What is the “orthodoxy” in our “humble orthodoxy” anyway? What do we mean when we say “orthodoxy?” It’s a question that we often explore in parts on the Na blog, but this week we wanted to pause and define the most essential of the essentials.
Mark Dever answered this question recently in his message on doctrinal discernment last May at New Attitude. We really like his answer. In fact we like it so much that we’re rewinding to let it sink in.
This is one post you don’t want to skip.
“What must we agree upon? What are the basics, what are the essentials?”
Now this is a dangerous question. And we have to proceed very carefully here, because if you take this wrong, this question can sound a little like the teenager in the youth group asking, “How far can I go? What’s the least I have to believe and still be considered a Christian? What can I get away with?” Friends, that is not the spirit in which I’m posing this question. You want to pursue truth in every single matter about which God has revealed Himself in His word. If He’s gone to the trouble of revealing Himself, you should care as a Christian, you should want to understand it, so that you can know more about who this God is that you’re worshiping.
Christian fellowship though can only be had with those who share the Christian faith. In Acts chapter 2, Luke describes the fellowship between those first Christians right after Pentecost and he says in verse 42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship.”
If we’re going to have Christian fellowship with one another, you must have the same understanding of the basic truths that are taught in God’s word.
Part of what we need for doctrinal discernment is to understand what must be agreed upon and how serious errors are. Because you know not all errors are created equal--they’re not all the same. We need to understand the significance of the doctrine that is in question.
For example, some organs in your body are more important than other organs. I mean you can do without your appendix; you can do without a wisdom tooth. You can’t do without your heart. So you need to understand that some doctrines can go awry and a person can continue to serve as a very fruitful Christian. It doesn’t mean it’s ok but it means God will deal with that person, that is up to Him. Other doctrines however, if they go awry, mean that there’s a problem at the very heart of that person’s claim to be a Christian.
So, how do we learn what we must agree upon?
Three ways we learn what we must agree upon:
_Through our Bible
_Through our church
_Through our conscience
Let me consider each one of these briefly.
For one, the Bible: We learn the truth fundamentally, supremely, finally and mostly through the Bible. This is God’s word written. So study your Bible. Get to know God’s word well. Always be growing in your understanding of it. We love the Lord and because we love the Lord, we love the Lord’s word. We must give ourselves to know it, to meditate on it, to appreciate the great gift that God has given us in His word.
Second, the church: God does not intend us to be earthly orphans—self-taught, self-regulating, self-centered. God has called us to be in local churches that teach the Bible well, and accurately, and that are full of people whose lives show the fruit of faith in God and of the work of His Spirit. We should submit ourselves to them and their teaching.
Christians together in our churches should have a clear grasp on what the Gospel is that saved them. Paul assumes this in Galatians 1:8-9 that these young Christians, the Galatians, could sit in judgment over him, an apostle, if he comes and teaches a different message.
So friends, there is a simplicity and a clarity to the Gospel itself that every true Christian knows. It’s the duty of the Christian church, and particularly the elders of that church, to define what we must agree upon to be a Christian and to be a member of that congregation in particular. Pray for your elders, submit to them, thank God for them and their ministry.
Third, we also learn through our conscience: Now each of us has a conscience. But because of the fall, our conscience has been radically harmed. This important part of God’s moral image is not lost, but it’s not all right. It’s not been eliminated, but it’s not always accurate.
We all have an inherent sense of right and wrong, but the conscience is inherent, not inerrant. You cannot assume that your own conscience always tells you the truth. And so you need your conscience to be educated, we need our consciences to be trained and taught according to God’s word.
So, let me suggest a fourfold test you can put on a doctrine to see if it is of great importance and see how important it is to understand and seek agreement on. Very simple:
A Fourfold Test for Doctrine
1. How clear is it in Scripture?
2. How clear do others think it is in Scripture? (Especially those that you respect as teachers of God’s word and trust.)
3. How near is it to the Gospel? (Or how near are its implications to the gospel itself?)
4. What would the affects be doctrinally and practically if we allowed disagreement in this area?
Now friends, one of the best words for Christians is the word “evangelical.” An evangelical is one who is defined by a certain specific news, Good News. That’s what the “evangel” means, the “ev” is good, and the “angel” is news – “evangel” is “Good News.” That’s what we are as people.
Jesus was all about news. That’s why he warned people about false prophets, people would give false reports. He said in John 8:24 that correct belief in his identity was necessary for someone, otherwise they would die in their sins. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 shows what we should stand for--what is of first importance.
Do you feel uncomfortable prioritizing some truths above other truths? Paul didn’t. Look in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, the first four verses:
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 have received, I passed on to you, as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve.
Do you see how it’s centered on Christ, in particularly on His death for us and His resurrection? Are you clear in your understanding of what things you must believe in order to be a Christian? “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” Paul says in Romans 10, “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Paul urged the Romans specifically to keep to the teaching that they’d already received. He told the Galatians, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach other than the one we’ve preached to you, let him be eternally condemned.”
Paul referred to the truths of the faith, and he encouraged Timothy to devote himself to teaching. He warned in 1 Timothy 6 that if anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to Godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. That’s why heresies become destructive because knowing and believing the truth is necessary for our salvation.
In fact, the apostle John taught that we are from God and whoever knows God listens to us. But whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. Now remember as he said in 2 John 7:
“Many deceivers who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh have gone out into the world, any such person is the deceiver and the anti-Christ. Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God. Whoever continues in the teaching has both the father and the son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not bring him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him, shares in his wicked work.”
In the letter to the church of Pergamum, the Lord Jesus himself in Revelations 2 and talks about a particular teaching, a teaching of the Nicolaitans, that he hated.
In all of this you see that doctrine is important. You can’t simply dismiss it and say, “Well that’s for other people.” No. Brothers and sisters, in fact it seems here that godlessness and falsehood often go together.
We Christians are those whose understandings are shaped by the good news of Jesus Christ and so are our lives. That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “You must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother, but is sexually immoral, or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, or drunkard, or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.” And Peter quotes the book of Leviticus, saying, “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do. For it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy.’”
Now, I would say we must agree upon three things in order to be effectively putting our trust in God to be saved. So here I’m down to the essential of the essentials.
God. The Bible. Revelation.
Mark Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist church and a regular speaker at New Attitude. This material is taken from his message Discern your Doctrine given at the Na 2007 conference.