I remember the first time I was confronted about my ignorance of Christian doctrine. I was working as a teacher at South High School. One day, a student came to me and asked a question about how he should view the aberrant theology of his friends. I did not know how to respond. I was not even able to articulate what was wrong with their doctrine, let alone the dangerous consequences of it. Until then, I did not find it a practical matter to really know the doctrine I professed to believe. My student challenged me about my ignorance and I knew he was right. That day became a turning point in my life.
Over the next several years, I went about the task of studying the doctrines of the Christian faith. I was so enamored by the depth of our faith that I started attending seminary. The more I studied doctrine the more my picture of God, His work, and myself changed. I saw a growth in grace that led me away from what was a “pharisaical” view of what it meant to know Christ (i.e. being a moral, church-going, middle-class, Republican) to a Biblical view of knowing Christ (i.e. having self-abandoning love for the gospel of the glory of Christ). What changed? I came to understand the doctrines of my faith!
As I shifted into a pastoral and teaching role, I began to hear my old attitude reflected among other Christians. I would constantly hear people tell me that doctrine is nice, but what we really need is practical teaching. I would tell people that doctrine is practical, and they would often shrug me off as a young idealist. Even recently, as I was talking about how all of Scripture points to Christ, I had a Christian woman tell me that it is nice to talk about such things, “but that kind of teaching really belongs in the college, because it is just not practical for the average working person.” Is doctrinal instruction impractical? Is it impractical to plumb the depths of the doctrines that are revealed in Scripture?
I am sure most people would answer these questions, “no.” However, if I pushed them farther and asked about more specific doctrines, like the atonement, many would probably change their response. For example, if I asked the average church attendee how important they think penal substitution, or imputation, are to understand, most people would respond negatively. I would argue that most do not know what they are, and don’t care.
A couple of years ago, while at a Ligonier Conference, I was reminded once again of the practical nature of doctrines most people do not consider worth studying. Commenting on Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” Dr. J. Ligon Duncan said, “If you do not understand the atonement you cannot truly know how to love your wife!” You cannot love your wife as Christ loved the church, if you do not understand His atoning sacrifice for the church. You simply cannot imitate what you do not know! Suddenly, it becomes painfully obvious how impractical it is for a husband to be ignorant of the doctrine of the atonement.
Using the doctrine of the atonement as an example, we can see several other areas where it is incredibly impractical to be ignorant of doctrine. In John 15:12-13, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” In Jesus’ reference to his own impending sacrifice, we learn that the atonement is foundational to an understanding of how we are to love other believers. I cannot truly love my brothers and sisters in Christ if I do not understand the atonement.
In Matthew 20:26-28, Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In Jesus’ response to the desire of two of his disciples’ request for leadership, we learn that true leadership is only understood in light of the atonement. If someone does not understand the atonement, he does not understand true leadership.
In Ephesians 4:32, Paul says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” We cannot understand how to rightly forgive one another if we do not understand the atonement.
It is impossible to truly live the Christian life, if we do not have a right understanding of the revelation of God and His work given to us in Scripture. Therefore, not only is it practical for the average working person to learn the truths revealed in Scripture, it is terribly impractical for them to remain doctrinally ignorant!
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