Pastors constantly face temptation to devote more time and energy to methods rather than to doctrine. If that includes you, then give heed to Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Following the imperative to keep watch on himself, Paul further instructs Timothy to keep watch on his doctrine. My observation, however, is that most ministers aren’t doing this. They don’t talk about doctrine. They don’t read it. If they’re paying close attention to anything, it is their methods and psychology. What’s the result? Less biblical fidelity. Less interest in truth. Less seriousness. Less depth.
Neglecting doctrine results in less capacity to offer a compelling alternative to the thinking of our generation. I often hear the excuse that pastors aren’t studying theology because they’re too busy trying to reach more people. Ironically, this pursuit of identification often comes with a corresponding loss of communication. We put forth all this effort to make people feel comfortable and at home so they don’t feel the difference between life in Christ and life without Christ. Problem is, it is supposed to be different when you come to Christ. That is the point.
Doxological and Theological
Maybe you think doctrine is unimportant, or maybe you’re so gifted that you don’t think you need it. Chances are you’re not as gifted as was Timothy—Paul’s hand-picked disciple—and Paul told Timothy to pay attention to doctrine. That means you need it, too. Doctrine is what keeps you going when your people are dying—or when it seems they’re trying to make sure you do. Doctrine is what draws us near to God and keeps fresh our love for and awe of God. It was after 11 chapters of Paul’s most densely packed, closely argued, systematic presentation of doctrine that he leapt into doxology:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:33, 36)
Paul was never more doxological than when he was his most theological. Theology nourished Paul’s heart, and it will nourish yours. Pay attention to your life and to your doctrine.
Learn and Proclaim
I experienced this very thing one year early in my pastoral ministry. It was mid-December and I realized, “It’s time for the Christmas sermon. How am I going to present freshly the Christmas message everyone knows so well?” I didn’t know what to preach—maybe some obscure text from Ezekiel in hopes that it would not sound so predictable. I decided to do some fresh reading on the doctrine of the incarnation.
As I kept reading the Scriptures and the other resources I had on the doctrine, I found myself so refreshed and so captivated by the glory of the incarnation that I had too much to say in one sermon. After reading all that glorious theology, I was able to convey some of the splendor of the incarnation and address some common misconceptions about it. As I was preaching I could see the circuit breakers going off in people’s minds. Many who presumed they had the Christmas story down pat began to realize they could not get their minds completely around this magnificent, God-sized truth. I wanted them to see the glorious wonder of the incarnation, the greatness of this doctrine that God became fully man. And it was all because God got my attention and reminded me that I need to keep a close watch on my teaching.
If Timothy needed to pay attention to his doctrine, then you and I need to pay close attention to our doctrine throughout our lives. Someone has said that every doctrine of Scripture is shallow enough for a child to walk in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in, and that is part of what it means to “continue in what you have learned,” as Paul instructs in 2 Timothy 3:14. Have you learned about the incarnation? Good! Now continue learning the incarnation. You think you know the gospel and justification by faith? Good! Now continue learning and proclaiming them. That is your ongoing preparation as a minister in God’s church.