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Crown of thorns

Doctrine vs. Jesus?

By Fred G. Zaspel –

I’ve heard the song only a couple of times now, and so I can’t quote it exactly. But it’s message goes something like this: it’s not our interpretations that matter, it’s not our firmly held positions, it’s not the doctrinal points we argue over — “It’s still the cross!”

The implication, of course, is that Christ’s cross is the center-piece of the Christian faith and its irreducible essential. And because the cross is so important, we should not fuss over such things as interpretations and doctrine. The cross of Christ — this is what is important, and this is what we are all about.

But what puzzles me is this: just how is that so? And what does that mean? And what is so puzzling is that there is no way to answer the question without giving interpretation and establishing doctrine — the very things that are said to be unnecessary! Clearly, it is not the pieces of wood formed into a cross that are essential to the faith. What is important is Christ crucified. But even that — Christ crucified — is virtually meaningless until we explain (i.e., interpret) precisely what its significance actually is.

Now of course the significance of the cross is that in his death the Lord Jesus Christ offered himself to God as the substitute for sinners, standing in their place to make satisfaction for their sins. That is, his was the death of a penal substitute, and we who trust in him are freed from our sin and condemnation precisely because in our place he bore our wrath and endured our curse. All of this is what the Bible makes a point to affirm for us over and again. But you see, all of this is interpretation. It is doctrinal formulation. And such is essential to the Christian faith. It is unthinking and misguided to pit “the cross” against interpretation or doctrine, for apart from these “the cross” has no meaning whatsoever. In short, the song quoted above, for all its good intentions, is nonsense.

For generations the church has been plagued by rising elements from within that decry the need of doctrine. We have had pietism and quietism and of course the run of the mill “Let’s just have Jesus” voices. “Why don’t we all just believe in Jesus and leave it at that?” Or, “It’s not doctrine that matters — life is what matters. Practical godliness and holiness are what are important!” But here we go again — what does it mean to believe in Jesus? Who is he? Why should we trust him? And what is godliness? And why is it so important? All this involves interpretation, doctrine, apart from which such well meaning assertions are meaningless and would reduce Christianity to nothing.

We must understand that Christianity is built on propositional truth. It is distinctively a creedal religion. It is much more than that, of course. But to Christianity creed is basic. It rests on certain truth claims. There are certain propositions which are held up as true, apart from which there is no Christianity at all. Moreover, these truths have implications. And the claim of Scripture is that all of this God has revealed in his Word for his people to learn and to believe earnestly in order to worship him and live before him aright. And so God commands us to “study” and “meditate” on his Word. Indifference to this Word — indifference to its truth claims — cannot in any way be said to be godly or noble. It is, in fact, anti-Christian.

What God calls us to is not to shun interpretation. He calls us to interpret his Word carefully and faithfully. And what today’s churches need is not less doctrine but more doctrine — an ever increasing exposition and understanding of God’s precious Word. It his here, in interpreting God’s Word, that we learn of a cross and a Christ of the cross, of a resurrection and a salvation for sinners fully accomplished and freely offered, of a coming judgment, and of a infinitely amazing and loving God who has done for us in his Son what we could not do for ourselves.

No, so far from shunning interpretation, we must relish it thankfully.

 Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.

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