Evangelical churches would do well to upgrade their thinking about and use of biblical doctrines.
How is doctrine-building possible? I think of it as something like making a Lego model, fitting the bits together when reading Scripture or listening to biblical preaching. And the big thing is that, unlike merely human ideas, this brings us face to face with God.
What does this knowledge of God do? The first thing is not perhaps what we would think. God’s ‘Ten Words’ on Sinai identify who God is, as our Lord and Saviour, and banishes other gods (Exodus 20:1-3; Isaiah 44:9-20).
The idolatrous systems of human thought that have enslaved us (love of money, self, or any other ideology) come crashing down. God’s truth is liberating. It enables us to establish a new relationship with God (John 17:6-8,17-19).
The second thing is that every biblical doctrine springs from the covenant God makes with his people. It is ‘the message we have heard of him and declare to you that God is light … we have fellowship with him … and with one another’ (1 John 1:5-7).
Knowledge of God structures our lives in God’s light. Being in the truth is communion with God; it relates us to him and him to us, ‘through the blood of Christ that cleanses from sin’.
All doctrine is full of grace, the covenant of grace. It helps us to walk in a way that pleases God and makes for happiness. God invites us in the gospel to a heavenly banquet, and on the table are the doctrines of grace to whet the spiritual appetite.
How are we to profit from them? We must dismiss the idea that biblical teaching is merely intellectual. Our human thought processes naturally transform living relationships into ideas. In the same way, we too easily domesticate the awesome realities of creation, sin, salvation, justification, etc., and forget that it is God himself dealing with us.
Biblical doctrines describe God doing something. They are all rooted in acts that he does before, in, or after the history of salvation on this earth.
For example, the doctrine of the divine decree is about God acting to make future events certain; the doctrine of sin is about God’s curse on our rebellion; the doctrine of redemption is about God paying the price in Christ; justification is God’s act in making Jesus’ righteousness ours.
We must always see behind the formulations that God is a living God. Biblical truth brings us into contact with reality: God, the meaning of life, anguish for sin, the joys of salvation, the hope we need and the love we crave. It’s all so wonderful, isn’t it?
On the other hand, if we deny the knowledge of God’s covenantal provision, we walk in spiritual darkness, out of touch with reality, doomed and plagued by illusions that will not last.
If all of God’s acts express that he is the only God working in a loving and coherent way, then doctrine-building, like Lego-building, pieces these biblical elements together in order to increase our knowledge of him.
All Scripture is prophetic and binds us to the living God in its unity, because God is changeless and faithful to his purposes. This is why reformed theology stresses continuities: the covenants of works and grace; law and gospel; creation-fall-redemption; promise and fulfilment; the already and not yet; the present and future kingdom.
So when you are thinking of some biblical doctrine, hearing it preached or reading about it in Scripture, think how it relates to other biblical teachings you know. Dare to have a jigsaw-puzzle mentality.
You have one piece. How does it fit together with other pieces, to help you to see the whole picture? All biblical doctrines lock into each other and make up one coherent whole.
Take justification for instance. Many have difficulty getting their head round it. How are we justified? Think of God acting in judgement. Think of it as being opposite to condemnation. Think of it in relation to sin and link it to the work of Christ who was condemned the ‘just for the unjust’. Then you’ll get to the wonderful way God justifies sinners by the ‘glorious transfer’: what was ours was counted as his and what was his was counted as ours.
Then think of the role of faith. Faith doesn’t justify us, only Christ does; and we receive him by faith. It’s very exciting!
Finally, let’s be modest. Only God has the Lego blueprint. We see ‘in a glass darkly’ and imperfectly. There are some questions we can’t resolve and never will, such as the relation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and why a loving God lives with evil and sin in his world.
Let’s leave those difficult problems to him by sticking to the things that he has revealed. If we do that, we’ll roll down the highway of biblical doctrine instead of slip-sliding away.
The author is emeritus professor at the John Calvin seminary in Aix-en-Provence, France, editor of La Revue réformée and lives in Eastbourne. He recently published Taking the Bible at its Word (Christian Focus, 2012).