1-2 Doctrine and Practice are Linked

Jonah 2:9 contains the enigmatic statement that those who "hold to empty faiths" (Heb.) "forsake their own hesed". Hesed basically refers to the capacity a superior has to show mercy, grace and love to someone in an inferior position. For over 20 years I wondered what Jonah was really getting at. I think I then grasped it- those who hold to empty faiths forego the capacity to show hesed, favour to others- the implication being that the result of the one true faith is that we are empowered to show hesed, love, favour, grace, mercy, to others. And this ties in perfectly with 1 Pet. 1:22- we obey the truth unto, with the result that, we show "unfeigned love of the brethren". This is how and where true doctrine comes to its ultimate term- love of others.

The structure of Paul's letters shows very clearly the link between doctrine and practice. Colossians 1 and 2 are pure theology, the precise, analytical Paul at his most flowing, intellectually devastating and persuasive; but " then..." (3:1) we are lead on to another two chapters of the practical implications of this. This theology / doctrinal treatise and the pivotal, crucial then... therefore... is likewise the turning point of Romans (12:1), Galatians (6:1-10), Ephesians (4:1) and Philippians (4:1). His theology, his doctrine, always ends in an ethical demand (see too 1 Thess. 5 and 2 Thess. 3). To use pompous words, our orthodoxy (right doctrine) must lead to orthopraxy (right behaviour). We can resist the devil " in the faith" - in that the doctrines of the Gospel, if allowed to act upon us, empower us to overcome all forms of temptation (1 Pet. 5:9). We all have a tendency to " drift away" from " the things which we have heard [in the preaching of the Gospel to us]" (Heb. 2:1 RV). And yet it is quite possible that someone schooled in true doctrine will never forget those doctrines, even if they live a worldly life. We drift away from the doctrines in the sense that we cease to let them influence our lives. This is why we constantly need to undertake a study such as this- to remind ourselves of how basic doctrine elicits a response in practical life. Again, the inextricable link between doctrine and practice is brought out by the Lord in Jn. 7:17: “If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine…”. My expanded paraphrase of this would be: ‘If you want to do right before God in practice, then you will discern between right and wrong doctrine, because true doctrine leads to true practice. If you really want to be doing the right thing, then God will lead you to true doctrine’. And not long afterwards, the Lord hammers home His point: “Why do ye not understand my speech [teaching]? Even because ye cannot hear [i.e. accept] my word” (Jn. 8:43). Intellectual failure to understand the teaching of Jesus is rooted in a resistance to having our lives disturbed in a moral sense. How many have started studying true doctrine, only to draw back, perhaps unconsciously even, because they sense that this stuff is life-changing, and altogether too demanding for them to handle in practice?

Paul went to Rome to preach the Gospel to those who already believed (Rom. 1). It wasn't that he was going to reconvert them; it surely means that the Gospel, in the sense of the basic doctrines, was the basis upon which he sought to upbuild and inspire the new converts- for doctrine and practice are linked. And his letter to the Romans is a great example of practical exhortation built upon basic doctrine. This also explains why he can speak of having preached the Gospel at Jerusalem (Rom. 15:19), even though there is no record of this. He may well be referring to the way he 'preached' to the Jerusalem believers on the basis of basic doctrine. The doctrines we believed at baptism were a 'mould of doctrine' (Rom. 6:17 Gk.)- they define the person we turn into.

The Gospel demands a response. The Greek word euangelia actually implies this, although the English translation 'good news' may mask it. There is an inscription from Priene in Asia Minor which reads: " The birthday of the god [=Augustus] was for the world the beginning of good news [euangelia] owing to him" . The Gospel is not therefore just a proclamation of good news, e.g. an emperor's birthday. Euangelia meant the response to the good news; the good news and the response one must make to it are all bound up within the one word(1). " For the [Gospel of the] Kingdom of God is not [so much] in word, but in power" - the Gospel isn't so much words and ideas, as a life lived. For in the previous verse Paul has argued: " I will know, not the word of them which are puffed up, but the power" , i.e. what their lives show of the things they profess (1 Cor. 4:19,20 RV). And we must ask ourselves whether our personal Christianity is mere words, or the power of a life living out those words.

Doctrine And Commandment

Because doctrine and practice are linked, the Gospel is something to which man must be obedient (Acts 14:2 R.V.)- it isn't merely a set of academic propositions. It results in " the obedience of faith" . Probably the greatest temptation for all of us, in all stages of our spiritual career, is to be like Israel of old: to know the Faith, on an abstract, surface level, but not to really believe it in our hearts, and therefore not to act in the way God intends. Paul was aware of this difference; he spoke of us as those who believe and know the Truth (1 Tim. 4:3). Mt. 15:3-9 records how the Lord perceived that “Your tradition…the commandments of men…your doctrines” resulted in the hearts of Israel being “far from [God]”. Doctrine was intended to affect the heart; and false doctrine resulted in the heart being far from God. True doctrine, on the other hand, was and is intended to bring the heart close to God. Doctrine / teaching is therefore to affect the heart; it is not just the intellectual basis for unity in a community of believers. And the Lord goes on in this very context to talk of how “every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up” (Mt. 15:9). The Greek for “planted” is defined by Strong as meaning “Figuratively, to instil doctrine”. The planting of the believer is through the instillation of Godly doctrine, rather than the doctrines of men.

One of the Lord's pen pictures of the rejected included that of the man who thought that because he had preserved the talent (the basic doctrines of the Gospel) intact, therefore he was entitled to a place in the Kingdom. We are left to imagine him half-proudly, half sheepishly, holding it out to the Lord (Mt. 25:25). But he should have traded with his pounds (Lk. 19:13 RV)- done something with it all. The crowds hung upon Jesus' every word and teaching; it was so fascinating for them, so wonderful (Lk. 19:48 RV); and yet they still crucified Him. Those words, those wonderful ideas, didn't pierce deep within. " Doctrine" refers to a code of behaviour, not just a set of correct propositions concerning God and His plan with men. Thus we don't read about " pure doctrine" anywhere in the AV; but rather " sound doctrine" : living, active doctrine. The things which become sound doctrine are soberness, etc. (Tit. 2:1-4). Note how the Lord speaks of doctrine as a command in Mt. 15:6,9: " Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition...in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" . And He taught earlier that the doctrine of one God was in fact a command to action, as explained later. Doctrine, didache, is teaching, not just theory; it is commandment towards action. For doctrine and practice are linked. In this we are helped to assess whether any idea or interpretation is indeed a 'first principle doctrine' or not. What does it inspire in practice? Or is it merely the academic interpretation of the human brain cells? Paul taught the Thessalonians after their baptism " the Gospel of God...which effectually worketh also in you that (already) believe" (1 Thess. 2:9,13). That basic Gospel powerfully worked in them. The light of the Gospel is not just light which we behold and admire for its beauty; it is a light which by its very nature opens the eyes of blind people (Jn. 8:12)! It may be that those who have " a [the] form of Godliness" but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5) are those who merely accept the propositions as outlined, e.g., in a statement of faith, but deny their living power in practice. And let us note that Paul lists this as an especial temptation of the last days. 2 Tim. 3:5-8 has some telling parallels:

Having a form of Godliness

denying [Gk. ‘contradicting’, ‘going against’, the power thereof

Ever learning [Gk. Studying]

but never acknowledging the truth [the ‘form of Godliness’]

Resisting the truth

All this implies that there is a power in the “form of Godliness”, the basic “form” of doctrinal teaching delivered to baptism candidates. This power can be resisted in that lives remain unchanged; yet acknowledging the true implications of the Gospel will radically transform life. One can ‘hold the truth’ and study it academically, yet not acknowledge it’s power. Thus one can hold to a statement of faith and regularly study Scripture, and yet live the life outlined in 2 Tim. 3:1-3, of lying, deceit, boasting, dividing etc.- all because we do not acknowledge the power of the demands of the doctrines which we study. Hence, there is an urgent need to discern and accept the practical, lifestyle demands of each of the doctrines which are fundamental to the Gospel. If we do not see the connection between doctrine and practice, if we don't perceive how doctrine and practice are linked, then the life of thought without action reduces our faith to mere intellectualism and endless theological debate, with all the resultant division this creates.


(1) This point is expanded upon in P.T. O'Brien, Gospel And Mission In The Writings Of Paul (Paternoster, 1995) p. 78.

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