Doctrine and Practice Walk Together (Van Mastricht)

 I recently got a copy of Petrus Van Mastricht’s newly translated Theoretical-Practical Theology: Prolegomena (vol. 1)I agree with Michael Horton: this is a remarkable gem!  Van Mastricht was a Dutch Reformed theologian who was quite influential in his day and beyond.  Not only is his work solidly theological and biblical, it is also very practical, as you can tell from the title.  It is true that sometimes Reformed theology is taught in a dry manner with little or no application.  However, I very much agree with those like Van Mastricht who say that theology is eminently practical and applicable.  Below are a few quotes of his that show how theology and practice go hand in hand.  It’s also worth mentioning that Van Mastricht often referred to Paul’s words to Titus in 1:1, where the apostle mentions the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness (NASB). 

…Theology must be taught according to a certain method, and it must be the kind of method in which theory and practice always walk in step together.  In fact, they must walk together in such a way that theory precedes and practice follows in every one of theology’s articles. (p. 67)

We approve, out of all methods, the one that the apostle not only commends in this text to Timothy, when he wishes that theological matters first be taught and then admonished, that thereby practice be perpetually joined to theory, but also employs everywhere throughout his epistles, especially those he wrote to the Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, and others. By this method, I say again, practice should be joined to theory, not only in the whole corpus of theology, in such a way that the first place is especially reserved for the things that must be believed and the second for the things that must be done, but also that in each member of theology, practice should walk in step with theory in a continuous agreement. (p. 69)

He [Paul] also commands that what can be taught should also be applied, adn that doctrine should be according to godliness, that is, theoretical-practical.  He prohibits Timothy from teaching in any other way. (p. 73)

Christian theology unites theory with practice, and is ‘a knowledge of truth that is according to godliness’ (Titus 1:1). (p. 79).

Indeed, the study of theology, to the extent that it is true theology, is not sufficient, unless… it is earnestly devoted to practical theology and to practice. (p. 95)

In fact, here’s how Van Mastrich defines Christian theology:

…Christian theology is best defined as the doctrine of living for God through Christ. (p. 66)

Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol 1: Prolegomena.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WIm 54015

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Doctrinism and Antinomianism (Newton)

 Here’s a section from one of John Newton’s sermons on those who are orthodox in doctrine but destitute of good works.  Or, in other words, their doctrine is right, but they have no deeds that show their faith to be true.  Maybe we could call this “doctrinism,” when a person is only concerned about doctrine and not practice.  Notice below how “doctrinism” goes hand in hand with antinomianism.

It is very possible, yea, very easy, by the help of books, sermons, and conversation, to acquire an orderly and systematic knowledge of divine truths.  It may be learned thus, like any other branch of human science, and the head be well stored with orthodox sentiments.  There may also be an ability to prove and defend them, in a way of argumentation, while the heart is utterly a stranger to their salutary influence.

Such characters are too common. None make a greater parade and boast of seeing than these persons. None are more fatally blinded. They smile, with disdain, when they speak of a self-righteousness founded upon prayers, alms-deeds, and sacraments but are not aware that they themselves live in the very spirit of the Pharisees (Lk 18:2) so clearly described and so expressly condemned in the New Testament. Their supposed knowledge of the doctrines which they misunderstand and abused is the righteousness on which they base their hopes.  And trusting to this, they despise all those who are stricter in practice than themselves, as ignorant and legal.  They discover, almost as great a dislike to close and faithful preaching, as they could do to poison.

Though the doctrines of the Gospel, when rightly received, are productive of godliness, it is to be feared, there are people who espouse and plead for them, to quiet their consciences, by furnishing them with excuses for the sins they are unwilling to forsake. It is not surprising, that they who are displeased with the yoke of our Lord’s precepts, should seem friendly to the idea of salvation without the works of the law.

In other words, there are some people who have their doctrine straight but they do not live godly lives.  It’s one strain of antinomianism: I know my doctrine, so I can live how I want.  Newton continues his discussion about those people who are doctrinally sound but lacking in good works:

The notion of the final perseverance of believers, may afford a pillow for those to rest on, who being at present destitute of all feeling of spiritual life, labour to persuade themselves that they are Christians, because they had some serious thoughts, and made some profession of the truth, many years ago. So, likewise, in what the Scriptures teach, of the total inability of fallen man, they think they have a plea to justify their negligence and sloth, and therefore are not disposed to contradict the testimony. They evade the invitation and command to wait, and watch, and strive, in the ways and means of the Lord’s appointment, as they think, with impunity, by confessing the charge, and saying, ‘I am a poor creature indeed, I can do nothing of myself aright, and therefore to what purpose should I attempt to do any thing?’

A minister may preach upon these points, in general terms, and obtain their good word. But if he speaks plainly and faithfully to conscience; if he bears testimony not only against dead works, but against a dead faith, against spiritual pride, evil tempers, evil speaking, love of the world, and sinful compliances; if he insists that the branches of the true vine should bear grapes, and not the same fruit as the bramble, hearers of this stamp will think they do God service by censuring all he can say, as low and legal trash. How awful(!) that people should be blinded by the very truths which they profess to believe!

Yet I fear such cases are too frequent. God grant a delusion of this kind may never be found amongst us! For if the salt itself should lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? (Mt 5:13). May we come simply to the light, with a desire of seeing more of ourselves, and more of our Savior; that we may be more humble and spiritual, more afraid of sin, more watchful and successful in striving against it; and, in our whole conversation, more conformable to our glorious Head!

John Newton, Works, volume 4 pages 145-146.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Great Antidote to Spiritual Depression (Lloyd-Jones)

Here’s Lloyd Jones.  Listen up!

“…The great antidote to spiritual depression is the knowledge of Bible doctrine, Christian doctrine.  Not having the feelings worked up in meetings, but knowing the principles of the faith, knowing and understanding the doctrines.  That is the Biblical way, that is Christ’s own way as it is also the way of the apostles.  The antidote to spiritual depression is to have a knowledge of Him, and you get that in His Word.  You must take the trouble to learn it.  It is difficult work, but you have to study it and give yourself to it.”

“The Christian faith begins and ends with a knowledge of the Lord.  It begins with a knowledge of the Lord – not a feeling, not an act of will, but a knowledge of this Blessed Person.”

D. M. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures, chapter 11.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Loss of the Christian Mind in America (Moreland)

As I was re-reading parts of Love God With All Your Mind, I came across this great section I had marked up – a section of the book where Moreland talks about the loss of the Christian mind in American Christianity.  I’ve posted it here before, but it is for sure worth noting again.  Especially fascinating are Moreland’s comments on how the rise of two major cults in the U.S. had a lot to do with the lack of doctrinal knowledge about the Christian faith:

“During the middle 1800s, three awakenings broke out in the United States: the Second Great Awakening (1800-1820), the revivals of Charles Finney (1824-1837), and the Layman’s Prayer Revival (1856-1858).  Much good came from these movements, but their overall effect was to emphasize immediate personal conversion to Christ instead of a studied period of reflection and conviction; emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons; and personal feelings and relationships to Christ instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas.  Sadly, as historian George Marsden notes, ‘anti-intellectualism was a feature of American revivalism.’”

“Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the emphasis of those movements on personal conversion.  What was a problem, however, was the intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity that became part of the populist Christian religion that emerged.  One tragic result of this was what happened in the so-called Burned Over District in the state of New York.  Thousands of people were ‘converted’ to Christ by revivalist preaching, but they had no real intellectual grasp of Christian teaching.  As a result, two of the three major American cuts began in the Burned Over District among the unstable, untaught ‘converts’: Mormonism (1830) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (1884).”

J. P. Moreland, Love God With All Your Mind, p. 23.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Lifeless Doctrine? (Murray)

I appreciate these words of John Murray in his sermon on 2 Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (NASB).

“In a perfect world all we would need is truth and right.  For, then there would be no antithesis.  But the Scripture is not for a perfect world, not for a world of ideals, but for the world that is, steeped in the iniquity of error and wrong.  Scripture is corrective because it is redemptive.  Untruth is to be corrected by truth and wrong by right.”

“Doctrine concerns the whole wide range of thought respecting God, the world, man, man’s paramount interests, his destiny.  If doctrine is to us cold, dead, and lifeless, then there are only two alternatives.  Either our doctrine is not of Scripture or we ourselves are cold and lifeless.

We do nothing properly without thought and we think nothing aright except as we think the truth of him who is the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God.  Lack of interest in biblical doctrine is lack of interest in God and his will for us.  And this is godlessness.”

John Murray, “Holy Scripture” in The Collected Writings of John Murray, volume 3, page 260.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Christian Doctrine and Experience (Machen)

God Transcendent Sometimes Christians get doctrine and experience mixed up.  For example, suppose a person came to faith by experiencing the kindness of Jesus.   Then suppose the same person started teaching that the essence of conversion is experiencing Jesus’ kindness.   It is biblically true and wonderful that Jesus is kind.  But it isn’t helpful – or 100% biblical – to make one’s experience of this truth the center of a doctrinal definition.  J. G. Machen talked about this from a slightly different angle in a radio address he gave just under 100 years ago.  The title of the written manuscript is “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance.”

In this address he said,

“…Christian doctrine is just a setting forth of what the Bible teaches.  At the foundation of Christian doctrine is the acceptance of the full truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God.”

Here’s how he explains the statement:

That is often forgotten by those who today undertake to write confessional statements. Let us give expression to our Christian experience, they say, in forms better suited to the times in which we are living than are the older creeds of the church. So they sit down and concoct various forms of words, which they represent as being on a plane with the great creeds of Christendom.

When they do that, they are simply forgetting what the creeds of Christendom are. The creeds of Christendom are not expressions of Christian experience. They are summary statements of what God has told us in His Word. Far from the subject matter of the creeds being derived from Christian experience, it is Christian experience which is based upon the truth contained in the creeds; and the truth contained in the creeds is derived from the Bible, which is the Word of God. Groups of people that undertake to write a creed without believing in the full truthfulness of the Bible, and without taking the subject matter of their creed from that inspired Word of God, are not at all taking an additional step on the pathway on which the great Christian creeds moved; rather, they are moving in an exactly opposite direction. What they are doing has nothing whatever to do with that grand progress of Christian doctrine of which I spoke last Sunday. Far from continuing the advance of Christian doctrine they are starting something entirely different, and that something different, we may add, is doomed to failure from the start.

The first prerequisite, then, for any advance in Christian doctrine is that those who would engage in it should believe in the full truthfulness of the Bible and should endeavor to make their doctrine simply a presentation of what the Bible teaches.

These are very helpful statements to keep in mind when thinking doctrinally and writing doctrinally.  We need to be sure don’t let our experiences in the Christian faith lead the way in defining biblical truths.   Our experiences – as valid as they may be – are subjective.  But God’s word is objective and foundational.  So let’s be careful when we define biblical truths.  If we’re only giving a partial definition, it’s good to state it so we don’t mislead people.  And if our definition has a subjective aspect to it, we should state that as well – or perhaps get rid of it altogether and save it for one  example of application.

Speaking of confessions, one reason I very much appreciate the Reformed/Presbyterian standards is because they do typically give an objective, well rounded summary of Christian truths.

You can read Machen’s entire address in chapter 16 of God Transcendant (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Not Boasting In My Orthodoxy

Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that while we want our doctrine to be biblical, doctrine isn’t what saves us from sin and misery.  We don’t have faith in our doctrine; the object of saving faith is Christ alone.  Unfortunately, even good doctrine can become an idol, as Lloyd-Jones notes here:

“Let me put it plainly, I will not make my boast, I will not glory, even in my orthodoxy, for even that can be a snare if I make a god of it.  I will glory only in that Blessed Person himself by whom this great thing has been done, with whom I died, with whom I have been buried, with whom I am dead to sin and alive unto God, with whom I have risen, with whom I am seated in the heavenly places, by whom and by whom alone the world is crucified unto me and I am crucified unto the world.  Anything that wants to come into the center instead of him, anything that wants to add itself on to him, I shall reject.  Knowing the apostolic message concerning Jesus Christ in all its directness, its simplicity and its glory, God forbid that any one of us should add anything to it.  Let us rejoice in him in all his fullness, and in him alone.

D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, p. 189.

shane lems