Know for Certain
I grew up on a farm that had a range of rocky hills along the western property line. My siblings and I climbed rocky trails to the top of those hills more times than I can remember. I never got accustomed to the fact that the trails looked the same season to season and year to year. I often imagined farm kids 100 years ago climbing those same trails just as we were doing and seeing many of the same sights we were viewing.
I've long since married and moved away from that farm. My wife, Sue, and I oftentimes vacation at the beach. The landscape along the shore line changes every day. It's never exactly the same on any two days. In fact, the landscape along the shore line even changes from hour to hour as the tide rolls in and out. Constant change becomes the only thing for certain at the beach.
When I was growing up on the farm, I thought our beliefs about God most resembled those rocky trails on our farm. That is, they remained the same from season to season and year to year. The truths my Sunday school teacher taught me about God and the faith were the same truths children in our town had learned 100 years ago. I assumed that when I grew up it would always be that way. Boy was I wrong! The landscape of beliefs about God these days resemble the shore line at the beach more than the rocky trails back on the farm. It seems like everything we've ever believed about God and the faith are up for grabs these days. Things once held for certain are now open to reinterpretation!
More than ever those of us who call ourselves Christians must know what we believe, why we believe it, where we find that belief in the Bible, and how to explain what we believe in words that make sense to the everyday listener. The day has ended when we can say, "I know what I believe but I just can't explain it." I often hear that line during Sunday school class discussions or at the dinner table with Christian friends. Let me illustrate why this excuse no longer works.
Imagine for a minute that you've had a stomach ache for several days. You make an appointment and visit your doctor. After an exam and several tests, she tells you to return in a week for her diagnosis. At your return visit, your doctor says, "You are very sick; we need to begin treatment immediately." "What do I have, doctor?" you ask. Your doctor's reply both surprises and frustrates you. "I understand your illness, but I just cannot explain it to you." You would not find that answer acceptable!
The same experience could happen with your auto mechanic, appliance repair person or child's school teacher. Every profession has its own vocabulary. We expect every professional person to understand his or her field thoroughly and then be able to explain it to us non-professionals in words that we can understand. What good is their professional expertise if they cannot explain themselves in everyday language?
Such reasoning applies to us and our faith as well. Faith in God is both a personal experience and a field of study with its own vocabulary. We call the field "theology," which means study of God. Millions of books have been written across three millennia to help us better understand God and our relationship with Him. We use the word "doctrine" to define our beliefs about God and faith. Doctrine helps us put into everyday words what we read in the Bible, experience in life, understand by reason and learn through the tradition of saints passed down to us across the ages.
I recently saw a sign in a church lawn that read, "Come to our doctrine-free environment." Can you even imagine a church that claims to believe nothing about God, faith or religion? Impossible! Joining that church would be like turning your health over to a doctor who believed nothing about good health and wellness.
That's why I say, more than ever before, we Christians must know what we believe and why. The reason? If we do not plant our feet firmly on solid doctrine, we'll be blown away by the fierce winds of erroneous teaching. Such false teaching blows daily across our path.
Information bombards us from every direction every day. We receive more information in less time than any generation in human history. A stroke or two on our computers gets us information on the Internet from around the world. E-mail, cellular telephones, Blackberries, television, radio, magazines, movies, satellite, cable and iPods shrink our world and bring us closer together. This information far exceeds innocent facts and figures; it includes a great deal of theology all packaged into short, easy-to-swallow video, sound and text bytes.
What effect does all of this information have on us? For one thing, rapidly changing cultural standards encourage us to bargain away traditionally held doctrines. We now have a cafeteria line of almost endless doctrinal choices. Today's society cherishes pluralism. Pluralism welcomes all beliefs about God from all religious perspectives as equally true, regardless of how unscriptural they may be or how strange they may sound. None is better or worse. Absolute truth - which has been the gold standard throughout the ages - evaporates with the morning dew. Everyone's individual ideas claim equal validity as workable answers for our faith.
Today's tolerance creates an environment that can breed doctrinal uncertainty. All religious answers become tentative. Everything, especially sound doctrine based on Holy Scripture, is open to reinterpretation these days! If you don't believe me, read the articles in recent newspapers or news magazines about the unprecedented success in our land of outlandish cults. The stranger their beliefs, the quicker people line up and pay good money to join. Hollywood stars trip over one another to be deceived by these spiritual snake-oil peddlers. That's why we must understand and be able to articulate sound biblical doctrine.
Christianity, from the Early Church until now, has attempted to point people to God's truth. The Truth - not one truth among many. The Christian faith is not just a better idea, equal to all other ideas. Christianity believes that God answers the most basic questions of human existence:
- Who am I?
- What is the meaning of human life?
- What is God's purpose for my life?
- Where am I going after I die?
Never has a quest for God been any more widespread than it is now! God placed a search for Himself within us; that puts us on this quest. In their search for truth these days, people often turn to the ancient religions of the world. My grandparents lived a full life and died without ever meeting individuals practicing any other faith than Christianity. Most of us can no longer say that. We come in contact with followers of non-Christian religions every time we step out in public, listen to the radio, watch a television program, get on the Internet or read the newspaper. Even if we stay at home and never turn on the radio or television, faithful followers of these religions knock on our door offering to instruct us at home!
It's also becoming popular to create your own personal combination of beliefs from the religious buffet line to customize an individualized religion that suits you best. I talked to a woman a while back who told me she was a Christian Buddhist. When I asked her what that meant, she said she still goes to a Christian church like she has attended since childhood. However, now she has added Buddhist meditations to her daily habit. She even has a framed Buddhist proverb hanging near her front door so she can remember it every time she goes out in public. Because, as she says, the proverbs and meditations give her religious practice an added dimension she doesn't find in Christianity alone.
Christians must thoroughly understand their faith, furthermore, because today's society cannot answer our deepest questions. Many in previous generations put their faith in science and technology. They thought these twin gods could solve all of the problems of life. We now realize that science and technology promised more than they have been able to deliver. For every problem they solve, they create another one. Just listen carefully the next time you hear a new drug advertised on television. Toward the end of the advertisement, the announcer quickly reads a list of possible harmful side effects of this new "miracle drug." The drug takes care of your headache but makes your ears bleed. Not good! Many people have given up on the empty promises because scientific answers do not always work in life's trenches.
And so, the search goes on. As people continue their search for life's meaning and significance, they seem more willing to hear what our Christian faith offers. We must know Christian doctrine with certainty and proclaim it with clarity. Such certainty and clarity both satisfy our own hungry souls and enable us to offer God's answers to friends whose questions about life and death push into their waking thoughts and sleepless nights. Paul emphasized the importance of sound doctrine when he reminded Titus about the responsibilities of an elder: "He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it." (Titus 1:9) Then again in 2:1 Paul said to Titus, "You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine." That call is still clearly ours today as our faith interacts with culture.
What a privilege we have to study God's Word, live in relationship with Jesus Christ and learn His truth. Each new truth we learn from God's Word, our experience, reason and tradition helps us grow spiritually. Our personal faith is strengthened with this growth, and we are better prepared to share with others the Good News that brought us from darkness to light! So, when it comes to your Christian faith, know for certain!
What do you think? Go to the discussion forum and let us hear from you. Here are some questions to get you started.
- What evidences of doctrinal uncertainty are you seeing these days both in society and at your church?
- What doctrines seem to give the average lay person the most difficulty?
- What is doctrinal uncertainty, along with religious pluralism, doing to us?
- What are the best ways you have discovered for addressing doctrinal uncertainty and religious pluralism?
- How do you encourage fellow Christians to share the Good News with others as they interact with culture?
Graphic courtesy of Holiness Today and Brandon Hill