Give Me Doctrine or Give Me Death
In recent years, a number of books have been published that urge Christians to rethink a traditional understanding of “doctrine.” The discussions surrounding this question are many and varied, and they take place on every level of theological sophistication. At the highest levels, the questions probe whether doctrine is even possible given postmodern ways of thinking: How capable are we of formulating any objective statements at all, given that we are all products of a culture? Is the idea of propositional truth even valid? Does the Bible contain doctrine as we have defined doctrine in the past?
These types of questions have begun to filter down into more popular works as well, so that they are becoming a part of the collective evangelical consciousness. At the more popular level, though, they are not articulated in terms of whether objective, propositional doctrines can exist in a postmodern world. They are stated like this: if I want a Christianity that is authentic, real, textured, and alive, can I possibly have that within the narrow constraints of a structured system of doctrine?
A growing number of books argue that the solution is to do away with the system altogether. Christians need to recognize, the argument goes, that the notion of a solid, objective doctrinal framework is a hold-over from the Middle Ages, or from the sixteenth century at best. There is no well-defined system of doctrine, and there doesn’t need to be. Christianity is more beautiful, more compelling, if we don’t try to clarify it and define it. To insist on this doctrine or that set of propositions is stultifying and restrictive. Better to leave the faith more mysterious, more open to interpretation, more free for people to arrive at their own understanding of the Christian faith.
One author to call for such rethinking is Rob Bell, who devotes a chapter of his book Velvet Elvis to the idea of doctrine. In the chapter he calls “Springs,” Bell paints a picture of a child jumping on a trampoline. He draws an elaborate—and initially compelling—analogy between that trampoline and the Christian faith. Doctrines, Bell says, are like the springs of the trampoline. They are necessary, but they are not the point. Far from it. No child who jumps on a trampoline thinks about the springs, and he certainly doesn’t call his friends to come and stare with him at the springs. No, he calls them to jump. He calls them to climb up on the canvass and leap and flip and fly . . . and live. No one argues about the springs of a trampoline. No one is excluded from jumping because they do not understand how the springs work. The point is the jumping, and the springs play only a secondary role in accomplishing that one main goal.
So it is, Bell argues, or at least so it ought to be, in the Christian life. Far too many Christians have placed far too much emphasis on the springs—on the doctrines. And in the process, they have made the gospel of Christ a cold, metallic, and logical thing, instead of the breathing, moving, adapting, living gospel that Christ taught and the apostles preached.
As I said, this vision of a living, jumping Christianity is compelling at first. In fact, we should not be too quick to dismiss what Bell is saying. So far as it goes, he’s right: The doctrines of Christianity are not the final and ultimate end. The doctrines point us to Christ. They help us to savor and love him more, and to understand better what God has accomplished in him. In this regard, Bell’s analogy is helpful.
But Bell actually pushes his playful analogy further. Consciously or not, he ultimately calls us to re-think the nature of doctrine more radically than is suggested by the affirmation that doctrines are not ends in themselves. As it turns out, the individual springs on Bell’s trampoline are expendable. You don’t like one spring or another? Alright, just disconnect it and keep jumping. It’s possible you’ll lose a little bounce, but on the whole, you ought to be fine. For example, people jumped for thousands of years, he says, without the “spring” of the Trinity. It was added to the trampoline later. And what about the Virgin Birth? What would happen if that spring were disconnected? Could you still jump? Bell implies that you probably could.
That kind of thinking throws the entire gospel up for grabs.
But is this really how we are to understand the role and place of doctrine? If so, the doctrines of the gospel have become something (or rather somethings) that can be tweaked and rearranged, connected or detached, depending on one’s own preferences and sensibilities. Bell’s analogy was fun at first; but as he continues to press it, it becomes evident that saying that the doctrines of the gospel are just so many springs on a trampoline fails to observe how all those doctrines are inter-related with one another, how they all fit together, how they grow into and out of one another and form one integrated whole. It makes the doctrines of the gospel unrelated, unconnected, isolated, individual bits. It robs them of their organic beauty.
No analogy is perfect, but people used to talk about the “body” of Christian doctrine. It strikes me that the analogy of a “body” is much than a trampoline. For one thing, a body can’t be divided into pieces. It’s not a collection of bits. Each part affects and is affected by all the others, and the result is an integrated and organic whole in which the many are and act as one. Moreover, no part of the body is expendable. You can’t decide that you don’t like this or that part and simply disconnect it.
Finally, a body is not designed simply to lie dead and immobile on the ground. It is meant for living—for allowing a person to walk and run, to touch and see and smell and taste and hear. In short, a body allows a person to engage with the world around him.
All of this is true of the doctrines of the gospel. Understood rightly and framed within the entire storyline of the Bible, the gospel is a perfect and beautiful whole. It is not merely a set of isolated statements; it is a story in which every part contributes to and is inseparable from the whole. Therefore, you can’t simply remove one element of that story and expect it to stay the same. Above all, the gospel is not meant to lie dead, cold, and hard on a sheet of paper. It is meant for . . . living. The story of what God has done in Christ, the narrative of how he has redeemed and is redeeming the world, is meant to lead us to know him, to worship him, and to be reconciled both to him and to other people.
The beginning of everything is God. Any complete understanding of the Christian gospel must begin with him and nothing else. “In the beginning,” says Genesis 1:1, “God created.” There is no more foundational truth than that, and the implications are staggering.
Especially so in our day. The idea that the world itself is not ultimate, but that it sprang from the mind, word, and hand of Someone Else is nothing short of revolutionary. It means that everything in the universe has a purpose, including us. Far from being the result of random chance, mutations, re-assortments, and genetic accidents, human beings are created. Every one of us is the result of an idea, a plan, and an execution—a fact which brings both meaning and responsibility to human life (Gen. 1:26-28).
One implication of this is that no one is autonomous. Despite all our talk about rights and liberties, we are not as free as we would like to think. We are created. We are made. And therefore we are owned. God makes claims on each one of us, one of which is the right to tell or command us how to live (Gen. 2:16).
Yet God’s claim on our lives also includes the grand privilege of ruling over his creation under him, a kind a vice-regency over the entire world. “Fill the earth and subdue it,” God told Adam. “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). Had humans obeyed, the world would have been a paradise and we would all be princes—creation bringing forth its fruits, with Adam and Eve ruling over all of it, in perfect relationship with God, the world, and one another.
God’s plan was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), so good that the stars sang together and the angels in heaven shouted for joy (Job 38:7). All creation looked at God’s establishment of the world and its order, and they rejoiced. All of them, that is, except humans.
It is often noted that Adam’s sin—violating God’s command by taking fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—sprang from pride. Adam wanted to be, and thought he could be, “like God.” That’s what the serpent promised Eve, and both Adam and Eve jumped at the chance to shed the vice-regency and take the crown itself. I’m sure their sin was rooted in pride, but surely there was more than pride at work in Adam’s sin. There was discontent, too. Adam did not just look at God’s position on the throne and wish he could be there. He also looked at his own situation—his own exalted position over creation—and wished himself not there.
In all the universe, there was only one thing that God did not place under Adam’s feet: God himself. Yet Adam decided that this arrangement was not good enough for him. So he rebelled.
The consequences were disastrous for Adam and Eve, their descendants, and the entire creation. Adam and Eve themselves were cast out of the idyllic garden of Eden. No longer would the earth willingly and joyfully present its fruits and treasures to them. They would have to work hard to get them. Even worse, God had promised them that death would follow disobedience (Gen. 2:17). They didn’t physically die right away. Their bodies continued to live, lungs breathing, hearts beating, limbs moving. But their spiritual life—the one that matters most—ended immediately upon their removal from the garden. Their fellowship with God was severed. And thus their hearts shriveled, their minds filled with selfish thoughts, their eyes darkened to the beauty of God, and their souls became sere and arid, utterly void of that life God gave them in the beginning, when everything was good.
Still worse, this spiritual death did not stop with Adam and Eve. They passed it on to the rest of us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Many died through one man’s trespass.” And again, “Because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man” (Rom. 5:15, 17).
This doctrine of original sin—that Adam’s guilt was imputed to all humanity and his corruption passed from one generation to the next—is probably one that many people would rather disconnect from the trampoline. “What difference does it make?” they might ask. Yet it seems to me that if the author of a passage of Scripture—not to mention the Author—found those words worth including, there must be some reason for them. They must explain something, illumine some problem, or somehow enable worship.
So it is with the doctrine of original sin. This is not something that is dispensable to the gospel. In fact, to disconnect it or leave it out would create a gaping hole in the story. After all, the doctrine of original sin explains why one hundred percent of human beings are less than perfect. It illumines why we distrust biographies that say nothing negative about their subjects. If humans know anything beyond a shadow of doubt, it’s that everyone, even our most exalted moral heroes, have flaws. Human beings are not basically good at all, and that is something we need to know in order to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. Until you have a sober understanding of the problem, you will not see the need for a solution.
If the story of history ended with a dismissal from Eden, the future would hold nothing but darkness and despair, pain and separation, hell and judgment. But the story doesn’t end there. God acted.
In the darkest moment, even as he pronounced his curse against Adam and Eve, God let fall a word of hope. It wasn’t much more than a word, either. It was just a hint, just a phrase tacked onto the end of God’s sentence against the serpent. One misplaced sob, one distracted second, and Adam and Eve might have missed it. But it came—the tiniest flicker of light: “He shall bruise your head,” God declared, “and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
The story was not over. Here was some gospel, some good news in the midst of the cataclysm.
The rest of the Bible tells the story of how the tiny seed of hope God planted on that day germinated, sprouted, and grew. For thousands of years, God prepared the world for his stunning coup de grace against the serpent. When it was all over, the sin Adam inflicted on his entire race would be defeated, the death God pronounced over his own creation would be dead, and hell would be brought to its knees. In essence, the Bible presents the story of God’s counter-offensive against sin. It presents the grand narrative of how God made it right, how he is making it right, and how he will one day make it right finally and forever.
The coup de grace came ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ, who was fully God and fully man. He fulfilled that tiny flicker of hope God gave to Adam, and realized all that God promised to the chosen nation of Israel—the great prophet, the highest priest, the most exalted king.
He was the Savior, who brought life to that which was dead. And he did it by dying. Actually, he did it by living, then dying, then living again.
Here’s how Jesus himself described his work:
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
But how? Paul says it like this:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14).
“God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
In that one moment on the cross at Calvary, all the horrible weight of the sin of God’s people was placed on Jesus’ shoulders. And the curse that God pronounced in Eden and the curse of the law promised through Moses—the sentence of death—struck. Jesus cried out in agony as his Father turned his back and forsook him. And then he died.
Jesus did not suffer for his own sin; he didn’t have any. He suffered for his people’s sin. They should have died, not him. And yet he died for them, in their place. Just as Isaiah prophesied so many centuries before,
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:4-5).
My transgressions, his wounds.
My iniquities, his chastisement.
My sin, his sorrow.
His punishment, my peace.
His stripes, my healing.
His grief, my joy.
His death, my life.
If doctrines were springs, this one—the penal substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross—would be one of the most frequently stretched, twisted, and disconnected of them all. People are uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus being punished for someone else’s sin. More than one author has called the idea “divine child abuse.” And yet to toss this doctrine of substitution aside is to cut out the heart of the gospel. To be sure, there are other pictures in Scripture of what Christ accomplished with his death: ransom, example, reconciliation, and victory, to name a few. And yet the story of the Gospel demands this idea of substitution, too. You can’t leave it out, or else you litter the landscape of Scripture with unanswered questions. Why the sacrifices? What did that shedding of blood accomplish? How can God have mercy on sinners without destroying justice? What can it mean that God forgives iniquity and transgression and sin, and yet by no means clears the guilty (Ex. 34:7)? How can a righteous and holy God justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)? He can because in Christ, mercy and justice were reconciled. The curse was executed, and we were freed.
And then Christ rose. If any doubt remained whether sin was defeated and death destroyed, that doubt was erased when the angel said to the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6).
If Christ had remained in the tomb, humanity would remain without hope. Death would have washed over him just like every other human. Every claim he made while living would have sunk into nothingness. But when breath entered his lungs again, when resurrection life electrified his glorified body, everything Jesus claimed was fully, finally, irrevocably, and unquestionably vindicated.
Once again, the whole of the Christian faith stands or falls on the doctrine of the resurrection. Disconnect this, re-imagine it to be anything less than the whole person of Jesus, body and all, rising from the dead in resurrection life, and everything is lost. If the resurrection did not happen and Jesus’ desiccated bones lie somewhere in a lost grave, then the entire Christian faith crashes to the ground. But if it did happen and he is alive, then the whole thing stands. And it stands unassailable. Indestructible. Unconquerable. Forever.
All this of course requires a response from people. Jesus said it this way: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
Repent and believe. Turn away and trust. Renounce sin and rely on Christ.
Relying on Christ means embracing the fact that salvation has nothing to do with works performed or not performed, words said or not said. It means renouncing every other possibility for appealing to God’s mercy. It means jumping empty-handed off a cliff and crying, “Jesus, if you don’t save me, then I am lost,” and then trusting by faith that he will save. Relying on Christ means putting away the instinct to stand before God and point to all your good words and works for why he should save you. When he asks why he should declare you righteous, you only point to Jesus and say, “God, justify me because of what he did on the cross. I have no other plea.”
Renouncing sin—repentance—is not merely turning over a new leaf. It is not an über-New Year’s resolution. It is a comprehensive, wholesale change in a person’s life. And it is possible only by regeneration, the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life.
Repentance is a change of orientation: from death to life, from darkness to light. And it has repercussions in every area of a believer’s life. It means, first of all, turning away from sin and toward God. Not that a believer will never stumble into sin again—at least not until heaven (1 John 1:8). But a believer will count himself dead to sin and alive to God. He will refuse sin the right to reign. He will not offer his body to sin, but to God as an instrument of righteousness (Rom. 6:11-13). He will orient himself to live in harmony with God’s law.
Indeed, the repenting believer does even more. He determines to live in such a way that restores relationships, keeps peace, and gives people around him the sense and smell of Jesus Christ in his life. He determines to join God’s work in redeeming the world, caring for the poor and oppressed, and rolling back the effects of the Fall. Repentance is both vertical and horizontal, God-ward and people-ward.
Again, both these directions—vertical and horizontal—are important, and to neglect either one of them leads to a distortion of the gospel. For example, the revivalism that characterizes large segments of evangelicalism tends to neglect the horizontal aspect of repentance, focusing almost solely on the believer’s individual relationship with God. Far too often, revivalistic sermons call people to believe in Christ, repent of sin, and be baptized—but that’s about it. And the result is that thousands of people are “won and baptized” in America’s biggest churches every year, and then never seen again. There is no change of life, no union with Christ’s church, no repentance toward other people, nothing at all of what the Bible describes as newness of life. They are won one minute, and lost the next.
On the other hand, there is also a danger of over-emphasizing the horizontal, of pressing Christians in the work of restoring earthly relationships so hard that the most important relationship of all is neglected. Many new books—perhaps especially Brian McLaren’s—major on alleviating this world’s oppression and overturning this world’s injustices. They press believers, often compellingly, to join God’s work in “redeeming” the world. But their gospel becomes so socially oriented, so focused on the present, that “redemption” comes to take on a different meaning entirely. The great biblical themes of salvation from sin and its consequences for God’s people get lost. Yet those ideas lie at the very heart of the gospel’s meaning. To be sure, the horizontal aspects of responding to the gospel are crucial. God will one day create a new heaven and a new earth, and God expects us to work, even here, even now, toward that goal. But that cannot be all. We cannot de-emphasize the doctrines of salvation and eternity, or pretend that they are somehow not important to the Christian life. For as Paul once wrote, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:19).
Some people will argue that subjecting the doctrines of the gospel to interpretation, making them flexible and even expendable, would result in a freer, more open, more mysterious, and thus more compelling Christianity. I just don’t believe that is true. In fact, I believe it would result in a tragic distortion and even fatal falsehood in our understanding of both ourselves and God.
John Calvin once wrote that a person cannot truly know himself until he has come to a knowledge of God. And you see, people can only know God and themselves truly—who they apart from Christ, who they are in Christ, and who they are becoming through his work in their lives—through the doctrines of the gospel revealed in Scripture. The gospel is the divinely-revealed key to our own story, and therefore every part of it is crucial if we are to see ourselves or God clearly. Take out any part of it, subject any line of it to your own re-imagining, and you blur your own vision. That’s not freedom. It’s more bondage.
Real freedom is seeing clearly. It is knowing beyond doubt who you are and what God has done for you in Christ. It is being able to live your life with full assurance that God will do what he has promised and that one day you will see his face. That kind of freedom doesn’t come from having the ability to remake the gospel in your own image. It comes simply from trusting what God says about you, about himself, and about his Son. In short, it comes from believing the gospel.