Teaching as Doctrines the Precepts of Men

 

It is common to hear people assert that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” and there is certainly some truth to that statement. At the end of the day, we have the ability choose for ourselves what we believe; no one can force us to accept something that we do not want to accept. But just because “everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” that does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or true.

Paul told Timothy to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Apparently, there is a correct way and an incorrect way to handle the word of truth. Some interpretations of scripture are correct and others are just plain wrong.

In fact, Timothy was specifically warned that “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” We can believe whatever we want about scripture, but in that case we may very well be preaching “myth” instead of “truth.”

Peter warned that “the untaught and unstable” would “distort” the things in Paul’s writings, “as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Sure, we can twist the scriptures to reach all kinds of different conclusions, but we may be doing so at our own peril if we are handling the word incorrectly.

So how can we make sure that we are handling the word of truth rightly, abiding in sound doctrine, and resisting the urge to distort scripture? Let’s consider some scriptures that can help us to answer that question.

 John warned his hearers that: “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.”   John’s admonition not to “go too far” and thus “not abide” in Christ’s teachings sounds a lot like the word’s of Paul to the Corinthians that they must “learn not to exceed what is written.”

“Going to far,” “not abiding in,” and “exceeding” what is written are all terms that indicate an addition of man-made concepts to what is actually present in scripture.

Thus, in Deuteronomy the Israelites were told “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.” Unfortunately the Pharisees did just that. They invented all kinds of extra requirements to add to the law.

This idea is repeated in Revelation, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.”

Jesus summed it up in a very simple and powerful way: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”

It can be hard not to go beyond what is written when we want to have all the answers. It can be hard not to invent new “doctrines” which are really only human precepts when we want to build a systematic theology that can answer all of our questions. But we must have the courage to speak when the Bible speaks and be silent when the Bible is silent.

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Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in Christianity

In philosophy, there are three qualities that are often referred to as “the trandscendentals.” These three qualities are truth, goodness, and beauty, and “transcendental” is a proper designation for them. “Transcendental” is a fancy word that describes an aspect of reality that is not dependent on our personal feelings or opinions.

All three of these – truth, goodness, and beauty – are not dependent on our personal opinions. They are realities that are discovered, rather than invented or randomly chosen.

Consider truth. You and I do not get to make up our own truth, we can only discover what the truth is and choose whether or not we will accept it. Feeling like 2 + 2 = 5 does not make it so. It is a transcendent reality because it does not depend upon our personal feelings for its validity.

In the Biblical worldview, moral goodness is the same way. We do not get to pick and choose which attitudes or actions we consider morally good or bad based on our own personal feelings. Just because I “feel” like murder or stealing is okay does not make it so. Even if the majority felt this way, they would still be wrong.

Even beauty has a certain transcendent quality. Rather than choosing arbitrarily what music or art we find beautiful, we observe and recognize beauty in music or art and identify it as such. Saying “this object is beautiful” does not actually make it so. The object in question is either beautiful or not, regardless of what we say about it.

But as you may have noticed, not everyone in our society respects the transcendence of truth, goodness, and beauty. These days many academics assert that “truth is relative” and individuals may respond to your beliefs by saying “that is true for you, but it is not true for me.” In terms of moral goodness, the ultimate standard in our culture is no longer an objective standard, but rather a question of how we “feel” about it. Much of modern art and music reflects the fact that we have given up on objective standards of beauty and are resorting instead to shock value, vulgarity, and “art for art’s sake” with no message to convey.

The general movement of society away from objective standards of truth, goodness, and beauty probably reflects our disdain for constraints on our freedom more than anything else. As long as truth is comprised of objective facts, it can get in my way and prevent me from believing whatever I want. As long as moral goodness is an unchanging standard that I must submit to, it can prevent me from living out my dreams. Even beauty, to the extent that it supersedes personal feelings, reminds me that the reality of life is not always mine to control.

But there is a special beauty and power in the recognition of transcendent realities. When the psalmist said “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path,” he was recognizing that the truth of the Bible could lead him farther than he could get by his own understanding alone. When Jesus said “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth,” the truth that He referred to was a truth that can transform us precisely because it does not come from within us, but rather from the God who created us.

The Philippians were told “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” This is a description of a life in which we discover and enjoy that which is true, that which is good, and that which is beautiful in the realest of senses.

Will you “dwell on these things” and commit your life to acquiring them?

Let the Bible Speak

Psalm 119:105 states, “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.” In this simple metaphor the psalmist communicates a very important idea: God’s word is an outside source of knowledge and guidance, over and above our own feelings and opinions.

Isaiah 55:10-11 says “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

If indeed God has sent His word out to accomplish His purposes, we ought to let it speak for itself rather than twisting it around to say what we want it to. We must resist the temptation to simply assume that Bible affirms what we want it to affirm. We must be willing to listen with open hearts.

Acts 17:11 says of the Bereans, “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”

The test that the Bereans used to determine the truthfulness of an idea was not how it made them feel, or how popular it was in the current political or religious climate, or what their families had always believed, but rather what the Scriptures said.

Consider one final passage, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, written from the experienced apostle Paul to the young preacher Timothy.

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

Notice a few key points from these verses:

  1. Paul considers this instruction so important that he charges Timothy in the presence of God and Jesus, who will judge us all one day.
  2. Paul tells Timothy to reprove, rebuke, and exhort. In other words, be deeply concerned with the truth of scripture, even if that truth is not popular.
  3. There is a real temptation for us to only listen to people who tell us what we want to hear. This is a destructive tendency.

Whether you consider yourself “doctrinally conservative” or “doctrinally liberal,” or don’t necessarily really know or care how you would be categorized, the scriptural plea to all of us is this: let the Bible speak.

 

Wrong to Celebrate Easter?

Easter is a time when millions pause and think about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For many it is also a time of fun, games, and traditions such as Easter baskets and egg hunts. But not everyone is so fond of Easter.

Some Christians claim that Easter, like many other modern “holidays,” has roots in ancient paganism. While Jesus’ resurrection itself is described in the Bible, there is no mention of “Easter” (except for an unusual and contested translation of “Passover” in the original KJV.)

On top of this, it is argued that it is wrong to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on just one Sunday, since we should be celebrating it every day of our lives. Indeed, God deserves so much more than just one or two days a year, He deserves our all.

But is it wrong to celebrate Easter? Paul appears to answer the question in Romans 14. The chapter begins with the command: “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” Among the “opinions” over which we should not judge each other, two clear examples are identified:

  • “One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables 
  • One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.”

In both of these cases, Paul says only that “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind,” and he concludes in verse 13, “let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”

So is it wrong to regard one day above others as a time to remember divine truths? Not necessarily. Is it wrong to celebrate Easter with baskets and eggs? It appears that there is no problem unless it causes a brother to stumble.  But it is certainly a good thing for us all to be reminded that it is not a certain “day” that is holy, but Christ Himself, to whom we owe everything.

It is important for us to understand what does and does not constitute an opinion. So as a final question for personal consideration, which of these things do you think would also fall into the category of “opinions” as the word is used in Romans 14, and why?

  • Which translation of the Bible to use?
  • Choosing to be single or to marry?
  • Deciding to have a scriptural divorce or a scriptural remarriage?
  • Participating in or not participating in any particular church ministry?
  • Being present every time the church meets?
  • Choosing to drink wine or to abstain from it?
  • Wearing a bathing suit at the beach?
  • Choosing to use homeschool, private school, or public school?
  • Attending a private university, a public university, or joining the workforce?
  • Being a stay at home mom or having a professional career?
  • Choosing if and when to have children, and how many to have?
  • Driving a nice car and owning nice things?
  • Political stances on issues such as gun control, death penalty, or global warming?
  • Choosing to vote or to abstain from voting in an election?

An Outline of the Book of Romans

Colosseum in Rome
The following is an overview of Romans based on our weekly Sunday Morning Bible Study at Mankato Church of Christ from June-July, 2015.

Introduction.
Paul addresses himself to the Romans and expresses a desire to come see them. (1:1-17)

 No one is justified by works.
The world is a dark place, spiraling downward into sin. (1:18-32)
Even “good, moral people” fall short. (2:1-29)
Being a Jew does have some advantages, but NO ONE has the ability to justify himself to God based on his own merits. (3:1-20)

We are justified by grace through faith in Jesus.
Salvation is made available to us through Jesus Christ. (3:21-5:21)
It is a gracious salvation, it is not deserved. (3:21-5:21)
We access it by faith. (3:21-5:21)
Faith is a trust in God despite discouraging circumstances, and is completed and evidenced by obedience. (4:18-25, James 2:14-26)

We are not only justified, but also sanctified.
This salvation is not merely forgiveness, so that we may continue in sin that grace may abound. It is also comprised of a transformation, as we die to sin and are set free from our slavery to it. (6:1-23)

How and why the Old Law has been done away with.
How can Jews simply lay aside the Old Covenant law code? Because they died to it when they died with Christ, that the law of the Spirit might replace it. (7:1-6)
Are we saying that the law is bad? Not at all, but that sin has used it to ruin us. We are in desperate need of Jesus Christ, not merely the law, to solve this problem. (7:7-25)

Sanctification by the power of the Spirit.
It must remain amply clear that living according to the flesh still leads to death, even under this new covenant. (8:1-13)
Walking not according to the flesh but in righteousness is achieved by following, setting the mind on, and being indwelled by God’s Spirit. It is a matter not merely or rule keeping, but of inward change. (8:1-8:27)

What a glorious plan God has made, that He should justify us to Himself, that Christ Himself would not condemn, that having given us His Son, God would also give us all that we need. (8:26-39)

God is not breaking any promises to Israel.
God always knew that not all Hebrews would be saved, and that the Gentiles would come in, and has spoken accordingly through the prophets. (9:1-33)
The invitation is certainly open to all Jews, since Christ is the fulfillment of Judaism. (10:1-11:6)
Gentiles ought not to be arrogant about this, for though God may use them to make the Jews jealous, He can just as easily remove them from the plan if they display unbelief. (Romans 11:7-36)

Therefore, give your life to God.
In light of this doctrine, your service and your sacrifice to God is to give your life to Him. (12:1-2)

Your relationships with fellow Christians should be mutually edifying. (12:3-13)
You should treat your enemies with kindness rather than revenge. (12:14-21)
You should be in subjection to your government. (13:1-7)
All of your relationships are to be governed by the law: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (13:8-14)

Do not judge your fellow Christians over matters of personal opinion. (14:1-12)
Avoid causing a brother to stumble by your actions, even if those actions are not inherently sinful. (14:13-23) 

Closing thoughts and reminders
Accept and edify each other. (15:1-12)
Paul’s expression of personal joy at the success of the congregation and the salvation of the gentiles (15:13-21) and reaffirmation that Paul wants to visit. (15:22-33)
Warning about those who cause divisions. (16:17-20)

Greetings to many diverse Christian brethren. (16:1-16, 21-24) 

All glory to God through Jesus Christ. (16:25-27)