Today we start a new series in doctrine or theology. But to be called doctrinaire or dogmatic is to be called rigid, inflexible, uncaring and out of touch with reality. It's right up there with being intolerant or even being a fundamentalist or a fanatic. No one wants to be a fanatic.
And yet doctrine simply means teaching, the body of teaching that makes up a belief system. Dogma simply means the set of teachings we hold to be true. Theology is simply the study of God. When we talk about Christian doctrine, Christian dogma or theology, we mean the body of teaching that summarises and explains the bible.
And all of us has a theology we believe: we all have a set of beliefs about God and us and the world and salvation … We try and fit our experiences into some kind of order. We try and fit what we read or learn into the structures of what we believe. Even people who never read the bible or come to church have their own beliefs, their own ideas about God, their own theology.
That means the question isn't whether we will do theology or not, but whether we have good theology or bad theology; whether our theology is accurate to the God who is really there or not.
That is why we regularly take this term to step back from the detail of verse by verse bible teaching to try and get a hold on the big picture. We want to make sure that we fit the details into a system that it closely follows the Bible; that summarises and systematises what the Bible says.
Over the last couple of years we've been looking at biblical theology. Biblical theology looks at the way the bible develops from Genesis to Revelation. It follows themes and ideas from promise to fulfilment. So we've done a bible overview and we've looked at Jesus' death and traced how it was predicted and explained in advance throughout the OT.
This year we're going to be looking at theology through a slightly different lens: systematic theology. Instead of tracing how revelation develops through the bible systematic theology asks 'what are the big ideas in the bible and what does the whole Bible teach about them?' It seeks to explain the underlying logic, the system of thought that holds makes all those truths coherent.
The Bible's a big book, so to focus our thinking we're going to use a system: the 39 articles of the Church of England. These articles of faith were written up during the English reformation, initially 42 were published under Edward in 1553, then 39 were adopted in law underElizabethin 1563. They were re-asserted as the basis for Anglican theology in 1662 when they were included in the Book of Common Prayer from that year.
These 39 articles set out the doctrinal basis of the reformed Church of England. In that sense they have authority. But they're not the bible… they're an attempt to summarise and explain the bible, as they say themselves. They don't replace the Bible, we're not going to be abandoning the bible to study the 39 articles this term, we're going to be studying the bible, using the 39 articles as a guide and a help to our study. So as we start in this term of systematic theology, or doctrine, we need to orient ourselves to what the Bible says about studying doctrine. That's our task for this morning.
And we're going to do it looking at a single verse from 1 Timothy:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners… no wait, that's my Christmas talk…
No this morning we're going to look at 1 Timoty 4.16 where Paul tells Timothy, as the bishop, or overseer in the church to: 'watch your life and doctrine closely'.
You can probably already see why I wanted us to start here. This verse explains what we are doing this term and why. Notice that it doesn't start with doctrine, it starts with our lives because the goal of right doctrine is right living, and the two can not be separated. Nonetheless it makes sense for us to start with doctrine and then reflect on our lives…
So this morning we're going to look at these two areas of watchfulness as our two points:
1) Watch your doctrine closely; and
2) Watch your life closely
1) Watch Your Doctrine Closely
Paul says this to Timothy as the leader of the church. It's especially important for Timothy, because as he goes, so goes his church; and likewise it's especially important for us, because as goes our doctrine, our theology, so goes our life. If we have wrong ideas about God they will lead to wrong behaviour before God.
So we need to watch our doctrine closely. But what does it mean to watch our doctrine closely?
We could talk about it all day, but I want to suggest 4 key things:
To watch our doctrine closely we need:
1) to be students of the bible;
2) to watch the big picture as well as the details;
3) to watch the way the truth is revealed in promise and fulfilment; and
4) to watch in company with others.
First and foremost we need to be students of the bible. Look up the page to verse 13. Before Paul tells Timothy to watch his doctrine closely he first tells him to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture to preaching and to teaching. Readingscripture comes first. It's no accident that the clearest teaching on the Bible comes in Paul's letters to Timothy. 2 Timoty 3.15 and 16 are well known and well loved, listen to them again:
the holy Scriptures … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The scriptures reveal God to us because they are God speaking. And they're not just information – but so that we can be saved and thoroughly equipped for every good work. Keep your heads in the bible to keep watch over your doctrine.
This is especially important because false teaching is so attractive – listen to 2 Timoty 4. 3-4. Paul says Timothy must preach the word because, verse 3:
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
Do you see the danger? It's not just that false teachers lead us off, but that we first drive the truth away – men will not put up with sound doctrine, they will gather the false teachers around them! False teachers tell us what we want to hear.
The danger is our desires are bent towards sin. So we're easily taken away by arguments that sound plausible, by subtle additions or subtractions, by mixtures of truth and error. The scripture is our first and greatest defence. God has given us his word to protect us from error. We keep our heads in scripture.
Second keeping a careful watch means paying attention not just to the details of any particular passage, but also to the whole, the big picture. This is where systematic theology comes in. We often hold contradictory ideas in our heads simply because we don't stop to think. We need to discipline our thinking to make sure that we have a coherent theology. Hence this sermon series.
When we don't pay attention to the big picture we are vulnerable to teachers who manipulate the bible to fit the spirit of the age. Here's a current example: The Bible clearly teaches homosexual behaviour is wrong; but the world says it's right. So people come up with new ways to read the bible which – almost miraculously – reveal that it really blesses what it appears to condemn. They turn the bible on it's head, and we lap it up.
How can we fall for that? It follows from losing our grip on a host of other doctrines – the doctrine of sin and God's wrath against it; the doctrine of creation which establishes God's right to rule and judge; the doctrine of Scripture and God's truthfulness …and many others. When we lose sight of the Bible's overall teaching we're vulnerable to re-writing passages we find uncomfortable.
So we must work to keep a coherent understanding of the whole bible and all it's various parts, the system of theology that underpins each bible passage.
And thirdly we need to listen to the way the bible unfolds progressively – biblical theology. You might benefit from going back to our bible overview if this is new to you. Biblical theology shows how the OT points forward to the New, and how the NT fulfils the old. The bible is a collection of many books in different genres; Biblical Theology explores the overarching storyline showing how God works through the whole. It enables us to see how God progressively reveals himself, climaxing in the person and work of Jesus Christ, so that we can't understand the Old Testament if we don't see it fulfilled in Jesus, and we can't understand the New Testament if we don't see it promised in the Old.
Finally we need to listen in the company of others. We aren't the first to read the bible; we humbly read it in the company of other generations and cultures. Every age has it's blind spots and it's insights. The New Testament Church had the apostles; the suffering church insights about faith and so on… The saints in every age have truth to tell. And Christians from other cultures see things we miss. So we learn from the insights of others.
We recite the Catholic creeds on Sundays because they are Catholic (catholic means universal) – they were agreed on by the whole church in the early centuries when you could gather representatives from every church. And they've stood the test of time. We value that link with the universal – the Catholic - church. And the historic formulas of the reformation still teach us today – from the 39 articles to theWestminsterconfession and beyond.
So, to watch our doctrine closely we need to be students of the bible, we need to pay attention to the big picture and the details. We need to watch how truth is revealed in promise and fulfilment. And we need to listen to it in company with others.
Our doctrine matters, we need to watch it closely.
Let me try and illustrate all this: when I was very young and impressionable I remember one day in the bath my older sister convinced me to eat a bar of soap. Like I said I was very young – I was in the bath with my sister – I must have been four or five at most. Still I was old enough to know that soap isn't nice to eat, but she was so convincing, and so forceful: it's a bar of soap – like a bar of chocolate; it's a cake of soap, you love cake! We argued it back and forth, but in the end she won. And let me tell you - what you believe matters! If you believe a bar of soap tastes delicious like a bar of chocolate, well you've never eaten a bar of soap. But I have, I was convinced and I ate. And I spat and coughed and spluttered! How could I be so stupid? Well sometimes we want to believe don't we – bath time cake who wouldn't? That's why we need to watch closely…
So I want to challenge you to take this term seriously. Read one of the recommended books. If you've never read it before read 'Knowing God' by JI Packer. It's a brilliant introduction to practical theological thinking. My advice is to read one chapter at a time and give it time to percolate – they're dense - Packer by name, packer by nature! If that sounds too intimidating read Basics for Believers by Don Carson or Christian Beliefs by Wayne Grudem. They're all on our book stall, you can buy them from our church website.
What else? If you don't have a plan for reading the bible consistently then make one. Could be a series of daily bible readings – Explore bible notes are very good … could be a smart phone app – I use bible reading plans on Youversion, they have thousands. Or it could be you just need to plan a time to read and stick to it.
Also plan to read bible with others. Join a small group – a home group or a women's fellowship group, or Christianity Explored if you've never done it. And make it a priority to be there. Discuss the sermon after the service, just pick one thing up and raise it with someone while you have a coffee…
And if you read, expand your reading; read widely – not just recent books, but Christian classics; read the puritans. Or take a course in theology – I recommend the Moore College Correspondence course as a really great way to get in to theological thinking.
This term make it your goal to watch your doctrine closely.
And not just your doctrine but your life … which is our second point:
2) Watch your Life Closely
This sermon series is to help us watch our doctrine closely. But we can't separate our lives and our doctrine: Good theology flows out of knowing God; Bad theology flows out of guessing about God, even out of rejecting God. That means that good theology flows out of studying the Bible and out of obeying the Bible. Theology can't be a theoretical subject, it has to be lived. What we learn from the bible we must put into practice. How tragic to be able to describe God, but not to know him, not to worship or to love him!
While I was writing this I was listening toNickCave. I don't know how many of you knowNickCave, he's a musician. He grew up not far from me in Country Victoria and now lives inLondon. He grew up in church – and he's still fascinated by the Bible, it crops up in his songs all the time. He even wrote an introduction to Mark's gospel. Yet for all that one of his most popular song starts with the line 'now I don't believe in an interventionist God'. Isn't that remarkable? For years he's been reading the bible, thinking the bible, singing the bible. But he doesn't know the God he sings about. He reads and studies and sings it, but he doesn't believe it, can't believe it, won't believe it.
He's just like the man in James who looked intently into the mirror and walks away forgetting what he looks like!
Think about that man looking in the mirror for a moment.
What does he see? Does he see he's spilled his breakfast all down his front? Or that great sprig of herbs between his teeth? Does he see that dollop of yoghurt his baby smeared over his ear or that his comb over's standing on end like a 1960's footballer… well it doesn't matter what he sees does it? – because he doesn't do anything about it. He sees the mess, but he steps out into the world wearing it all. You don't want to be that guy do you?
So we need to watch our lives closely - doctrine that isn't lived out is dangerous disobedience!
Let's work through a couple of examples:
The first thing we learn in the Bible is that we're not God but God is. God exists; he's not a figment of our imaginations, but real. And God made us for his own glory. He speaks and his word is command and promise and information. And when he commands the universe obeys. He speaks and creation springs into being. He speaks and the storm is stilled, light shines in the darkness, the dead come to life again. If this is true it must affect the way we live mustn't it?
And we learn that each one of us has personally offended that God. In this universe there are only two things that do not obey every word that God speaks – the devil and his demons, and you and me. The devil and his demons await God's punishment in hell. And so do we if we don't repent and trust in Jesus. If this is true it must affect the way we live mustn't it?
And we learn that Jesus lived and walked among us – and we expressed our rebellion by killing him. But God raised him to life and he's alive, ruling at God's right hand. He will come back to bring God's judgement. If this is true it must affect the way we live mustn't it?
Our doctrine must change our life; must shape and mould and give direction to our lives at every point to the deepest level.
So watch your life closely.
If these things are true then watching our lives closely will mean first that we repent. God is Lord and we are not. But we live as though we are Lord and God is not. Therefore the Christian life is one of repentance. We must turn from sin, hourly, daily. We won't leave sin behind until we reach heaven; but with repentance comes forgiveness and growing obedience and holiness.
Second it means sober self assessment. Jeremiah 17.9 says the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. We need to watch our lives closely because we deceive ourselves. The Greedy man thinks he needs more; the proud man thinks he deserves praise; laziness tells us we're working too hard, lust sneaks up on us and captures us. Our own hearts deceive us, so we need sober judgement - self criticism, self assessment.
We need to build that into our lives. That means putting the mirror of God's word up before us. That means time in prayerful reflection. That means not just reading the bible first thing and forgetting about it the rest of the day, but making time to allow what it says to penetrate. And it means actively taking steps to make sure that we're putting it into practice.
I think we all struggle with this. I want to run away when God's work convicts me. I want to find a distraction. But when I sit with God's word open and pray about the passage God opens my eyes and reveals my heart. God leads me to think about ways in which his word stands against me, reveals the deceits of sin. I know that I need to make space for that to happen because I can't do it in 15 minutes at the start of the day. I need that short time at the start of the day. But I also need to put aside an hour some times to pray and reflect. And if I see that I'm out of step with God, then I need to make more time to listen to God. And I need to sort it out. And so do you.
And watching our lives closely isn't all hard work and discipline and repentance.
The Bible makes great promises to us, promises of peace, of God's presence, of hope and joy and love and every good thing. So when we watch our lives we will also find ourselves filled with joy and hope and love and peace and confidence in God. If we know God and the reality of forgiveness and the hope of heaven and the glory of Christ then we will find ourselves marvelling at God and praising him and rejoicing often. Sin always disappoints, promises much, but delivers little. But God isn't like that. He always delivers.
So if you lack joy, consider how much God loves you. If you lack peace, consider how mighty God is; if you lack assurance consider the great price God has paid for you; if you lack gratitude consider your many blessings; If you lack comfort, consider how gentle your Father God is, like a hen with it's chicks, like a shepherd gently leading the flocks; if you lack hope consider how amazing it will be to live in God's presence; if you lack strength consider that God is with you and strengthens you. Watch your life closely.
Watch your doctrine closely so you're not deceived. And watch your life closely so that you will walk with God.
That's the challenge for us this term, and that's the challenge for us always. Let's pray and ask God to enable us to do it in his strength…