Something to Believe In: Why Doctrine Matters

Several years ago, a song burst onto the Christian music scene and became one of the most played songs on Christian radio for the year. The chorus proclaimed,

It’s gotta be more like falling in love
Than something to believe in
More like losing my heart
Than giving my allegiance
Caught up, called out
Come take a look at me now
It’s like I’m falling, oh
It’s life I’m falling in love

While the tune immediately got stuck in my head, it was the first two lines that caught my attention: “more like falling in love than something to believe in.” Though I understand the sentiment behind these lines, I believe these words teach a dangerous false gospel. A friend suggested I was repulsed by these lines because they promoted an emotional Christian experience; however, it was not the emotionalism that disturbed me, but the denigration of belief. This song seemed to be promoting a Christianity where belief was unimportant. My goal is not to bash this song or question the artist’s faith, but rather to illustrate both the subtly and the pervasiveness of a recent movement to devalue belief within Christianity. The truth is Christianity is not just a religion of love (though it is), but it is also a religion of belief, faith, and truth.

The foundation of true holiness and true Christian worship is the doctrine of the gospel, what we are to believe. So when Christian doctrine is neglected, forsaken, or corrupted, true holiness and worship will also be neglected, forsaken, and corrupted.

-John Owen

To make this point, let us take a Scriptural look at two additional troubling lines from this song.

The first verse announces, “I need more than a truth to believe.” I asked myself, how would Jesus have responded to these lyrics? I found my answer in John 8:31-32 where Jesus told his followers, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Here we see that it is the truth of Jesus’ words that lead to freedom and not an emotional connection or feeling about Jesus. Now we must be careful that the truth does not become a cold, indifferent proposition we rationally grasp onto that has no effect upon our lives. Truth must lead to actions such as love, but it cannot be replaced by love.

Later in the song, we hear, “It was love that made me a believer…Falling in love with Jesus brought the change in me.” In one sense these lyrics are accurate. It was love that made me a believer, but it was Jesus’ love for me and not my love for Him. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” I was saved by the gospel: That God loved me even though I hated and rejected Him, He sent His one and only Son to die for the sins I committed against God, and then resurrected three days later providing life in Christ to all those who repent of their sins and believe in Him. The problem with these lyrics is they proclaim it is our love for God that brings us into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ when, according to Scripture, it is through the gospel that God restores our relationship with Him. So, while we are saved by love, it is God’s love for us through the gospel that saves.

Some of you may think I am nitpicking these verses. Several years ago, I would have agreed with this assessment; however, over the past two decades, I have increasingly come to believe that what we believe (doctrine) matters greatly. In fact, it is important enough to “nitpick” song lyrics.

As I studied the Scriptures, I kept seeing an importance on thinking and believing rightly about God. As I probed deeper, I discovered five reasons why what we believe (a.k.a. doctrine) matters. While doctrine may be a scary word to many, it simply means “a set of beliefs.” And so, with that definition, let me now share five reasons why I believe doctrine matters.

The Bible Emphasizes Sound Doctrine

The word doctrine (didaskalia) is used over twenty times in the New Testament. The word can either mean the act of teaching truth or the objective content of truth. When referring to the content of faith, the Apostle Paul often adds a qualifier. The most frequent qualifier is hygiaino (sound), designating a doctrine free from error. In using sound doctrine, Paul acknowledges there is an unsound doctrine (or a doctrine with error). Four times in three different letters Paul exhorts Christians and the churches to pursue sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10, 2 Timothy 4:3, Titus 1:9, and Titus 2:10).

Another qualifier Paul uses is kalos, which means “of good quality” and is often translated “beautiful.” In 1 Timothy 4:6, Paul tells Timothy that in rejecting the false teachers, Timothy will be “a good servant of Christ Jesus…and of the [kalos] doctrine.” Again, Paul separates the good or beautiful doctrine he and Timothy taught from the bad or ugly doctrine of the false teachers.

In addition to doctrine, the word faith (pistis) is used throughout the New Testament to refer to an accepted body of truth. While faith usually refers to the act of believing, when used with an article it refers to the content of belief. Faith is used at least ten times throughout the New Testament with this meaning. In Jude 3 it is the content of faith that has once and for all been delivered. In 1 Timothy 3:9, deacons are to adhere to the content of faith. In Galatians 1:23, Paul preaches the same content of faith he once persecuted others for teaching. Other references include Galatians 3:23-25, 1 Timothy 1:19, 1 Timothy 4:1, 1 Timothy 6:10, 2 Timothy 2:18, and Jude 20.

These are just a few of the references regarding the importance of doctrine in the New Testament. I could include other key words or phrases such as sound words (hygiaino logos) or truth (aletheia), but the conclusion is clear. The New Testament places an importance on sound doctrine, or right belief.

The Bible Warns Against False Doctrine

Many of the above references to doctrine are within the context of countering false doctrine. For example, 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul says some will abandon right doctrine (pistis) for false or evil doctrines. But Paul also uses the word heterodidaskaleo to refer to strange or wrong doctrine at the beginning and end of his first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3 and 1 Timothy 6:3). In 1 Timothy 6:3, Paul says those who teach a strange doctrine are, among other things, deprived of the truth.

And lest anyone think Paul is the only one who condemns false doctrine, Jesus also condemned false doctrine as well. In Matthew 15:9 and Mark 7:7 Jesus condemns those who teach a doctrine, not from God but from man. Therefore, even the “loving” Jesus saw a distinction between truthful doctrine and false doctrine and warns against following after false doctrines and those who teach them.

Again, these are just a few instances where the Bible warns against false doctrine and false teachers. If we are warned against false doctrine, we must conclude we are encouraged to hold and defend right doctrine.

Doctrine is a Matter of Truth

As noted earlier, Jesus taught, “the truth shall set you free.” Doctrine is the content of truth. The New Testament often uses aletheia (truth) to refer to the content of Christian belief. In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul connects the knowledge of the truth with salvation. In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul exhorts the leaders of the church to guard the truth. In 1 John 2, John speaks of the doctrine of Christ as the truth and says any teaching against this truth is a lie. While we may debate the exact truth of certain doctrines, but we must not dismiss doctrine itself, because in doing so we dismiss the concept of truth.

Doctrine Ensures I Love the Right Jesus

I have several friends who ask me “Can’t we just love Jesus?” anytime there is conflict over doctrine. The answer I often give is “Yes, as long as we are both loving the right Jesus.” Doctrine teaches us facts about Jesus, God, and God’s action throughout history. If we dismiss doctrine, we might all get along, but we might end up loving, serving, and worshiping a false god, or at least different gods. Imagine I walk into my home after a long day of work. I grab my wife, look into her eyes, and begin to praise her for her deep blue eyes and long blonde hair. If you know my wife, you will instantly know I am in trouble, because my wife has brown eyes and brown hair. Now imagine I said to my wife, “None of that matters, all that matters is I love you.” My wife will not accept my argument because my wife wants to be loved for who she is and not who I may want her to be. In same way, when we ignore biblical doctrine for sentimentality and emotionalism, we end up loving, serving, and worshiping a god of our own making. Doctrine ensures we are all loving the right God and loving Him rightly.

Doctrine is the Foundation of Love

Another objection I often hear is doctrine often leads to a cold, formal, and indifferent Christianity. And the truth is many “Christians” can rattle off all the right answers about doctrines without allowing those doctrines to change their lives. James acknowledges this contradiction in James 2:19, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe.” James is writing to believers who are tempted to toward a Christianity in word only, where all one must do is to believe rightly. The message of James is not to throw out doctrine, but to allow doctrine to change your life, your thinking, and your actions. Belief in and of itself is not the end game, otherwise the demons would be in the best position of all. Rather, if we truly believe the doctrines we profess, those doctrines will change us.

Sound doctrine must always leads to love and action, otherwise it is not sound. As I understand the sovereignty, power, grace, wrath, goodness of God, I actually love God more. When I understand what Jesus Christ did on the cross for me, I love Him more. Only when I have a right knowledge of humanity, can I truly love others the way I should. Therefore, sound doctrine not only increases my love, but also ignites my love for God and for others.

Love must be grounded in doctrine or else love will be as fickle as a teenage romance. We will love God when everything is going well and the butterflies are fluttering in our stomachs, but the moment we face difficulty, we will begin to question not only our love for God, but God’s love for us. We end up standing on a foundation of shifting sand. On the other hand, those who build their life on God’s Word and the truths of the doctrines found therein, build on the solid rock. And when the rains fall and winds blow, they are able of standing because they have built both their lives and their love on the truth of the eternal God of the universe.

I often find the problem is not doctrine itself, but teaching doctrine as doctrine. I once heard a preacher say, “I’m not there to teach them doctrine necessarily, but to let them know that God is a good God.” I find it interesting that he began by saying he does not want to teach doctrine, but then in saying “God is a good God” he taught a fact (or doctrine) about God. The truth is we all adhere to some doctrine. What we believe about God, the world, ourselves is all doctrine. The question is whether or not we believe and teach sound doctrine.

While I wrote this blog for all those who do not think doctrine matters, my hope is not that you will take my word for it, but study the Scriptures for yourself. Begin your search with the passages I have listed, but do not stop there. Prayerfully dive into the Scriptures and you will discover for yourself the importance God places on believing sound doctrine.

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