It's become increasingly apparent that the contemporary mind is suspicious of propositional truth. The culture has imbibed the postmodernism construct: propositions lead to doctrines, which lead to theologies, which form the meta-narratives that the elite and powerful use to dominate, manipulate, and take advantage of the masses. "No more propositions, doctrines, and imperialistic meta-narratives," they say. "Just show us Jesus by what you do."
That may sound good, but it's fundamentally flawed. If you can't use propositions, who's to say what kind of living is more or less like Jesus? At some point, the propositions are brought out, doctrines are stated, theologies take shape, and it's one meta-narrative versus another.
At the heart of contemporary concern is what many have observed-cold, dead, compassionless "Christians" touting doctrines they don't really believe. They are like those Paul warned Timothy about: they hold "to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power" (2 Timothy 3:5).
True biblical doctrine is practical. In fact, nothing is more practical than sound doctrine. Those who listen to right doctrine and put it into practice are transformed by it.
The pastor who turns away from preaching sound doctrine abdicates the primary responsibility of an elder: "holding fast the faithful word which is accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). We teach the truth, error, or nothing at all.
Practical insights, gimmicks, and illustrations (the Seeker Movement), and ethical mandates, philosophical musings, and social action (the Emergent Movement) mean little if they're not anchored in a foundation of divine principle. There's no basis for godly behavior apart from the truth of God's Word. Before the preacher asks anyone to perform a certain duty, he must first deal with doctrine. He must develop his message around theological themes and draw out the principles of the text. Only then can people apply the truth.
Romans provides the clearest biblical example. Paul didn't even give any exhortation until he had given eleven chapters of theology. He scaled incredible heights of truth, culminating in 11:33-36:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
Then in chapter 12, he turns immediately to the practical consequences of the doctrine of the first eleven chapters. No passage in Scripture captures the Christian's responsibility in the face of truth more clearly than Romans 12:1-2.
Resting on eleven chapters of profound doctrine, Paul called each believer to a supreme act of spiritual worship-giving oneself as a living sacrifice. Doctrine gives rise to dedication to Christ, the greatest practical act. And the remainder of the book of Romans goes on to explain the many practical outworkings of a Christian's dedication to Christ.
Paul followed the same pattern in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians. The doctrinal message comes first. Upon that foundation he built the practical application, making the logical connection with the word therefore (Romans 12:1; Galatians 5:1; Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 2:1) or then (Colossians 3:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:1).
We have imposed an artificial meaning on the word doctrine. We've made it something abstract and threatening, unrelated to daily living. That has brought about the disastrous idea that doctrinal preaching and teaching are unrelated to living.
But the scriptural concept of doctrine includes the entire message of the gospel-its teaching about God, salvation, sin, and righteousness. Those concepts are so tightly bound to daily living that the first-century mind saw them as inseparably linked to practical truth.
The New Testament church was founded on a solid base of doctrine. First Timothy 3:16 contains what many expositors believe is an early church hymn:
And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, beheld by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
There, in capsule form, is the basis of all Christian teaching. Without that, no practical application matters.
The next few verses of 1 Timothy describe what happens when men depart from the basis of biblical truth:
Some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth (4:1-3).
Lying, hypocrisy, a dulled conscience, and false religious practices all have their roots in wrong doctrine.
Titus 2:10 says we "adorn [or honor] the doctrine of God" by how we live. When it comes to affirming sound doctrine, what we do carries far more significance than what we say. That's why it's disastrous when a pastor, seminary professor, or any other kind of Christian leader fails morally or lives in a way that's indistinguishable from the world. The message he proclaims with his lifestyle is clear: "My doctrine is unrelated to my life."
True doctrine transforms behavior as it is woven into the fabric of everyday life. But it must be understood if it is to have its impact. The real challenge of the ministry is to dispense the truth clearly and accurately. Practical application comes easily by comparison.
No believer can apply truth he doesn't know. Those who don't understand what the Bible really says about marriage, divorce, family, child-rearing, discipline, money, debt, work, service to Christ, eternal rewards, helping the poor, caring for widows, respecting government, and other teachings won't be able to apply it.
Those who don't know what the Bible teaches about salvation cannot be saved. Those who don't know what the Bible teaches about holiness are incapable of dealing with sin. Thus they are unable to live fully to their own blessedness and God's glory.
In our day, when so many are denying the clarity of the Bible, the practicality of doctrine, and the inadequacy of theology in favor of ethical and social concerns, it's time to reassert the essential place of Christian doctrine.
Christian, watch your life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). Commit yourself to understanding what the Bible teaches so you can properly apply it. Only then will you "discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course" (Proverbs 2:9).
© Copyright 2008 by John MacArthur. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Widely known for his thorough, candid approach to teaching God's Word, John MacArthur is a fifth-generation pastor, a popular author and conference speaker, and has served as pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California since 1969. John and his wife, Patricia, have four grown children and fourteen grandchildren.
John's pulpit ministry has been extended around the globe through his media ministry, Grace to You, and its satellite offices in Canada, Europe, India, New Zealand, and Singapore. In addition to producing daily radio programs for nearly 2,000 English and Spanish radio outlets worldwide, Grace to You distributes books, software, audiotapes, and CDs by John MacArthur. In thirty-six years of ministry, Grace to You has distributed more than thirteen million CDs and audiotapes.
John is the president of The Master's College and The Master's Seminary, and he has written hundreds of books and study guides (see here), each one thoroughly biblical and practical. Best-selling titles include The Gospel According to Jesus, The Second Coming, Ashamed of the Gospel, Twelve Ordinary Men, and The MacArthur Study Bible.