07 December 2005

Another guest-post from my favorite preacher

Doctrine Is Practical
by John MacArthur

John MacArthurI have in my library a book by the spiritual father of a quasi-Christian cult. He argues that doctrinal statements, systematic theology and propositional truth claims are contrary to the spirit of Jesus' ministry.

That seemed a rather bizarre notion when I first heard it years ago. But the belief that Christ is against doctrine is a notion I seem to be encountering with increasing frequency.

No idea could be much further from the truth. The word doctrine simply means "teaching." And it's ludicrous to say that Christ is anti-teaching. The central imperative of His Great Commission is the command to teach (Matthew 28:18-20).

Yet there's no shortage of church-growth experts, professional pollsters, and even seminary professors nowadays who are cautioning young pastors that doctrine is too divisive, too threatening, too heady and theoretical—and therefore simply impractical.

Impractical? I agree that practical application is vital. I don't want to minimize its importance. But if there is a deficiency in preaching today, it is that there's too much relational, pseudo-psychological, and thinly life-related content, and not enough emphasis on sound doctrine.

Moreover, the distinction between doctrinal and practical truth is completely artificial; doctrine is practical. In fact, nothing is more practical than sound doctrine, because there's ultimately no basis for godly behavior apart from the truth of God's Word.

Practical insights, gimmicks, and illustrations mean little if they are divorced from divine principle. Before the preacher asks anyone to perform a certain duty, he must first deal with doctrine. He must develop his message around theological themes and draw out the principles of the texts. Then the truth can be applied.

Romans provides the clearest example. Paul doesn't give any exhortation until he has given eleven chapters of theology.

He scales incredible heights of truth, culminating in 11:33-36, where he says, "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given Him that it might be paid back to Him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen."

Then in chapter 12, he turns immediately to the practical consequences of the doctrine of the first 11 chapters. No passage in Scripture captures the Christian's responsibility in the face of truth more clearly than Romans 12:1-2. Resting on eleven chapters of profound doctrine, Paul calls each believer to a supreme act of spiritual worship—giving oneself as a living sacrifice.

So doctrine gives rise to devotion to Christ. What could be more practical? And the remainder of the book of Romans goes on to explain still more practical outworkings of one's dedication to Christ.

Paul follows the same pattern in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians. The doctrinal message comes first. Upon that foundation he builds the practical application, making the logical connection with the word therefore (Romans 12:1; Galatians 5:1; Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 2:1) or then (Colossians 3:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:1).

So we have imposed an artificial meaning on the word doctrine. We've made it something abstract and threatening, unrelated to daily living. That has brought about the disastrous idea that preaching and teaching are unrelated to living.

The scriptural concept of doctrine includes the entire message of the gospel—its teaching about God, salvation, sin, and righteousness. Those concepts are so tightly bound to daily living that the first-century mind did not see them as something separate from practical truth.

The New Testament church was founded on a solid base of doctrine. First Timothy 3:16 contains what many expositors believe is an early church hymn: "God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory." There, in capsule form, is the basis of all Christian teaching. Without that, no practical application matters.

The next few verses of 1 Timothy describe what happens when men depart from the basis of biblical truth: "Some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth" (4:1-3).

In other words, lying, hypocrisy, a dulled conscience, and false religious practices all have root in wrong doctrine.

No ministry activity is more important than rightly understanding and clearly proclaiming sound doctrine. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, Paul commissions two young men to the ministry. His central theme is the importance of adhering to sound doctrine.

Paul charged Timothy: "In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following" (1 Tim. 4:6). "Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching," Paul adds, "persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you" (v. 16).

Titus 2:10 says we "adorn [or honor] the doctrine of God" by how we live. When it comes to affirming sound doctrine, what we do carries far more significance than what we say. That's why it's disastrous when a pastor, seminary professor, or any kind of Christian leader fails morally. The message he proclaims is that his doctrine is unrelated to life. And for those whose lives he has touched, doctrine becomes merely an intellectual exercise.

True doctrine transforms behavior as it is woven into the fabric of everyday life. But it must be understood if it is to have its impact. The real challenge of the ministry is to dispense the truth clearly and accurately. Practical application comes easily by comparison.

John MacArthur
John MacArthur


33 comments:

Paul said...

Great post... I have a feeling I may be linking one or two people here...

mrclm said...

A new tool for raising funds for ministry - auction off a day of Dr. MacArthur's thinking to be published on the winner's blog. It's so gracious that Dr. MacArthur will fill in for you Phil! I can't imagine my Sr. Pastor doing the same. Thanks again for sharing! I'll have to give this some more thought.

Big Chris
Because I said so blog

Carla said...

Excellent post. Thank you for putting this up.

SDG...

Kurt Porter said...

Dr. MacArthur thank you for your faithful ministry to cut the word straight. Your dedication to training up men who will teach sound doctrine. I thank God for your ministry daily. Thank you for taking the time to make your thoughts know through this avenue.

Kim said...

This is the greatest lesson I have learned in the last couple of years. I can't have right living without right doctrine.

I think we're all seeing the results of the lack of sound doctrine in many of our churches.

bluecollar said...

Thank you so very much Dr. MacArthur! Thanks Phil for the post.

Forgiven Sinner said...

This is great stuff.............
This is whats its ALL about......
The TRUTH!!!!!!!!!!!

Chris Freeland said...

I stopped reading after I realized that Dr. MacArthur wasn't wearing a hawaiian shirt in the picture accompanying this post like he was in the last one.

I fail to see how you can talk about relevance and practicality without wearing a hawaiian shirt.

toby said...

John MacArthur is your pastor...?

I'm jealous...

(well, I am)

LeeC said...

When someone tells me "Doctrine divides" which has happened far too often in my life I typically respond with "Yup, the sheep from the goats."

A few times that has even led to some meaningful discusson.

The deciever must rub his hands with glee every time a christian or a professing one derides a beliver for being too doctrinal, or intellectual.

SJ Camp said...

He's my favorite too. Thanks Phil - I have always appreciated John's teaching on this subject.

Steve
1 Peter 2:2

candyinsierras said...

Spurgeon yesterday and MacArthur today. Life is good.

John Rush said...

If we are man-centered, entertainment-oriented, and media-blitzed, how are we going to endure the hard work of following after God's thoughts?

"O taste and see that the Lord is good." We can do that with doctrine. But it is an acquired taste.

-Good, inspirational post.

JRush

AuthenticTruth said...

Dr. MacArthur, Thank you for this post. This is a timely message that needs to be heeded by the church today, when all we constantly here is that doctrine does not matter. Some are even going so far as to amplify behavior as more important than belief, calling for some sort of “New” Reformation that essentially downplays doctrine. Rather, our behavior must be BASED ON our beliefs.

Thank you for your solid exposition of Scripture and dedication to proclaiming God’s truth with clarity over the years. It has been a real blessing to me.

Frank Martens said...

This post is also known as "Phil is too busy to write his own good material" (just kidding phil :).

Everytime I visit Grace Church, listen to a sermon by Dr. MacArthur or read something from him, I always leave edified.

Cheers

quicklikerodly said...

John MacArthur. Wow. I love this blog.

MTG said...

Was that cult father Alexander Campbell? You just described the modern day Church of Christ statement on creeds and doctrines....

edwardseanist said...

A life lived contrary to the doctrine we preach is worse than false doctrine because it makes our religion useless. (James 1) Thanks Dr. MacArthur. I needed that.

Jacob Hantla said...

I think that many of those who I have seen run away down the "theology is bad" road, start sayign that only systematic theology is bad, touting "Biblical-theology-only". Then they stop thinking and then they stop reading the Bible and then what you have is a person unified with nobody about nothing.

Rather, our theology or doctrine that we teach - to others and to ourselves - must be Biblically based (no prooftexting) and ultimately will have practical consequences (contentment, trust, love, & faithfulness are applications).

Let's just be careful, as we discuss theology and doctrine to be careful to keep what we say very grounded in Scripture, so that this apparent dichotomy does not exist in people's minds between doctrine and Bible or theology and Biblical theology. I have seen this article played out most in people who make that distinction and then seek to separate themselves from doctrine for the sake of seeking "Biblical Theology". There should be no difference in their minds or ours. So let's be careful and call back those who may be running away from sound teaching, opting for unity (with nobody about nothing) instead.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Phil (or Dr. MacArthur if you're reading),

I'm wondering if even the definition that we have of the word 'doctrine' is the same as the word when it is used in Scripture.
It seems that in Paul's writings that he actually reserves the word 'doctrine' for the practical sections of his letters.
What think ye?

Broken Messenger said...

Phil/John,

Wonderful essay, thank you.

Brad

M.R. Perry said...

This is the message that needs to be driven home in every church for true reform to occur!!!!

REV ME HORN said...

Dr. MacArthur
Thank you for reminding us about the importance of Doctrine. This is why my Son is in his first year at TMS. Michael

Libbie said...

I remember a preacher once saying that people had been warned away from his church by other churches with the words 'They have doctrine there'...

Daniel said...

There is always room for one more "great post" post.

Sharon said...

Phil:
Thanks for your excellent editing skills, put to good use most appropriately here very recently. :-)

Jonathan G. said...

Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Phil and Dr. MacArthur. Good, sound teaching.

Theteak said...

Sound teaching is always encouraging, just as sound doctrine is always practical.
Thank you.

Renee said...

Thank you Dr. MacArthur for filling in for Phil (no pun intended) with an excellent and relevent post. Especially as we see all the confusion surrounding what the birth of Christ means (some know, many professing do not), the Christmas holiday and all the other craziness being used to divert the attention of believers from what really matters. Many do not guard their doctrine and many others are not being taught properly. I am thankful to the Lord that I have the opportunity to learn from faithful teachers such as yourself, Phil (who shares his blog with all of us)and others who are staying faithful to the Word.

fr'nklin said...

Thanks for the great post, and I found much encouragement in it. A red flag does go up when I hear statements like "The real challenge of the ministry is to dispense the truth clearly and accurately." I guess I react because I see lots of guys spending lots of time becoming technicians of the text but whose preaching of doctrine rarely moves the heart towards Christ.

I wonder if the real/new challenge isn't to be able to begin with Moses and continue through the Apostles and show how everything we touch in Scripture points us to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we need doxological preaching that is not disconnected from doctrine.

Thanks again for your thoughts. Peace.

Doug E. said...

Phillip,

I can't believe I stumbled across your blog. I'll be adding this one to my favorites. I've been visiting your sites for some time.

Doug

ed said...

This post is quinessential MacArthur in his finest articlation of why having sound Evangelical theology is of paramount importance.

I am in full agreement with Dr. MacArthur and Phil Johnson on the absolute necessity of adhering to sound Evangelical theology. Historic and Biblical Christianity is above all, a "propositional" faith wherein Almighty God has revealed Himself, His nature and will objectively through written, propositional and cognitive information that is contained exclusively in inspired, inerrant, infallible and self authenticating Holy Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17 and 2 Peter 1:18-21). I agree 100% with Dr. MacArthur and Phil Johnson's argument that sound Evangelical theology is practical.

Beth said...

Anytime you want to guest post on my blog let me know! I'm blessed to be a part of a church in New Hampshire that is pastored by two men who went to Master's seminary. We have been discussing this topic in Bible study while working our way through I John. Chapter 2 makes it clear that there will be antichrist's that rise up from the congregation. As I Corinthians 11:19 states that divisions "must" occur and that they are a purifying process. We must study and know doctrine to be able to distinguish the true from the false. Seeker churches can be considered a type of antichrist when they water down the word and fail to teach their members doctrine- they are taking them away from Christ.