The Importance of Sound Doctrine
Increasingly and sadly, within evangelicalism, there is a diminishing appetite for what the Spirit of God identifies as sound doctrine. Towards the close of his ministry, Paul warned the church of Christ, “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:3). The word ‘endure’ means “to hold up” or “to bear”. Thus, it signifies what the true church is called to do. It is to hold up and be a bearer of the truth. However, when Paul said that some would, “not endure sound doctrine” he revealed a clear mark of compromise and apostasy within the visible church. He then proceeded to give the reason for this compromise by noting that it was due to many “having itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3). The term “itching ears” is vivid. It signifies an eagerness to hear but it is a dangerous eagerness – a yearning to have the ear tickled by a message that suits carnal tastes. In the soul, there is a desire for novelties instead of sound doctrine. The solemn outcome is that those with “itching ears” will be turned away from the truth unto fables or myths (2 Timothy 4:4). Clearly, the point Paul makes is that the Lord’s people, for the wellbeing of their souls, should desire sound doctrine and nothing else. Unfortunately, it is not always so. There are times when professing Christians, deliberately or inadvertently, place themselves under the opposite of sound doctrine. This leads to all kinds of spiritual and doctrinal problems; problems which can be spirituality damaging and result in great confusion.
Paul’s warning raises the question: what is sound doctrine? The word ‘doctrine’ simply means teaching. Believers need to be taught. I have heard of some who state that they do not want doctrine. They will often add, “all I want is the gospel.” However, this misses the point because the gospel of God is doctrine. It is the sound doctrine Paul refers to. The inference of his warning is that believers should yearn to be taught the truths that revolve around the person and work of our blessed Redeemer. The doctrine of Christ, all His fullness, His unique person, His finished work and all His saving and sanctifying merit is sound doctrine.
This word ‘sound’ is a vital word. It is used nine times in the New Testament, with eight of the instances being found in First and Second Timothy and Titus. On every occasion, the word is used with regard to the gospel. Four times the word is used in the expression, ‘sound doctrine’; once in the term, ‘sound words’; twice in the expression, ‘sound in the faith’; and once in the phrase, ‘sound speech’. The ninth instance of the word is in Luke 15:27 and is found in the phrase, “…he hath received him safe and sound.” The reference is to the prodigal son who had come back from the far country. Though he had gone so far and had fallen into such wickedness, yet in mercy, he was brought back home and received, “safe and sound.”
Christ’s usage of the word ‘sound’ in this parable is a clear revelation of its sense and meaning. It signifies that which is free from all that is harmful. It is striking that the Greek word translated ‘sound’ gives us the English word ‘hygiene.’ Sound doctrine, therefore, is teaching or instruction that counters the awful ravages and effects of sin at every level in human society. It lifts sinners out of the morass of darkness and corruption and gives them new spiritual life.
Sound doctrine promotes and maintains spiritual health in the souls of God’s people. Christ saves and sanctifies. He is a sufficient Saviour for all His people. The Old and New Testament truths concerning the triune God promote godliness, contentment, peace, comfort, assurance and joy in the lives of His people. We will grow spiritually as we meditate on Him. This sound doctrine will strengthen us in the Lord, thus we will have strong faith and grace to serve and worship Him well. False doctrine will do the opposite. It is spiritually harmful and will eventually lead to despair and discouragement. The more we know of the fullness of Christ the more like Christ we will become. Since this is one fruit of sound doctrine, surely nothing but sound doctrine is what all true churches and all faithful gospel ministers must pursue and promote at every opportunity?
The great benefit of sound doctrine is that it counteracts the influence of false doctrine. Paul urged Titus to, “speak the things which become sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The context of Paul’s reference to sound doctrine is important. In the closing part of the previous chapter, he exposed the false teachers who were troubling the Cretan churches. Then he exhorted Titus to preach that which is in keeping with sound doctrine. He introduced his exhortation by way of contrast, “But speak thou” (Titus 2:1). Paul reminded Titus that his teaching as a gospel minister must contrast sharply and completely with the false teachers. Their message was endangering the spiritual life of the churches. Paul’s point is clear. It was only the sound doctrine of gospel truth that would counter the unsound doctrines of false teachers. In other words, the gospel is its own defence. The proclamation of sound doctrine will be a bulwark against the inroads of every kind of error.
Sound doctrine will be made attractive by the conduct of God’s people. Where it is espoused and preached it must be accompanied and demonstrated by godly living. This too is underscored in Paul’s exhortation to Titus, “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The word ‘become’ signifies that which is fitting and suitable or that which distinguishes sound doctrine and makes it conspicuous in an ungodly world. Thus, Titus was directed by Paul to show the Lord’s people in Crete how they were to live and conduct themselves in various areas of life. It is important to note that Titus addressed all in the church – young and old, men, women and children. His application of this truth included family and employees with regard to a good and godly work ethic. The climax of this instruction is: “that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things” (Titus 2:10). The word ‘adorn’ means to arrange, to put in order. Therefore, godly living is a testimony to the truth and power of the gospel. It is the demonstration that the gospel is sound; that it is health-giving to the soul.
The conclusion that emerges, is that sound doctrine is a vital part of the Christian life. What a person believes impacts how he behaves. Sound doctrine firmly espoused contributes to the defence of the gospel and the name of Christ. Sound doctrine produces sound living and thereby demonstrates the power of the gospel. It shows a dying world that the gospel is the message, not of what men do for God but of what God does for men.
Rev John Greer
(Minister of Ballymena Free Presbyterian Church and professor of Systematic Theology, Whitefield College of the Bible.)