Isolating scriptural doctrine from Christian ministry cannot be sustained biblically. J. Gresham Machen labeled this kind of thinking “the modern hostility to doctrine.” Christianity resists being separated from doctrine because the Christian movement is a way of life founded on a biblical message. That conviction is reflected in Paul telling Timothy to watch both his life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16).
Christ lamented about his day, as Isaiah did in his (29:13), that “this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:8–9). Strange teaching of every kind tickled the ears of first-century people who were carried away from the truth because they could not endure sound doctrine (Eph. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:3–4; Heb. 13:9).
Christians must seriously revisit Pilate’s inquiry, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), and embrace once again Christ’s answer to his disciples that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). If truth is the goal, then Scripture is the source. Reflect on Moses’s words later quoted by Jesus in fighting off Satan’s wilderness temptations: “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3; cf. Matt. 4:4). Biblical truth is the essence of life.
Biblically speaking, Christian teaching is scriptural truth. Two Greek New Testament words are most often translated “doctrine,” “teaching,” or “instruction”—didachē and didaskalia. Comparing their combined fifty-one appearances affirms that Christian doctrine refers to Scripture, whether read, explained, or even theologically systematized.
Perhaps the modern avoidance of doctrine lies partially in the fact that doctrine has been understood too narrowly, like a doctrinal statement or theological essay, rather than more broadly in the scriptural sense of biblical content. However, the Scriptures never envisioned doctrine referring to ivory-tower musings about theological speculation or minutiae.
Scripture always refers to “sound doctrine” in relationship to Christian doctrine that finds its ultimate source in God, while all other doctrine is either of man (Col. 2:22) or demons (1 Tim. 4:1). Christian doctrine is sound—all other “doctrine” is unsound (1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3). Christian doctrine is good, and thus profitable, while all other is bad and valueless (1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 3:16).
Since Christian teaching is all about biblical truth and biblical truth is all about God’s Word, Christians must therefore affirm a high view of Scripture and doctrine. But with equal importance, they must also make Scripture the basis for translating sound Christian doctrine into godly living, “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). Simply put, Christian doctrine serves as the constitution of godly living. Just as the skeleton is to the body or oxygen is to breathing, doctrine proves indispensable to Christianity. Without Christian doctrine, believers would be stripped of truth in living out the faith.
The New Testament Epistles overflow with exhortations to make “sound doctrine” the very heart of the Christian faith and ministry. Christians are reminded by Paul (1) to be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of good teaching (1 Tim. 4:6); (2) to keep as the pattern of sound teaching what was heard from him (2 Tim. 1:13); (3) to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2); (4) to hold firmly to the trustworthy message while encouraging others by sound doctrine (Titus 1:9); and (5) to teach what is in accord with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). It is disconcerting to imagine where the gospel would be if Paul had not publicly confronted Peter over faulty doctrine (Gal. 2:11–21).
Christ’s ministry (Matt. 7:28–29), the apostles’ ministry (Acts 5:29), and the early church’s ministry (Acts 2:42) all revolved around sound doctrine. In effect, to minimize or question the value of doctrine belittles Christ, the apostles, and the early church, not to mention countless Christian martyrs like John the Baptist (Mark 6:21–29) and William Tyndale (1494–1536). Why would anyone not fully embrace sound doctrine when it possesses such a glorious legacy, provides eternal value (2 Tim. 3:16), and promises God’s blessing for obedience (Josh. 1:8; Rev. 1:3)?
Consider what would happen if the church forsook the standard of sound doctrine. On what basis would false teachers be rejected (Rom. 16:17; 2 John 9–10) or false doctrine be refuted (Titus 1:9)? How would believers know what was true and worth holding on to (1 Tim. 3:9; Rev. 2:24)? How would Christians distinguish between right and wrong? How would sin be confronted and corrected?
This kind of spiritual disaster must be prevented at all costs. Modern Christians, like their spiritual ancestors, must contend earnestly for the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Historically, indifference to Christian doctrine has produced heretics, but attention to doctrine has crowned heroes. So rather than getting beyond doctrine, the church urgently needs to get back to doctrine.
No approach to doctrine other than taking it seriously makes sense of Christ’s command for his disciples to teach obedience to all that he commanded them (Matt. 28:20). Consider the many examples given in the New Testament:
1. Paul’s ministry of proclaiming the whole will of God to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:27)
2. The angel’s command for the apostles to speak “all the words of this Life” (Acts 5:20)
3. Paul’s mandate for Timothy to pass the apostolic teachings on to the next generation (2 Tim. 2:2)
4. Christ’s commendation to the Ephesian church for taking doctrine seriously (Rev. 2:2, 6)
Previous Christian generations have labored faithfully, suffered, and died to pass sound, biblical doctrine on to today’s believers. Nothing less than perpetuating it untarnished will be honoring to Christ and worthy of Christians’ spiritual forefathers.
It is thus our prayer that the utilitarian approach to Christianity has run its unsatisfactory course and that those temporarily sidetracked would now return to their heritage of scriptural truth: Christian doctrine. Only by wholeheartedly embracing this commitment will believers protect their biblical legacy from being squandered in an era that is not inclined to endure sound doctrine.
Sound doctrine demands both exacting exposition and powerful preaching. So this discussion begins with five logically sequential postulates based on biblical truth that introduce and undergird three subsequent propositions:
1. God is (Gen. 1:1; Psalms 14; 53; Heb. 11:6).
2. God is true (Ex. 34:6; Num. 23:19; Deut. 32:4; Pss. 25:10; 31:5 [NASB]; Isa. 65:16; Jer. 10:10; John 14:6; 17:3; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18; 1 John 5:20–21).
3. God speaks in harmony with his nature (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Rom. 3:4; 2 Tim. 2:13; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18).
4. God speaks only truth (Pss. 31:5 [NASB]; 119:43, 142, 151, 160; Prov. 30:5; Isa. 65:16; John 17:17; James 1:18).
5. God spoke his true Word as consistent with his true nature to be communicated to people (a self-evident truth illustrated in 2 Tim. 3:16–17; Heb. 1:1).
Therefore, consider the following propositions:
1. God gave his true Word to be communicated entirely as he gave it; that is, the whole counsel of God is to be preached (Matt. 28:20; Acts 5:20; 20:27). Correspondingly, every portion of the Word of God needs to be considered in the light of its whole.
2. God gave his true Word to be communicated exactly as he gave it. It is to be dispensed precisely as it was delivered without altering the message (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Jer. 26:2).
3. Only the exegetical process that yields expository proclamation will accomplish propositions 1 and 2.
These propositions can be substantiated by answers to a series of questions that should channel one’s thinking from the headwaters of God’s revelation to its intended destination. First, why preach? Because that is what God commanded (2 Tim. 4:2). Preaching is also exactly what the apostles did in personally obeying God (Acts 5:27–32; 6:4). Second, what should be preached? The Word of God, that is, Scripture alone and Scripture in total (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2). Third, who should preach? Holy men of God (Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21; Eph. 3:5; 2 Pet. 1:21; Rev. 18:20; 22:6). Only after God had purified Isaiah’s lips was he ordained to preach for God (Isa. 6:6–13).
Moving beyond these fundamentals, what is the preacher’s responsibility? The preacher needs to realize that God’s Word is not the preacher’s word. He is to recognize himself as a messenger, not an originator (1 Thess. 2:13). He is a sower, not the source (Matt. 13:3, 19). He is a herald, not the authority (1 Tim. 2:7). He is a steward, not the owner (Col. 1:25). He is the guide, not the author (Acts 8:31). He is the server of spiritual food, not the chef (John 21:15, 17).
The preacher needs to reckon that Scripture is the Word of God. When he is committed to this awesome truth and responsibility, as J. I. Packer puts it,
his aim … will be to stand under Scripture, not over it, and to allow it, so to speak, to talk through him, delivering what is not so much his message as its. In our preaching, that is what should always be happening. In his obituary of the great German conductor, Otto Klemperer, Neville Cardus spoke of the way in which Klemperer “set the music in motion,” maintaining throughout a deliberately anonymous, self-effacing style in order that the musical notes might articulate themselves in their own integrity through him. So it must be in preaching; Scripture itself must do all the talking, and the preacher’s task is simply to “set the Bible in motion.”
As it was with Christ and the apostles, so it is with preachers today: they are to deliver Scripture in such a way that they can say, “Thus says the Lord.” Their responsibility is to deliver it as it was originally given and intended.
How did the preacher’s message begin? It began as a true word from God and was given as truth because God’s purpose was to transmit truth. It was ordered by God as truth and was delivered by God’s Spirit in cooperation with holy men who received it as exactly the pure quality that God intended (2 Pet. 1:20–21). It was received as Scriptura inerrantis by the prophets and apostles, that is, without wandering from Scripture’s original formulation in the mind of God. The term inerrancy, then, expresses the quality with which the writers of the canon received the text called Scripture.
How is God’s message to continue in its original, true state? Since God’s message is true and is to be delivered as received, what interpretive processes necessitated by changes of language, culture, and time can be applied without compromising its purity when preached today? The answer is that only an exegetical approach is acceptable for accurate exposition, for biblical preaching.
So pulling this all together in a practical way, what are the final steps in preaching? First, the preacher must use the true text. Christians are indebted to those select scholars who labor tediously in the field of textual criticism. Their studies recover the original text of Scripture from the large volume of extant manuscript copies that are flawed in places by textual variants. This is the starting point. Without the text as God gave it, the preacher would be helpless to deliver it as God intended.
Next, having begun with the true text, the preacher needs to interpret the text accurately. This involves the science of hermeneutics. Proper hermeneutics are the interpretive rules applied by exegesis in order to find the single meaning God intended to convey in the text. By employing the hermeneutical principles of literal, grammatical-historical interpretation, the student can understand this meaning. Exegesis can be defined as the skillful application of sound hermeneutical principles to the biblical text in the original languages with a view to discerning and declaring the author’s intended meaning to both the immediate and subsequent audiences. In tandem, hermeneutics and exegesis focus on the biblical text to determine what it said and what it originally meant. Thus, exegesis in its broadest sense will include various disciplines of literary context, historical studies, grammatical analysis, and historical, biblical, and systematic theology. Proper exegesis will inform the student of what the text says and what the text means, guiding him to discern the proper personal implications of it.
Finally, based on the flow of this thinking, expository preaching is really exegetical preaching. As a result of this exegetical process, which begins with a commitment to inerrancy, the expositor is equipped with a true message, with true intent, and with true application. It gives his preaching perspective historically, theologically, contextually, literarily, synoptically, and culturally. His message is God’s intended message.
The expositor’s task, then, is to preach the mind of God as he finds it in the inerrant Word of God. He understands it through the disciplines of hermeneutics and exegesis. He declares it expositionally as the message that God spoke and commissioned him to deliver.
Inerrancy demands exegetical preparation and expository proclamation. Only such an approach preserves God’s Word entirely, guarding the treasure of revelation and declaring its meaning exactly as he intended it to be proclaimed. Expository preaching is the essential result of the exegetical process and of inerrancy. It is mandated to preserve the purity of God’s originally given inerrant Word and to proclaim the whole counsel of God’s redemptive truth (Acts 5:20; 20:27).
Obligation to Scripture
Throughout his New Testament writings, the apostle John summarized a Christian’s obligation to obey the Scriptures. He made it clear that walking in the ways of the Word was not optional.
First, Christ said that if one loves him, that person will keep his commandments (John 14:15, 21, 23). On the other hand, the one who does not love him will not keep his words (John 14:24). A Christian’s obedience to the Bible demonstrates one’s love for Christ and the genuineness of one’s salvation.
Second, John clearly stated that a Christian’s duty is to walk in the same manner as Christ walked (1 John 2:6). God demands obedience to his Word.
Third, John broadly defined love in unmistakable terms: “This is love, that we walk according to his commandments” (2 John 6).
Fourth, John experienced great delight in watching and hearing of Christians obeying God’s Word: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
Finally, John announced the ultimate distinction of an obedient Christian—the Savior’s blessing (Rev. 1:3). Now, to be more specific, Scripture provides a profile comprising at least ten exemplary characteristics of what John envisioned.
When Paul preached in Thessalonica, the people not only received his word but also accepted it. They did not reject it; rather, they embraced what he proclaimed as the Word of God, not of man:
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thess. 2:13)
The psalmist understood that God was the ultimate author of the Scriptures and that it would thus be most appropriate to solicit his aid in understanding it:
Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law. (Ps. 119:18; see Acts 6:4)
The Bible figuratively describes Scripture as milk (1 Pet. 2:2), bread (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4), meat (1 Cor. 3:2), and honey (Ps. 19:10) to nourish the soul. Job testified to the effectiveness of the spiritual menu:
I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food. (Job 23:12; see Jer. 15:16)
Caleb proved to be special (in contrast to the disobedient nation) because of his totally obedient response to God’s commands:
None of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. (Num. 14:22–24)
The Jews who had returned to the land after seventy years of captivity in Babylon gladly honored God and his Word:
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Neh. 8:5–6)
Ezra understood that he had to study God’s Word. But before he could speak, it was imperative that he first obey what he learned. This principle proves true for both the preacher and the congregation:
For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel. (Ezra 7:10)
Everywhere Jesus went he taught and preached God’s precious Word:
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matt. 4:23; see 2 Tim. 4:2)
Apollos did not preach solely to dispense information. He passionately proclaimed the truth in order to convince his hearers and convert them to the way of God’s truth:
Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. (Acts 18:24–28)
Paul understood the continuing and cumulative effect of multiplication; so he heartily commended it to Timothy, the third of five generations up to that time (Christ, Paul, Timothy, faithful men, and others):
And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim. 2:2)
Isaiah exemplified a humble believer who took God and his Word very seriously (see Isa. 6:1–13):
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word. (Isa. 66:2)
Father, may our lives and our fellowship be marked by
works of faith, labors of love, and steadfastness of hope.
By Your grace, we are holy people, beloved and chosen by You,
and when the gospel came to us,
it came not only in word but also in power,
in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction.
Not that we are sufficient in ourselves
to claim anything as coming from us,
but our sufficiency is from You.
You are the One who accomplished our salvation,
turning us from worldly things we once idolized
to serve You, the living and true God.
You are the One who awakened us to receive Your Word—
not as the word of men but for what it really is:
the Word of God, which performs its perfect work
in all who believe.
So our salvation comes solely from You.
You sent Your Son to die for our sake
while we were still sworn enemies of righteousness.
You graciously removed the scales from our eyes and drew us to faith.
Open our eyes to see more of Your truth;
open our hearts to believe it more earnestly;
and open our mouths to declare it more faithfully.
May we be imitators of our Lord Jesus Christ
and godly examples to one another.
Help us grow into fully maturity and Christlikeness.
We know that the necessary nourishment
for that kind of growth is found only in Your Word.
We cannot thrive by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds out of Your mouth.
May we therefore search the Scriptures
diligently and with singleness of heart,
for in them we know we have eternal life.
They point us to Christ.
They unveil His glory.
They reflect His holy character.
From them we learn of His suffering, death, resurrection, ascension,
intercession, and glorious return.
By them You speak to us from heaven.
In them we hear the voice of the Spirit speaking plainly.
Give us attentive hearts.
Cause us to hear Your truth with all humility and obedience.
Open our eyes to see with clarity,
and open our ears to hear with understanding.
May we heed every line with fear and trembling—
not only the instructions, but also the reproofs;
not only the promises, but also the threats.
We bless You that Your holy Word has been translated
into our own language to show us the way of life.
May we never take that privilege for granted.
May we never neglect
the rich counsel available to us on those pages.
May we drink deeply of its truth
and feed our famished souls with its nourishment.
And may our hearts, like the hearts of those on the road to Emmaus,
burn within us as You teach us.
We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“How Firm a Foundation”
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Fear not! I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply:
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!
 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 130–139). Crossway.