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Doctrine bears repeating: Evangelicals need to brush up on basic Christian teachings


Doctrine bears repeating: Evangelicals need to brush up on basic Christian teachings

Charles Colson with Anne Morse [reprinted from Christianity Today, April 2009]

“We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Written in 1939, George Orwell’s words might well be addressed to the leaders of today’s biblically illiterate church.

The most obvious thing to be said about Christianity is that it rests on historic facts: the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection. Since our doctrines are truth claims, they cannot be mere symbolism. This is important to remember as we celebrate the Resurrection, which is often clouded by the pageantry of Easter.

It is obvious to me that doctrine matters. Some years ago, I visited Sri Lanka, just after Anglican Bishop David Jenkins was reported to have dismissed the Resurrection as a “conjuring trick with bones.” (It was later revealed that he had been misquoted.) Our ministry leader, who escorted me through the country’s prisons, told me the news had cost many conversions, because Buddhists and Hindus used it to convince people that Christianity is based on a mere trick.

Clearly, when we stop taking seriously the historical truths of the church, we undermine our witness, often with far-reaching consequences. For example, Muslim student groups today proselytize with pamphlets asserting that Christians worship three Gods: Father, Mother, and Son. Where did they get that idea? From seventh-century Egyptian Christians who gave up on the Bible and embraced this heresy.

Last June, a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey found rampant doctrinal ignorance among American Christians. Fifty-seven percent of evangelicals believed people who follow religions other than their own can enjoy eternal life. The results were so unexpected that Pew repeated the survey, asking more specific questions. The answers were virtually unchanged. Astonishingly, about half believed that everyone, atheists included, was going to end up in heaven. Heaven for the godless? That’s the old heresy of universalism.

Indifference to the truths of the gospel is seen in many other spheres, such as among those who champion “deeds, not creeds” (I do the deeds of prison ministry because I believe the creeds), and in endless discussions about new ways to “understand” or “do” theology. Some embrace another old heresy, that doctrines must be extracted from inward experience—that is, personal feelings. That’s a version of Gnosticism.

Still others want to make Christianity “fit” the postmodern era or “work out” their theology in public, with non-Christians helping to shape the outcome. Yes, we need to contextualize the message so that hearers in a given time and culture can grasp the truth we proclaim. But that is radically different from changing the definitive, concise summary of Christian truth the early church fathers accomplished in their councils.

As one reporter noted, even when Christians know correct doctrine, they are afraid of speaking the truth for fear of offending others. What right have I to impose my beliefs on others? is a thought that shapes too many of us believers.

This is why J. I. Packer, on his 80th birthday, said that the greatest challenge of evangelicalism is to re-catechize our churches. More than ever, Christians need to be able to speak intelligently and courageously about the hope that lies within.

Personal faith is of course vital, but it is not sufficient. And yes, doctrine has often been taught so that it comes across as dry and dusty. But as Dorothy Sayers noted, once we grasp what Christian doctrines teach, “The Dogma is the Drama.”

The determination to restore orthodox faith—the faith “that was once for all entrusted” (Jude 1:3)—brought about the Reformation, of which we are heirs. A new emphasis on orthodox doctrine could also transform the church and culture today.

Some years ago, I visited Athens and mounted the slippery rock called Mars Hill. At the top, I stood where I imagined Paul had confronted the Areopagus, the wise men of the cultural center of the world. Paul challenged them by referring to their own literature and false altars, and then boldly proclaimed the gospel, concluding that God had raised Jesus from the dead.

It’s the same message I preach in prisons today. I think it’s far more exhilarating to stand on a belief that has survived 2,000 years of persecution than to flit from one fad to another.

Few people accepted Paul’s invitation that day to follow Christ. But billions have followed him ever since, because Christ has an unstoppable power. He has the power to break Satan’s hold on our souls and joyfully transform our lives.

Orwell was right: In a crisis, we often have a duty to restate the obvious. And [it is always] a good time for Christians to remind their doctrinally confused brethren of the obvious truths of Christianity.

The greatest challenge for serious Christians today is not re-inventing Christianity, but rediscovering its core teachings.

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