In many churches across modern evangelicalism, good doctrine has taken a back seat to good works. The emphasis has shifted away from believing the right thing to doing the right thing, with a particular focus on community works and social justice.
Often that shift is the result of legitimate critique—that professing Christians frequently fail to apply and live out their good doctrine. Today, many church leaders argue that doctrine simply does not answer the multitude of practical problems we face in this fallen world. In that sense, the emphasis on prioritizing good works over good doctrine is an overcorrection against the threat of cold orthodoxy and dead faith.
Others simply treat doctrinal disputes as long-argued issues we must ignore or circumvent to accomplish the work God has for His people. That was essentially the point Rick Warren made in a 2005 interview with the Pew Forum. He argued that we find our common ground in what we do rather than what we believe.
You’re never going to get Christians, of all their stripes and varieties, to agree on all of the different doctrinal disputes and things like that, but what I am seeing them agree on are the purposes of the church. And I find great uniformity in the fact that I see this happening all the time. Last week I spoke to 4,000 pastors at my church who came from over 100 denominations in over 50 countries. Now, that’s wide spread. We had Catholic priests, we had Pentecostal ministers, we had Lutheran bishops, we had Anglican bishops, we had Baptist preachers. They’re all there together and you know what? I’d never get them to agree on communion or baptism or a bunch of stuff like that, but I could get them to agree on what the church should be doing in the world.
Warren’s ecumenical enthusiasm for the practical work of the church is so strong it has blinded him to who constitutes the true church in the first place. And that is the danger of emphasizing, as Warren puts it, deeds, not creeds.
In spite of what Warren and others like him seem to believe, Scripture does draw a direct relationship between what we believe and how we live. In John MacArthur’s sermon “Sound Doctrine Backed by Sound Living,” he lays out the clear biblical connection between doctrine and deeds. Moreover, he emphasizes the two in that particular order—doctrine then deeds—because good deeds are the byproduct of good doctrine, never the cause.
John also warns about the critical flipside of that truth—wrong doctrine always produces wrong conduct because “error is a communicable disease.” Good or bad, doctrine lies at the root of all behavior.
Centering on Titus 2:1 (“speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine”), John shows the biblical pattern of sound living following on the heels of sound doctrine. He also reinforces the importance of this issue because all of us are under the gaze of this fallen world. With regard to Titus 2:8 (“that the opponent will be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us”) John reminds us:
Look, [unbelievers] are examining us and we want to so live that those opponents of the faith will blush in sheer embarrassment because there is no just criticism. Don’t you think that the opponents of Christianity love it when Christians scandalize the faith? Don’t they love to pick up the magazines and the newspapers and read about the fornication and the adultery and the fiscal irresponsibility and the thievery and all of the conning that goes on in the fakeries of Christianity and all of the sin and iniquity in leadership? Sure they do.
And I’ll tell you something else, the people in your little world . . . would love to see you fail significantly so they can justify their unbelief. They don’t want to see God transform your life and then rebuke them. But that’s exactly what you want to do, you want to make them red faced, you want to make them blush when they criticize because they can’t find anything to criticize. You see, the issue here is evangelism.
You live out your Christian life in your own personal mission field, and your witness is always on the line. For that reason, “Sound Doctrine Backed by Sound Living” is a timely reminder for all Christians on how to practice what we preach.
Click here to listen to “Sound Doctrine Backed by Sound Living.”