There’s no escaping doctrine, but handle it with care

by Tim Keller Original post on

 ‘In his sermon “Doctrine and Life” in Walking with God: Studies in 1 John (Crossway, 1993), David Martyn Lloyd-Jones takes on people who do not like an emphasis on doctrine or theological precision. They say:

” ‘We are not interested… in your various ideas and schools of thought with regard to the precise explanation of how the atonement of Christ works. These things are of no concern to us… so long as we are living a good life and producing good works, that is the only thing that matters.’ ” (p. 22)

This point of view is more prevalent than ever today. In both “liberal” and “conservative” churches, there is a resistance to an emphasis on doctrine. Often it is put this way: “We are not saved by assenting to propositions, but by obedient trust in God. What matters is being like Christ.” Lloyd-Jones’ response is, in my view, devastating:

“‘Whether you like it or not, to speak like that is, in and of itself, to speak in a doctrinal manner. To make statements along that line is, in actual practice, to commit yourself to a particular doctrine… the doctrine of works and, in a sense, of justification by works.’ ‘Ah, but’ they reply, ‘we are not interested in such a term as ‘justification by works.'” But whether they are interested in such terminology of not, that is exactly what they are saying… In other words, whether we like it or not, we cannot avoid doctrine. … There is no such thing as an irreligious person; everyone has his or her religion, if you mean by religion that ultimate philosophy or view of life by which people live.” (p. 22-23)

So when you say, “I don’t care about doctrine, it’s how you live that matters,” you are ironically promoting the doctrine of justification by works. You are proposing that what God really wants is a good life.  The response can be similar when someone claims that it doesn’t matter which religion you belong to, because all religions are alike and no one should be held to a particular doctrine of God. Yet that assumes that God is not holy, and that he does not hold people responsible for how they live. In other words, to say, “no one should be held to a particular view of God” is to assume and promote a particular view of God. To say, “doctrine about God doesn’t matter” is itself a statement of doctrine about God – and therefore it does matter! So Lloyd-Jones concludes: “It is no use your saying, ‘We are not interested in doctrine; we are concerned about life’; if your doctrine is wrong, your life will be wrong.” [italics mine] (p. 23)

However, whenever Lloyd-Jones takes up the importance of doctrine, he always points out that there is a danger on the other extreme. He speaks of some Christians and says “There is nothing they delight in more than arguing about theology” and they do this in “a party spirit” (p. 24). One of the signs of this group is that they are either dry and theoretical in their preaching, or they can be caustic and angry. They have “lost their tempers, forgetting that by so doing they were denying the very doctrine which they claimed to believe” (p. 24). In short, ministers who go to this extreme destroy the effectiveness of their preaching. What is the cause of this? Lloyd-Jones answers that they have made accurate doctrine an end in itself, instead of a means to honor God and grow in Christ-likeness. “Doctrine must never be considered in and of itself. Scripture must never be divorced from life” (p. 25).

If we maintain this balance, we will get criticism. In another sermon, Lloyd-Jones makes a rare observation about his own reputation. He was considered by the mainstream British listener to be highly doctrinal and orthodox, but many in more conservative churches felt he put too much emphasis on human experience.  He responded:

“It seems to me that we have a right to be fairly happy about ourselves as long as we have criticism from both sides… For myself, as long as I am charged by certain people with being nothing but a Pentecostalist and on the other hand charged by others with being an intellectual, a man who is always preaching doctrine, as long as the two criticisms come, I am very happy. But if one or the other of the two criticisms should ever cease, then, I say, is the time to be careful and to begin to examine the very foundations.” (From “Test the Spirits” in The Love of God: Studies in 1 John, Crossway, 1993, p. 18.)

Dr. Lloyd-Jones was very far-sighted. This insight and balance has never been needed more than it is today.