Why should we be concerned about doctrine? After all, some have noticed that doctrines divide Christians, while others have opined that an emphasis on the mission of the church could unite Christians. But is it true that “doctrine divides, but missions unite”? Well, the answer is both “yes” and “no.”
On the one hand, yes!
Doctrines may and often do divide professed Christians. “Doctrine” derives from the Latin doctrina, which means “teaching” or “learning” or “instruction.” In spite of its ability to divide us, what we teach really does matter. Doctrine matters because our salvation depends upon the truth, in particular upon the preaching of the good news of the free offer of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The problem with doctrine arises not because of the existence of doctrine, for doctrine is necessary to our salvation. The problem with doctrine arises because of the existence of false doctrine as opposed to true doctrine. We shall return to this issue.
On the other hand, no!
A mission may unite us, but it may not necessarily unite us for good. If the churches are not engaging in the right mission with the right message, an appeal to unity is meaningless, even dangerous. Churches who proclaim the true doctrine, the gospel of Jesus Christ, will be used to bring people to salvation. People who proclaim false doctrine, which comes from human wisdom or philosophy, are not bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 2). Apart from his saving gospel, there is no salvation possible (John 14:1-7; Acts 4:12; Galatians 1:6-9). So, those who do not define their mission as teaching the gospel have the wrong mission. Again, doctrine is necessary.
But why is doctrine so necessary? Because God ordained that through the preaching and teaching of true doctrine, people may be saved. Concern for orthodox doctrine, as many biblical theologians have commented, motivated the two most prolific apostolic authors, Paul and John, to write many of their letters. Paul and John stressed the coming of God in Jesus, his death for our sins, and his resurrection for our justification—this is the gospel. However, Peter, the leading apostle in the early church, was also very concerned with proclaiming true doctrine and opposing false doctrine.
Peter’s Second Letter
Positively, we know that Peter was granted the saving confession upon which Jesus Christ would build His church. Peter, inspired by the Father, proclaimed that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-20). His God-given teaching is the true doctrine. Negatively, Peter warned about the coming of “false teachers,” who will “introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them.” Many will sadly “follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned” (2 Peter 2:1-2). Their teaching is the false doctrine. According to Peter in his second letter, true doctrine must be proclaimed, and false doctrine must be opposed.
Peter’s First Letter
In his first epistle, Peter explained why this is the case. Here, he describes how true faith—real life-changing Christianity—comes into existence. To do so, he employs a metaphor, equating the “word” with a “seed” (1 Peter 1:23-25). The way in which Peter identified God’s “word” as “seed” has profound implications for what Christian preachers, teachers, and evangelists are required to teach. This metaphor indicates that a person who teaches anything other than the God-given, Christ-revealing, and Spirit-inspired Holy Bible teaches without divine power. Let us explore the biblical correlation of “word” with “seed.”
Note that Peter was not the first to combine “word” and “seed.” His Lord, Jesus Christ, earlier used the identification between “word of God” and “seed” as the basis of one of his most extensive and well-known parables (Luke 8:4-15; parallels in Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20). The metaphor was so fruitful in Jesus’ mind that it earned starring roles in at least three more parables: the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26-29); the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30); and the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30- 32).
Moreover, Jesus was himself drawing upon two deep and highly significant Old Testament traditions with His use of “word” and “seed.” After Jesus, the apostles invested both terms with theological importance in their construction of the New Testament. A cursory review of each term must suffice for this short essay.
The Lord God himself introduced the idea of a “seed” (Hebrew zerah) through the promise that he would accomplish his saving will. In the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15, the seed, or “descendant,” of Eve would crush the head of the serpent even, although the serpent would strike his heel. In Genesis 12:7 (and in 15:3, 5, 13, 18; 17:7-10, 12, 19; and 22:17-18), Abraham was granted a covenant promise that his seed, or “offspring,” would rule the land and bring God’s blessing to the nations. Paul drew upon the Abrahamic concept of “seed” (Greek sperma or spora) in order to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the covenantal plan of God for saving both Israel and the nations (Romans 4:13, 16, 18; 9:7-8, 29; Galatians 3:16, 19, 29).
As for the “word” of God, we see from Genesis 1:3 onward that the speaking (Hebrew dabar) of God has power to implement God’s creative will (Genesis 1:6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26; cf. Psalm 33:6, 9; Romans 4:17). According to Isaiah, the Word of God is eternal, while human words fail (Isaiah 40:7-8). The Word of God is sent to accomplish, and will perfectly perform, God’s will (Isaiah 55:10-11). But the power of the Word of God is not limited to creating life.
In the New Testament, God’s Word (Greek logos or rhema) is powerful enough even to re-create life. According to John, not only is the Word God Himself, who has come in the flesh (John 1:1, 14), but the Spirit works through the Word to bring life to us (John 6:63). Anyone who believes these words of Jesus will be given life (John 5:24). In Hebrews, God’s Word is a living, active, judging agent (Hebrews 4:12). According to Jesus, His words come from eternity and “will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). And in Paul, the Word of God brings us surety of perseverance in the faith (Philippians 2:16).
Word of God
Thus, Peter is continuing and contributing to a well-known canonical concept when he brings together, like Jesus, the “word” with the “seed.” For Peter, the Word of God functions in such a way as to regenerate life. Because it comes from divine eternity, the Word of God is “living and enduring” (1 Peter 1:23). Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6b-8 in order to prove its eternality (1 Peter 1:24-25a; cf. James 1:10-11). The Word of God, moreover, is “the gospel,” which has been “proclaimed to you” (1 Peter 1:25). The Word of God brings people to be born again.
Words of Men
The Word of God, from a soteriological perspective, is entirely different from the words of men. While humanity is “like grass,” which “withers” and “fails,” the Word of God can bring one to be “born again” (1 Peter 1:23). Humanity’s “seed” is “perishable,” indicating that human words and deeds ultimately end in death, no matter how beautiful they may sound or what they promise to convey or even why man intends to utter them. But the “seed” of the Word of God, to the contrary, is “imperishable.” There is an insurmountable difference between human words, flawed by temporal imperfections, and the divine Word, fruitful with God’s eternal perfection.
We conclude that the Word of God has power in itself to bring the new birth which fallen human beings require. There is no other way people may be saved other than through the Word of God. This is why I tell my students that our well-thought words to advance apologetics and our well-meaning works to improve society will ultimately fail—if that is all we give people. We should engage in both apologetics and social improvement, for Scripture commands such good work. However, the only way people will truly encounter God and receive new life occurs when we give them the Word of God, which we know is inextricably bound for us today with the Holy Bible.
If we do not teach the entirely sufficient doctrine of Scripture, our listeners have no hope at all. This is why doctrine, biblical doctrine, is singularly necessary, and every other human teaching pales into insignificance. This is why we must emphasize the knowledge of Scripture, in its historical and linguistic context and in its Trinitarian, Christological, and canonical shape, as the sine qua non of theological education. This is why we believe that evangelizing with true biblical doctrine is the mission of God, because it is the only way we can bring the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, which so desperately needs to hear this life-giving Word.