10 doctrines you need today (and every day)
If people believe false ideas, inevitably they act on them in disastrous ways. Theology matters.
1. The triune God is there and he has spoken.
Hebrews 1:1–2 begins with these words: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” These verses remind us of the first and foundational truth that warrants everything we think and say in systematic theology. Apart from the triune God and his initiative to speak to us, not only would there be no universe (Gen 1:1–3), we would also have no ground for truth and the possibility of doing theology, at least theology that is objectively true.
No doubt, creation is revelatory of God. Yet, to know God beyond merely studying creation — to know his nature, character, will, and promises; to enter into covenant relationship with him — we need divine speech. We need God to tell us who he is, what his eternal plan is all about, and how we fit into that plan for God’s glory. To do theology in any historic Christian sense of the word, divine speech is necessary, and thankfully God has not left us to our mere opinions and human subjectivity. As a result, theology is not only possible, but it’s also our highest calling: to love the Lord with our minds and lives as we “think his thoughts after him.” The church is called to the supreme privilege of engaging in the joy of a “faith seeking understanding” as she seeks to reason, understand, and reflect on the entirety of God’s speech. It’s on this basis alone that Christian theology is done, lives are rooted in the truth, and the church stands strong.
2. God is worthy of all our thinking, love, and obedience.
The doctrine of God is rightly called “theology proper.” Why? For this reason: All theological thinking is first and foremost about the nature and glory of the triune God. There is no greater calling than to know him according to his self-revelation in Scripture.
From Genesis to Revelation, the triune God is presented as the uncreated, independent, self-sufficient creator of the universe (Gen 1–2; Ps 50:12-14; Acts 17:24-25; cf. John 1:1). This truth establishes the central distinction of all theology: the creator-creature distinction, which eliminates false ideas of God and the God-world relationship. God alone is God; all else is creation that totally depends on him for life and all things. As Creator, God is the covenant Lord who is fully present and related to his creatures: He freely, sovereignly, and purposefully sustains and governs all things to his desired end (Ps 139:1–10; Acts 17:28; Eph 1:11; 4:6). As Creator and covenant Lord, God sovereignly and personally rules over his creation. He rules with perfect power, knowledge, and righteousness (Ps 9:8; 33:5; 139:1–4, 16; Isa 46:9-11; Acts 4:27–28; Rom 11:33-36) . As Lord, God acts in, with, and through his creatures to accomplish his plan and purposes (Eph 1:11). As personal, God commands, loves, comforts, and judges consistent with himself and according to the covenant relationships that he establishes with his creatures. Indeed, as we move through redemptive history, God discloses himself not merely as uni-personal but as tri-personal, a being-in-relation, a unity of three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit (e.g., Matt 28:18–20; John 1:1–18; 5:16–30; 17:1–5; 1 Cor 8:5–6; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 1:3–14).
At its heart, theology seeks to know the incomparable God of Scripture in all of his splendor and majesty. Theology is at its best when it meditates on and thinks deeply about the glory of the triune God first in himself (ad intra) and then in light of his eternal plan and works in creation, providence, redemption, and judgment (ad extra). In fact, to think wrongly about God is utterly catastrophic, and all false thinking in theology is ultimately rooted in wrong conceptions of God. To misunderstand God’s triune nature, how the divine persons relate to each other, the nature of God’s attributes and perfections, and his works will only lead to an impoverished theology that is disastrous for the church and the proclamation of the gospel.
Sadly, not only are many evangelical churches not giving God what he rightly deserves from us, namely, our complete love and devotion, but wrong thinking about God is leading to spiritual impoverishment and doctrinal error. As J. I. Packer reminded us many years ago in his classic work, Knowing God, the greatest need for the church today is to be God-centered in all of our thinking and living. The greatest need of the hour is not to make God small but to think big thoughts about him according to his Word.
3. God’s Word is trustworthy, authoritative, and sufficient for our theology and lives.
If it is true that apart from divine speech we would have no universal, objective grounds for truth and theology, then we should constantly give God thanks for his Word written. The Bible is no mere human book. No doubt, it is written by various human authors over time, yet it’s the product of God’s sovereign action through the Word and by the Holy Spirit whereby human authors freely wrote exactly what God intended to be written (2 Tim 3:15-17; 2 Pet 1:20–21). In fact, precisely because Scripture is God’s Word written, it is fully authoritative, trustworthy, and without error. One cannot understand what Scripture is apart from the triune God of Scripture who gave it by his sovereign, providential, extraordinary action in and through human authors.
From Scripture, we know that God has graciously given us his Word so that we may know him truly, which is a wonderful truth indeed! Although Scripture is not an exhaustive revelation of God’s entire plan, it’s true and sufficient for us.
Throughout redemptive history, God has entered into covenant relationship with his people and at each point, he has given us a written Word so that we may have total trust in all that he has promised and revealed (Deut 5:22, 32; 29:9; 30:15-16; Josh 1:7–8). Now in Christ — the Word incarnate — all of God’s promises have reached their fulfillment (Heb 1:1–2), resulting in a closed canon. Now in Christ, the entirety of Scripture is for our instruction so that the church may be built up in truth and sound doctrine.
4. God created humans as image-bearers.
Christian theology teaches that we can only know who we are and the nature of our problem in light of God and his Word. John Calvin, at the start of his Institutes, captured this truth: “Without the knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of the self.” This is why theology has made “anthropology” a derivative doctrine, not a foundational one, and it has located it after the doctrine of God.
Sadly, disaster results when people reverse the order. In the West, non-Christian thought explains who we are by the metanarrative of naturalistic evolution. For this reason, it’s common today to view humans in terms of impersonal processes, not the triune personal God. Unfortunately, “ideas have consequences.” In due course people live out their false ideas, thus the reason why there is such a huge devaluation of human life from the womb to the tomb, confusion regarding male and female, family breakdown, and rampant social disorder.
By contrast, Scripture affirms two truths simultaneously about humans.
First, humans are unique, valuable, and significant because we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27; Ps 8). The purpose of our creation is to know and love God and to love and serve one another.
Second, humans, as a result of Adam’s fall in history, are now not what we were created to be. Adam, as our covenant head, brought sin into the world so that now “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23; 5:12–21). By nature and by choice, we have become moral rebels and revolutionaries against God, and sin’s effects have left us deeply flawed to our core.
Both of these truths must be taken seriously. They explain our dignity and our problem. Since humans are valuable, we must oppose the devaluation of humans in every area of life. At the same time, we are reminded that our problem will not be resolved merely by education, social engineering, redistribution of wealth, reparations, and other so-called “solutions.” Instead, what is needed is for the triune God to act in sovereign grace to redeem, justify, reconcile, and transform us from the inside out.
5. The gospel is God acting in sovereign grace to redeem, restore, and justify.
Central to the purpose of our creation is that our triune God has created humans to know him and to be his image-sons to display his glory in the world. But given human sin, how does the divine purpose still stand? How will God forgive those who sin against him, especially since “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10)? What hope is there for us?
Our only hope is that the triune God of grace takes the initiative to redeem and transform us. Contrary to non-Christian thought, humans cannot save themselves. This truth is even more evident when we see that our sin is before God. Given that God is holy and just, sin is against him, and God as the moral standard of the universe does not and cannot overlook our sin. In regard to God’s justice, God is not like a human judge, who adjudicates laws external to him; God is the law. Our sin is not against an abstract principle or impersonal law, but it’s always against God (Ps 51:4). So for God to forgive us, he must remain true to himself; he must act to satisfy his own moral demand against us.
What is gloriously true is that our God has chosen to act in grace to redeem his people and not to leave us to ourselves! But this leads to the next question: Who is able to satisfy God’s righteous demand other than God himself? We cannot save ourselves; salvation must come from God (John 2:9). But how and by whom?
6. In Christ, God has provided the perfect Savior.
God has graciously promised to reverse the effects of sin and death (Gen 3:15). But who exactly can establish God’s rule, undo the effects of Adam’s sin by rendering perfect covenant obedience, and satisfy God’s righteous demand against us? The answer: Christ alone — God the Son incarnate — who is fully God and man. After all, it’s God alone who can forgive our sin, yet our Savior must be a human who does so. This is the kind of redeemer we need, and this is precisely the redeemer Jesus is.
In fact, as Jesus arrives on the scene, this is precisely how the New Testament presents him. He is the one who inaugurates God’s kingdom and new covenant age, which results in the full forgiveness of sin (Jer 31:34; Matt 1:21). In him, the eschatological Spirit is poured out, the new creation dawns, and all of God’s promises are fulfilled. In biblical thought, the only one who can do all of this is the obedient image-son-king — a greater Adam — who is also identified with Yahweh and thus God (Pss 2, 45, 110; Isa 7:14; 9:6–7; 11:1–16; Jer 23:1–6; Ezek 34:1–25; Dan 7:14).
In Jesus Christ, we see the resolution of God to take upon himself our sin and guilt in order to reverse the effects of the fall and to satisfy his own righteous requirements, to make this world right, and to inaugurate a new covenant in his blood (Rom 3:21–26; 5:1–8:39). In Jesus Christ, we see the perfectly obedient Son who is also the LORD, taking the initiative to keep his covenant-promises by becoming human, veiling his glory, and securing our redemption (Phil 2:6–11; Heb 2:5–18; 9:11–10:18). This is why the Bible’s entire storyline teaches us that Christ alone is the exclusive and all-sufficient redeemer, the one who meets our every need and who is worthy of our trust, worship, and obedience.
This is also why the confessional standards of the church, namely the Chalcedonian Creed, is not a distortion of the Jesus of the Bible, although it’s stated in different language. Jesus is the divine Son who has become human (John 1:1–2, 14). He truly is one person (the Son), who forevermore subsists in two natures. To confess any other Jesus is to deny the Jesus of the Bible and to construct a Jesus of our own imaginations.
7. In Christ, God has satisfied his demand against sinners and secured our justification.
Trying to capture all that our Lord Jesus achieved in his glorious work is difficult given its multi-faceted aspects. Christ acts as our new covenant head and mediator, our great prophet, priest, and king. Yet, although there is a danger in prioritizing one aspect of our Lord’s work, Scripture does stress the centrality of Christ’s priestly office and his sacrificial death for our sins (Matt 1:21; 1 Cor 15:3–4).
The Bible’s presentation of the cross is rich and multifaceted, like a beautiful gem that can be looked at from many angles. Yet, the explanation of the cross’ central means is that Christ Jesus has come as our mediator and new covenant head to offer himself before God on behalf of sin. This truth is best captured by the view of penal substitution, which accounts for why the divine Son had to die, and why he alone saves. But what exactly is penal substitution?
Penal refers to the sorry state of the human race in Adam in which we stand under God’s judgment and the penalty of death. This one word captures a central feature of the Bible’s storyline: All humanity is “in Adam” and therefore under the power and penalty of sin — namely spiritual and physical death (Rom 3:23; 6:23; see Eph 2:1–4). As a result, we are alienated from the triune God who created us to know and love him, and because he is personal, holy, and righteous, we stand under his divine judgment.
Substitution refers to the identity and work of Christ Jesus who acts for us by his cross. This term also picks up the Bible’s storyline to speak of God redeeming us by triune initiative and agency by the provision of a substitute. As our new covenant head, Christ represented us in his life and death as the greater Adam who willingly and gladly obeyed the Father in perfection and by the power of the Spirit. In death, Christ stood in our place, took God’s demand for our righteousness upon himself, and paid our debt by receiving the penalty we deserved. The result of Christ’s work for us is that by faith in Christ, God the Father declares us just, forgiven of every sin in full, and frees us from the power of sin and the tyranny of Satan (2 Cor 5:21; see 1 Pet 3:18; Gal 3:13; Heb 9:28; Rom 8:32).
8. In our union with Christ, God applies Christ’s work to us.
In Scripture, there is an inseparable relationship between Christ and his people, both individually (what we describe in soteriology) and corporately (what we describe in ecclesiology). It’s not surprising, then, that the church receives all of God’s promises in Christ.
This is why the identity of the church is directly tied to the identity of Christ. Anything the New Testament says about us is because it’s first accomplished by our Lord Jesus. In fact, individual believers and the corporate church are what they are because of our union with Christ rooted in the Father’s election and application work of the Spirit (Eph 1:3–14). In Christ, we are now the beneficiaries of his work by faith. In achieving our reconciliation, we are no longer enemies, but reconciled children called to serve, love, and obey him forever.
And it’s important to note that what is true of us individually as Christians is also true of the church corporately.
If we’re a new humanity (individually and corporately), it’s because we are united by faith to Christ, the first man of the new creation (Heb 2:5–13).
If we’re a true temple (individually and corporately), it’s because he is first the fulfillment of the temple and by union with him, we are now a temple-building born of and indwelt by the Spirit (Eph 2:18–20; John 2:19–20).
If we’re a royal priesthood (individually and corporately), it’s because he is the great high priest who has constituted us a kingdom of priests because of his work (1 Pet 2:9; Heb 5–10).
If we will reign with him it’s because he is the king who by his obedient life, death, and powerful resurrection has restored us to our image-bearing role.
9. God’s eternal plan will be gloriously consummated at Christ’s return.
In Christian theology, the study of eschatology is not merely about specific events prior to Christ’s return. Although discussions of the signs of the times, the timing of the tribulation, the rapture, and the nature of the millennium are important, eschatology is more than this. First and foremost, eschatology is the study of a biblical view of history from creation to the new creation centered in the life, death, resurrection, and second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Grounded in God’s eternal plan, eschatology is the unfolding of a linear view of history centered in God’s great act of redemption in Christ. In this sense, eschatology unpacks the Bible’s overall storyline. It thinks through how God acted in the Old Testament era and predicted and anticipated the coming of Christ. It explains how, in our Lord’s coming he has inaugurated the “last days” that the prophets announced. By Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost, God’s promised plan of salvation has been accomplished and as a result, we now await and anticipate the consummation of that plan in the glorious appearing of Christ (see Eph 1:9–10; Phil 2:6–11; Rev 4–5; 19:1–21).
Not only is this eschatology more biblical, it’s also what alone will stir the church to faith and confidence in God’s promises, worship, and obedience. It will set itself against non-Christian thought that views history as either meaningless or cyclical. It will gladly proclaim that the triune God is Lord and that history is under his sovereign plan.
In addition, biblical eschatology will leave us unsatisfied with this world, which sadly is not true of many in the church, and it will orient us to the future where the church will cry anew with the church of all ages, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).
10. A biblically faithful, historically informed, and lived out theology matters.
One of the great legacies of Francis Schaeffer’s work was to show us that “ideas have consequences.” If people believe false ideas, inevitably they act on them in disastrous ways. The only solution to such false ideas is to replace them with the truth. Theology matters.
But we don’t need just any theology. We need a theology rooted and grounded in Scripture on its own terms. We need a theology that has been tested over time in the laboratory of history. We need a theology that is willing to stand courageously against the day and by loving confrontation stand for the truth.
In the end, what our triune God demands of us is faithfulness. He wants us to love him with our minds and hearts, which is true life for us. Theology matters to achieve these ends. In light of the truth of what our triune God has done for us in Christ, may we in our generation gladly confess and proclaim with the Apostle Paul: “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16).