DOCTRINE AND DEVOTION Ernest C. Reisinger (1919-2004)
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching… Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Ti 4:13-16)
These two passages of Scripture bring together what should never be separated, that is, doctrine and devotion; belief and practice—Biblical truth clothed with genuine Christian experience. …
Part 1: Doctrine
Doctrine is to Christian experience what bones are to the body. A body without bones would be a lump of “glob,” utterly useless. Likewise, Christian experience without roots is like cut flowers stuck in the ground—they may look pleasant for awhile, but ultimately they will wither and die. The other side of this truth must also be taken into account, that is, bones without flesh are but a dead skeleton.
There are those who cry “down doctrine” and cry “up experience.” Some think it quite pious to say, “Christ is our creed and the Bible is our textbook.” On the surface that sounds good. But which Christ are they talking about? There are a thousand “christs” on the religious market. The Jehovah Witnesses have a “christ,” but it is not the Christ of the Bible. The Mormons have a “christ,” but it is not the Christ of the Bible. Christian Science has a “christ,” but it is not the Christ of the Bible. The liberals have a “christ,” but not the One who came to us by a virgin’s womb, suffered vicariously on a Roman cross, and rose victoriously from a borrowed grave. There is only one Biblical Christ. The cults also say the Bible is their textbook. You see, someone must proclaim what this infallible Bible says, and what it means and how it applies to our lives and the life of the church.
B.H. Carroll, in his commentary on Ephesians, underscores the importance of doctrine and creeds: “A church with a little creed is a church with a little life. The more divine doctrines a church can agree on, the greater its power, and the wider its usefulness. The fewer its articles of faith, the fewer its bonds of union and compactness. “The modern cry: ‘Less creed and more liberty,’ is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy. Definitive truth does not create heresy—it only exposes and corrects. Shut off the creed and the Christian world would fill up with heresy unsuspected and uncorrected, but nonetheless deadly.
“Again, I solemnly warn the reader against all who depreciate creeds, or who would reduce them to a minimum of entrance qualifications into the church”
Now, I hope we are all against substituting a dead, doctrinal creed for a living Christ. But our creed need not be dead—just as our faith should not be dead faith. We do not reject true faith because there is dead faith (James 2:20: “Faith without works is dead”).
It is not enough to speak of a mystical experience with God without doctrinal knowledge. We must worship God in truth as well as spirit. Truth can be stated in real words, and when truth is stated in real words, it is doctrine.
This effort, to be a practicing Christian without knowing what Christianity is all about, will always fail. The true Christian has a doctrinal foundation. The conflict between our Lord and the Pharisees was over the question of Who He was—the doctrine of the Messiah.
To believe savingly in Christ involves believing the right things about Him. …
What is true religion? It is not some mystical, nebulous thing, floating around in the sky. True religion cannot be less than:
- Right thinking in respect to God
- Right feeling in respect to God
- Right acting in respect to God.
True religion must reach the whole man, including his mind. It must reach his mind because that is what he thinks with, it must reach his affections because that is what he feels with, and it must reach his will because that is what he decides with.
What Is Christian Experience?
Christian experience is the influence of sound Biblical doctrine applied to the mind, affections, and will, by the Holy Spirit. J.C. Ryle said, “You can talk about Christian experience all you wish, but without doctrinal roots it is like cut flowers stuck in the ground—it will wither and die.”
It is impossible, therefore, to over-emphasize the importance of sound doctrine in the Christian life. Right thinking about all spiritual matters is imperative if we are to have right living. As men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles, so sound Christian character does not grow out of unsound doctrine. Someone may ask, “How do we test true Christian experience in the midst of so much spurious experience and religious confusion?” Let me suggest three tests: Is this professed religious experience produced by the truth plainly and faithfully presented? It must be Biblical truth—not only feeling and emotion, or religious excitement.
Is this professed religious experience regulated and governed by Biblical truth?
Do the subjects of this professed religious experience manifest a general and cordial love of Biblical truth?
Biblical doctrine is more important than most church members realize. Doctrine not only expresses our experiences and beliefs, it also determines our direction. Doctrine shapes our lives and church programs. Doctrine to the Christian and the church is what the bones are to the body. It gives unity and stability.
Part 2: Devotion
Our focus to this point has exclusively been on the importance of sound doctrine; I want to call your attention now to the other side of the same coin—devotion.
I am using devotion and Christian experience synonymously. To put it another way: the devotional house must be built on a doctrinal foundation. We must ever keep before us, however, the realization that doctrine and creeds are not an end in themselves. Many fail at this very point. That is, they make doctrine an end in itself. This will produce nothing but dead orthodoxy. Many never get off the foundation. They are doctrinally as straight as a gun barrel, and just as empty. They are very sound doctrinally, but unfortunately, they are sound asleep.
A devotional house, therefore, must be built on a sound doctrinal foundation. The Holy Spirit uses this doctrinal foundation to produce a holy life because the Gospel is a holy-making Gospel. Some Christians are afraid of Biblical holiness. I wish they were as much afraid of sin as they are afraid of holiness.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “It is a holy making Gospel. Without holy fruits all evidences are vain. Dear friends, you have awakenings, enlightenings, experiences, and many due signs; but if you lack holiness, you shall never see the Lord. A real desire after complete holiness is the truest mark of being born again….
It is strange that so many church members either have a false standard of holiness, or else they are afraid of holiness altogether. If you cannot persuade yourself to be holy you will have no success with others….
What equipment is needed to maintain this devotional life? I suggest three things: a quiet place, a quiet time, and a quiet heart.
What does it cost if you are to have a doctrinal foundation and a devotional house?
I once heard Dr. Gwin Walters preach to seminary students, and I remember his warnings. He warned the young ministers of laziness. He warned them of looseness. He warned them of levity and he warned them of lethargy—that is, morbid drowsiness, an inertia arising from soft living. To build a devotional house there must be some self-denial. Self-denial is not denying oneself of sin. The Christian is never at liberty to sin. Self-denial is foregoing lawful liberties.
The following principles must always guide the Christian’s exercise of liberty:
(1) Fear of God. As the servant of Christ, all actions must be moved by a motive of love to God, and all objects must be used for his glory. The term “liberty” is often used as a cloak of malicious self-indulgence, which is sin (1Co 10:31; 1Ti 4:4-5; 1Pe 2:15-16).
(2) Love of Brethren. Though no man may dictate to the Christian’s conscience, the welfare of fellow-saints must always deeply affect his decisions. In a spirit of serving the brethren, he must do that which he judges will edify them and prevent their stumbling (Gal 5:13; 1Co 8:9; 10:23).
(3) Compassion for Sinners. Use of liberty must always be regulated by its effect upon sinners, and that behavior chosen which is likely to win some (1Co 9:19-22).
(4) Watchfulness over the Soul. Though the believer is free in conscience to use all of God’s creation, carefulness in practice is demanded of him because of remaining lusts. Where the Christian judges himself weak through lust, he must abstain for the sake of perseverance (1Co 9:23-27).
Self-denial is the character of the cross. “Be not conformed to this world” means something. “Be not entangled with the affairs of this life” means something. Self-denial is subordinating every secondary point to the primary object—it is singleness of mind.
Whatever experience (1) chills our fervor, (2) dissipates our mind, (3) diverts our attention, or (4) occupies an inordinate proportion of our time or interest is the right eye that we are called to pluck out and cast from us.
I do not mean that there should be no diversion. There is the other extreme of rendering the bow useless by always keeping it bent. Inordinate use of legitimate things is where most good men go down (family, home, position, sports, television).
A very simple test on self-denial is as follows:
- What has the supreme place in your affections?
- What is the dominating power in your life?
- What is it that has the molding influence on your heart?
Never has apostasy from the faith (doctrine or practice) been connected with a prayerful and diligent study of God’s word. If the great doctrines we have mentioned do not produce and develop (1) true zeal, (2) true holiness, (3) self-denial and (4) evangelism, be sure they are not held properly, or else they have become an end in themselves.