Doctrine and Obedience

~ from email ~

There is a positive relationship between doctrine and obedience. However, we must make a distinction between mere profession of a doctrine and true faith or belief in it.

True faith results from a work of the Spirit in the heart by means of the word of God. According to James, this faith will always produce good works; in contrast, mere profession has no necessary relationship to holiness. You can say anything you want. You can say that you understand and believe something, but you might not really understand and believe it. You can say that you affirm a doctrine, but whether this is a product of the Spirit’s grace and power is a different matter. If you profess the doctrine because the Spirit has changed your heart through the doctrine, then good works will necessarily result.

Therefore, the principle “right doctrine leads to obedience” in fact means “true faith in right doctrine leads to obedience.” One who professes right doctrine does not necessarily understand and believe what he says – he might be parroting it. An atheist can recite the Bible, so that he physically says the right things, but he does not do it out of sincere belief or a transformed heart. Professing Christians who do not act like Christians at all are not really Christians, and true Christians who affirm a doctrine that they do not obey still do not truly believe it. In the first case, conversion is needed; in the second case, sanctification is needed.

There are times where one appears to act against a doctrine that he truly believes. Sin leads a person to rebel against what he should know to be true, because sin is both rebellious and irrational. We must use the means that God has given us, such as the word and prayer, to train ourselves in holiness and to petition him for grace. Still, even if this person truly believes it in a general sense, it is doubtful that he believes all the implications of the doctrine that he disobeys, because the decision to disobey it, when stated as a proposition, would surely contradict the doctrine itself.

As for those who seem to have little knowledge but demonstrate great obedience, this might be because they truly believe the little that they know, and the Spirit of God has worked in their hearts through the little that they have learned. This is often enough to produce a generally righteous lifestyle. Then, there are those who lack biblical knowledge and still happen to do some things right as if by “accident” and not by conscious obedience toward God. This does not count as holiness.

Moreover, remember that to affirm right doctrine is in itself part of a holy lifestyle. It is a righteous thing to affirm the truth, and it is sinful to neglect, reject, or distort it. Thus the people that you consider holy but very theologically flawed are not as holy as you think, because they are sinning in their ignorance and false beliefs. God judges our thoughts as well as our actions.