The Young Lady's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character

by Harvey Newcomb, 1843


DOCTRINAL KNOWLEDGE

 

It is common for people to speak of doctrine with aversion, as though it were something abstract and dry, having no connection with practical life. This notion, however, is founded on a misapprehension, not only of the meaning of the term, but of the connection of actions with established principles of the mind. The general signification of the word doctrine is, the principles upon which any system is founded. As applied to Christianity, it means divine truth; for this is the foundation upon which the Christian religion rests. Although the truths of God's word are not reduced to a regular system in the Bible, yet, when brought together, they make the most beautiful and perfect of all systems. It is proper, therefore, that we should contemplate them in a body, as they appear with the most perfect symmetry in the plan of God's moral government.

There is a disposition, with many, to undervalue doctrinal knowledge. They think it of little consequence what they believe, if they are only sincere, and manifest much feeling on the subject of religion. This is a ruinous mistake. There is an intimate connection between faith and practice. The principles which are believed, and received into the heart, govern and control the conduct. The doctrines which God has revealed in his word are the principles of his moral government. If we mistake these principles, we may be found in open rebellion, while we think we are doing God service. For example, God commands us to keep holy the Sabbath day. But, if we do not believe that he has given this commandment, we shall feel under no obligation to obey it. And every truth which God has revealed is as intimately connected with practice as this, although the duty enjoined may be, in itself considered, of less consequence.

Christianity is called a spiritual building. "You are built up a spiritual house." "Whose house are we." "You are God's building." The foundation and frame-work of this building are the doctrines or truths of the Bible. Some of these doctrines are called FUNDAMENTAL, or ESSENTIAL, because they lie at the foundation of the whole building, and are so essential to it, that, if taken away, the edifice would fall to the ground. These are:

1. the existence of God in the mysterious union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;

2. the fall, and consequent depravity and condemnation, of man;

3. the atonement of Christ;

4. justification by faith in him alone;

5. the necessity of regeneration by the Holy Spirit;

6. the eternal punishment of those who finally reject the gospel.

If any one of these were taken away, it would overturn the whole building. These may, therefore, well be called the foundation. But there are many other important parts of a frame besides the foundation. So there are many very important truths of Christianity besides its essential doctrines. But some of these are of more consequence than others. If a post or a beam is taken away, the building is greatly marred, and in danger of falling; yet, if well covered, it may still be a comfortable dwelling. Again, although a brace or a pin is of service to strengthen the building, yet either may be taken away without very serious injury. But a frame may be complete in all its parts, and yet be no building. Without a covering, it will not answer a single design of a house; and in proportion as it is well covered, will it be a comfortable residence. Just so with Christianity.

The covering of the house is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, producing gracious affections, which manifest themselves in a holy life. But the covering of a house cannot exist without some kind of frame-work. So experimental and practical piety cannot exist without a belief of the fundamental doctrines of the gospel. The Holy Spirit operates upon the heart through the truth. He gives it a personal application, brings it home to the heart and conscience, and exerts an efficacious influence in connection with it, changing the heart and life. "By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth." "Seeing you have purified your souls, in obeying the truth through the Spirit." Thus the agency of the Spirit is generally acknowledged in connection with the truth. "Sanctify them by the truth. Your word is truth."

Any religious feeling or experience, therefore, which is not produced by the truth, made effectual by the Holy Spirit, is not genuine. There is a kind of indefinite religious feeling, which many mistake for Christian experience. They feel, and, perhaps, deeply; but they know not why they feel. Such religious feeling is to be suspected as spurious. It may be a delusion of Satan. By persuading people to rest upon this spurious religious feeling, he accomplishes his purpose as well as if he had kept them in a careless state.

The clearer our views of truth, the more spiritual and holy will be our pious affections. Thus godly sorrow arises from a sight of our own depravity, with a sense of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, as committed against a holy God, and against great light and mercy. Faith is produced by a view of the atonement of Christ, and of his infinite fullness as a complete and perfect Savior. Love is excited by a discovery of the excellence of God's moral perfections. Godly fear and reverence arise from a sight of the majesty and glory of his natural attributes, and a sense of his presence. Joy may come from a sense of the infinite rectitude of his moral government, from the sight of the glory of God in his works of providence and grace, or from a general view of the beauty and excellence of divine truth. Comfort may be derived from evidence of the divine favor; and confidence, from an appropriation of God's promises to ourselves.

But all religious feeling produced by impulse, without any rational view of the truth, is to be suspected. Every religious affection has its counterfeit. Thus sorrow may be produced by the fear of hell, without any sense of the evil of sin. A presumption of our own good estate may be mistaken for faith; and this will produce joy. We may exercise a carnal or selfish love to God, because we think he loves us, and has made us the objects of his special favor; and this may excite the natural passions to a high degree of fervor, without any spiritual affection. The promises of God, also, so far as they concern the personal good of the believer, may administer as much comfort to the self-deceived, as to the real saint.

But as the frame-work of a building, though complete in all its parts, would be no house without a covering, so we may have a speculative knowledge of the doctrines of the Christian religion, and not be Christians. It is the experimental and practical application of these doctrines to the heart and life that makes the building complete. By regarding ourselves as subjects of God's moral government, and the doctrines of the Bible as the laws of his kingdom, we feel such a personal interest in them, that we cannot rest in abstract speculation. Let us, therefore, study these doctrines, that we may know how to live to the glory of God.

Directions for acquiring Doctrinal Knowledge.

I. Become a little child. "As new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word." "Except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." A little child believes the words of his father. "My father says so," is reason enough for him. He does not say, "I will not believe it, because I cannot understand it." In like manner should we submit to the teachings of God's holy word. We cannot expect to comprehend the ways of an infinite Being. We can see but a very small part of the system of his moral government. Let us not, then, try to carry out difficult points beyond what is taught in the Scriptures. God has revealed in the Scripture, all that is necessary for us to know in this life. He knows best where to leave these subjects. If there were no difficulties in the truths revealed, there would be no trial of our faith. It is necessary that we should take some things on trust. There are some truths clearly revealed, which we find difficulty in reconciling one with the other. Be content to believe both on the authority of God's word. He will reconcile them hereafter. "What I do, you know not now," said our Lord to Peter, "but you shall know hereafter." Let this consideration always satisfy us: "Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight."

I am the more particular here, because this is the point where error begins. The setting up of 'feeble reason' in opposition to the word of God, is the origin of most mistakes in religion. And, if we determine to be satisfied of the reasonableness of the truth before we believe it, and carry out the principle, we shall land in downright atheism. I do not mean to say that any truth is unreasonable. On the contrary, divine truth is the perfection of reason. But there are some truths which may appear unreasonable because we cannot see the whole of them. Thus a fly on the corner of a house cannot see the beauty and symmetry of the whole building. So far as his eye extends, it may appear to be sadly lacking in its proportions. Yet this is but a faint representation of our narrow views of God's moral government.

But a great many of the difficulties which are felt in regard to religious truth arise from mistaking the true province of reason. There are a multitude of facts in natural science which are capable of being demonstrated; and yet all philosophy is set at defiance to determine the mode or manner of their existence, or the reasons why they exist. Thus we can easily understand the fact of the attraction of the needle to the pole; but the cause of this attraction, or the manner in which it operates, is entirely beyond our apprehension. So we can understand the fact that the heat of the sun, with moisture upon the earth, will cause seed to vegetate; but we can explain neither the reason why, nor the mode of operation; nor can we tell the reason why every seed will produce its kind, or why every animal will propagate its own species; neither can we discover the mode, or manner, in either of these cases; and yet the fact is undeniable. To determine the facts, in all these cases, by an examination of the evidence by which they are substantiated, is the true province of reason; but it would be unphilosophical and absurd to deny the fact, because we cannot understand the how or the why.

Apply this simple principle to divine truth, and half the difficulties with which it is surrounded will vanish. Thus we can understand the fact of the connection of Adam's fall with the depravity of all men; but the reasons which influenced the Divine Mind, in constituting the arrangement under which this takes place, are entirely out of our reach; nor can we explain the mode by which this depravity is inherited. So we can apprehend the fact of the Trinity of persons in the Godhead, and the union of the divine and human natures in Christ; but the mode, or manner, is above our comprehension. Reason is competent to judge of the evidence by which these truths are established; and no better evidence can be had or desired than the word of God, in ascertaining the meaning of which reason is to be employed. But, when that meaning is ascertained, reason is to bow with implicit faith. It is to be observed, however, that the word of God does not teach anything which is obviously absurd, and repugnant to right reason, as the Papal notion of transubstantiation; and the fact that the meaning we attach to any passage of Scripture is absurd, and repugnant to reason, is presumptive evidence that we have mistaken its meaning.

II. Avoid a controversial spirit. Do not study for the sake of finding arguments to support your own opinions. Take the place of a sincere inquirer after truth, with a determination to embrace whatever you find supported by the word of God, however contrary it may be to your favorite notions. But, when objections arise in your mind against any doctrine, do not suppose you have made some new discovery, and therefore reject it without further inquiry. The same objections have, perhaps, occurred to the mind of every inquirer on the same subject; and, very probably, they have often been satisfactorily answered by able writers. This is a common error of young inquirers. They are apt to think others take things upon trust, and that they are the only people who have thought of the difficulties which start up in their minds. But, when their reading becomes more extensive, they learn, with shame, that what appeared to them original thought, was only reviving old, cast-off opinions.

III. Use such helps as you can obtain. Read carefully selected and judicious authors, on doctrinal subjects. Although the Scriptures are our only guide, yet we may profit by the experience of others. We may see how the difficulties which arise in our own minds appeared to them, and how they solved them. We may learn, also, that our difficulties with commonly received opinions are not new, but that they have before occurred to the minds of others, who, nevertheless, after examination, have retained these opinions. This may prevent us from hastily rejecting any doctrine without thorough examination. We may also obtain much light upon many difficult passages of Scripture, by an acquaintance with the times and circumstances in which they were written; and men who undertake to write on such subjects generally search deeply into these matters.

Furthermore, it has pleased God, in every age, to raise up men "mighty in the Scriptures." With their extraordinary powers of mind, and knowledge of the languages in which the Scriptures were originally written, it would be strange if they should not have clearer perceptions of their meaning, and more comprehensive views of divine truth, than those who have only read the English Bible; and to despise what they have written would be the height of self-conceited folly.

We may also employ the sermons which we hear for an increase of doctrinal knowledge, as well as an excitement to the performance of duty. But all which we read or hear must be brought to the test of God's word. We are commanded to "test the spirits, whether they be of God." Do not take the opinions of men upon trust. Compare them diligently with the word of God, and do not receive them until you are convinced that they agree with this unerring standard. Make this your text-book; and only use others to assist you in coming to a right understanding of this. Yet be not too confident in your own understanding; and be ever ready to suspect your judgment, where you find it opposed by the opinions of the mass of learned and pious men whom God has raised up for the instruction of his people.

IV. In all your researches after doctrinal knowledge, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Pray that God would enable you to understand his word, that you may be "rooted and grounded in the faith." The influences of the Holy Spirit are twofold. He enlightens the understanding, to lead it into a correct knowledge of the truth; and he applies the truth, to the sanctification of the heart. Pray diligently that you may have both. If you persevere in the proper observance of this direction, you cannot fail to profit by the others; but, if you neglect this, your pursuit of doctrinal knowledge will serve only as food for your pride, self-confidence, and conceit—and exert a blighting influence upon your soul.