“If you want to make it in journalism, you’re going to have to learn to write what people want to hear.” It was my first day of undergraduate journalism, and my professor’s description of what people want to hear was ironically contrary to what I found myself hoping to hear that day. I wanted to be a truth-teller on the front lines, and this introduction confused me. According to this academic, reporting was no longer about the facts but about what it made the reader feel. I changed my major to literature and philosophy that afternoon, hoping to hear from truth-tellers in exploration of knowledge and reality.
The type of attitude that my professor voiced permeates many aspects of our culture, but this is not a modern issue. A fundamental part of learning involves hearing. The active hearer asks questions. A self-aware hearer knows best how apply this learning, but only when anchored. Paul confidently prepares Timothy with the reality that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). Paul does not tritely critique the human condition. This distaste for sound teaching and attraction to myths motivates Paul’s charge to “preach the word” with readiness “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). In moments of achievement, at minor roadblocks, in dire straits, what motivates what we ourselves most long to hear?
Exercising discernment towards what we hear often feels like American short-story writer Stephen Crane’s description of the sea: “After successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.”1 When we approach truth as one option in a sea of noise, any grasp for a clear methodology can be overwhelming. Moderns described this as a “widening gyre.”2 This anxious dread reveals that we often come to the biblical text with our philosophical baggage unawares. Sometimes we’re afraid to ask the deeper questions, and oftentimes we don’t realize the ways that we are products of our times, students of our philosophers, and introspective instead of objective. Paul seems to speak with conviction here. What does he really mean by “sound teaching,” and what does he suggest “suit[s] [our] own passions”? A close read shows that there’s no need to speculate. Paul was able and willing to offer further insight here. You can hear this imperative to preach the gospel echoed throughout his letters.
Our Anchor, the Doctrine of Christ
Surely, if anyone ever knew what it meant to wander off into myths, it would be the Apostle Paul. He counted his former mastery of systems as rubbish (Phil. 3). Paul repeatedly warns again and again of this distraction. Recognizing the undercurrent of chaos and change, Paul calls us to hold fast to doctrine—not every doctrine, but to biblical doctrine alone. The only unchanging thing in the world—the God “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17; see also Num. 23:19; Heb. 13:8). Biblical doctrine has no need for change; it was breathed out by an unchanging and eternal God. This is a foundational truth for doctrine, for teaching, for participation in Christian worship.
This urging to build on solid ground is seen in many ways throughout the New Testament. Paul urges the Ephesians to take hold of our confident access to God through Christ, which is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). This Apostolic foundation acts as an anchor so that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). Paul also exhorts the Colossians to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:18). Paul calls his audience not to himself, nor some complex ideology, nor something abstract. Each time Paul calls his audience to Christ, describing the Christian life with prepositions—in Christ, to Christ, into Christ (Col. 2:15). This is the appeal for biblical doctrine that Thomas Watson called principles: “Knowledge of principles is to the soul as the anchor to the ship, that holds it steady in the midst of the rolling waves of error, or the violent winds of persecution.”3 Biblical doctrine, put simply, answers the question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15) and finds that answer in Scripture time and time again.
Rather than bringing a sigh of relief, for many people this can feel daunting, serious, and insurmountable. With access to so much information and so little disciplined time to interpret it, how do we determine biblical doctrine? Unfortunately, this question reveals an individualistic mindset. Doctrine isn’t meant to be studied alone. We practice it together, weekly, every Lord’s Day. Contrary to how we may feel, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”; therefore, we can have not only clarity but also endurance in this pursuit of truth (Heb. 12:1, emphasis added). Creeds and confessions act not as dusty documents but as buoys in the dark waters of false teaching in which the church has wrestled and clung fiercely to Scripture. This is how the Lord intended His people to walk. If you want to know God, this is His way. He uses His Word. Not a new word, not a modern method, not a surveyed format. Watson reminds us that this anchor in principles (biblical doctrine) “is not novel, it is apostolic.”4 Hughes Oliphant Old displayed how this was the primary goal of Reformed worship: “Far from calling for a revolt from apostolic tradition, the Reformers were engaged in a return to the sources. Primarily it was a return to the Scriptures, but the writings of the Fathers were read as witnesses to the purer forms of worship in the ancient Church.”5
Rather than imposing a system upon the Bible, it brings us under its system, God’s system, revealed in His created order “for God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33). We can bring all our questions and confusion to the Bible because God made it for His people. God is not silent. He has revealed Himself and what it means to know Him and be known. Calvin says this more clearly: “Scripture has its own order and plan that is more beautiful and certain than any philosophic method.”6 The beauty here is beheld through the study of God’s Word in the context of the covenant community. A consistent, expository teaching of the Word bears fruit and light. An inconsistent, eisegetical teaching of the Word bears much confusion and is truly a dark place. Even if it contains a dogmatic order, if it is not God’s order, it will wreak havoc. Paul’s imperative to preach the Word is predicated by the truthfulness and usefulness of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16–17). This view of Scripture was not only his but is boldly displayed throughout Scripture. The psalmist summarizes, “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever” (Ps. 119:160).
The Fruit of Doctrine
Sinclair Ferguson said, “Theology is the privilege, the challenge, the romance of our lives—in every conceivable calling.” It has been the greatest joy of my life to come across people who have challenged me to raise my sights above the waves and take hold of that which Christ has already won. Biblical doctrine is for the preacher and for the pews. Theology is for “plain people.”7 The study of God is accessible because God has made Himself known in the person of Jesus Christ. The study of biblical doctrine is not cold, boring, or impersonal. On the contrary, it is heat, “a lamp shining in a dark place,” and a covenant history (1 Peter 1:19). It is the story we have been made for and called into. It is communal and alive.
It is also practical. Calvin reminds us, “In order for doctrine to be fruitful to us, it must overflow into our hearts, spread into our daily routines, and truly transform us within.”8 As Paul charges Timothy preacher-to-preacher to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth,” may we also hear the charge as church members, pew sitters, and Bible study readers (2 Tim. 2:15). You do not need permission to put yourself under biblical teaching; it is God’s practical call to you—“Do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). What do we long to hear from our teachers and pastors? Remember the picture we see in Luke 24: “They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ ” (Luke 24:32, emphasis added). Biblical doctrine is the thing a transformed heart most longs to hear. It is the person of Jesus Christ, “the Word [that] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
- Stephen Crane, The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1898), 1. ↩︎
- W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” The Dial, November 1920. ↩︎
- Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, “A Preliminary Discourse to Catechizing,” accessed December 16, 2021, https://ccel.org/ccel/watson/divinity/divinity.iv.html. ↩︎
- Watson, Body of Divinity. ↩︎
- Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Black Mountain, N.C.: Worship, 2004), 1. ↩︎
- John Calvin, A Little Book on the Christian Life, ed. and trans. Aaron Denlinger and Burk Parsons (Orlando, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2017), 5. ↩︎
- Charles Octavius Boothe, Plain Theology for Plain People (Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham, 2007). ↩︎
- Calvin, 13. ↩︎