A letter which came a few months back from a devout "missionary" brother on another continent raised questions which occupy the minds of many devout and earnest truth-seekers among us. In short, this brother expressed concern that, while emphasizing Jesus, we not disparage his teaching or "doctrine." And he wanted to be sure that, in avoiding and deploring certain poor judgmental and self-righteous attitudes, we not fail to maintain the "distinctiveness'' and "identity" which ought to mark out faithful followers of Jesus. Grace does not work against sound doctrine, the brother observed, and faith cannot be divorced from faithfulness.
Because his concerns are legitimate and common to many who are learning to give Jesus his proper place of preeminence, I share my response to this brother's letter, for whatever value it might be to other fellow seekers-after-truth.
Thank you for taking time to write and express your thoughts. You certainly are correct that it is possible for one to use Jesus as an excuse for ignoring or downplaying "sound doctrine" ("healthy teaching" is the modern translation of the Greek words, of course), and that is wrong.
My exhortations have to do rather with using Jesus as a smokescreen for human inferences and deductions which not only are not taught either by any of his first-century men, i.e., the apostles and prophets whose writings remain in Scripture. I find it interesting to compare the kind of concerns our movement has emphasized, debated and divided over, on the one hand, with the kind of concerns which are addressed as issues of urgency in the New Testament itself. For New Testament writers, the subjects which aroused fervor - either for exhortation, rebuke, warning or instruction - are those which deal with (1) the person of Jesus, (2) the mission/ministry/accomplishment of Jesus, (3) or the godly life to which Jesus calls those who in repentance and faith come to rely on him as Savior and Lord. I have read through the entire New Testament with this in mind, making a list of every passage containing a warning, exhortation or instruction about "false teaching" or "false teachers/prophets" (not only using those words but also the ideas) and these are the categories into which the material falls.
On the other hand, how many debates, divisions and sermons have we had on those topics? Not many. We have, however, debated and divided over subjects about which neither Jesus nor the apostles ever spoke a word, or over those about which they said something but about which they did not become particularly exercised so as even to command, exhort or warn their readers. I do not need to make a list, as it is fairly obvious to any thoughtful person such as yourself.
Again I would stress that "sound doctrine," from a new Testament perspective, is that teaching which promotes healthy Christians and healthy spiritual life and growth. First Timothy 6:2-5 is a fine passage along that line, as it contrasts teaching which results in wrangling, friction and debate with that good teaching which leads to love and clean consciences and good works (see I Timothy 1:3 5). .Jesus' own admonition comes to mind also, that we text the fruit to determine the quality of the tree (Matthew 7:15 20).
Of course we must emphasize what Jesus taught. And I am quite as sure that we should be concerned greatly with what the apostles taught. What gives me problems is the frequent concern with what 19th and 20th century "restoration movement" preachers have taught, based often on proof texts gathered out of context and quite without regard to what either Jesus or the apostles ever said. I simply urge you to consider that for yourself' and draw your own conclusions.
If we assume that the "marks" of the true church are those which we and our recent (150 years) predecessors have outlined, we will reach certain assumptions. If we assume, however; that the "marks" which count are those noted in Scripture, such as in Philippians 3:3 (1. worship God in the Spirit; 2. glory in Jesus Christ; 3. put no confidence in the flesh), then we reach other conclusions and presuppositions. Somehow our "marks" are usually external, concern timeworn distinctions among Christians over the centuries, are fairly easy to measure up to, and on which we make an outstanding grade already.
There are other "restoration" movements than our own which have discovered other "marks" of the "true church-in the Bible. They also take verses here and there, usually without regard to context, culture and so forth, and they also make a good grade using their list, although by their measure we sometimes come up short. What we all need to do is to read the Bible - book by book and chapter by chapter - to see what it actually is saying, in context, drawing out its line of thought and reasoning and use of Old Testament Scripture. When we do this, we hear the teaching of the apostles and New Testament authors` and learn what we should ourselves teach and do. Insofar as much of our traditional preaching and teaching has not been derived in this fashion, we have simply been wrong and ought to seek correction.
"The Lord's church" is that great universal body of individuals from Pentecost until the end of the age who are in union with Jesus Christ. Whoever is saved is part of it. Scripture is quite clear that "the Lord knows those who are his," even though the clear implication is that no one of us does III Timothy 2:19).
We sometimes have played a cruel trick in the way we talk about the "one true church;' I believe, which goes like this. We prove from Scripture that there is hut one body or church and that Jesus is its Savior. That, of course, is true (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). Then we, in effect, pick up the Yellow Pages and ask, "But which one is that?"
The fact, of course, is that such sectarianism has been a target of Jesus and his faithful people since the first century, whether it has been found among the Pharisees, the scribes, the Essenes, the Jerusalemite legalists in Galatians 2 and Acts 15, or the agnostic types refuted in John's epistles.
How much better to note that the Lord has one true church (assembly, group) and that all who know him by faith are part of it, then proceed to study the Bible with mutual respect with all who profess to be part of that body, seeking together to learn the way of the Lord more perfectly. If we learn something from the other person, good. If the other person learns from us, good. We do not need to "change churches" for that reason, simply to reform our teaching or practice. Sometimes it might be easier to change churches, and that is not wrong, either, although one should then remember that the new church also needs reforming and teaching, if perhaps on different subjects than the old one!
That is what I am about and urging and trying to do myself. The Bible is always outside us all, calling and challenging us all. We cannot ever presume that we have reached a point beyond need of correction, or that we are God's chosen vessels to straighten out the rest of the world's population which also loves and trusts Jesus and is seeking to obey him to the best of its knowledge and ability.
I certainly do not believe there is any struggle between grace and "sound doctrine," properly understood. Grace is the topic of healthy teaching, and anything other than salvation by God's sovereign and unmerited favor is not healthy ("sound") teaching. Those who best know God's grace will most want to learn his will and follow it. Those who suppose that they are set right with God - or in some favored position - on any basis other than the meritorious work of Jesus Christ, performed outside of us but for us, are usually the ones who actually forsake the teaching of Jesus and the apostles to spin their own doctrines and impose them on others. Such doctrines always have the appearance of scripturalness, but the giveaway is that they do not focus on Jesus, do not derive from Jesus, do not glorify the work of Jesus, do not create more faith in Jesus, and do not lead to obedience to Jesus. Rather, they rest on proof verses taken here and there, glorify a particular group of Christians to the exclusion of others, create or promote self righteousness, vain-glory and debate, and leave people feeling very "religious" and "sound" (in their own minds) while often having a very real emptiness in their own hearts. Such people also usually have a vacuum in their churches which they cannot quite grasp, since they suppose that they have the "truth." Of course the "truth" they' are missing is Jesus himself who alone is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).
I have no doubt that anyone who grows in allegiance to Jesus and in trust in his finished work at Calvary will want to obey him in all things and learn more and more of his will. I have no doubt that some people have (and will) pretend to do that, while using God's grace as a cloak for license. Such was true in the first century (Jude 4). The answer must be to preach Jesus truly, and to focus people's hearts and minds on him. It is not to manufacture traditions and doctrines of our own, even if based on Scripture verses plucked here and there. And it certainly is not to compensate by volume of voice what one lacks in substance of content. "Sound" does not mean the same thing as noise!
I appreciate much your letter and questions and observations. I agree with you that faith and faithfulness belong together. The real question is, "faith (trust) in whom or what?" and "faithfulness to what or whom?" We should be careful to urge others to put all faith in God through Jesus Christ - and zero in ourselves on our own efforts at obedience or good works. We should urge all (beginning with ourselves) to be faithful to Jesus Christ and the teaching he gave - either personally or through the apostles, not to "the church" or "what we have always taught," or some other abstract notion of a "pattern" or "true church" as it has evolved through the decades of our own movement.