Why Studying Doctrine Is the Best Medicine

The apostle Paul wrote the letters we know as 1 and 2 Timothy to his young colleague Timothy, who had been tasked with organizing house churches into functioning congregations. Paul hoped to assist Timothy in person, but just in case, he wrote: “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15).

These directions apply to us today—indeed, to all churches in general. And one of the first topics Paul instructs Timothy about is to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines . . . and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel” (1 Tim. 1:3, 11).

We live in an age in which the very word doctrine, or worse, dogma, is a negative term. And yet it is simply impossible to live without doctrinal beliefs. While many do not want to use the term, all people—secular as well as religious—treat some views as horrific heresies. I’ve encountered churches that claim, “We don’t teach doctrine, we just preach Jesus.” But the moment you ask, “Well, who is Jesus, and what did he do?” they can only answer by beginning to lay out doctrine.

But Paul doesn’t simply say that right doctrine is necessary; it’s also “sound.” The Greek word he uses here means healthy rather than diseased. This is Paul’s way of saying wrong doctrine eats away at your spiritual health. Or, to put it another way, if you lack spiritual vitality and fruit, if you’re not courageous enough, or joyful enough, or filled with love and hope, it may be because your grasp of biblical doctrine is shallow and thin, or distorted and mistaken.

Practical or Doctrinal?

This point came home forcibly to me years ago when I spent a number of weeks working through a Bible study on the attributes of God by Warren and Ruth Myers. A couple application questions were particularly revealing:

  1. What specific false thoughts or disturbing emotions hinder me when I don’t trust (fully grasp) that God has this particular attribute?
  2. Although my conscious mind may agree that God has this attribute, does my outward life demonstrate that he is like this?

Try these questions out on the glory and majesty of God, the wisdom and sovereignty of God, the love and mercy of God. Spend time thinking and you will begin to see that many of our most personal and practical problems are doctrinal ones. Either we don’t grasp the truth or we don’t connect it to our lives so that it creates “soundness,” or spiritual health, in us.

I’ve always been impressed by the contrast between contemporary strategies for coping with stress and Paul’s counsel for how to get inner peace. Modern approaches tell you to take time off, to get a better work-leisure balance, to block negative and guilty thoughts, to exercise and to learn relaxation techniques. Modern books never tell stressed people: “Think about the big questions of life. Where are we from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life?”

But Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable . . . think about such things. . . . And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9). In effect he is saying: “Think! God made the world and we turned from him—but he’s come back to save us at infinite cost to himself. And some day he will put everything right and we will live with him forever. If you really understood and believed that, nothing could get you down for long. So think. If you are discouraged, think about and take hold of Christian doctrine until it puts some health and peace into you.”

In short, the world tells you to get peace by not thinking too hard; Christianity tells you that you get peace by thinking very hard—learning, grasping, rejoicing, and resting in the truths of the Word of God.

So learn biblical doctrine—for your health.

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s monthly Redeemer Report.

  • http://www.mannsword.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    Truly, right thinking is an invitation to peace, while the denial of thinking is an open door to any intruder. It is a mind without any protective borders.

  • http://geoffchapman.wordpress.com Geoff Chapman

    I think the crux of the issue is Dr. Keller’s point that “we don’t connect [sound doctrine] to our lives. I’ve had a good idea what the Christian life should look like since I first sang “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness”. My problem is doing it!

    But, for that very reason, I think we have to be careful that we don’t conflate the roles of orthodoxy and obedience in the Christian life. What Paul said in Philippians is quite different to what is implied in Dr. Keller’s article; he quoted, “think about such things. . . . And the God of peace will be with you”. But what Paul wrote was, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

    In 1 Timothy 1:5, Paul states that the goal of his command regarding false teachers “is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”. Here , sound doctrine has a supportive or defensive role to obedience, but it doesn’t lead immediately to it.

    The Lord said that love, not orthodox doctrine, was the vine-life that we are to pursue, and that remaining in him was not thinking right thoughts but obeying him in faith. In our zeal for truth we must not mistake the trellis building of theological education for the vine-tending of true discipleship. In recognising the difference we can, just like Paul, apportion our effort accordingly to each as circumstances demand.

    • Thapelo

      Mr Chapman, I can’t see how you can separate love from orthodox doctrine because it is through correct doctrine that we understand what true love is as opposed to the carnal affection that the world purports to be love, without being grounded in sound doctrine how will we know and understand what the marks of a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith are? and how do I obey that which I do not know or love that which I do not know? when that which we are to know and love about God is taught in the holy scriptures (doctrine) the very thing that Paul taught and was heard preaching and was seen practising and told others to practise.

      • http://geoffchapman.wordpress.com Geoff Chapman

        Thapelo, I 100% agree with you.

        I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I thought doctrine was not important. It is absolutely vital in exactly the way that you say, you cannot have one without the other. But just because they are inseparable that does not mean that they are the same thing. In the passage that Dr. Keller quoted from Philippians, Paul says that the God of peace will be with them if they “practice” these things not “think on” the things in the previous verse. I think the distinction is crucial.

        My concern is that I think for Paul the goal of correct belief was always obedience to the Lord, i.e. love to God and man. Without that purpose belief is pointless (1 Cor. 13) and dead (James 2:14ff).

        I hope that clarifies what I meant, but if you are still concerned that I am wrong I would be grateful for your opinion.

    • JF


      It seems you are taking up a peripheral issue. Namely, you are bringing obedience into a discussion about orthodoxy, and that didn’t seem to be Keller’s aim.

      That said, I am concerned for the believer who draws distinction between obedience and orthodoxy. Taking into account Paul’s overarching scriptural metanarrative, some would argue that for Paul obedience is faith (Romans 16:26).

      You write, “The Lord said that love, not orthodox doctrine, was the vine-life that we are to pursue, and that remaining in him was not thinking right thoughts but obeying him in faith.” I disagree, flatly. For this, I contend, that the only way to remain in Him is to think rightly about Him.

      • http://geoffchapman.wordpress.com Geoff Chapman

        JF, I’m sorry if it seems that I’m taking up a peripheral issue, it was not my intention. I appreciate you taking the time to express your concern that I have misunderstood the subject. I hope that I can take on board what you’ve said and also clarify what I meant.

        I think it’s OK to draw a distinction between orthodoxy and obedience. So, for example James 2 states that we can believe the right things and yet not have a living faith. I

        I agree that for Paul obedience and faith are inseparable. I think Paul’s understanding of the obedience of faith was people believing correct doctrine and loving one another as the Lord taught us. It had to be both, definitely not one without the other.

        I agree that to think rightly about the Lord is necessary to remain in Him, I’m sorry, I should have been more careful in the way I phrased what I said. I did not mean to say that we are saved by our obedience. Of course, we are saved by faith alone through grace alone. When I talked of vine-life I meant to talk of our experience of life in Him in the present. The Lord said in John 15:10 “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love”. So my concern is to explicate the meaning of that statement and understand what that means in harmony with the what Paul was saying. It seems there is some kind of harmony with Paul’s statement that if you “practice these things” the God peace will be with you and the Lord’s statements in John 15.

        I thought that Dr. Keller’s article was helpful in identifying the key issue as the point at which we have to apply what we believe to how we behave. However, he goes on to say that if we think hard and correctly about God then we will have a healthy Christian life. Perhaps I have misunderstood Dr. Keller here, but this does not seem to overcome the obstacle he identified which was the disconnect between my belief and my actions. I find this disconnection to be the greatest struggle in my own discipleship, how about you? With this in mind I often think that I need to be constantly challenging myself, not to think more, but to figure out how to put into action what I already know to be true.

    • http://timoyaromichiemo.wordpress.com Tim Michiemo

      Mr. Chapman, I understand your point even though I disagree. I believe that right doctrine that you are speaking of is the law. Just merely knowing what we must do does not change us, Galatians 3:21 tells us the law cannot give us life.

      But you must realize that Keller is not speaking of understanding commandments and laws but understanding the very nature of God. Keller wants us to gaze at the beauty and majesty of God and allow that compel us to worship him. 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells us that as we behold the glory of the Lord we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another.

      So right doctrine and right thinking are VERY important, and I believe that the law cannot change us. But law and doctrine are two very different things. We cannot ascribe love or obedience to be the fruit of our sanctification, something must produce our love and obedience. We cannot produce love and obedience by our own discipline, we are too hard-hearted for that. Only the things from above can soften our hearts enough so that we now desire to love and obey. Doctrine is the very means by which we soften our hearts so that we have the authentic desire to obey the commands of God.

      • http://geoffchapman.wordpress.com Geoff Chapman

        Mr Michiemo, Thank you for your understanding, what you have said is very helpful. Perhaps I have misunderstood Dr. Keller. My main concern was the quote from Philippians 4 where Paul states that if we “practice these things”, the God of peace will be with us. I think we often confuse the roles that obedience and thought have in our experience of fellowship with God. However, I will think carefully about what you have said.

        • Bridget

          Geoff Chapman/Tim Keller –

          I completely understand what you are saying. Maybe Mr. Keller can clarify what he meant in his post.

          I am continually perplexed as I read blogs and comments and listen to sermons when there seems to be no distinction between preaching and teaching to believers and unbelievers. When I read scripture I find a distinction in the teachings when addressing believers and unbelievers. I don’t see that distinction in most modern books, writings and teachings. It is very confusing. For instance, how did Paul address the Church when he wrote to them. How did Jesus address his followers? James was written to believers, so should we consider it not, or should we ask the Spirit to help us follow those instructions? Likewise there is a different message in scripture when Jesus or the Apostles are speaking to the crowds, which are mostly unbelievers. The message I now here when we gather as the Church seems to be one of calling the sinner to repentance instead of addressing the Bride of Christ. I could almost (but I know what Christ has done ) believe that I am not saved when I leave the gathering of believers. Is this what the Church gathered should be like? (My own thoughts from reading the scripture would be no.) It does not seem like the Church is being encouraged like they “are” the Church, but instead like it is in need of salvation week after week, book after book, teaching after teaching. Afterall, we have been saved for a purpose (the good works prepared for us) the ones James speaks of :)

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  • JohnM

    “Modern approaches tell you to take time off, to get a better work-leisure balance….Modern books never tell stressed people: “Think about the big questions of life”.”

    But then before they can stop to think about the big questions maybe some people first need to take time off and get a better work-leisure balance. :)

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  • kyle

    Dr. Keller, you make your point clearly, and succinctly too. I could use some help in that department. I read somewhere once that the difference between Christianity and meditative-heavy religions such as Buddhism is that dwelling on the Word is about filling one’s mind with the truth of God whereas other modes of meditation are about emptying it. I’ve been having troubles recently with trusting God’s Word simply because it gets exhausting thinking about the BIG things of life. I’m taking a hiatus from scripture in the hope that I come back to it later with the awe and reverence it deserves, instead of the dread that I currently feel when I think about how hard it is to study it, meditate upon it, then apply it. I totally agree that bearing fruit for God and availing His peace is contingent upon a healthy intake of the Word, but I’m wondering what you would say to someone like me who’s overwhelmed by life and feels a need just to be away from the “workout” of the disciplines. Can too much “doctrine” be a burden to simplicity?

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  • http://www.mannsword.blogspot.com Daniel Mann


    I hope you don’t mind if I take a stab at your question.

    For years I experienced what you are talking about. Trying to understand God and my own suffering was so overwhelming, I could hardly even pray.

    However, now I can look back and thank God for the struggles as David had:

    • It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. (Psalm 119:71)

    Understanding God is so critical. I provides for me in so many ways – a stable self-definition, a coherent understanding of life, hope, joy, peace… For instance, had I not known:

    • If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

    Otherwise, I would have been swallowed by self-consciousness, morbidity, and just plain depression. Instead, Scripture has freed me to live, serve and love. I am increasingly excited about God through His Word.

  • http://www.mannsword.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    Oh, I forgot to make a recommendation. Always start with prayer! We can do nothing without Him (John 15:4-5)and so prayer makes all the sense in the world. Secondly, perhaps you can find a good teacher who really loves Scripture to study under, someone to whom to ask your questions.

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