Those of you who know me well know that I love theology and good doctrine is one of the most important things to me. I come from a theological lineage which is full of men and women who highly value sound, biblical doctrine. We have fought for it and clung to it. I am grateful for this. However, I have observed a trend in my years as a follower of Christ and have become more aware of it having now served formally in Christian ministry leadership for 12+ years. There are a great many who have an affinity for good doctrine, who also seem to believe that good doctrine can stand on its own. That simply is not the case.
While I believe that good doctrine is essential for Christian living, I also know that if good doctrine alone is our aim, we are selling the gospel short. God never intended for good doctrine to be an end, but rather a means. Good doctrine itself is not our goal. Rather, our goal is to be formed into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). Our goal is discipleship, which is really another way to say apprenticeship. The goal of an apprentice is to be like his master (Matthew 10:24-25, Luke 6:40).
My father is an electrician. I am very proud of his work. He has an immense level of technical knowledge about his trade. He is no doubt an expert on the codes, laws, and techniques relating to his field of work. Yet what makes my dad truly special is not what he knows, but how skilled he is at applying what he knows. The same is true for Christians. Simply having knowledge about God and his word is nothing to write home about. Many throughout history have known about God and his word but were relatively unchanged by what they knew. In fact, the devil himself knows more than any of us about God, but it has not done much good for him (James 2:19). Having good doctrine can never be the end all be all of being a Christian. In fact, when we divorce good doctrine from its true intended purpose, we make an idol of it and it can actually drive us away from God rather than to him. We are supposed to be changed as our minds grow in our knowledge of Christ (Romans 12:2). Application is assumed when God calls us to knowledge of himself. The biblical concept of discipleship certainly implies as much.
We know this is true, because we can read the message of the prophets to an Israel which had become a religious shell (Isaiah 1:12-14, 58). They had all the right moves and knowledge on the outside, but were unmoved where it mattered… in the heart (Isaiah 29:13). We can also read the words Jesus spoke to the pharisees who had the same problem. Jesus told them that they were like a cup which was washed on the outside, but was still dirty on the inside (Luke 11:39). He also said they were like a tomb which had been washed as white as snow on the outside, but of course it was full of dead bodies on the inside (Matthew 23:27). What a graphic image Jesus paints for us! That is what it is like to have good doctrine, and even right religion, without the right heart.
So what is the heart of good doctrine? It is to form us into the image of Jesus. In other words, our knowledge about God and his word must shape the way we live. We have to actually do what we know God wants us to do if we are to rightly apply our good knowledge and religion. In our preaching we must not only teach, but challenge people to live out the truth of Jesus in every aspect of their lives. Such living must also be modeled by all who teach.
So I stand by this truth: when we strive for good doctrine but fail to apply it properly, then we sell the gospel short. Of course the same can be said of any attempt to apply the Christian life without good doctrine. Good doctrine is the foundation we build on, since the entire word of God is indeed from Christ and we are commanded to build on his teachings (Matthew 7:24). However, good doctrine is not the house, but the foundation it is built on. The house is what we do with it.
May each of us take seriously our call to know God’s truth, but also to live it out in all that we do. My prayer is that none who read these words will be able to walk away selling the gospel short with the spirit of knowledge divorced from the body of good works in Christ. I will leave you to ponder these words written by the great philosopher and theologian, Dallas Willard…
“It must be our conscious objective, consciously implemented, to bring others to the point where they are daily learning from Jesus how to live their actual lives as he would live them if he were they.” -Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (pg. 301-302)
About the author: Nick Tarter is a Crossover Online contributor, a pastor at City Life Church in Bethany, OK, and a Church Planting Strategist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. He is an avid Jeeper, outdoors enthusiast, sports nut, and family man who loves the church, the Bible, and is passionate about theology. Nick holds a Bachelor’s in Humanities and Philosophy from UCO in Edmond, OK and a Masters in Theology from Liberty University.