Message 5, Building a Sure Foundation:
Is theology needed today, or is it outdated? Sound doctrine is vital for Christian growth and is the foundation for loving and serving God rightly, but many have questioned the validity of theology in our time. This session considers the state of theology since the Reformation, explains why understanding doctrine is vital to being a Christian today, and considers why knowing theology is essential for future reformation. It also considers why providing sound theological education for every tribe and tongue should be a central goal of God’s people.
Well, good afternoon. God bless you. What a privilege to be here with you, and where would you want to be on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation than here at the Ligonier Ministries National Conference. This is a great, great joy.
I was recently reading some of the prophets of Silicon Valley telling us that their pretty confident they’re going to cure this mortality thing. And, they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to handle all the time they’re going to have now that they’re going to defeat death, perhaps by uploading themselves to the cloud, I’m not sure.
But, in any event, I just suggest that just in case, they’re not going to defeat mortality, but just in case they’re able to really lengthen the span of human life, let’s put down the year 2517, so we do this again. We’ll do the 1000th anniversary of the Reformation. I don’t think so. But doesn’t that affirm just how privileged we are?
To be alive at this moment, and, to be amongst those who recognize why this is important, why celebrating the Reformation is not just a matter of remembering some great historic event, but claiming that faith that was articulated. And don’t we find ourselves animated by the joy of the Reformation in terms of “post tenebras lux”? “After the darkness, light,” isn’t that what we plead for and pray for in our churches? It’s a great privilege for me to serve as a teaching fellow at Ligonier Ministries. What a great privilege to serve alongside and to teach with Dr. R.C. Sproul.
If I live long enough to write a memoir, and I hope someday to be able at least to write something in order to express the gratitude that I have for what the Lord has brought into my life in terms of influences. Right there at the top of that list, is going to be a very few men, and R.C. Sproul is going to be one of them. What a joy it is now to join him here.
We’re living in one of the most interesting times in human history. It’s hard to a get a handle on all that’s taking place around us. We recognize that the great tectonic plates of our civilization are shifting right under our feet. And not only that, but the acceleration of these changes is now coming in such a way that we really do not know what tomorrow’s headlines will bring.
And we’re losing even the ability to be surprised. There’s certainly the ability to be shocked. One boundary after another transgressed. One institution after another torn down. We’re watching the dismantling of an entire civilization by people who claim that in doing so they’re serving the liberation of humanity.
We’re also witnessing something else. Here we are just a few years into the twenty-first century, and already we are experiencing what can only be described as the death of the great liberal dream. We are watching, right before our eyes, the death of the great liberal dream. What was that dream? It was the dream of a humanity come of age. Of a humanity that could sever itself from its Christian past, and establish itself in a new secular present, and point itself to a new secularized future.
The great liberal dream was that somehow you could have human rights and human dignity without Christianity. That somehow, while separating us from a biblical conception of what it means to be a human being, we can develop respect for one another, and human dignity could prevail.
The great liberal dream was that you could have the fruits of Christianity in a civilization while denying Christianity and subverting it in virtually every point. And what we’re now noticing as this age is truly becoming more and more secular, is that the end of this secularization is despair. We’ve reached one of those most interesting points in my observation of the times around us. I
do spend a lot of time talking to people who are not Christians. I end up talking to a lot of people who are in the media and in politics and in other arenas. I speak to a lot of the people you rightly describe as those in the cultural elite, and I — those who — I even bring into conversation sometimes thinking in public, and it’s very fruitful to have those conversations. It’s also very depressing.
What’s depressing about it but very important for us is recognizing that I increasingly am not sure they believe what they’re saying any longer. I’m increasingly aware of the fact that they’re losing confidence in their own dreams. The great liberal dream, it has not produced human flourishing, it hasn’t produced human happiness. Now, there’re all kinds of things they can point to as good gifts that have come by means of their worldview, and their influence, but in the bottom line, human dignity has not increased globally.
The sanctity of human life has not been more affirmed, but rather less affirmed, and we’re watching it now, the sanctity of human life being denied not only in the beginning of life in the war on the unborn, but at every point along the life spectrum. And, of course, at the end of life. One of the signs of the moral exhaustion of our age is the debate over assisted suicide, and by the way, they don’t want to call that assisted suicide anymore. They now want to call it, you know, ‘aid in dying.’ You know, we die by our euphemisms.
The way you create a moral change is first renaming something. So it’s no longer adultery, it’s an affair. You rename it. You create a euphemism and the euphemism is a way towards normalizing it. When you look at a society that embraces euthanasia and assisted suicide, and we need to call these what they are.
They are physician-assisted murder. State-sanctioned murder. When you see this, it’s the ultimate sign of the exhaustion of a worldview. They’ve got nowhere to turn. It is a worldview that ends in death. There is no longer an argument that is plausible to those who operate by this modern worldview of autonomous humanity. There’s no longer an argument that is compelling to them as to why human life has any inherent, intrinsic dignity.
Just a little footnote here, by the way, that I find important. I don’t mean to turn this into ‘The Briefing,’ but I’ll simply say, that one of the happiest things in recent months and weeks is the nomination of Judge Neal Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court.
And, if you look at his doctoral dissertation, the night he was nominated I downloaded — here’s a miracle of modern technology — I downloaded his entire doctoral dissertation, written at Oxford University. And you know what he argues for in it? The intrinsic value and dignity of every single human life. You know what he argues against? Physician-assisted suicide in his doctoral dissertation. But there’s the great worldview.
In our worldview, we have an argument against this, and that argument is the intrinsic value of human life, but here’s the danger. A society that is facing these questions and it’s own moral exhaustion will have no reason to affirm — as Judge Gorsuch so brilliantly defends, the intrinsic value of human life — if that’s cut off from the fact that every single human being is a special creation of God made in the image of God. The great liberal death wish is dying right before our eyes.
And it has produced this massive exhaustion. And, by the way, this exhaustion is a tremendous opportunity for Christian witness. I believe that those who had held so tenaciously to this worldview are now beginning to be aware of the fact that they don’t believe in their own plausibility structures. They don’t believe in the principles whereby they thought the world was made plausible. It’s not holding together any longer. And you look at all this and you recognize that it’s not by accident that we have arrived at this point.
My responsibility in the material that was sent to me about the topic of my teaching this afternoon was: “Trace the trajectory of theology since the Reformation and talk about the role of doctrine in the Christian life.” Some of you are looking at that and saying, “How are we going to get there?”
Well, I’m working backwards. We get there by recognizing that we somehow have to explain what we’re now observing. As we look the world around us, we need to recognize we did not get here by accident and, thus, we are going to go back to the Reformation. And we’re going to go back to the Reformation and ask, “How in the world did a worldview develop that has led to this exhaustion, this collapse of dreams?” We need to recognize that the modern age promised that we would be rescued.
The modern age promised that we would be rescued by modern science, produced the worldview of scientism, and so, you have to understand that many modern people actually believe that if salvation comes, it will by means of science. That’s one of reasons why I brought up the cryogenics and the whole transhumanism debate. It’s not an accident that that’s taking place in Silicon Valley. They really believe that technology will save us or we will not be saved.
By the way, you got to love this. Those who believe that science will save us and give themselves to scientism, those who believe that technology can save us, they got a wake-up call this week. Yeah, with Wikileaks. You thought you were watching TV but your TV’s been watching you.
You know, it turns out that technology isn’t going to save us, technology, more likely, is going to kill us. You know, we’re living in this very, very strange time. We were told that modern medicine would save us. And modern medicine has brought many, many advantages. I’m alive today, I have to admit, at least because of modern medicine. Without antibiotics, without surgery, without CT scans and all the things that they do. But salvation has not come. And salvation will never come merely through modern medicine.
We were told that therapy would save us. What we really need is therapy. If we can just get to the right therapist. If we can just find the right pop psychology. If we can just — if we can just get to the right therapeutic source, we can be made whole. But have you noticed, have you noticed when you look at the book sections, and you start to look at the titles, they’re running out of therapeutic answers to give. Pretty soon you’re going to need therapy for reading one of their books about therapy.
And of course, it’s a circular reasoning. You’re either in therapy or you’re in denial. And — but therapy, by its very definition, though it might be needed in some cases, it might help in some cases, it cannot save. It cannot deliver us. And then, of course, most classically, we were told that sexual liberation would bring us happiness, and you look at the sexual revolution taking place around us. It did not happen by accident.
It is the result of this massive, ideological worldview, theological revolt against the Creator. And against Christianity. Overthrowing Christian morality, biblical morality. Well, the world’s been promised if they will only overthrow that morality, they will find happiness. But is there happiness? Despair. Brokenness.
Elton Trueblood was a Quaker who, back in the middle point of the twentieth century, said that if you look at Western civilization, it is a cut-flower civilization. He was speaking back again at the mid-point of the last century, when it was still plausible to say, “Everything appears to be going fairly well.” The civilization appears to be basically intact in the period after the end of World War Two.
And then, if you go all the way, say, to the 1990’s, it appeared that history was generally moving in our direction, so much that you had people like Francis Fukiama, who would write about the end of history, a part of the great liberal dream, is that somehow deliverance would come to us by the global spread of democracy and that, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the exhaustion of Communism then, then there would become this new global age of democracy. And there was the promise that, of course, early in the twentieth century that inevitably, we would have this new regime of human rights and human dignity, and it would bring about an age of global peace. Where did those dreams go?
In one sense, the twentieth century was the great refutation of that dream. That dream was plausible to many intellectuals in the beginning of the twentieth century. But very quickly, Western civilization fell into the murderous war we now know as World War I. We have to name it World War I because it was followed by World War II. Absolute global catastrophe. And yet, at the end of that — again, there was this surge of optimism that somehow history is moving in our direction.
The Soviet Union’s failed. Look, democracy has worked. And all the peoples of the earth are going to see the failure of communism, and they’re going to see the triumph of democracy, and they’re all going to want to be just like us.
No one saw Al Qaeda and ISIS on the horizon in that optimism. One of the things we simply have to note there is that a civilization that has truly become secular has no defenses against an enemy that is genuinely theological. Secular, European leaders were sure that they had defeated theology. Well, the theology that’s coming at them is a very different theology than they had in mind.
Yeah, we’re living in this very interesting time. We have to ask the question, “How did we get here?” Well, there are some who would say, part of the way how we got here was the Reformation. I mean, one of the distinctions between someone in the medieval age and someone who’s generally modern is that we think in terms of an individualism that no one would have recognized in the premodern age. No one would have recognized even in the medieval age. And you know who they blame for this? They blame Luther. The Diet of Worms, when he said, “Here am I. I can do none other. God help me.”
Well, here am I? We need to point out, that’s not a ludicrous argument. Not a ludicrous argument to say that one beginning point for our understanding of what it means to be an individual was indeed the Reformation, and it wasn’t just Luther standing at Worms saying, “Here I stand.” It was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It’s the understanding, the entire understanding of the theological affirmations of the Reformation and the solas.
But here’s what we need to note. The Reformation understanding of the human individual was not of the human individual as autonomous. Rather, it was of the human being as sinner, desperately in need of redemption. Never an autonomous individual. All that began to change in the aftermath of the Reformation. And, of course, almost simultaneous with the Reformation, you had the rise of what we would call ‘the Renaissance.’ You had the rise of, particularly, Renaissance humanism, and again, you’re talking about some parallel chronology here, because, you’ll remember that — by the way, if you had not read the debate between Martin Luther and Erasmus on the will, please do so. Start tonight.
Erasmus is the greatest illustration perhaps of the early Renaissance humanism. And again, humanism brought us some very good gifts, Humanism had a rightful instinct to go back and to collect to the best wisdom of the past. Humanism, however, became idolatrous because that humanism of the Renaissance became separated from a Christian biblical worldview, and the human being began to be celebrated as the center of the cosmos as autonomous.
Just think of the statue of David. Think of Michelangelo and think of the proportionality of David. Think of his height. It was a picture of perfected humanity. It was a picture of man at the center of the cosmos. This was to declare the greatness of man.
And, of course, that filtered down. In the arts and in other forms, Renaissance humanism celebrated autonomous humanity, and tried to displace God from the center of the universe, and instead put human beings at the center of that universe. Then we have to get to ‘the Enlightenment.’ And we understand we can’t understand our world without knowing that the Enlightenment took place. This great shift in Western thought.
And whether we recognize it or not, we are all the inheritors of the Enlightenment. The world into which we are born is a world largely in which the intellectual table has been set by the Enlightenment. But this means as Christians we need to know what happened in that Enlightenment.
It was the celebration of reason. In order to understand why that was so important, in the world before the Enlightenment, reason and revelation were understood to be an integral relation. But this was reason separated from revelation. Just as you had humanity separated from the Creator, and the autonomous humanism of the Renaissance, then in the Enlightenment, you had reason standing alone as autonomous and thus, revelation, specifically the Scripture no longer corrected reason, so that we know right reason corrected by Scripture. Instead, in the Enlightenment the thinking subject became the authority.
It was the individual whose intellectual authority, by the instrument of reason, and reason was no longer corrected by revelation, no longer explained by revelation but was standing on its own.
And here’s what you need to note. When you have reason attempting to stand on its own, it isn’t neutral towards revelation. It’s hostile towards revelation. Immanuel Kant eventually wrote a series of lectures, of messages. He wrote them in such a way that he intended to reset the philosophical equation. In one of his works, he tried to explain — here’s the very title of his work, “Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone.” We no longer believe in the supernatural, we can’t argue for the supernatural.
Immanuel Kant said that all meaning is separated into two levels, the phenomenal world, that’s where we live. That’s stuff, that’s where science comes from. That’s the stuff of the universe, the noumenal world is our experiences. And then he says, there’s the phenomenal world, that’s the world outside of our experiences, outside of our scientific investigation. And that’s where religion goes. That’s where revelation goes. And, we can know the noumenal world, but we can only really kind of talk about the phenomenal world.
So, he tried to redefine Christianity or religion, as he said, within the bounds of reason alone. You know what’s left? Nothing that will save. If reason’s going to be supreme, then Christianity is completely re-conceptualized. We had the rise not only of rationalism, but of romanticism. And, of course, the supernatural worldview gave way merely to naturalism. And then the modern world came in full force, and there are the four horsemen of the modern age, and you just need to remember their names: Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and of course, Sigmund Freud.
Without those four horsemen, you don’t have the full apocalypse of the modern age. With them, it’s pretty much complete. Charles Darwin overthrew a biblical worldview of the origins of the entire cosmos, but specifically of life, and particularly, of humanity. Richard Dawkins, the most famous of the new atheists as they style of themselves now, said that before Darwin, it was impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
In other words, you didn’t have any account of creation other than what you’d find in Genesis. After Darwin, humanity was liberated to an entirely natural understanding of the origins of the universe, and of life, and of human life.
Karl Marx came along, overthrowing the biblical conception of sin, offering an entire worldview based upon the fact that what is oppressing humanity, the great travail of humanity, is economic inequality that is brought about by the oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. You don’t need Christ. You don’t need the gospel for that, and of course, Mark was militantly atheistic.
What you need is revolution. And, thus, for much of the twentieth century, indeed the last years of the nineteenth century, we see all those who believed that salvation would come by means of revolution, and eventually, there would be the arrival of true communism.
One of the interesting things to note as we’re talking here in the year 2017, is that though communism failed spectacularly, the intellectual elites are still deeply infected with Marxism. In other words, you would think the refutation of their theory would lead to a reevaluation. Think again. They don’t have any other story.
And then, of course, we’re talking about Freidrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who famously at the end of the nineteenth century, declared that God is dead and we have killed Him. What he meant by that was we’ve finally slain the moral authority of biblical Christianity in Western civilization. He said, humanity simply needs to celebrate the death of that moral authority and redefine life and transform morality to come to terms with it.
And then Sigmund Freud. We can’t have the modern world without Freud. Freud telling us that the problem is not something we are, but something that happened to us. Freud, like the serpent in the garden came and said, you think the problem’s you? It’s not. It’s something that happened to you. Here’s someone to blame. And that whole regime of therapy. The whole modern age basically falls under the sway of these four horsemen.
Then, of course, we have the fragmenting of all of this in the late twentieth century. Modernism, or modernity, gave way. You recall, we’ve talked at various conferences here at Ligonier about post-modernism, but we’re not talking about it now because the post-modernists don’t call themselves that anymore. Post-modernism was the ultimate collapse of the modern dream into the idea that there is no universal truth. Marxism didn’t work.
Christianity’s been repudiated. So, we’re all just going to have our own various stories, and thus you had the fracturing into just a thousand different arguments that consume interest amongst the elites and the academics. But, the bottom line of post-modernism was, it was just more or less a great, “I surrender,” sign, intellectually. We give up the argument.
Now, where were the theologians in the midst of all of this? Well, here’s where we need to watch very carefully, because one of the central theological arguments during all of this is that the church has to make peace, has to surrender to this vast intellectual change.
There were those who argued, for instance, with the Enlightenment that, if indeed, reason is the instrument that rules overall, then we’re simply going to have to make Christianity reasonable. And so, you have the rise of liberal theology at that time. That’s where liberal theology comes from. The Enlightenment opened the can and out came liberal theology.
The impulse of liberal theology is to say Christianity can’t survive in the modern age, in its biblical form, so we’re going to have to accommodate. We’re going to redefine the doctrines. We’re going to have to reconstruct the dogmas so that we don’t have the offense of supernatural truth claims, of implausible supernatural truth claims in a world in which those claims are overruled by reason. So, you had Friedrich Schleiermacher appear. His most famous sermons were entitled, “Lectures to the Cultured Despisers of Religion.” You got to love that.
What was he trying to say? He was trying to write to those who thought they’d outgrown and repudiated Christianity. “Look, look, look, look. Don’t worry about the doctrine. We can overthrow that. Don’t worry about the dogmas. We can leave them safely behind. But we can offer to your secularized worldview a little value added in spirituality. You can have the benefits of a numinous experience. You can have the benefits of a spiritual thrill. Look, look, don’t repudiate the church because the church will repudiate the gospel. We’ll make peace with you. Just stay.”
Schleiermacher said we can be done with the doctrines. He redefined Christianity and Christian theology as ‘feeling.’ Does this recognize something familiar to you? Friedrich Schleiermacher’s been dead for a very, very long time but he still preaches on cable.
He’s still showing up with a big smile, telling us that it’s really all about feelings, and what, with Freud they show up and say, “God just wants you to be healthy and you got somebody to blame. God wants you to be happy and there’s someone else that’s keeping you from being happy. If you just thought a little bit better of Jesus, we can add a little spirituality to your life, and you don’t have to accept all the doctrines.” And, by the way, they’re never going to preach them anyway.
The old liberals used to repudiate them. The new liberals just jump right over them. Right over doctrine, into the world of feeling. The liberal theologians had a major problem in terms of Christianity , and that was the enduring authority of the Scripture, so they had to undermine that. And so, the great liberal theological project then shifted, especially in Germany, this is why we talk about German higher critical scholarship, and higher criticism coming from Germany.
It’s because the Germans, not by accident, were those who were kind of ahead of the curve in terms of applying the Enlightenment to theology. And so, they looked at the Old Testament and the Old Testament was sheer embarrassment. Absolute embarrassment. They would say there’s a tribal deity with a good mood and a bad mood. And he’s oppressive with all these, ‘thou shalt’s‘ and ‘thou shalt not’s.’ And they looked to the Old Testament, and they started to take it apart with higher criticism. You know, Mosaic authorship is out. In fact, verbal inspiration, of course, is out. And so, we turn from the Scripture merely to ancient near-eastern literature.
And then, of course, what they did to the Old Testament, they did to the New Testament. Liberal theology basically assumes that what you have to do in order to salvage Christianity is to throw all the doctrinal cargo overboard, and just try to retain some spirituality. One of the names that should come to our minds in terms of the twentieth century was Harry Emerson Fosdick. He was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Later, he became pastor of the Riverside Church. The whole thing’s confusing. He was a Baptist at the First Presbyterian Church but he wasn’t a Christian at either.
He was an absolute heretic. And, but Fosdick serves us in this respect. He was very candid about what he saw as the great challenge of the modern age. And he just openly called for surrender. Talking about the Bible, he said, you obviously can’t preach it as if it’s true. That’s going to be hugely problematic. So you just try to rescue some meaning out of it.
H.L Mencken, who was a famous skeptic, hostile to Christianity, at least had respect for a conservative scholar, like J. Gresham Machen, a fellow originator from Baltimore, because he recognized that in Machen there was a genuine commitment to historic Christianity. Mencken said of the liberals, like Harry Emerson Fosdick, he said, look, they have reduced Christianity to something that is no more meaningful than nursery rhymes.
Just a little footnote here. If you really are going to reduce Christianity to nursery rhymes, you got to keep rewriting them, a.k.a. Beauty and the Beast. You’re going to have to go and put some new characters in. And that’s exactly what’s happening in liberal churches. They’re now just trying to put in new characters. As a matter of fact, the theological liberals of the twentieth century are now way too pale and way too male. And too straight. And too clearly male. Versus female. You got to go, you got to put new characters in the story. These nursery rhymes, have to change with the times.
In the early twentieth century, there was an attempted rescue from all this called Neo-Orthodoxy. People like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and others tried to say, look, we can have both. We can have some continuing doctrinal orthodoxy and a complete commitment to Enlightenment reason. Without going into detail, Neo-Orthodoxy is an attempt to create a halfway house between heaven and earth. Between liberalism biblical Christianity. It didn’t even last a generation. It failed spectacularly because Neo-Orthodoxy — let’s put it this way, if you’re going to try to create Neo-Orthodoxy, it’s going to end up Neo-not orthodoxy.
Well, then you look at liberal theology since then. What in the world’s happened? Just like in the post-modern age in the larger intellectual context, everything just fell into endless arguments, and, ‘this school,’ and ‘that school,’ and that argument and this argument, and everybody having to be in the nursery rhyme in order to claim they’re included, too.
The same thing happened in theology. Theology shifted from the great age of theological liberalism into the halfway house of Neo-Orthodoxy, and then it just exploded into cannon fodder. You got feminist theology, but that’s not good enough because now you have to have it racially identified, so it’s womanist theology, and then you got liberation theology and process theology, and this theology and that theology. And what it all is, well, it’s not theology. It’s just a mass of contradictions and confusions. It’s the secular exhaustion that is demonstrated in a theological exhaustion. And that’s where we are.
Liberal churches and liberal denominations, the entire project of liberal theology promised that if we’ll just make these changes, the secular world will love you. They will throng to your schools and they will throng to your churches. It’s been a stunning success. The Episcopal church is bursting at the seams. The Washington Post, not too long ago, ran an article that explained the Episcopal church is going the way of the dodo. In other words, not only was it apostasy, it didn’t even work, because why? Because in a truly secular age, secular people don’t need religious liberals. They don’t need religious anything.
Recently, a priest in the Church of England, a rather liberal priest, was reflecting in the media — and I read this, and it just caught me. He said, “You know, as I reflect upon the last several years of my ministry, I’ve noted that I do fewer and fewer funerals.” Now, just hang with me a moment. People are still dying.
What he meant was, even quasi-secular people at least wanted a church funeral. “Now, people are so secular they don’t even call me as they’re about to die. I don’t even do funerals anymore.” Is there any other story? Thankfully, there is. There’s the story that runs from the Reformation. And it runs through the age of confessional Protestantism. And runs through faithful teachers and preachers and faithful churches all the way to 2017 where we stand today.
And brothers and sisters, you have to recognize how odd and out of step we appear to the world around us, because we’re actually straightforwardly looking each other in the eye and saying, “We’re trying to say exactly what the apostles heard from Jesus.” We’re actually trying our very best to believe and to teach what the faithful have believed throughout all the ages.
Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 3. 1 Corinthians, chapter 3. The title of my address, “Building a True Foundation, a Sure Foundation.” Paul writes, beginning in verse 10, “According to the grace of God given to me like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Now, if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, precious stones, silvers, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest, for the day will disclose it because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
Very quickly, what the Apostle Paul is exhorting the church here, not only in Corinth, but because this is the Holy Spirit inspiring Paul, this is the Holy Spirit speaking not only to Corinth, but to Christ’s church wherever it is found till Jesus comes. And the Apostle Paul is here speaking a very strong word about the foundation upon which a ministry is to be built, and by extension also, the Christian life.
Three points very quickly. Number one, the Apostle Paul says in verse 10, that we must take care to build on the right foundation. He’s speaking of succession in ministry, very clearly that’s the direct reference, he has laid the foundation. Someone else is building upon it. We must be very certain that when we teach, when we preach, when we think we’re building upon the right foundation. Now, why now, this text? Why on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?
It is to say that we’re all choosing in which house, which theological house we’re going to live. Paul laid the foundation. But different structures have been built atop it. By the time you get to the Reformation, someone has built St. Peter’s Basilica. There is the entire edifice of the Catholic Church, Catholic doctrine, Catholic interpretation of Scripture, Catholic practices, the sacerdotal and sacramental ministry of the Catholic church, the papacy, it’s been built.
The Reformers didn’t seek to build a new house. They sought in conscious, faithful continuity, the faith once for all delivered to the saints to establish that church which Christ had established against which Christ said the gates of hell shall not prevail. Thus, when you look at the Reformers, you look at Luther and Calvin. Their affirmation. The five solas. Though not expressed exactly that way, in that set, as we now know them as the solas of the Reformation. Everyone one of them, all five of them, were affirmed by all of the major Reformers, and in particular by Calvin and by Luther.
But Calvin and Luther, just as R.C.— as Dr. Sproul said in the question and answer period, they said from the beginning, this is not something new. This is the reformation of a church. A church reformed by the Word. And that reformation will produce a church that stands in the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So, right now we’re kind of choosing in which house we’re going to live.
There’re different theological houses. A part of why we are gathered here, and part of the great gift to the church that is Ligonier Ministries in this conference, is we are gathered here to say, “We belong in this house. We want to live in this house. We want to live in the house of faithful, biblical orthodoxy. We want to stand in the house of biblical authority. We want to live in the house of expository preaching. We want to live in the house of confessional Protestantism. We want to live in the house in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is celebrated, all the solas are affirmed. We want to live in this house.”
We want to live in the house built on the right foundation. The second thing the apostle Paul says, in verse 11, is that the only true foundation is Christ. “For no one,” he says, “can lay a foundation, other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” This is Christ’s Church. It is the church for whom Jesus Christ died. Now, the apostle Paul was surely aware that it was the Lord who established Jesus Christ as the foundation.
In the prophet Isaiah, chapter 28, in verse 16, we read, “Therefore, thus says the Lord God, behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone of a sure foundation. Whoever believes will not be in haste.”
It is the Lord God the Father who has established the foundation of the church. The Apostle Paul says he got to lay the foundation but that foundation is Christ. The gift of the Father.
The third point the apostle Paul makes is that there is a judgment coming. Look at verses 12 and 13. Paul writes, “Now, if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest for the day” — that is, the judgment day — “the day will disclose it because it will be revealed by fire and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
Church leaders at the time called the Reformers heretics, and accused them of being arrogant. The Pope in his bull ex-communicating Luther — it’s called Exsurge Domine, because the first lines of it are, “Rise up, Oh Lord.” And then the Pope said, “A wild boar has invaded your vineyard,” meaning Luther.
By the way, you may have seen the little toy, the little German toy company, Playmobil. For the 500th anniversary, the Reformation came out with a little Luther. It’s a little Playmobil Luther. He’s very cool. But what I love about it most of all is the box, because they’re afraid a child is g swallow Luther and choke.
And so, it has a picture of Luther, then it says, “Warning, choking hazard.” You got to know, there is no one who would love that more than Luther.
Luther fully intended to be a choking hazard. He wanted to choke the Pope on his own theology. He was intending to be a choking hazard.
But it wasn’t Luther saying, “Here I stand as an autonomous individual.” It was Martin Luther saying, “Here I stand on the authority of the Word of God, and I’m going to stand with these guys.” Peter, Paul. He’s going to stand with those who have articulated and defended the faith where they were orthodox throughout Christian history. After Scripture, Augustine is the most commonly cited source in both Luther and in Calvin.
You know, Luther put it exactly this way. He said, that judgment is coming and the judgment’s going to reveal where the true church is. In other words, those who have built an entire edifice out of hay and stubble on that day will see it burn. Only Christ church will remain. So, every church, every ministry, every Christian, has to pay heed to doctrine, because it is with doctrine that we build upon the foundation which is Jesus Christ our Lord.
There is no non-doctrinal Christianity. There’s no liberation from doctrine. The church lives by the teaching of the Word of God. It lives by the Word of God. And the Christian life is not merely doctrine, as if you could say merely doctrine, but doctrine is at the very foundation. It is the structural integrity of the Christian church. It establishes how the church can stand. It’s expressed in propositional form, precisely because God, in his inerrant, infallible Word gave us these doctrines in propositional form.
And these doctrines become the very structure of our understanding of the Christian life and our very hope for the life to come.
Three points. Doctrine’s necessary. Indispensable and vital. There is no healthy Christian life without biblical teaching, and biblical teaching is doctrine. Doctrine is nothing more than the expression, the formal expression of what is revealed in Scripture. The Christian life cannot live without it, the Christian life can’t begin without it. Because even in telling someone how they can come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ve got to do doctrine. You’ve got to teach. You’ve got to express in propositional language what it is that Christ has done, what God has done for us in Christ.
You’ve got to explain what our predicament really is, and it’s not going to be the answer given by Freud. It’s the indictment of every single human being as a traitor, as a sinner.
Secondly, the transmission of doctrine is crucial from one generation to the next. The Apostle Paul was clearly concerned about that in this text, as he calls for the building upon the foundation that he has laid, and he clearly is warning, lest, it be a structure of wood, and hay, and stubble, instead. Notice, how he mentions this. It’s a beautiful metaphor for right doctrine. Building with gold, silver, precious stones.
The doctrinal stewardship that has invested in us, is not primarily about us and it’s not for us. Until Jesus comes, the doctrinal stewardship that is invested in us is for our children and for our children’s children, lest, we fail in this responsibility. That’s another reason why it’s so good for us to gather together. We gather together not merely to exult in these truths, but to prepare ourselves to teach these truths to others.
In the pattern of succession you see as Paul says to Timothy, “Teach these things to faithful men who will be able to teach yet others, also.” The transmission of doctrine is our responsibility even as is the teaching of doctrine in this generation and the protection and definition and right articulation of doctrine in our own times.
And, thirdly, we need to recognize that doctrine has consequences. Every single doctrine has consequences. The doctrines represented by wood, and hay, and stubble, the doctrines that are not grounded in Scripture, the doctrines that are subversive of biblical Christianity, the doctrines of the entire project of modern theology, they do not lead to eternal life. Doctrines have consequences.
You look at the churches that are right now just absolutely dying because of the emptiness of their message, and you see one of the consequences of liberal theology, you see one of the consequences of doctrinal revolt. But then you look at the massive, insidious, deadly confusion in these churches. Doctrine has consequences. We need to remember that always. For the consequences of our doctrinal responsibility will show up right before our eyes. And will show up in our children and in their children, as well.
The apostle Paul said, “According to the grace of God, given to me like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation and someone else is building upon it.” Then he said, “Judgment is coming by fire and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” In Matthew, chapter 7, Jesus speaking to His disciples in verse 24 and following said this, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
And the rain fell. And the floods came. And the winds blew and beat on that house but it did not fall because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell. And the floods came. And the winds blew and beat against that house and it fell. And great was the fall of it.”
You knew this already. We sang it just a few moments ago. “How firm a foundation you saints of the Lord is laid for your faith and His excellent Word. What more can he say then to you he has said, to you who for refuge, to Jesus, have fled?” That last verse, “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to his foes. That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never, no never forsake.”
Doctrine — all doctrines have consequences. Biblical Christianity is the house established upon a rock. Upon that rock, Christ has built His church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we are so thankful for all that You’ve given us in Your Word. We are thankful for Christ admonishing His disciples to build their house upon the rock. We’re thankful for the Apostle Paul making very clear what’s at stake as we build upon the foundation which is Christ. Father, may we be faithful in this age that Your church may be faithful in the age to come. We pray this, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.