century America, first-century Ephesus was not an easy place for Christians. Its status as a prominent city in the Roman Empire brought ideological, social, and religious pressures to the small congregation that struggled to grow in an area shaped by the worship of the goddess Diana. Paul spent three years ministering there, devoting more time to the Ephesian church than any other congregation. Before he departed for Jerusalem, he called the elders to meet with him one last time. In one of the most tender scenes in the Bible, Paul reminds the elders that when he lived among them, he warned them “day and night” about false teachers. These men would rise from their midst with the sole purpose of drawing men and women away through the distortion of the truth. These men would know what the truth is—they would even be members of the church—yet they would take that knowledge and twist it to deceive God’s people. Just like Satan in the garden, the wolves take the truth and pervert it for their own purposes.
In light of this danger, Paul warned the elders to “be on your guard!” (Acts 20:30). They were to “keep watch over themselves and all the flock” and shepherd the church of God, “which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). But how were they to do this? Paul did not simply warn the Ephesians that “savage wolves” were present, but he also gave them a powerful tool against these troublemakers. He admonished them to “preach anything that would be helpful,” declaring to them the “whole counsel of God…night and day” (Acts 20:20). Paul equipped the Ephesians with the “whole counsel of God”—he taught them doctrine! Doctrine is simply the clear presentation of the “will” or “counsel” of God, and Paul knew that this—the clear, careful articulation of the whole truth in God’s revealed word—would protect the Ephesian church after he left.
As time went on, the Ephesian church was plagued by controversy and torn by false doctrines. At the end of Paul’s life, he sent Timothy to the church, giving him the same charge that he gave its elders prior to his departure for Jerusalem. In the face of false teaching, Timothy was to train himself in truth and pursue godliness and the knowledge of Christ (1 Tim. 4:7). Paul told him to flee from those who “do not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching,” commanding him to “fight the good fight” of the faith, to “take hold” of the eternal life to which he was called (1 Tim. 6:3–5). How did Timothy know what “the faith” was? How could he discern the true from the false? By being trained in the “whole counsel of God” and the “sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Training is hard work—ask any athlete. It involves discipline, diligence, and hard work. Paul worked “day and night” with the Ephesians, teaching them truth. Learning doctrine can be hard—there must be a continual and careful study of the Scriptures, new words to learn, and a bit of historical work. It’s much easier to sit back and allow others to tell us what is right and wrong, to be content with 140-character theology statements.
For Timothy and the Ephesian church, as well as for us, becoming trained in sound doctrine wasn’t something they could choose to ignore. There is no neutral position. If we are not transformed in the renewal of our minds through the power of the Holy Spirit, then our minds will degenerate further in the futility of our thinking. The “savage wolves” against which the Ephesians (and we) are warned will come and take our thoughts captive. The sin we inherited from Adam is powerful and strong, and our enemy the devil is prowling, scheming, and seeking to devour God’s people (Eph. 6:10). He uses the same tactics he used in the garden as well as Ephesus—our knowledge of the truth must answer his schemes with more strength. If not, we will be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning” (Eph. 4:14). Many modern evangelicals have failed to realize that we are still in a battle against Satan! If we don’t know, study, and stand for the truth, then we run the risk of being taken captive.
One of the most beautiful things about the God we worship is that he has not only revealed himself in his word but also in history; not only does he speak to us, but he also acts for us in space and time, where we can see his mighty hand. We have the inerrant testimony of the godly men and women who have gone before us contained in the pages of Scripture, assuring us that we do in fact worship the one, true, and living God, and it is through their testimony that the doctrines of the orthodox, historic faith are codified. Theologians throughout history knew what Paul taught—that sound doctrine is not only an essential component of our identity as followers of Christ, but it is also a necessary weapon for the battle against falsehood. The Reformers wrote their confessions and catechisms in order to articulate clear, concise, and theologically rich presentations of the “whole counsel of God” as a way to refute the various false teachings that had arisen. They were revolutionary in the sense that they firmly believed everyone must be trained in doctrine in order to glorify God and withstand the temptations of the world. For the first time since the apostles, theology was to be studied not just by priests and students, but by merchants, field laborers, women, and children as well.
One of the great triumphs of Satan’s campaign against the contemporary church is the neglect of and (in some cases) disdain for the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation. Many Christians today operate in a vacuum, not bothering to consult or learn from the historic church. Doctrines that godly men and women fought and died for are either ignored or cast off as irrelevant and divisive. There’s a well-known proverb about refusing to learn history and being doomed to repeat its mistakes. We have a vast amount of resources available to us as we face cultural and theological confusion. We don’t have to start at square one in our study of doctrine; in fact, it would be foolish to do so.
Right Knowledge for Right Living
Paul and the Reformers knew that there is a higher purpose to the study of doctrine than the acquisition of knowledge per se: it is the putting on of the new self, which is “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). Learning doctrine produces men and women who walk before God in holiness, which is the whole purpose of humankind! Adam was created to walk before God in holiness, and that requirement remained in effect even after the entrance of sin. Enoch walked with God faithfully and was spared death (Gen. 5:24); when God established his covenant with Abraham, God commanded him to “walk before [him] faithfully and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). In the same way, Israel was supposed to “walk in obedience” to God (Deut. 26:17). God declared that his people, whom he called out of darkness to walk before him, were his “treasured possession…a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5–6). His plan to redeem a holy people for his own possession was what drove the Old Testament—a plan accomplished in the New Testament era, which continues today. This is who we are in Christ: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Walking before God in holiness is always connected to knowing and keeping the commands revealed in his word. Learning doctrine is not simply a safeguard against false teaching; it is one of our key weapons in our struggle against the enemy and foundational to who we are as human beings. We engage in the hard work of growing in our knowledge of Christ because it is who we are. Walking in holiness through the power of the Spirit brings us to our identity as God’s creatures.
In his letter to Titus, Paul reflected that the result of the appearing of God’s grace is not simply our redemption from sin through the death of Christ. It’s so that we are trained to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age as we wait for the blessed hope of Christ’s return (Titus 2:14). How do we as God’s people respond to the troubling events going on in this “present age”? We don’t capitulate to our Ephesian or American societal and cultural trends. Instead, we become trained in the “whole counsel of God” as our mind and lives are transformed by the word of Christ, and we become thoroughly equipped by the power of the Spirit to live upright and godly lives in the present age.
Whitney Gamble (PhD, University of Edinburgh, Scotland) is assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Providence Christian College in Pasadena.