Paul’s Priority of Sound Doctrine

September 16, 2011

The apostle Paul dramatically encountered the Risen Christ on his way to round up “illegal” Christians in Damascus. A zealous Pharisee and a Roman citizen from Tarsus, this convert understood the Law and claimed to have lived it to the letter. His world was rocked, however, when Jesus himself confronted Paul with the question, “Why are you persecuting Me?” Just as Jesus had addressed Peter personally with a Key Question, now in Acts 9 Jesus personally addresses this one misguided and angry enforcer with the grace and truth of the gospel. A career change was in Paul’s future, and it entailed planting churches and teaching people the content of the faith.

Paul’s gospel was no human invention; over the next few years he experienced a monumental paradigm shift, by means of Jesus’ direct revelation and eventually the patient instruction of the saints. Paul’s calling was to take this gospel to Jew and Gentile alike, throughout the Mediterranean region. He visited city after city, and wrote to the fledgling Christian communities after he left. We have several of those letters in the New Testament, and from them we conclude that Paul placed a high priority on sound doctrine.

Paul makes reference to “sound doctrine” especially in the pastoral epistles 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. [Paul does not use the term “pure” in reference to doctrine, though he does use the word related to behavior.] These letters refer to “different” doctrines; congregations that “will not put up with sound doctrine,” preferring messages they want to hear rather than deal with the real thing; the priority of teaching sound doctrine as a pastoral duty; and in Ephesus, the vulnerability of the people to “every wind of doctrine” which is deceiving. He urged Timothy, the pastor of the Ephesian church, to deal with the doctrinal confusion perpetrated by ill-informed busybodies going from house to house with crazy ideas contrary to the gospel.

Though we do not have a catechism or a list of essentials compiled by Paul, we do have his corpus of writings. From them, the church has joyously identified key tenets that have been passed down to us in the form of (for instance) the Five Solas: Scripture alone, faith alone, Christ alone, grace alone, and only to God’s glory. That pretty much sums up what Paul taught as sound doctrine. Embedded within this easily remembered list are the foundational concepts of Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—check out Romans 8), Incarnation (Galatians 4), and atonement (Romans). I’m just getting started, but my readers can get the idea. Paul laid out the foundation and framework of Peter’s confession, for the building up of the church (Ephesians 4).

Paul was so keen on teaching and maintaining orthodoxy, that he also promoted discipline that was both restorative and protective. His ministry partners Priscilla and Aquila set another teacher Apollos straight on some fine points of the gospel (Acts 18). In the messed-up Corinthian church, he instructs the church leaders to expel the immoral brother and have nothing to do with those who cannot translate “the faith” into godly action (1 Corinthians 5).

If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, Paul can be seen as the Border Collie, barking around the edges to keep the sheep gathered in safety against the doctrinal wolves. This is the motivation for seeking sound doctrine, not to make entry into the Kingdom impossible for mere mortals, but to usher people into the safety of a true and unhindered relationship with their Savior. This is completely consistent with Christ’s essential tenet, and everything Paul wrote was designed to help people get in touch with him as Savior, Son of God, and Shepherd of our souls.

The PCUSA under John Calvin’s influence during the Reformation has installed this concept of discipline—we might even call it disciple-making—into the very fabric of its existence. The historic affirmation that we seek “truth unto goodness,” that is, correct doctrinal thinking that leads to godliness in behavior, is essential to our calling in the Reformed Tradition.

So as my friends at Theology Matters are fond of saying, sound doctrine matters to us as the basis for spiritual survival and joyful Christian living. It behooves us to keep studying and internalizing the Bible, to discover the Way of Life it promotes and the Spirit empowers, and not to give up preaching and teaching the Word of God.

Monday: How “sound doctrine” factors into the creation of denominations.


One Response to “Paul’s Priority of Sound Doctrine”

  1. Great analysis Mary! Looking forward to your next installment.

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