All of you must surely have noticed the great emphasis there is on doctrine in the New Testament, the many exhortations given to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. Equally, there are many solemn warnings given. ‘If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed.’ I think also you must have noticed this; that most of the epistles begin with doctrine, and then follows gracious experience, and finally, practice. Take for instance the epistle to the Ephesians: chapter 1 – doctrine; chapter 2 – experience; chapter 3 – a few things concerning the church; then you have chapters 4, 5 and 6 on practice. So there is this great emphasis on doctrine, true doctrine. It must be contended for, we must abide in it, we must not turn from it, we must reject those who reject it.
I suppose it would be wise right at the very beginning to ask, What do we mean by doctrine? Well, I suppose many, many answers could be given to that simple question. I will try to give a simple answer. Doctrine is what we believe. Doctrine is what Scripture teaches. So then any doctrine: is it true? is it what God has revealed?
How I was led to this vitally important subject is because there are so many in our congregations who seem to think that doctrine does not really matter. Of course, a gracious experience of the truth is absolutely vital, absolutely necessary – no hope, no salvation, no heaven without it. But it must never be experience at the expense of doctrine. Certainly it must never be experience without doctrine or experience contrary to doctrine. But my heart has been grieved of recent days when these errors have begun to appear in our churches concerning the person of Christ, his sacred humanity, and the imputed righteousness of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I hear remarks like this: ‘I do not understand these things,’ or: ‘Do these things really matter?’ or: ‘Are these things really important?’ We hear on every hand: ‘Surely the vital thing is to have a right experience.’
The first question I want to address is this: Does it really matter what we believe if we have a good experience? And the answer is very simple and very clear, that we cannot have a good experience, a good experience, if it is not based on sound doctrine. Whatever experience a person may have, and some people have very wonderful experiences, if that experience is not based on doctrine as revealed in Scripture by the Holy Ghost, then it cannot be good experience. Let me try to illustrate. There are many Roman Catholics who have most remarkable experiences. Many Roman Catholics will tell you how at the Mass when the priest is officiating, when the beautiful music is sounding, when the incense is being burnt, that they are almost overpowered with a sense of awe, a sense of holiness and a sense of God. Now we do not doubt that they have an experience, we do not doubt that they have a powerful experience, but it cannot be a right experience. It cannot be a gracious experience because it is contrary to the holy Word of God and divine teaching. The Mass is blasphemous, the Mass teaches things contrary to Scripture, the Mass seeks to offer Christ a second time, the Mass dishonours God. Yet thousands of Roman Catholics will tell you of most wonderful experiences they have had at the Mass. If experience is not based on true, sound doctrine, then it cannot be good experience. Again, what amazing experiences we read of that Roman Catholics have concerning the Virgin Mary! The love they feel towards her, and even some will testify that the Virgin Mary has appeared to them, the Virgin Mary has blessed them. How many will tell us that as they pray to the Virgin Mary, they feel nearer to heaven than earth! Now we do not doubt that they have experiences, but these experiences are contrary to Scripture, and if contrary to Scripture, if not based on true doctrine, they cannot be good experiences.
I learnt a very salutary lesson in my early days spiritually in a very strange and unusual way. It was when I was a teacher, and I was listening to quite an eminent man speaking on the gift of poetry. I believe he was one of Her Majesty’s inspectors of schools, and he delivered a wonderful lecture. He spoke of things like this. Sometimes you can be reading a poem and it speaks to your heart. You may wake up one morning and you feel very down, very dejected, very low, and suddenly a line of poetry flashes in your heart. You are completely set at liberty, your sorrow is immediately changed into joy. It is not always the same. You can read a poem one day, it means nothing to you, but you read that same poem another day and it is inspired, and it fills your very being and you go forth like another man. You are a changed character. And so he went on speaking like this perhaps for half an hour. Apparently he was an ungodly man. Some of the remarks he made were not very suitable. Yet he was giving a talk concerning experience, experience through poetry, and I thought how much of that experience was like the language which we use, and yet it was not based on Truth. It was not based on sound doctrine.
We must have an experience of the Truth. The new birth is an experience. Repentance is an experience, faith is an experience, love to Christ is an experience. All these things are absolutely vital, but if true experience, it will never be contrary to the Word of God, it will never be contrary to sound doctrine. It will always be based on true doctrine. To sum it up, if a person has a most wonderful experience, however wonderful it is, even if that person professed to be lifted up to the seventh heaven, if it is not based on true doctrine, if it is not based on Scripture, if it is not based on the Truth as in Jesus, then it is just like the man who built his house on the sand. There was nothing wrong with the house but the foundation was wrong. The building seemed alright, the house seemed good, but the foundation was wrong. It was only built on sand. When the trying time came, when the testing time came, it did not stand. It fell and ‘great was the fall of it,’ and so will all experience, however great, however remarkable, however high, if it is not based on the Truth of God, if it is contrary to the Truth of God.
It is a most solemn thing if experience is exalted, even above the Word of God, even above the teaching of the Holy Spirit, even above divine Truth, even above true doctrine. Now this does not honour and glorify the Lord. It is a most solemn thing when a vital truth is denied and people say, ‘But does it really matter?’ ‘I do not understand it.’ ‘Is it really important?’ ‘Surely the thing that matters is to have some gracious experience of the Truth.’ Does it matter that the Unitarians deny that Jesus is true almighty God; does it matter or does it not? Does it matter that the Roman Catholics have a system of salvation by works? Does it matter that the Arminians have a system of doctrine in which the Lord does his part and we do ours? Now do these things matter or do they not? Does it matter what we believe if we have a good experience? We cannot have a right experience, a good experience, a gracious experience unless it is based upon the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine made known by the Holy Ghost.
Now I come to the second question we have to address and on this I want to speak very advisedly and carefully and graciously. That question is: How can it be that we have got to this position that it is possible that people say it does not matter? In other words, how is it possible that people should ever come to a point of asking questions like this – ‘Does it matter what we believe? Surely it is the experience that matters.’ How has it come about that questions like this are being asked and comments like this are being made? I want to speak very carefully and advisedly and graciously on this. The beginnings of our group of churches largely came about as a reaction against the dry, arid, unprofitable, doctrinal preaching that was then in vogue. So much of the preaching round about the year 1800 in the old Particular Baptist chapels had become so dry, so arid and so barren that there was no hint of gracious experience in it. There was the doctrine but it was no profit to the living family of God. The Lord raised up men like Gadsby and Kershaw and they contended firmly and fervently for the need of a vital, gracious experience of the Truth as in Jesus. Really, much of the old Baptist preaching about the year 1800 was just like a skeleton; dry bones. The doctrine was there but there was not any life, there was not any flesh, and really what the preaching of men like Gadsby and Kershaw did was to put flesh on the bones. There was life in the ministry and God blessed it, and that is why the living family of God throughout England was delighted with this preaching. You remember how John Kershaw especially, and Gadsby, spoke against what they called Sandemanianism. Sandemanianism, what was it? It was doctrine just like the skeleton, dry bones. Well, you just had the doctrine. Faith was simply believing the doctrine to be true. Gracious experience was completely left out, gracious experience was completely discounted, and there was no profit, there was no honour and glory to God in this dry, barren way of preaching and the ministry that was then prevailing. God raised up godly men like Gadsby and Kershaw, and there was flesh on the bones and there was life. So our group of churches came into existence and this was the great point, vital gracious experience.
It is just the same today as it was in 1799, and we still need to contend earnestly for it, and as much as ever because all about us, in many churches, you find a going back to this dry, dead, barren, empty preaching that just insists on doctrine. There is always the danger of the pendulum swinging. I think you will find if you read the history of the church of God that there has always been this. When there has been one error, there has been a swinging opposite. Many, many instances could be given of this. With us there has been an insisting on experience perhaps at the expense of doctrine. The point I would emphasise is this, that if Gadsby and Kershaw made their great point, this insistence on vital, living, gracious experience, they never did it at the expense of the doctrines of the gospel. You will find that William Gadsby spoke very, very clearly on the doctrines of the gospel and you will find that John Kershaw likewise spoke very, very clearly on the doctrines of the gospel. Then J C Philpot came, and he was perhaps renowned as the greatest of all experimental preachers, but it was never at the expense of true doctrine. Look how those godly men opened up the doctrine of the fall, the doctrine of the covenant of grace, the doctrine of predestination, election, the doctrine of the person of Christ, the doctrine of the offices of Christ, the doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine of the righteousness of Christ, the doctrine of his resurrection and ascension, and so you might go on and on. I think that Gadsby and Kershaw would have been filled with horror if they had realised that two hundred years later some of their followers would be almost speaking as if doctrine did not matter. Well, Martin Luther said ‘Doctrine is heaven.’
The godly experience in the days of Gadsby, Kershaw and Philpot was really this. It was the flesh on the bones. They preached the doctrine, but they used to sing as we sing, ‘Dry doctrine cannot save us,’ neither can it any more now that it could then. They preached the doctrine like this: ‘My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew.’ Now rain and dew are not dry are they? That is not dry doctrine. Our godly forefathers preached the precious doctrines of the gospel and they were sweetly attended by the bedewing power and influence of the Holy Ghost and they were applied to sinners’ hearts. I notice that J K Popham and J H Gosden likewise, O the holy, heavenly doctrine, how they loved it, how they proclaimed it along with this gracious experience! Really, you know, doctrine without experience is just like a skeleton, there is no flesh on it. But if you have experience at the expense of doctrine, experience with no true doctrine in it, it is like a body without any bones. The flesh is there but it is just a flabby mass.
Now may the Lord enable us to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints as the apostle Paul did – the vital doctrines of the gospel. It is a terrible thing; it is God-dishonouring to say, ‘Do they really matter?’ ‘We do not understand them.’ ‘We leave them to other people.’ ‘They are not important.’ To contend for the vital doctrines of the gospel especially concerning the person of Christ, especially concerning the work of Christ, it is vital that we have clear views concerning the human soul of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is vital that we have clear views of how he was made under the law as his people’s law-fulfilling righteousness, to magnify the law, make it honourable and fulfil it on their behalf. Now these things are vital, and we are in a solemn, awful state if people begin to say, ‘Well, surely these things do not really matter. They are not really important.’ When you and I come to die, they will matter, they will be important. May we contend for the doctrine as revealed in God’s holy Word. May we never deviate from it at all. But may we not cease to contend like Gadsby and Kershaw for that vital, gracious experience, that vital, experimental knowledge of the Truth.
Now, I come to the third question we have to address. It is this: Why is it vital, why is true doctrine vital, why is sound doctrine vital? I just want to give you four or five answers, briefly and quickly, to this third important question.
i] First of all, if you have wrong doctrine it always results in wrong preaching and that leads to wrong experience and that leads to wrong practice. If the doctrine is wrong in the church and in the pulpit, it ends in confusion.
ii] Second, right doctrine has always been honoured by God and has always been at the heart of any true blessing in the church of God. Now look at the glorious Reformation, how did it really begin? By the discovery of a precious doctrine which had been lost for about 1000 years. Martin Luther in his monastery cell groaning over his sin and guilt until he almost wore himself away, one day opening a Bible on the epistle to the Galatians chapter three he read ‘The just shall live by faith,’ and he rediscovered there, under the teaching and influence of the Holy Spirit by divine revelation, that vital doctrine. The church of Rome had been teaching justification by penances, indulgences, masses, what people can do, and Luther rediscovered through the influence of the Holy Spirit this vital doctrine that justification is by faith in Christ alone, and he preached it. That was the beginning of the glorious Reformation and Europe being turned upside down.
So it was at the time of the great Evangelical Revival in this country, Whitefield rediscovered the doctrine of the new birth. Most of the churches in our country were completely formal. It was just a sort of empty religion, a godless religion, a philosophic religion, people doing their best, morality being preached, and then under the sacred influence of the Spirit of God, Whitefield rediscovered this doctrine – the absolute necessity of the new birth. What it is, regeneration – ‘Ye must be born again’ – he preached, and England, as a country, was turned upside down. The secular historians say that the preaching of Whitefield saved England from the equivalent of the French Revolution. England was turned upside down, and the beginning of it was the discovery under the teaching of the Spirit of God of vital doctrine.
iii] The third thing, true doctrine is for the comfort of the people of God; false doctrine is not. Now let me give you an illustration of this. Years ago I knew an old Independent minister in Sheffield. I never knew anyone who was so firm and strong on the doctrines of grace as that old man. Some people thought he was almost extravagant in the way he extolled the doctrines of grace. I did not know him well but one day he told me his little story. He said when he was young the Lord dealt with him and blessed him but he never really heard the Truth preached. He just used to go along to the local parish church. He did not know where to hear the Truth preached but the Lord had dealt with him and blessed his soul. After a time Satan harassed him and tempted him and he came into awful darkness and bondage and distress. Now, not knowing any true doctrine and never hearing the Truth preached, he thought he had fallen from grace. He thought he was lost. He did not know the Truth, ‘once in him, in him forever.’ He was in black despair. He felt he had once been a child of God but now he was lost and he was lost forever and there was no hope. The poor young man was almost demented. One day he was sitting in the parish church. The preaching was no help, the service was no help so he opened the prayer book and started looking at it and he came to the thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England and read there of predestination, election, effectual calling and the everlasting safety of the people of God. And it was that doctrine, just reading the Article, that if a sinner has once been blessed in Christ, then he is saved and he is saved to all eternity, and the Holy Ghost so shone on that doctrine that he went out of that church rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory. That is why he was always such an ardent, zealous contender for the truth of vital doctrine. He had suffered almost to distraction under false doctrine and just a sweet revelation of the doctrine of the everlasting security of the people of God delivered him, as applied by the Spirit of God, and he went on his way rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
iv] Now a fourth thing, really doctrine, true doctrine applied by the Spirit of God, is what gracious experience is. That is why Luther said that doctrine is heaven.
v] But then fifth, it is only true doctrine that really glorifies God. The honour and glory of God is bound up here in our souls and in our churches. When people say ‘Well, does it really matter?’ ‘Is it really important?’ ‘I do not understand,’ that is dishonouring God and that is failing to glorify his name. Is anything unimportant that God has revealed? If God has revealed the Truth, is it not important whether a person believes it or whether a person does not believe it? This last week I picked up an old Gospel Standard and I came across this:
Glorify God. There is this glorifying of God in the church. There is a glorifying of God in contending for the Truth. We live in a day in which many, even among the godly, fail to see the vital nature of divine Truth. How often we hear people say it does not matter and they cannot see the importance of it. The Lord will bless his own Truth and where any church deviates from the Truth, they may think it is something that does not matter but it dishonours Christ and when Christ is dishonoured, the Holy Ghost is grieved. Then soon it will be ‘Ichabod, the glory of the Lord is departed.’ We cannot be too careful concerning divine Truth. The eyes of the Lord, we are told, are ever upon the Truth and it is precious to him, and any deviation from the Truth, however small it may appear to man, dishonours God.
I found that was something I had spoken myself almost thirty years ago. If it was needful in our churches thirty years ago, how much more so today!
Let me just close by telling you something that happened in Scotland in the last century. After the great disruption of 1843 the Free Church of Scotland was set up. Many people have said that the Free Church of Scotland in its early days was one of the most pure, most godly churches that ever existed. Of course, we cannot really compare. But that church was full of many godly, eminent ministers. Now what happened? One of their well-known ministers, W Robertson Smith, went into error. Well, the godly did not agree with what he had said, they agreed it was not right, they agreed it was wrong, but many said, ‘Well, it is not really important, is it? It does not really matter, does it?’ He was a nice man, and he was a good preacher. ‘Well, it does not really matter, does it?’ That error had come in so subtly and so gently but it began to spread until in the end that error began to infect many parts of that Church. People did not agree with it, but they said, ‘It does not really matter, does it? It is not really important.’
May this point be burnt in our hearts, the vital importance of true doctrine, and may we be enabled to stand fast for it. You know what we read in John chapter 10. The hired servants love feeding the sheep, feeding the lambs just as much as the shepherds – until the wolf comes! What happens to the hired servants? Well, they are no longer there, they have fled. We do not want to be like the hireling in these dark, solemn, evil days. It is alright until the wolf comes, until the error comes, but it is a terrible thing if we flee and say, ‘It does not really matter. It is not of any importance. It is not my concern.’
May the Lord give us grace in our churches and personally in our hearts to see the vital importance of true doctrine and how it affects the person of Jesus and the honour and glory of our beloved Lord and Master, and may we hold the Truth dearer even than life itself.
Taken from Perception, Autumn 2010, edited by J.R.Broome