Does it matter what we think about God? Does it matter what kind of theological convictions we hold, what doctrines we adhere to? Some would say no, it does not matter. For instance, consider the following article about an interview the actor Jim Carrey gave 60 minutes some years ago.
JIM CARREY TELLS ’60 MINUTES’: MORE GOD, LESS PROZAC
Thu Nov 18 2004
Jim Carrey says the anti-depressant Prozac that he took may have helped him at one time, but he’s better off without it now. In fact, says the actor, a no-drugs-or-alcohol policy and a spiritual life are the things that make him feel good. Carrey speaks frankly in a rare one-on-one interview with Steve Kroft to be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, Nov. 21 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network…
During the interview at his home, he invited 60 MINUTES cameras to one of his most beautiful and private spots, his “center of the universe,” where he goes to escape the world and where he tells Kroft his feelings about God. “This is where I hang out with Buddha, Krishna…all those guys,” says Carrey about a lean-to adorned with candles and a bed built high on his hillside property in Brentwood, Calif.
“I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Muslim, I’m a Christian. I’m whatever you want me to be…it all comes down to the same thing,” he tells Kroft. Carrey says he believes they are all the same God and it is this conviction and spirituality that make him happy.
That is a very modern-American thing to say—“it all comes down to the same thing”—but most people know, if they think about it, that the statement is nonsense. After all, the creeds Carrey mentions—Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity—say very different things about God and about who Jesus Christ is. They cannot all be true.
So I ask again: does it matter what we think about God? Does it matter what doctrines, what beliefs, we adhere to? As a church, we have taken the position that it does matter, that there is such a thing as “sound doctrine” and “unsound doctrine,” and that the follower of Jesus must hold to sound doctrine. To that end, we have placed a statement about adhering to sound doctrine in our church covenant.
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by
studying God’s Word faithfully,
learning the gospel together in family worship,
giving ear only to sound doctrine
The question, then, is what is sound doctrine? What are its fruits and evidences? Why is it so important and why are we bound to adhere to it and it only?
Sound doctrine is Bible doctrine.
Let us first begin with a definition of “doctrine.” W.T. Conner, the late Southwestern Seminary theology professor, defined doctrine as “the teachings of the Christian religion” and “the ideas necessary to an understanding of the Christian religion.”By “sound doctrine” we mean those ideas that claim to be Christian in content that actually areChristian in content. Sound doctrine is doctrine that is true. There is such a thing as unsound doctrine, claims that present themselves as Christian that actually are not. We want to reject heresy and hold to sound doctrine, true doctrine. But how do we determine whether or not a doctrinal claim is sound? First, we ask whether or not it is biblical. Does the idea that you have been presented with or that you are considering in your own head line up with what the Bible says?
What Paul writes to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4 is very interesting in this regard:
12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 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.
Notice how Paul elevates the importance of sound teaching and scripture as the determinative factor in what is sound. For instance:
- “devote yourself to public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching”
- “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.”
Here we find a note of urgency. Observe, first, how Paul links teaching to scripture. Then notice how Paul calls Timothy to “devote” himself to this and “persist” in it. In other words, Timothy’s job is stay immersed in scripture so that he can teach sound doctrine. That is your job and my job as well!
What God has said through scripture is ultimately what matters. J.I. Packer once wrote, “No statement starting, ‘This is how I like to think of God’ should ever be trusted.”By that he meant that there is a source of truth outside of our minds that has the last word in what we say about God.Contrast Packer’s statement with the following:
Angela Yarber of Shell Ridge Community Church in Walnut Creek, California…[said] “Every person, no matter their age, sexual preference, gender, or nationality, has the right to have access to the divine, however they see the divinity made manifest.”
Really? We have a “right to have access to the divine”? According to who? On what basis? And we have a right to access to the divine “however [we] see the divinity made manifest”? Really?However wesee the divinity made manifest? Time and again we see man wanting to establish himself as the standard by which God is defined. “If I say He is this way, then He is this way!” But that is simply not the case. God is as He has revealed Himself to be and He has revealed Himself through His Word. Thomas Oden once complained about this tendency to want to redefine God and statements about God in ways that fit our own preferences. He wrote:
…much of what has been studied in liberated religion under the heading of “theology” has nothing whatsoever to do with God or God’s revelation or God’s church or the worship of God…
…I am worried about the future trajectory of something called theology in which professors who are paid to teach about God have decided that the idea of God is absurd; where beaucoup tuition is gathered from students who come to study God but where all that is studied is comparative sociology and where the door is wide open to call anything theology except the study of Scripture as the revelation of God.
After Tillich, the theos in “theo”logy for three decades has come to mean anything. You fill in the blank. You can name whatever you are doing theology, and no one will stop to ask why.
My goodness, what an indictment! And it appears to be true. Humanity wants desperately to be able to define who God is and what is true and false about him. Dostoevsky noted this tendency many years ago: “We degrade God too much, ascribing to Him our ideas, in vexation at being unable to understand Him.”
No, God has given us His Word, the scriptures, the Bible, and they establish the parameters for what we say and think about God. Sound doctrine is Bible doctrine. Anything else is simply narcissistic projection and hubris. So I ask you: are you devoting yourself to scripture? Are you persisting in your study of scripture? Does the Bible get the last word for you or do you get the last word? We must allow scripture to have the last word!
Sound doctrine helps us look more and more like Jesus.
If scripture is the standard for sound doctrine, then Christlikeness is the fruit of sound doctrine. It is fascinating to see how in the New Testament the writers of scripture connect right doctrine with right living. Let me give you two examples. The first is found in 1 Timothy 1.
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine
That last phrase, “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,” is fascinating in that it is linked to all of the examples of misbehavior that precede it: ungodliness, sinfulness, unholiness, murderers, immorality, etc. In other words, sound doctrine produces good behavior and unsound doctrine produces bad behavior. Or, put another way, ungodliness is evidence of unsound doctrine and godliness is evidence of sound doctrine.
This may sound strange to us because we often draw a distinction between beliefs and behavior. But deep down we must know that is a false distinction. Your beliefs inevitably define your behavior! What is in your head will eventually work itself out through your body.
In 1 Timothy 6 we find yet another example.
3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 6 But godliness with contentment is great gain
In this text, Paul speaks of “teaching that accords with godliness.” Beliefs are connected to behavior. Behind a deficient life are deficient convictions.
In December of 2001, Time magazine columnist Roger Rosenblatt wrote an article entitled “God is Not On My Side. Or Yours.” In this column, he spoke of how he viewed God. He made a rather amazing statement in this regard. Here is what he said: “So indefinite is my idea of God that I do not even connect it to morality…”You may saythat, but it still is not true. All views about God are connected to morality, even indefinite ones. After all, to have an indefinite conception of God is, in practice, to green-light whatever behavior one wants, for an indefinite God surely will not mind what you definitely want to do!
Sound doctrine is doctrine that leads us to prayer and worship.
Another evidence of sound doctrine is that it leads us to prayer and worship. Doctrine must never be allowed to become merely cerebral. Sound doctrine moves us to worship because it helps us see more clearly the God who is worthy of all worship. And it moves us to pray because it is fundamentally relational. It takes root in our hearts and moves us Godward. In John 4 Jesus said:
23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Twice Jesus says that we are to worship God “in spirit and truth.” Notice the connection between worship and truth. Sound doctrine is true doctrine. It opens the truth up to us. When we see the truth of the gospel, the truth of who God is, the truth of Jesus Christ, we will want to worship! False doctrine may lead us to hate God. False doctrine may lead us to abandon worship. But sound doctrine leads us to worship and to pray!
In 1 Peter 4, Peter draws a connection between our minds and our prayers.
7 The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.
We pray well when we are sober-minded. Sound doctrine sobers the mind and unleashes the tongue. If your mind is clouded by false doctrine, by false teaching, then your prayers will be stymied, for you will not see or know God rightly. In the fourth century, Evagrius Ponticus famously defined the word “theologian” in this way:“A theologian is one whose prayer is true.”Stanley Hauerwas put it like this:
Theology is the never-finished discipline of learning to speak with, to and about God. Prayer, accordingly, is our most determinative speech. Any theology, therefore, that is finally not about helping us to pray cannot be Christian.
Both Evagrius Ponticus and Stanley Hauerwas are correct. Sound doctrine, sound theology, right thinking about God must lead us to prayer and prayerfulness. It must lead us to worship! Please understand what I am notsaying. I am not saying that only those who know academic theological jargon can worship and pray. Perish the thought! No, right doctrine simply means “the truth about God.” Academic theologians know a great deal of terminology, but they may or may not know anything about God Himself in a relational since.
No, to have right doctrine is to think rightly about God and a child can think rightly about God. We are not talking about academic degrees. One need never go to school to have right doctrine. I am touched, for instance, by the late missionary Jim Elliot’s words to Elisabeth about his father, Fred Elliot.
Betty, I blush to think of things I have said, as if I knew something about what Scripture teaches. I know nothing. My father’s religion is of a sort which I have seen nowhere else. His theology is wholly undeveloped, but so real and practical a thing that it shatters every ‘system’ of doctrine I have seen. He cannot define theism, but he knows God.
There it is! We need not know jargon to know God, but knowing God as He desires to be known does call for knowing the truth.
“[Y]ou will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
Yes, it will. The truth, sound doctrine, right thinking about who God in Christ is, will indeed set you free. It will set you free to follow Jesus because you will see Jesus as He is. It will set you free to worship because you will be overwhelmed by the beauty of the glory of God! And it will set you free to pray because you will understand the truth that God wants you to call upon His name and abide in relationship with Him.
Church, give ear only to sound doctrine! Do not give ear to false teaching! Learn to see Jesus as He is, then worship and call upon His name.
W.T. Conner, Christian Doctrine. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1937), 11.
Packer, J. I. (2008-01-07). Keeping the Ten Commandments (Kindle Location 467). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Paul R. Dekar, Community of the Transfiguration (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 128.
Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 44-45.
Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Idiot. (New York: Everyman’s Library), 394.
National Liberty Journal, February 2002, 23
Quoted by Marjorie J. Thompson in the forward to Martin Luther’s A Simple Way to Pray. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 11.
Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 15.
Daniel L. Akin, Five Who Changed the World(Wake Forest, NC: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2008), 84.