For different reasons a lot of Christians in my generation and older generations are leery of too much emphasis on doctrine. They have come to equate doctrine with church splits, hate mail, arrogance, and angry diatribes. They have seen how easy it is for life-giving truths to get reduced to empty formulas. No wonder that for them Christian doctrine can seem more hindrance than help when it comes to cultivating a vibrant relationship with Jesus.
I understand. If my heart is cold toward God, I can turn the most precious truth into an end in itself or a weapon to attack others. This is part of the reason I find the story of the wise builder so instructive. It reminds me that doctrine isn't about me or my little tribe. Jesus said that the person who digs down to the rock is the one who comes to him. This has to be the first and final motivation. Pursuing orthodoxy and sound doctrine has to begin with a heart drawing close to him--not to a theological system, denomination, or book.
It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that since theological beliefs shouldn't be our goal, we don't need them at all. But this isn't true in knowing Jesus any more than it's true in other relationships. For example, I have a nine-year-old daughter named Emma, whom I love very much. It is absolutely true that information and facts about my daughter can never take the place of actually loving her. But this doesn't mean I should avoid knowing about her. An important part of caring for and cultivating a relationship with my little girl involves a willingness on my part to learn her character and personality, her likes and dislikes. Details about her--the color of her hair, the music she enjoys, her gifts, fears, and dreams--are all important to me because she is important to me. While these truths about her could be empty data, because they describe a living person whom I love, they enrich and grow my love for her. Facts can never take her place, but I can't know her without them.
Doctrine can never take the place of Jesus himself, but we can't know him and relate to him in the right way without doctrine. This is because doctrine not only tells us what God has done but what his actions mean to us. A theologian named J. Gresham Machen, who lived in the 1920s, helped me better understand all this. His explanation of Christian doctrine helped me see how it connects to the living person of Jesus. In one of his books, Machen explains that while Christians in the early church wanted to know what Jesus taught, they were primarily concerned with what Jesus had done. "The world was to be redeemed," Machen wrote, "through the proclamation of an event."
Of course the event he's referring to is Jesus's death by crucifixion and his resurrection from the dead. The first Christians knew they had to tell people about this event. But simply telling them wasn't enough. They also had to tell them what the event meant. And this, Machen explains, is doctrine. Doctrine is the setting forth of what Jesus has done along with the meaning of the event for us.
"These two elements are always combined in the Christian message," Machen continues. "The narration of the facts is history; the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts is doctrine. 'Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried'--that is history. 'He loved me and gave Himself for me'--that is doctrine."
Doctrine is the meaning of the story God is writing in the world. It's the explanation of what he's done and why he's done it and why it matters to you and me.
- from Dug Down Deep, chapter 2