Doctrine and Life
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8, ESV)
There is a tendency in some Christian circles today to make a sharp distinction between Christian doctrine and Christian living. On the one hand, doctrine tends to be viewed as intellectual, abstract, theoretical, and therefore impractical. On the other hand, discipleship, or living for Christ, is viewed as the heart and center of what it means to be Christian.
This tendency to see a sharp dichotomy between doctrine and life, believing and doing, can be seen in popular sayings such as, “Deeds, not Creeds!” and “What would Jesus do?” (Remember the popular fad of wearing “WWJD” – “What Would Jesus Do?” – bracelets?)
This kind of thinking is not new, but goes back about a century to the old mottos of liberal theology: “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine”, and “Doctrine divides, service unites.”
The problem is that the Bible disagrees with this modern dichotomy between doctrine and life.
Especially to the Apostle Paul such a false dichotomy would have been mystifying, even absurd, for St. Paul in his New Testament letters clearly saw gospel doctrine as eminently practical, just as he saw Christian living as eminently theological.
In other words, from a biblical standpoint doctrine and life, theology and practice, what we believe and how we live, are inextricably intertwined and inseparable. Like a married couple, the two walk hand-in-hand, and as with marriage, “what God has joined together (in this case, doctrine and life), let man not separate.”
Consider the passage I quoted at the beginning of this article. This passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is deeply theological, for Paul speaks in the passage of the great mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ – a deep and profound theological truth if there ever was one! Some Bible scholars believe that Paul is quoting in this passage from an early Christian creed or creedal hymn. Yet, if you study the context of that passage, Paul mentions this profound theological truth while he is in the process of exhorting the Philippian Christians to love and serve one another in humility in the Body of Christ, the church. Paul puts forth Christ’s humility in His Incarnation, wherein He emptied Himself of His Divine privileges and prerogatives (though not of His Deity as such) in order to take the form of a Servant that He might die upon the cross for us, as the supreme model and example of humility and self-sacrificing service in the Body of Christ. In this passage Christian doctrine and theology serve to undergird Christian living and service.
The “Deeds, not Creeds” idea needs to die. It is profoundly false. It is deeply unbiblical, and thus dishonoring to God. The truth is that your creed will lead to deeds, and your deeds are ultimately an expression of your deepest creed. What you truly believe in your heart-of-hearts (your doctrine) will ultimately shape you as a person and inform the way you behave (your life). The old liberal motto that says “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine” is utterly false. Instead, Christianity – true, biblical, historic Christianity – is a doctrine which produces a life in the case of those who embrace it in sincere faith. And that life is an adventure of lifelong learning known as discipleship.
Theology is deeply practical. And practice is deeply theological. Doctrine and life go together. Are your beliefs and your way of life in harmony with one another? Do you “walk the talk”, or do you just “talk the walk”?