We live in an anti-intellectual, anti-authority society, especially when it comes to religious matters. Ours is an existential (based on human experience, empirical) society devoted to the ‘warm fuzzy’ feel good, self-centered mentality that is so characteristic of the New Age movement which has bombarded the country—including much of the church. As a consequence, the terms doctrine or theology are not very popular in Christian circles. In fact, they are often denigrated or belittled. We hear statements like, “We don’t need to know all that theological or doctrinal stuff. We just need to know Jesus.” Or, “Well, I am not a theologian and never expect to be. I just love Jesus.” But knowing and loving Jesus in truth is dependent on the teachings of the Bible. Doctrine is simply another name for teaching and theology means “the knowledge of God.” Often the term theology is used in a general way to refer to other areas of study that relate to the knowledge of God. Biblical theology is simply the truths of God’s Word that give us the knowledge of God, of man, salvation, sanctification, the church, or life and life abundantly.
Jesus Himself said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32), and when praying His great high-priestly prayer to the Father He said, “Sanctify them through Your truth, Your Word is truth” (John 17:17). Besides being an attitude of ignorance, such a attitude toward doctrine and theology ignores the Bible as God’s inspired and authoritative Word. It treats God’s Word as simply a lot of superfluous and outdated information—stuff we really don’t need. This elevates man’s wisdom above God’s wisdom when the opposite is really the case.
Isaiah 55:6-11 Seek the Lord while he makes himself available; call to him while he is nearby! 7 The wicked need to abandon their lifestyle and sinful people their plans. They should return to the Lord, and he will show mercy to them, and to their God, for he will freely forgive them. 8 “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds, 9 for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans. 10 The rain and snow fall from the sky and do not return, but instead water the earth and make it produce and yield crops, and provide seed for the planter and food for those who must eat. 11 In the same way, the promise that I make
does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend.
There is only one way to experience God’s salvation and sanctification and that is through Jesus Christ and the life God gives us in Him. We can only experience this, however, as we listen to the teachings (doctrines) of the Bible, which is our index for faith and practice.
Through his false teachers, who often appear as angels or messengers of light (actually messengers of darkness, cf. 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Jam. 3:5; 1 Tim. 4:1), Satan not only denies Christ as the sole answer but offers many other roads and substitutes to life, but they are all false and lead to destruction.
In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
To those who had already entered by faith into relation with Christ (as well as others who were listening; v. 28), our Lord describes the comparative unpopularity of their new position. The order of gate and way suggests the gate as the entrance to the way, symbolic of a believer’s initial experience with Christ, which introduces him to the life of godliness. The first Christians were called those of “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Though the mass of mankind is upon the broad way that leads to destruction (eternal ruin), the other gate and way are so small as to need finding. Yet the same God who provided Christ, who is both gate and way (Jn 14:6), also causes men to find the portal (Jn 6:44). Life. Here a contrasting parallel to destruction and thus a reference to the blessed state in heaven, though this eternal life begins at regeneration.1
The Lord goes on to warn against the many false teachers who would arise to lead people through the wrong gate and down the path of destruction.
Matthew 7:15-20 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. People don’t gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.
In the context, please note the fruit by which these false prophets are known—it is their teaching, not necessarily their behavior. For how do these wolves appear? They appear in sheep’s clothing. In other words, they look like sheep and talk like sheep. They are often kind and even moral. They use religious terminology and act concerned for people and society, but in reality, they are wolves preaching a false way either in relation to salvation or sanctification or both.
Those who enter upon the narrow way must beware of false prophets, who claim to guide believers but really practice deception. Sheep’s clothing is not to be regarded as prophets’ garb, but is an evident contrast to vicious wolves. God’s people in all ages have needed to beware of deceptive leaders (Deut 13:1; Acts 20:29; I Jn 4:1; Rev 13:11-14). By their fruits. The doctrines produced by these false prophets, rather than the works they perform, since outward appearances may not cause suspicion. The test of the prophet is his conformity to Scripture (I Cor 14:37; Deut 13:1-5). Corrupt tree. One that is decayed, worthless, unusable. The worthlessness of such a tree calls for its swift removal from the orchard lest it infect the others.2
As mentioned, we live in an anti-intellectual, existential, emotional, self-centered, and Satan-inspired environment that seeks to bring people into religious experiences. But this environment either denies Christ and the Bible as God’s final Word, or it seeks to subtract from or add to Christ as God’s solution.
Recently, we heard a prominent daytime talk show host talk about how bad television is becoming and its negative influence on society. In a genuine desire to combat ‘bad’ television, she wants her shows to be a force for transformation, designed to help people turn their lives around. Now this sounds good, right? But it is so deceptive! Unless people know God’s Word even Christians will easily be misled. New Age terms were used such as “center yourself,” “meditate,” “get in touch with your spirit,” “empty yourself,” and invite the great source (or whatever you want to call it) to “come into your heart.” One show was devoted to showing how you can have all the money and success you want simply by thinking positively.
God’s Holy Word teaches us that to combat such false teaching, we need to know and be trained in the Scripture. This is a very strong thrust of the Bible, especially, the New Testament.
Ephesians 4:11-14 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. 14 The purpose of this is to no longer be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who with craftiness carry out their deceitful schemes (emphasis mine).
Colossians 2:1-5 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for as many as have not met me face to face. 2 My goal is that their hearts, having been knit together in love, may be encouraged, and that they may have all the riches of full assurance in their understanding of the knowledge of the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this so that no one will deceive you through arguments that sound reasonable. 2:5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit, rejoicing to see the order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (emphasis mine)
2 Pet. 1-3 But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves. 2 And many will follow their debauched lifestyles. Because of these false teachers, the way of truth will be slandered. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation pronounced long ago is not sitting idly by; their destruction is not asleep.
So how do we protect ourselves and other believers from this onslaught? And where do we begin so we can also truly experience the grace of God in Christ? In other words, where does this process begin? It should begin with the basics—with a study like the ABCs For Christian Growth, Laying the Foundation. The key terms used in this title (‘ABCs,’ ‘Christian Growth,’ and ‘Foundation’) were carefully chosen because they each express biblical ideas and objectives God has for the Christian. So many Christians today are biblically illiterate. The sad fact is, this is true even in churches that claim to be Bible-centered. Because of this, and as an incentive for the study of the ABCs, I believe it is important and helpful that we see the emphasis the Bible has on the key terms used in the title for this series of studies.
If you are a new Christian, you may not be aware that very little time today, in contrast to the past, is devoted to indepth Bible study and expository preaching. In times past, solid Bible teaching occurred both Sunday morning and evening as well as on Wednesday night. This was the minimum for most evangelical Bible churches, but that is not the case today. Some churches are seeking to maintain a strong Bible teaching emphasis through small groups, and this has replaced Sunday and Wednesday evenings. But too often these small groups are more fellowship and sharing oriented, than Bible centered. The fellowship, the sharing and caring play an important role, but never to the exclusion of the Word.
Thus, since the terms used in the title of this series are not only biblical, but have a strong focus in the Bible, I believe a brief look at these terms is needed to grasp their significance, their need in the church of today, and the objectives of this series of studies.
One of the clear teachings and objectives of the New Testament for believers is that of spiritual growth. When we are saved, no matter how old we are physically, we are born into the family of God as babes (little children) in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1f; 1 John 2:13 [children, paidia, babes]). Obviously, one of the fundamental needs of a child is proper nourishment and training to promote healthy growth. Thus, there is the strong emphasis in Scripture on spiritual growth for believers in all stages of maturity (see also 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18; Phil. 3:12f). The plain fact is, a failure to grow up spiritually is considered abnormal and deserving of rebuke or censure since growth is also a matter of choice.
Who is responsible for our spiritual growth? The Bible teaches us that a failure to grow is a matter of neglect for which two parties are responsible—the spiritual parents (church leaders and those who lead people to the Lord) and the individual believer himself. The following passages demonstrate this:
(1) Spiritual growth is a prime responsibility for church leaders and other mature believers. The New Testament emphasis in the epistles on teaching and sound doctrine and caring for believers (see verses below) illustrates this along with the very idea of the role and function of elders who are to shepherd the flock (Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Thess. 2:1-12; 1 John 2:12f; 1 Tim. 4:6, 11, 13; 1 Pet. 5:1f).
(2) Spiritual growth is also a responsibility for the individual himself. The following verses teach us that God holds us all responsible for our own spiritual growth to some degree. This includes the responsibility to follow the teaching and example of sound and godly leadership (cf. Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Thess. 5:12f; 1 Cor. 3:1f; Heb. 5:11-6:1f).
Since we all begin as babes in Christ, we must begin with the basics, the ABCs of the Word. This idea is solidly brought out in Hebrews 5:11-6:1. The author of Hebrew had advanced truth that he wanted to communicate to his readers about the Lord Jesus, but he knew they could not grasp it because of their spiritual sluggishness and indifference. This sluggishness and indifference had also contributed to the continuation of their spiritual immaturity, the other reason for their inability to go on in growth.
They had evidently been taught the basics (note the word “again” in verse 12), but they had failed, for whatever reason, to properly learn and go beyond what the author calls the “elementary principles” (NASB), “beginning elements” (NET Bible), “elementary truths” (NIV) of the oracles of God or God’s Word. “Elementary principles, truths,” is a translation of the Greek stoiceion, “one of a row, hence a letter (of the alphabet),” and so by extension, “the basics of knowledge, the ABCs of any subject.” Just as in first grade, the ABCs are the building blocks, the foundation on which other knowledge is grasped and related to, so all Christians need to know the basics of the Word if they are going to be able to move on to spiritual maturity and productive Christian lives as those who can also teach others (vs. 12a).
In Hebrews 6:1, the author continues his exhortation. Once the basic principles concerning Christ are grasped, the author wanted these believers to grow toward greater and greater spiritual maturity through steady spiritual growth. They were to continue to discern between living truths of what we have in Christ and lifeless forms, the shadows of the Old Testament such as were found in Judaism in the washings, baptisms, and rituals. Note that in verse 3 the writer identifies himself with his readers and expresses his own need to continue to grow. None of us ever arrive, so to speak. We all need to continue to grow.
In the context of this passage, several ABCs are mentioned (6:1-2). Among these are “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” One of the fundamental problems in the church today, as always, is legalism or the problem of dead works—man working in his own steam to be accepted or to gain favor with God, and even to experience his own sense of significance.
People need and desire three basic things, which we can also identify with the letters, ABC: (1) Acceptance (we have been accepted by God by grace through faith in Christ), (2) Belongingness (as regenerated members of the family of God, we belong to God and to one another), and (3) Competence (through God’s enablement, we can do whatever God calls us to do—He gives us the Holy Spirit, our enabler, and spiritual abilities). But man’s bent and Satan’s delusion is to get people to seek these either apart from God’s answer in Christ, or just partially through Christ and partially by adding something (works).
The point is, if our understanding of God’s grace and faith in the work of God for us in Christ (grace) is lacking, we will miss the abundant life that is ours to experience in Christ. Christians must have their lives founded firmly on the truth of faith alone in Christ alone, and this is true not only for salvation from sin’s penalty, but also for sanctification, spiritual change and the experience of the Christ-exchanged life—a work of the Spirit in which we cooperate by faith.
No superstructure can be built, spiritually speaking, so that it can withstand the spiritual torrents it will face without a proper foundation. The ABCs form the solid foundation we need. But this is just another of those word pictures used in the New Testament to teach us how vital it is that we lay a sound doctrinal foundation. A couple of passages illustrate this:
Matthew 7:24-27 Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!”
In conclusion to his teaching in this passage, Jesus presented the two options open to His listeners. They were now responsible for what they had heard and must make a choice. Note the element of personal responsibility here—they could build on one of two foundations.
One foundation was likened to a big rock and the other to sand. The point is that a foundation determines a structure’s ability to withstand the storms we all face in life as illustrated by the words rain, floods, and winds. The rock foundation not only represented the Lord Himself but also the truths He had been teaching, especially the truth concerning a righteousness through faith which also produces an inner transformation through spiritual growth.
The sand, by contrast, spoke of pharisaic righteousness, an external and hypocritical righteousness of human works. The people were well acquainted with the so called righteousness of the Pharisees and many were basing their hopes on this kind of righteousness.
In the storms of life (the winds and the torrents of rain) the first foundation, the rock would give stability; the sand would result in destruction or ruin.
Thus, those who hear and heed words of Jesus are wise; those who do not are foolish. Only two courses of action are possible—two kinds of roads and gates (Matt. 7:13-14), two kinds of trees and fruit (vv. 15-20), two kinds of foundations and builders (vv. 24-27).
Once the foundation has been laid, we need to continue to grow and go on to greater maturity. When we fail to do this, we will regress and become hardened in our hearts (cf. 3:7f). Other passages that use the foundation metaphor are 1 Corinthians 3:10-12; Ephesians 2:20. Hebrews 6:1.
In keeping with the importance of having a solid foundation are the terms ‘sound’ or ‘healthy’ doctrine. To show our need not only of doctrine, but healthy, accurate teaching, we have another strong emphasis which exhorts us to not only train and bring believers to maturity, but to also guard the great truths of Scripture. The following passages and their sheer number demonstrate just how important sound doctrine is to the purposes and plan of God and to the people of God that they might not be led astray.
2 Tim. 1:13-14 Hold to the standard of sound words that you heard from me and do so with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect that good thing entrusted to you, through the Holy Spirit who lives within us.
1 Timothy 6:3 If someone spreads false teachings and does not agree with sound words (that is, those of our Lord Jesus Christ) and with the teaching that accords with godliness,
2 Timothy 4:3-4 For there will be a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching. Instead, following their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves, because they have an insatiable curiosity to hear new things. 4 And they will turn away from hearing the truth, but on the other hand they will turn aside to myths.
Titus 1:9 He must hold firmly to the faithful message as it has been taught, so that he will be able to give exhortation in such healthy teaching and correct those who speak against it.
1 Timothy 4:6-7 By pointing out such things to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, having nourished yourself on the words of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. 7 But reject those myths fit only for the godless and gullible, and train yourself for godliness.
1 Timothy 1:10-11 10 sexually immoral people, practicing homosexuals, kidnappers, liars, perjurers—in fact, for any who live contrary to sound teaching. 11 This accords with the glorious gospel of the blessed God that was entrusted to me.
Paul concluded this inventory of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:10-11 with an all-inclusive reference to any behavior which is contrary to sound doctrine (lit., to “healthy teaching”; cf. 2 Tim. 1:13), including no doubt the very behavior of the false teachers themselves. “Doctrine” here is didaskalia, “teaching” or “the content taught,” used seven times in this epistle (1 Timothy 1:10; 4:1, 6, 13, 16; 5:17; 6:1).
It is through the Bible and its revelation of Jesus Christ that people can know God and experience God’s provision of righteousness for salvation, deliverance from sin’s penalty (Rom. 1-4) and sanctification, deliverance from the power and reign of sin (Rom. 5-8). Thus, in Romans 6:17 Paul wrote, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form ( tupos, “form, figure, pattern,”)3 of teaching (or doctrine) to which you were committed.” Paul had just declared, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” Though the Law pointed forward to the coming Messiah as God’s solution for sin, one of the Law’s primary purposes was to show man to be a sinner and in great need of the coming Savior (see 1 Tim. 1:8-10; Rom. 7:7). The point is, the Law could command, but not enable. It did not give justification nor sanctification righteousness. These can only come by knowing and responding in faith to the glorious message of the gospel of Christ.
Knowing God and experiencing Him in all aspects of life is both factual, involving an intellectual comprehension of the truth, and personal, involving a personal response to that truth by faith. And we cannot bypass this order. Faith is ultimately worthless unless it is based on truth, on that which is able, willing, and available to deliver.
… Healthy relationships must be based upon both a factual and a personal knowledge of the one loved. Thus it is with knowing God. A healthy relationship with God must begin with an intellectual knowledge of who He is, which then matures into a deeper personal experience of knowing God in life. God manifests Himself to us on the mountain peaks, in the valleys, in the swamps—in all aspects of our lives.4
Knowing God and experiencing Him in the salvation He offers us in Christ is not void of experience and the work of God in the heart or on the emotions, but it never excludes knowing and understanding the truth of Scripture.
1 Everett F. Harrison, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, New Testament, (Chicago: Moody Press) 1962, electronic media.
2 Harrison, electronic media.
3 “Form of teaching” refers to Christian teaching that is in keeping with the revelation of God in Christ; see also 1 Timothy 1:11.
4 Gary E. Vincelette, Basic Theology Applied, editors, Wesley & Elain Willis, John & Janet Master, Victor Books, Wheaton, 1995, p. 15.