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Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, said he starts the creative process by holding a blank sheet of paper, staring into space, and letting his mind wander. Most teachers know the feeling, and have tried this “method” of applying doctrine to their people. but there is a better way.
For centuries, ethicists have said that people can find a just, well-ordered life by asking three questions: What is my duty? What kind of person should I be? What goals or projects should we pursue? A fourth question seems essential: In an age of competing philosophies and religions, how can we see the world God’s way? Thus, a believer may ask four questions: What does God’s law require? How can I gain godly character? How can I find God’s path for me? How can I gain wisdom and discernment? In brief, what should I do, who should I be, where should I go, and how can I see aright?
At first glance, this approach seems irrelevant for doctrine. Let’s call “doctrines” the cardinal truths or fundamental principles of the faith, summaries of biblical revelation on key topics. We are tempted to think that doctrines are impractical. Suppose someone prepares to preach on 1 Timothy 1:15. Is he finished when he says, “believe this”? No, doctrines should shape what we think, believe, and feel, and, consequently, what we do. The statement “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” describes reality, and we need to align ourselves with it. Let’s consider two elements of our verse and the way we can think and act in line with it.
“Christ Jesus came” signifies first that the incarnation had a purpose. Christ came to do something. Therefore, God is purposeful and has purposes for humanity. Further, since the purposeful God created us in His image, we should seek, find, and wisely pursue godly purposes.
Second, if Christ came for Paul, the foremost of sinners, we see that no one is beyond God’s grace and redemption. That gives us hope, both for our enemies and for ourselves. That rules out despair and self-loathing. If God loves us while we are sinners, who are we to hate ourselves?
Third, if Paul could call himself “the foremost” of sinners, we must regard ourselves as great sinners. If we are great sinners, then we must be humble, teachable, and open to correction. Further, we must be patient and forgive others, for we know that they are no worse than we are. These principles will shape our thoughts, attitudes, and words.
In general, we apply doctrine by meditating on it. Once God has revealed Himself, His actions, and their meaning, once He has told us who we are, alone and in Christ, we need to consider the implications of His truth. Consider some examples:
- God created the world and entrusted it to mankind (Gen. 1). Therefore, we should care for it.
- Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19a). Therefore, we should glorify God in our bodies.
- Jesus offered Himself as the perfect, final sacrifice for sin (Heb. 10:1–18). Therefore, we must not try to atone for our sins, but rest only in the sacrifice of Christ.
- Jesus intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father (Heb. 7:25). Therefore, we take comfort, knowing that He presents our needs to the Father.
- Everyone is sinful (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, we know all people will disappoint us.
While it’s easy to name one or two implications of almost any doctrine, many doctrines invite numerous applications. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin shows this as he explores the implication of God’s providence for many pages. Let’s consider five of these implications. First, those who know God’s power “safely rest in the protection” of the one who controls all the harmful things we fear (Institutes 1.16.3). Second, God’s providence requires humility, for we should not call God to account for His actions, but “reverence his secret judgments” and “consider his will the truly just cause of all things” (1.17.1–2). Third, the godly will neither murmur against God’s will nor fatalistically give up planning. We order our affairs, knowing God employs our means to effect His providence. We submit our plans to His will (1.17.1–5). Fourth, rather than straining against God’s providence, we find solace in it, since “the Lord watches over the ways of the saints with … great diligence.” Therefore, we must enjoy “patience in adversity and … freedom from worry about the future” (1.17.6–7). Finally, the doctrine of providence helps us in our adversities. Remembering that God willed them, we have an “effective remedy for anger and impatience.” He even permits “the acts of our enemies” (1.16.8). Yes, dangers threaten at every turn, but instead of letting them terrify us, we trust that God lets nothing touch us unless He has ordained it.
Calvin exemplifies the wise practice of theologians who join doctrine, piety, and practice. They meditate on doctrine, asking, “Who needs this truth? How does it warn, rebuke, call to repentance? How does it offer hope, direction, redemption, and healing?” If we take our time with these questions, we will find doctrine to be most practical.