Our pastor preached another doctrinal sermon. It is gelling to be almost more than we can stand! This remark of a Covenanter church member betrays a common, but deplorably wrong-headed, attitude toward the doctrinal system of the Christian Faith. People who say such things regard instruction in Christian truth as a boresome nuisance. They prefer “inspirational” sermons. But “inspiration” will be a mere castle in the air, a mere fleeting cloud of emotion, unless it has a solid foundation underneath it. If we do not have a clear, consistent, substantial knowledge of the doctrinal system of Christianity, no amount of “inspiration” or exhortation or enthusiasm-rousing can do us a bit of real good. Someone has very wisely remarked: “In-can do us a bit of real good.”
The human body is built on a structure of bones. The bones of the human body are not a luxury; they are an absolute necessity. Bones are not merely nice, not merely highly desirable, not merely a decorative ornament like a necktie: they are absolutely essential; without them the body can neither live nor function. We do not consider bones relatively desirable: we do not say that bones would be nice to possess as something extra, after we get everything else. We recognize that bones are not a luxury, but a necessity.
What bones are to the human body. doctrines are to Christianity. The doctrines of Christianity are not a superfluous luxury, to be added moderately to our religion after we have acquired everything else: on the contrary, the doctrines of Christianity are the framework to which everything else is fastened, on which all the rest is built; the doctrines are what give the body of Christianity its form and shape. With a different set of doctrines, it would not be Christianity but a different religion.
Christianity is Essentially Doctrinal
Unlike some religions, Christianity is essentially doctrinal. It is built upon a foundation of specific ideas. Because these ideas arc true, we speak of them as doctrines of truths of Christianity. Christian doctrines are made of (1) facts, plus (2) the divinely revealed interpretation of the facts. “Christ died” is a fact of history. To this fact there is added the divinely-revealed interpretation, “for our sins.” Thus the statement, “Christ died for our sins” is one of the doctrines of the Christian Faith. In this particular instance, it is a doctrine reduced to its lowest and barest terms; on the basis of other parts of the Bible it can be stated more comprehensively. But it shows the ingredients of all Christian doctrines: facts, plus God’s explanation of the facts.
The bones of the human body are not merely a collection of large and small bones carelessly thrown together: they are related to each other in a definite way, and so form a SYSTEM OF BONES. So, too, the doctrines of the Christian Faith are not merely a miscellaneous collection of truths thrown together in grab-bag fashion; they are related to each other in a definite way, and so form a SYSTEM OF DOCTRINE. Just as the body’s system of bones determines its structure, form and shape, so the Christian Faith’s system of doctrines determines its structure, form and shape. Really to grasp anyone doctrine, you have to understand the system; really to grasp the system, you have to know each of its component parts. They are all organically related to each other.
Neither Skeleton nor Jellyfish
Of course the human body is not merely bones: it also has flesh, blood, nerves, muscles and so forth. A body with nothing but bones would not be a body, bUl only a skeletOn. And Christianity is not merely a system of doctrines: it consists also of the flesh ;0](( blood of Christian life built upon the system of doctrine. Any so-called “Christianity” which consists merely of doctrines is not the genuine article, but a mere “skeleton” of lifeless ideas.
But the bones must be there to make it a living body, and the doctrines must be there for genuine Christianity. A body with only bones is a skeleton; but a body with no bones at all would be a jellyfish. There are some people who seem to think that we must choose between being a skeleton and being a jellyfish; we must either have nothing but doctrines, or we must have no doctrines at all. How absurd! We should be neither skeleton nor jellyfish. While making sure that our religion has he genuine structure of doctrines for its basis, we must also make sure that it is not “dead orthodoxism,” but vital Christianity, in living communion with God and active in service to him throughout the whole realm of life.
No one can live the Christian life aright nor serve Christ adequately without a thorough knowledge of Christian doctrine. It is not something extra, to be added after we have everything else; it is the foundation, the underpinning, which we absolutely MUST have if we are really to be Christians. The Church today lacks power and effectiveness for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is sheer ignorance of the doctrinal structure of Christianity. People just do not know what Christianity is and wherein it differs from other systems of religion. We face today not merely opposition to Christianity, not merely indifference to Christianity, but a downright ignorance of what Christianity is—an ignorance without parallel since the Reformation in the sixteenth century.