The Importance of Doctrine
"Daddy, did God make telephone poles?"
It was another one of those endless and seemingly unimportant questions that a kid will ask at the end of a long day that makes a parent go slightly insane.
Luella and I had been teaching our children that God created the world and everything in it, and as our family drove to Burger King, my son looked out the window at the telephone poles that lined the street, mulling over the "doctrine of creation" in his little brain. Justin was very young at the time, so he didn't actually know anything about doctrine, at least at an academic level. But his question was still deeply theological.
Why was our little philosopher thinking about those telephone poles? Because he was a human being; he was simply doing what God designed us to do.
DESIGNED TO THINK
You may be a plumber, a Fortune 500 CEO, a housewife and stay-at-home mom, a music teacher, or a professional athlete, but you're also a full-time thinker. Some of us think improperly and inconsistently, and some of us reveal our thinking more publicly than others, but if you're a person, you think. You've never had a thoughtless day in your life.
Little children, like my Justin, never quit asking questions. Teenagers constantly obsess over what's fair and unfair. Husbands and wives argue because they've interpreted a particular situation differently. Older people look back over the years and try to make sense of it all, often paralyzed by regret.
You see, we all do it - we think.
Thinking about life, and our desire to understand, is a deeply and uniquely human thing to do. It gets to the heart of how God wired us to operate, yet it tends not to get the publicity that it should. Most of the time we don't realize that we're thinking, and we fail to understand the profound significance it has on our lives.
Every day, at some point and in some way, we'll try to make sense out of our lives. Some will dig through the mound of artifacts from our past, looking back on their journey and trying to figure out "if only" they had or hadn't done this or that. Others will endlessly toss around their current situations, locations and relationships, evaluating certain responses compared to others. Still more will gaze into the future, hoping to somehow divine what's to come and prepare themselves for it.
Chances are, you've probably done all three already today. Or, if you're reading this in the morning, it won't be long before you do.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THINKING
Every human being has constructed a superstructure of life assumptions that functions as the instrument they use to make sense of life. It can be the result of a combination of things, such as upbringing, education, life experiences, and personality traits, but we all look at life through this interpretive grid.
This is vital to understand: Thought always precedes and determines activity.
I want you to stop and write down that sentence. If there's only one thing you take away from this long article, it needs to be this concept.
Make it personal: My thoughts always precede and determine my activity.
It's crucial that you become more conscious of the vibrant mental activity that so influences the choices you make, the words you speak, and the things you desire.
You and I don't act out of instinct like the rest of the creatures in the animal kingdom. We don't do what we do because of what we're experiencing in the moment. Rather, we think, speak, and act based on the way we've thought about and interpreted what we're experiencing.
Social experiments have proven this time and time again. If you place three different people in the very same situation, they can have three remarkably different reactions. Why? Because each individual has interpreted that situation through their personal thinking grid.
A variance in interpretation will always lead to a variation in response.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DOCTRINE
Let me connect all that about thinking with the importance of doctrine.
The God who designed you to be a thinker is the same God who inspired the writers of the Old and New Testaments to pen his truths. God hardwired us to view life through an interpretative grid, and he also gave us his Word to shape that grid.
The Bible is a book, filled with doctrine, that defines what is good, right and true. A loving Creator gave it to his dependent creatures so they would know how to properly make sense out of life. Or, to phrase it differently, the Bible is the tangible result of the "Meaning Giver" explaining foundational truths to the "meaning makers" he created.
Every person who has ever lived exists in desperate need of the unfolded mysteries that make up the content of Scripture. Without it, we wouldn't know how to think about life. We wouldn't know for sure if what we knew was true, and we wouldn't know if what we thought we knew was good and morally right!
When you understand the Bible in this way, it no longer becomes relegated to the hallowed and separate corridors of institutionalized religion. No, on the contrary, the Bible is a life book given for life purposes, so that everybody everywhere would use it to understand life, and ultimately the Author of Life.
Naturally, since Scripture contains doctrines, these doctrines shouldn't be reserved for academic seminarians. They're living and divine tools of salvation, transformation, identity and guidance.
That's why I'm writing this series. I want to help you think about the complex doctrines of the Bible and help you see how they impact your everyday thoughts, words, and actions.
THE PURPOSE OF DOCTRINE
Now that we've looked at the importance and overall purpose of doctrine, I want to unpack three specific ways in which it impacts our everyday life.
1. Every doctrine provides an explanation
We wouldn't be able to fully understand the implications of the fall of Adam and Eve, the calling of Abraham, the righteous life of Jesus, the cross, the empty tomb, the ascension, the establishment of the church, and so forth if it weren't for the explanatory doctrines of God's Word.
Through doctrine, God helps us to understand how we have acted in sin and how he has responded in grace. We are not saved by the doctrine, but by the historical things God has willingly and graciously done on our behalf. Doctrine explains those things to us so we can admit our need, reach out for God’s help, and move forward in a new and better way.
2. Every doctrine is a shorthand.
Every doctrine you'll come across in Scripture provides a shorthand for things God knows are vital for us to know and understand. It allows us to summarize vast amounts of content and historical activity in one word.
For example, the doctrine of justification captures the nature of God's character (completely holy and intolerant of sin), humanity's need (rescue from total depravity), and God's response to (wrath against sin) and provision for (the sacrifice of Jesus Christ) that need.
We can now substitute the term "justification" for the entire story of all the things God did to secure our position as his children.
3. Every doctrine provides a means to an end.
It's very important to remind ourselves that the doctrines of the Bible were never intended to be an end in themselves, but rather, a means to an end.
The doctrines God has revealed have a greater purpose than to give you a big theological brain, and they're meant to provide more for you than just an outline and a theological confession.
Doctrine is meant to be a means to an end, and the end is a transformed life.
THORN BUSHES AND CYPRESS TREES
Perhaps the best word picture for what the doctrines of the Bible were intended to do for us and in us is found in Isaiah 55:10-13. The prophet equates the truths in the Bible being like rain or snow that falls and waters the earth.
Read what Isaiah writes:
"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
"For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off."
God, in his Word, and Jesus Christ, during his earthly ministry, used a lot of word pictures to reveal spiritual truths in physical terms. But, when you read this passage, you have to admit that this is one of the strangest physical word pictures in all of the Bible.
I'm no botanist, but I'm pretty sure that if I had a thorn bush in my backyard, rain would produce a bigger thorn bush, not a cypress tree. I don't think I've ever experienced a well-watered brier magically morphing into a myrtle.
What is God, through the prophet, trying to communicate by stretching our botanical understanding? What is this bizarre metaphor telling us about what God intends the truths (doctrines) of his Word to produce?
DOCTRINE RESULTS IN TRANSFORMATION
This strange word picture is meant to drive us to one conclusion: the doctrines found in the Word of God are not just designed to increase information, but rather produce radical, organic transformation. You see, the plants that are being watered don't become bigger plants; they become an entirely different plant altogether!
God's plan is for the rain of biblical doctrine to fall on us and change us. We won't become better renditions of ourselves, but entirely different, spiritually. God uses doctrine as a means to turn angry people into peacemakers, greedy people into givers, demanding people into servants, lustful people into pure people, faithless people into believers, proud people into humble people, rebels into obedient people, and idolaters into worshipers of the one true God.
This is why doctrine should never be reserved only for the brains of our academic theologians in seminary. Is it important for our smartest thinkers to unpack them for us? Of course, but these big doctrines have real life implications. They're meant to turn you inside out and turn your world upside down. God's intention is that nothing in their path would ever be the same again.
When you properly understand the doctrines contained in Scripture, they'll transform your identity, reshape your relationships and redirect your finances. Your calendar, your words, your hobbies and your leisure will look different. You won't think about your past and your future in the same way you once did, and you'll look at the present through an entirely different grid.
Doctrine is a beautiful gift, supplied by a God of amazing grace. They're not burdensome, life-constricting beliefs; they impart new life and new freedom. They're the ecosystem in which the garden of personal transformation grows.
I hope you're as excited as I am to start unpacking the doctrines found in Scripture!
Dr. Paul David Tripp is a pastor, event speaker, and a best-selling and award-winning author. With more than 30 books and video series on Christian living, Paul’s driving passion is to connect the transforming power of Jesus Christ to everyday life. This article is used with direct permission.