Pursuing Sound Doctrine: How and Why

Sometimes I wonder: Am I missing something, or is this all there is to know God? Is God really as shallow as my experiences have been? Is this what knowing an infinite, eternal God is like?

While there is no single factor to blame for an insipid and monotonous Christian life, there are a few notable ones. Maybe it is time to [re]discover prayer. Or bring hideous secret sin out of the closet and slay it.

Or maybe it is time to stop avoiding the word “doctrine” like the plague.

Shallow doctrine plots a shallow Christian life.

When we assume there is only one way to approach doctrine – as a bland academic study – we naturally shy away from it. It sounds dry and lifeless. That, however, is is hideous and costly misconception, and it can be cured by understanding that there is a right and a wrong way to pursue sound doctrine. Let’s look at both.

The Right Approach to Pursuing Sound Doctrine

If we study sound doctrine as a purely academic pursuit, our approach will be dry and hollow. Information is not equivalent to intimacy with God, and intimacy is where vitality comes from.

This wrong approach stands in contrast to the learner who seeks sound doctrine as one who is parched and tastes the sweet waters of a fountain. His thirst compels him to rest by the fountain and dip back in a second, third, and fourth time.

So it is with approaching God by learning sound doctrine. Doctrine deepens out belief and enlarges our vision of God in a soul-satisfying, life-changing way.

Therefore, the right approach to doctrine is to approach it as coming to know God as He really is.

As Joshua Harris writes in Dug Down Deep,

“For many people, words like theology, doctrine, and orthodoxy are almost completely meaningless. Maybe they’re unappealing, even repellent.

“Theology sounds stuffy. Doctrine is something unkind people fight over…

“I can relate to that perspective. I’ve been there. But I’ve also discovered that my prejudice, my ‘theology allergy,’ was unfounded.

“This book is the story of how I first glimpsed the beauty of Christian theology. These pages hold the journal entries of my own spiritual journey—a journey that led to the realization that sound doctrine is at the center of loving Jesus with passion and authenticity. I want to share how I learned that orthodoxy isn’t just for old men but is for anyone who longs to behold a God who is bigger and more real and glorious than the human mind can imagine.

“The irony of my story—and I suppose it often works this way—is that the very things I needed, even longed for in my relationship with God, were wrapped up in the very things I was so sure could do me no good. I didn’t understand that such seemingly worn-out words as theology, doctrine, and orthodoxy were the pathway to the mysterious, awe-filled experience of truly knowing the living Jesus Christ.

“They told the story of the Person I longed to know.”

[Go ahead and read the review, download the first chapter PDF of the book, and then purchase a copy…it is worth it]

Doctrine is Basic to Practical Christian Living

In the same vein as Harris, AW Tozer writes in Knowledge of the Holy [Warning: PDF],

A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

So learning sound doctrine is both practical and necessary for Christian living. Shying away from doctrine leads to a shallow understanding of God and cuts us off from the very depth of relationship that we long for.

That should spur us to dig deeper, and here are four ways to do that…

Practical Application

Four ways to tackle learning sound doctrine in manageable chunks:

1. Pray for understanding as Paul did for the church in Colossians 1:9-14.

2. Come up with a morning routine and read just three pages of classic theological work each day and finish in a year.

3. Include in your routine regular Bible reading and study, book by book, so that you build familiarity with the Old and New Testament.

4. Subscribe to Tabletalk after taking a look at 8 Reasons Why You Should Subscribe. I wholeheartedly endorse that monthly publication and strongly encourage you to check out the zero-obligation free trial. Its excellent authors plumb the depths of doctrine every month in a practical, understandable way.

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16 thoughts on “Pursuing Sound Doctrine: How and Why

  1. Sound theology, doctrine, orthodoxy vs. inadequate, imperfect, ignoble thoughts of God. Seems an obvious choice at first glance, but what makes it difficult? It is the ego: focal point of the fall of mankind into sin, incubator of rebellion and womb of iniquity.

    Consider: the first three terms imply disciplined learning under terms of submission to the teaching of those who are wiser. The alternative is the relatively more exciting realm of personal discovery, being self-taught and credited with one’s own education.

    But in the multitude of counsellors is safety, whereas dependence on personal experience is arrogance born of blindness.

    Simply put, all that is built upon the solid Rock that is Jesus Christ is rightly founded and shall never fall to the storms of life. But personal experience and discovery is sand, which will drift and fail, and portends a great fall in time of testing. “Knowledge” of God and Christ based upon one’s personal discovery is deception and folly, unstable and ill-fated. True knowledge from above is ministered to the church through the church, every member contributing to the mutual building up of the whole in love.

    The conclusions drawn above are far from the only possible course to take, but they constitute an excellent beginning upon which to build…

    Thank you Daniel.

  2. Al, you remind me of my Uncle Chuck. I have always loved my Uncle Chuck, ever since I met him a couple of years ago. Posthumously, of course. No, he’s not related to me by blood, but I call him my Uncle because I love him so. He’s been dead since the late 1800’s, though, but someday I hope to meet him and shake his hand.

    He wrote a lot of good stuff, Uncle Chuck Spurgeon did. 🙂

  3. Al: I assume you are not warning against personal discovery/study in the sense of learning, but rather against trying to branch out and come up with your own theological views without guidance from great teachers in the church who have gone before. I get that right?

    Jonathan: Have you signed up for the free trial?

  4. Daniel, you have taken my thoughts as I intended them, but to clarify a bit more:
    The Holy Spirit is given directly to the individual believer for guidance in learning, but He also inhabits the corporate body of Christ to build up the whole. The believer must, as an individual, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, looking to God’s Word alone for instruction. But then, in keeping with the commandments toward mutual edification, he must look to the most Christlike and Christ honoring teachers in the church, both past and present, in order to avoid the natural tangenalism that may occur in the individual’s mind. Still, the surest safeguard against error is scriptural faith in God, the gift of His grace.

  5. Don, please correct me if I’m wrong:

    The unbeliever rejects religious doctrine as a concept because to him it implies complete subjectivism– an unthinking submission to a prescribed set of beliefs, putting heart before mind.

    The believer who is anti-doctrine feels that doctrine is not subjective enough; that it denies personal knowledge of Christ and God because it commits to following a prescribed set of beliefs, prefering mind over heart.

    Neither view is correct, the Bible not validating total separation of heart and mind, but explaining their distinctions in terms that clearly overlap. The God-given new heart is the key to the mind, and the constantly being renewed mind is the key to the heart. Attempting to rely on either one by the exclusion of the other is a formula for error and disaster.

  6. Ahh! Where’s the “Reply” button? Oh well.

    I just signed up for the free trial. It’s 3 months free! That’s really fantastic.

    I am hoping by the end of the three months I will be able to purchase a year’s worth.

    Thanks for the direction.

  7. Daniel, I think what Don is referring to is that people have shrinked away from “doctrine” for the sake of “relevancy.” Doctrine in much of modern Christianity is imposing and “judgmental.” I just think the pastors who don’t preach doctrine are pansies seeking to scratch itching ears and not feeding the dying souls manna from heaven.

  8. Jonathan – I took down the “reply” button since the formatting of multiple replies was not aesthetically pleasing. No other reason.

    Al and Jonathan, thank you both for your thoughts on doctrine. You both hit on key issues: Doctrine is avoided because we don’t have the discipline to pursue it, and think we can reinvent something else to be more “relevant.” After all, doctrine doesn’t seem terribly exciting. I know I used to avoid doctrine because I just want “practical stuff.” That was a mistake.

  9. Gotcha.

    Regarding “practical” doctrine: I attended a break out session at an Acts 29 conference called “Pastor as Theologian.” The guy teaching this session began by saying, “All practice is theological, and all theology is practical.” I couldn’t agree more.

  10. I wished I did. To be honest, that particular session was a bit boring. Not a whole lot was said. Basically, he was encouraging pastors to take their leaders through theology some how and in some way. He recommended having each ministry leader submit a theological reason of why each of them want to run run their ministries the way they do. Which, by the way, I thought was really good advice.

  11. Jon & Daniel, John Piper & Don Carson did a joint presentation somewhere (I think last year) in which one spoke on “The pastor as theologian” & the other on “The theokogian as pastor.” This year it’s in the works to turn the material into a small book. I haven’t seen a target date, but I’d expect it to be in print before the end of 2011. There may be more material available on the DG website– I haven’t looked. They may even have audios or print transcriptions of the sessions…


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