I’ve always had a thing for maps. When I was a little kid and my family went on a road trip, I’d monitor our progress from the back seat, eagerly poring over the easel-sized Rand McNally Road Atlas that sprawled over my lap. Call me a nerd if you like, but it sure beat asking, “Are we there yet?” every five minutes.
Of course, the lines-on-paper variety aren’t the only useful kind of maps. We all make mental maps that help us do the things we need to do—like pick up groceries, run to Target, and drop off library books, all before the little one’s nap time—or do the things we love.
I love surfing (even though I currently live an appalling distance from the coast—in Kentucky!), and surfing is all about catching good waves. But finding good waves can be tricky. They are the product of a delicate interplay between swell direction, size, period (the distance between waves), tide, wind, shifting sandbars, and more. So a dedicated surfer constantly refines a mental map of where he or she will find the best and least crowded waves. For the region I grew up surfing in Northern California, the mental map readings sound something like this: A 10-foot northwest swell that’s washing out a northern pointbreak will be perfect for the inside section of a certain spot in town once the tide drops. And a negative low tide will drain the life out of the points on the east side, but it will awaken that fluky little reef around the corner. The payoff, of course, is good surf. Though the hunt is part of the fun, too.
Maps serve a very practical purpose: they help you get where you want to go. In fact, if you’ve got a good map and a sense of direction, you will basically never get lost. As I’ll occasionally remind my wife when a minor uncertainty arises concerning driving directions, I may not know what to do next, but I’m not lost—I know exactly where I am. (The Jamieson men are renowned, at least among ourselves, for our sense of direction.)
That’s one reason why I stubbornly refuse to use a GPS. It’s a useful tool in its place, but it’s no substitute for a map and a sense of direction. A map gives you the whole picture. It enables you to see far beyond the next freeway exit. And the very act of using a map helps you to make sense of where you are. But when you rely on a GPS, you’re wholly at the mercy of some disembodied voice named Stella telling you in her pseudo-British accent that, because of that last turn you just missed, she will now spend the next several minutes “recalculating” while you barrel blindly down the freeway. A map, on the other hand, tells you not just where to go, but where you are.
Now the point in what I am saying is this: God has given us a road map for living the Christian life, and that map is sound doctrine.
In an ultimate sense, the Bible itself is our map—and the lamp for our feet and light for our path (Ps. 119:105). But sound doctrine simply sums up the message of the Bible. It synthesizes whatever Scripture has to say about any given topic, whether that topic arises from Scripture or from life in the world. It’s like what English teachers sometimes say about new vocabulary words: you don’t know what a word means unless you can define it in your own words. You cannot just define a word with the same word. Doctrine is like this—it’s putting the Bible’s teaching on a particular topic in our own words. And doctrine is sound whenever our own words summarize the content of the Bible rightly or faithfully, like getting an A+ on a vocabulary quiz. In English class, you get an A+ whenever your words rightly or soundly reproduce the meaning of the vocabulary words.
So how exactly should we define “sound doctrine”? Here’s a working definition: Sound doctrine is a summary of the Bible’s teaching that is both faithful to the Bible and useful for life. Doctrine should not consist of imposing our ideas on the Bible. Rather, it should be nothing more or less than a summary of what the Bible says on a topic. It presents the teaching of Scripture as a coherent though complex unity, which is why I have called it a map. It relates the whole to the parts and the parts to the whole.
Like any good map, then, sound doctrine serves a very useful and practical purpose: sound doctrine is for life. Instruction is for action. We listen to the teaching of God’s Word for the purpose of living it out. Sound doctrine isn’t an information archive that serves only to present facts. Rather, it’s a road map for our pilgrimage from this world to the world to come.
Doctors have to make complicated decisions on short notice with a lot at stake. What enables a good physician to make wise choices is an extensive knowledge of the human body. You can’t know if a kidney’s failing unless you know what a kidney is and how it should work. That’s why doctors spend many years studying human anatomy and physiology so that they can make accurate diagnoses and prescribe appropriate remedies—sometimes with life-saving consequences.
In some ways, the Christian life isn’t all that different. We have to make complicated decisions in real time, sometimes with a lot at stake. And, as in practicing medicine, there is no easy formula for some of those decisions, so we need wisdom. The foundations for that wisdom, like the foundations of a doctor’s good judgment, lie in a bedrock of knowledge—knowledge of the things God has revealed in his Word. In Scripture, God tells us about who he is, who we are, where we’ve come from, what’s wrong with this world, how God is fixing it, and more. If we’re going to live lives that please God, these are the things we most need to know.
Scripture is not exhaustive—there are plenty of true things Scripture doesn’t say. But it is sufficient. In his Word, God tells us everything we need to know to be saved and to live a life that is pleasing to him (2 Pet. 1:3). Scripture doesn’t tell us how to perform heart surgery, but it does lay bare the desires and deceits of all human hearts (Heb. 4:12-13). Scripture doesn’t tell us how to get from London to Tokyo, but it does tell us how to walk wisely in the way of the Lord and avoid the snares of the devil (Col. 4:5; 2 Tim. 2:26).
Scripture itself teaches us that sound doctrine is for life. In Titus 2:1, Paul instructs his colaborer, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” Then in the next nine verses he describes how different groups of people in the church should live and relate to each other:
Note that in verse 1 Paul doesn’t command Titus to teach “sound doctrine,” though he does insist on that elsewhere in the letter (Titus 1:11; 2:7-8). Instead, Paul commands Titus to teach what “accords with” sound doctrine—what fits with it and flows from it. Titus is to teach the church in Crete to walk in the path that sound doctrine marks out. Their lives are to color in the outlines that sound doctrine provides.
Similarly, in 1 Timothy 1:3-5 Paul writes,
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Paul left Timothy in Ephesus so that Timothy would refute those who were preaching false doctrine (v. 3). These false teachings were promoting speculations rather than the stewardship—a rightly ordered life—from God that is by faith (v. 4). For what purpose did Paul give Timothy this charge? So that the Christians in Ephesus would embody the love that flows from a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith (v. 5). Sound doctrine leads to sound faith, sound hearts, and sound consciences. And these become the fountain from which flows an entire life that is pleasing to God. The aim of sound doctrine is sound living. As one Christian put it over four hundred years ago, “Theology is the science of living blessedly forever.”
Sound doctrine is God’s road map for living faithfully in the world. Sound doctrine tells you not just where you are, but who you are, and who God is, and how God has saved us from sin and enabled us to live lives that are pleasing to him. Sound doctrine is essential equipment for navigating the twisting city streets of our lives. So don’t leave home without it.
When I was a kid, I played basketball, baseball, and soccer for several years. I enjoyed them all well enough, even though I was thoroughly mediocre at each. My favorite sport, if you can call it that, should come as no surprise: surfing.
Surfing is great fun to share with others, especially friends and family, but the act itself is fundamentally individual. A person sits on a board, paddles into a wave, stands up, rides it toward the shore, and then repeats that sequence for as long as one’s arms can hold out. Seeing others catch good waves—or, dearer to the heart of most surfers, having others see you—certainly adds to the experience. But that hardly makes it a team sport.
Sports like basketball or football, on the other hand, are inherently corporate. Money and adulation might be lavished on a favorite shooting guard or star quarterback, but the game is played together. It’s won or lost together. There’s no such thing as a one-man team.
I bring this up because I think most American Christians treat their Christianity more like surfing than like football. We think of our walk with the Lord as something fundamentally individual: I pray. I read the Bible. I attend a worship service to experience God and grow in knowledge of Scripture. I love my neighbor. I share the gospel with others. Sure, it helps to go to church and have Christian friends. But what structures our priorities, what defines the shape of our discipleship, what serves as our decision-making grid is, most often, just me and Jesus.
But Scripture teaches that Christianity is much more like a team sport. It is true that each of us must turn from sin and trust in Christ in order to be saved (Rom. 10:9-10). Each of us will give an account of ourselves to God (Rom. 14:10). Each of us is responsible for what we do (Gal. 6:5). However, unlike surfing, the very nature of the Christian life is corporate.
And growth as a Christian is consistently defined in corporate terms. How many of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) can you practice alone on a desert island?
Consider how Paul describes Christian growth in Ephesians 4:11-16. Christ gives gifts of leaders to his church to equip the saints for the work of ministry (vv. 11-12) “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood” (v. 13). We speak the truth in love to one another (v. 15) so that we grow up into Christ “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (v. 16).
Do you see how closely Paul intertwines the individual Christian’s growth and the church’s growth? The primary way that we mature as Christians is through the life of the church. The members help the body grow, which means helping each other grow. We are built up as we build others up. Christian growth is a team effort. But Christians are far more than a team—we’re members of the same body.
Another passage that unpacks the church’s life as a body is 1 Corinthians 12.
While the “body” metaphor also applies to the universal church, what Paul has in mind here is Christians’ participation in a specific local assembly. This is where we suffer or rejoice together, show honor to one another, and interact with members who are radically different from us. This is where we show God’s wisdom in composing the body not of one member, but of many (1 Cor. 12:14).
As a member of the body of Christ, your life in a local church should structure your priorities, define the shape of your discipleship, and serve as one of the main grids through which you make many decisions. What it looks like for you to live as a Christian day in and day out should be defined in large part by the life of your local church.
This means that the godly life which flows from sound doctrine is not merely an individual matter. Rather, sound doctrine is for life in the church.
We see this clearly in Romans 12, where Paul appeals to us “by the mercies of God” to live new lives in light of the gospel. After spending eleven chapters expounding the gospel and the doctrines that surround it (“the mercies of God”), Paul shows us that the gospel he preaches has nearly infinite implications for daily living.
What are some of them? First, the gospel and the doctrines that connect to it lead us to devote our lives totally to God, and to be transformed by the ongoing renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2). The gospel calls us to be conformed to God’s mind, will, and ways—not the world’s. But immediately after this, Paul tells us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (v. 3), but instead to use our gifts to build up the body (vv. 4-8). The gospel teaches us to put others before ourselves, and to use the strengths God has given us to edify our fellow church members—both of which are impossible to do in blissful solitude. Then, in verses 9 through 13, Paul fleshes out more specifics about how we are to love one another, honor one another, and care for each other’s needs. When Paul specifies what it means to live in view of God’s mercies, he turns immediately to life in the body of Christ.
How can you live in view of God’s mercies? By loving and building up the body of Christ. The life that sound doctrine lays out for you is shaped like your local church.
Sound doctrine is for life—life in the church.
If sound doctrine is for life in the church, it’s also for the life of the church.
Think about the life of a family. What kinds of things would you look at in order to describe it? Here’s what you wouldn’t do: you wouldn’t simply record what each individual family member does throughout the day and then slice and dice your observations into a composite whole. Instead, you’d look at what the family does together. Do they eat together? What do they talk about? Who does the talking? When do they spend time together? What do they do? What are the rules, traditions, customs, and so on that shape how they live together?
The life of a church is similar: what a church does together defines the life of a church. And a church’s way of teaching and worshiping and praying and so on deeply impacts every member of the church—just like the culture of a family indelibly stamps every member of the family.
The life of the church is displayed most fully in its corporate worship gatherings. But it’s also useful to think about other times members of the church come together. Church members gather outside the main weekly gathering for things like additional teaching, outreach, accountability, and meals in each other’s homes.
One of the main arguments I’ll be making throughout this book is this: just as sound doctrine is crucial for life, and specifically life in the church, so it is also essential for the life of the church. Like a good map, sound doctrine is eminently useful, so churches should use it.
So in chapters 3 through 6, we’ll see how sound doctrine should flow through the whole life of a church and nourish holiness, love, unity, worship, and witness. First, though, we’ll look at the fountain itself: how does sound doctrine impact reading and teaching the Bible?