Basic Christian Doctrine

R. C. Sproul begins his book on Essential Truths of the Christian Faith by noting that “everyone is a theologian”. The common sentiment is usually that the word doctrine seems like a big word reserved for seminary professors. Others run away from it because of the many divisive doctrines in the Church. However, the word doctrine (didaskalia in the Greek) can be found in several places in the Bible. For example

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Tim 4:16

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. 2 Tim 4:3

Why Doctrine is Important

According to these two places in the Bible, doctrine can be defined as teachings or principles or truths of the Christian faith. We learn that doctrine is important in keeping us firmly established in our faith as well as safeguarding us against false teachings that lead to ungodly lives. Therefore, doctrine is not something for experts but for every ordinary follower of Jesus Christ. Even the one who says “doctrine is not important” is in essence giving us their doctrine on the unimportance of doctrine!

The Church does not derive doctrine from its own innovativeness, but simply holds on to what is taught in the Scriptures and what the Church has believed throughout the ages.  Whereas with changing cultural times the Church is called to apply her doctrine to different circumstances, what the Church believes can be distilled from the Bible as well as the Church’s documents such as creeds and confessions of the Church.

Doctrine is for Life

While doctrines contain propositional statements of beliefs, the Christian life is based on the living out of these doctrines in light of everyday life. Thus, while Christian life is based on doctrine, it includes more than doctrine – but not less. For there are many people who say the right doctrines but live contradictory lives. However, grasping fundamental principles of the Christian faith and growing in the deeper truths of the Christian faith are both fundamental to a growing Christian life (Hebrews 5:12-14). No one lives a doctrine-less life. The only question is whether our doctrines align with God’s revelation of himself to us.

The Essentials

Regardless of one’s church background, the following beliefs are not only central in the Bible but have been at the heart of the Church in past years. The first point on “the Bible” is foundational to the rest of the doctrines of the Christian life.

  1. The Bible
    1. The Bible is the “inspired” or “God-breathed,” Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).
    1. The Bible in its original manuscripts is without error (John 10:35; John 17:17; Hebrews 4:12). Inerrancy can also be better understood in the words of John Frame, in his chapter “The Inerrancy of Scripture” in The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), “when we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that the Bible makes good on its claims.”
    1. The Spirit of God teaches the genuine child of God the truth and coherence of the Word of God since he is the Author of Scriptures (1 Cor 1:10-12)
    1. In the Christian life and theology, reason and the Church’s history play a role. However, ultimately, the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and practice.
  2. Monotheism – “mono” means one, and “theism” means God. Monotheism therefore refers to the belief in one God.
    1. There is only one God (Exodus 20:3; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6,8).
    1. “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments,” (Exodus 20:3-6).
      1. We can see that God will visit iniquity on the descendants of those who do not follow the true and living God.
    1. This one God has revealed himself as the all-knowing, creator, sovereign, powerful, loving, merciful, just, forgiving and gracious One.
  3. Trinity  
    1. While the word trinity is not found in the Bible, the understanding of the trinity can be concluded from the biblical data. In simple terms, the doctrine of the trinity teaches that God, as one being, exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all are divine, co-equal and co-eternal.
    1. How do we conclude this? We see in the Bible several passages that refer to the Father as God (Eph 1:3; Col 1:3), to the Son as God (Col 1:19, 2:9) and to the Holy Spirit as God (Acts 5:3-4). In other places, we see specific acts of God such as creation or salvation being attributed to the Father (John 1:1-2), to the Son (Col 1:16) and to the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 33:6). Finally, there are passages that include all of them together in the person of God for example 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:2
    1. Therefore, we can conclude that God is one and exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as the Church has always believed.
  4. The Deity of Christ
    1. Jesus is God in flesh (John 8:58 with Exodus 3:14). See also John 1:1,14; 10:30-33; 20:28; Col. 2:9; Phil. 2:5-8; Heb. 1:8
      1. John 8:24, “I said, therefore, to you, that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins.”
      1. Jesus said that if you do not believe “that I am” you will die in your sins. These are the same words used in John 8:58 where Jesus says “…before Abraham was, I am.” He was claiming the divine title by quoting Exodus 3:14.
  • The Hypostatic Union – The teaching that Jesus is both fully God and fully man at the same time.
    • The sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ – The sacrifice of Christ is completely sufficient to pay for the sins of the world and it is only through Jesus’ sacrifice that anyone can be saved.
    • As God – Only a perfect sacrifice to God is able to cleanse us from our sins. This is why Jesus who is God in flesh, died for us.
      • He had to die for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). Only God could do that.
    • As man – Jesus must be man to be able to be a sacrifice for man.
      • As a man, He can be the mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).
  • Salvation by grace through faith
    • “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast,” (Eph. 2:8-9, NIV).
    • “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
      • This verse and its context plainly teach that if you believe that you are saved by faith and works then you are not saved at all. This is a common error in the cults. Because they have a false Jesus, they have a false doctrine of salvation. (Read Rom. 3-5 and Gal. 3-5).
      • You cannot add to the work of God. Gal. 2:21 says, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (NIV)
    • “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin,” (Rom. 3:20).
      • “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness,” (Rom. 4:5).
      • “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law,” (Gal. 3:21).
    • Jesus is the only way to salvation: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me,’” (John 14:6)
  • The Resurrection of Christ
    • “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” (1 Cor. 15:14). “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins,” (1 Cor. 15:17).
    • To deny the physical resurrection is to deny that Jesus’ work was a satisfactory offering to God the Father. It would mean that Jesus was corrupt and needed to stay in the grave. But, he did not stay because his sacrifice was perfect.
    • These verses clearly state that if you say that Jesus did not rise from the dead (in the same body in which He died  – John 2:19-21), then your faith is useless.
  • The Gospel
    • “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8-9, NIV).
      • Verses 8 and 9 here in Galatians are a self-declarative statement that you must believe the gospel. The gospel message in its entirety is that Jesus is God in flesh, who died for sins, rose from the dead, and freely gives the gift of eternal life to those who believe.
    • 1 Cor. 15:1-4 defines what the gospel is: “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel, you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” (NIV).
      • Within these verses are the essentials: Christ is God in flesh (John 1:1,14; 10:30-33; 20:28; Col. 2:9); Salvation is received by faith (John 1:12; Rom. 10:9-10), therefore it is by grace; and the resurrection is mentioned in verse 4. Therefore, this gospel message automatically includes the essentials.
  • The Church
    • The church is the universal body of Christ which gathers locally in various geographical locations.
    • The Church’s head is Jesus Christ.
    • Christ has called individuals called pastors or elders or bishops to govern and lead the church (Eph 4:10-16; 1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9) and deacons to assist in the needs of the Church ( Acts 6:1-7 ).
    • Individual Christians are called to exercise their spiritual gifts in love, zeal and orderliness for the upbuilding of the Church (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12-14) and the extension of God’s kingdom on earth.
    • The Church has been called by Christ to preach the gospel Word, to gather together, to pray, to observe the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion) (1 Cor 11:17-33) and Baptism (Acts 2:38-39) and to reach out to the needy in good deeds (Acts 2:42-47)
  • End Times
  • There will be a public rapture of the Church (Matthew 24:30-36, 40-41; John 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
  • Jesus Christ will return to the earth visibly (Acts 1:11).
  • Christians will be raised from the dead when the Lord returns (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).
  • There will be a final judgement ( Hebrews 9:27 ; 2 Peter 3:7 ).
  • Believers in Jesus Christ will live with God forever in heaven, while unbelievers will be eternally separated from God and punished forever in hell (Matthew 25:41, 46; Revelation 19:20).
  • Satan will be finally defeated ( Revelation 20:10 ).
  • God will create a new heaven and a new earth ( 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1 ).

In essentials unity in non-essentials liberty

Some have used the quote above to describe how we should understand the differences in doctrinal emphases in different churches. These basic doctrines outline the boundaries between being a Christian and those in other religions or cults. While Christian denominations may differ on other doctrines like the role of men and women in the Church, the proper recipients of baptism, the practical outworking of gifts in the Church, healthy churches unite around the essential doctrines outlined above and are therefore united in their witness to the world throughout the ages. Ultimately we need doctrine because right beliefs lead to right thinking, and right thinking leads to right behaviour, and a life that pleases God. Doctrine is for all of life.

This article is an expansion of some material from CARM and Learn Religions

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