How God Teaches Doctrinal Truth
September 14th, 1980 @ 10:50 AM
HOW GOD TEACHES DOCTRINAL TRUTH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-14-80 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are worshiping with us in the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled How God Teaches Doctrinal Truth. In these present days we are following a program of Bible preaching. In the morning it is a series on the great doctrines of the Bible, and in the evening it is on the problems of human life. This evening it is Ishmael: Islam and the Oil Slick. And when you hear the sermon, you would think, "Now, he got that out of the headlines of the daily papers, and he read that in Newsweek, and Time, and the United States News and World Report, and the Forbes Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal." No, sir! The message comes out of the Bible. And you will see it tonight: it is out of the Bible, and then you just read about it in the headlines of the daily papers today, yesterday, and they are going to be that way tomorrow. That is what God says, and that is the sermon tonight concerning Ishmael: Islam and the Oil Slick. Now, the doctrinal series on the Bible is divided into fifteen sections. And the first two sermons are introductory. And next Sunday morning at this hour, we begin the doctrinal series on the Bible, bibliology, and the first one is entitled Books and the Book.
Now I do not know what to do with myself; I have scheduled this out for over three years, and yet this morning, at the first morning service, delivering this message, I got about halfway through. I suppose what I need to do is to rearrange it and do it over a period of seven years. It is – I don’t know what to think – the sermons are to be published. The Zondervan Publishing Corporation has asked that they be carefully taken down and transcribed and published, and I have to go through it; I cannot quit in the middle as I did this morning. So as I prayed and thought through the best I could between the morning hour at 8:15 and this one at 10:50, what I need to do is just to follow through the main course of the message.
Now, where I get bothered in that is this: I, with great dislike and reluctance, say things here in the pulpit and I don’t substantiate them. I don’t explain them; I don’t say how and why this thing is true. I dislike just saying a thing and then not explaining why it is true, but I can’t do both, so we’ll just leave off the explanations. And when things are said here in the pulpit doctrinally, and you wonder, "Well now, how in the world is that to be true?" Well, we’ll just have to have another session where you can talk to the pastor personally and ask him, "Now, now how in the world did you say something like that? And then, "How in the world could such a thing as that be true?" But I can assure you that all of these avowals that are made in the pulpit come out of endless study and reading and understanding, as I can understand it.
Now this second message: the first one was on how we are to adorn God’s doctrine [Titus 2:10]; and today, How God Teaches Us His Doctrinal Truth. First: we are under a heavenly assignment to teach the truth of God. That is a responsibility we cannot obviate; God has laid it upon us. In the Great Commission [Matthew 28:19-20], which is the last two verses in the last chapter of Matthew, in the Great Commission, the Lord says something in a far different way than you would expect Him to say it: "Go ye therefore, and mathetusate." Now I would have thought He would have said euaggelizō. No, He said, mathetusate. Euaggelizō: "evangelize." Mathetusate is an imperative of matheteuō: "to make disciples" [Matthew 28:19].
There is far more to the Christian faith than just preaching John 3:16, or "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" [Acts 16:31]. Mathetusate – matheteuō – involves the whole life. We are to win people to the Lord; but we also are to grow them up to be full-orbed Christians. And the Lord spelled it out: "Baptizing them in the name of the Triune God – and then that word didaskō from whence comes didaskalia, "the doctrine" – teaching them to observe all the things that I have commanded you" [Matthew 28:19-20]. This is the great, heavenly responsibility of the church. We are not only to euaggelizō – to evangelize, to win people to the Lord – but we also are to bring them up into the knowledge of Christ. We are to grow in every grace and in the knowledge of the Lord.
This was the tremendous responsibility that the apostle Paul laid upon Timothy, who in turn was to give the responsibility to others. The apostle Paul writes to his son in the ministry in these last words of his first letter to Timothy, "O Timothy, keep that which hath been committed to thy trust" [1 Timothy 6:20]. Now all of those words, "that which is committed to thy trust" is a translation of just one Greek word: parathēkē. Parathēkē is a deposit that is committed to somebody’s trust. Diathēkē, in the ninth chapter of Hebrews, refers to a will, a testament, what a man says just as he dies, his will and testament, diathēkē [Hebrews 9:16-17]. Parathēkē is the thing entrusted, the deposit of truth. Paul had written, "Take heed to thyself, and unto the doctrine: continue in them: for in doing this you will save yourself, and them that hear thee" [1 Timothy 4:16].
The man of God – and the responsibility of the church – is to obviate conceptions that are wrong and erroneous with the truth of God that is vivid and vital and viable. And this truth of God is referred to as a parathēkē; it is a deposit that God has given to us in our safekeeping. And in the second chapter of the last, the second letter to Timothy, the apostle uses that same kind of a word: "The things that thou hast heard of me, the same" – and there’s that parathēkē kind of a word again; here it’s a verbal form, parathou, the same – "commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" [2 Timothy 2:2].
The deposit of truth that we have received from God is not something evanescent, or ephemeral, or intangible; but it is a self-revelation of God, and it is very precise, and it is spelled out, and it is revealed to us in these Holy Scriptures. It is not nebulous like a spray of stardust in the sky, nor is it shifting like the changing form of the clouds, nor is it trackless like the path of a serpent over the rocks, or the flight of an eagle through the sky; but it is very definite and spelled out and written for us here in the Holy Word. That is the parathēkē, the deposit of truth, the doctrinal truth of God that He has given to us and that Paul says we are to give to others for to teach others also [2 Timothy 2:2].
The responsibility of the teaching ministry of a church is forever, and it involves every generation. These children that we have, it is a remarkable thing what can be done with them. Any little boy: you can teach him to be a cannibal, or you can teach him to be a goose-stepping fascist, or you can teach him to be a materialistic secular communist, or you can teach him to be a Mohammedan, or you could teach him to be a devout follower of the Lord. This is the heavenly assignment that God has given to us: we are to proclaim and to teach this great doctrinal revelation that the Lord hath given us on the pages of His Holy Book.
Now what is the method by which God teaches us doctrine? In Isaiah chapter 28, verses 9 and 10:
Whom shall he teach knowledge? And whom shall he make to understand doctrine? Them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.
We learn the truth of God as we learn anything else: precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, this and that and the yonder; a little and a little and a little. All of us learn just alike.
We learn music that way: beginning, and then adding to it, more and more, as we come into the knowledge of the whole musical frame. We learn everything that way. Calculus: we start with mathematics that are very simple, arithmetic. And then all those geometrical propositions, this one is built on this one is built on that one is added to that one; to calculus. In physics, in chemistry, in every way, we learn in those repetitious ways: a little here and a little there and adding to it yonder. And so we finally come into the full knowledge of the truth. It is a remarkable thing to me how God seeks that kind of a way of teaching.
Why didn’t He just put it in our heads, full – like Athena was born full grown out of the brow of Jove – why doesn’t God do us that way? We just suddenly come into the full possession of the truth, and we know all of it and are fully cognizant of the entire circle and circumference of the revelation of God. No, God doesn’t do it that way. He does it in little pieces, and in little precepts, and in little lines, and in little additions, and in what you would say, "wearisome trifles." That’s the way God teaches us.
I cannot but be overwhelmed by the handiwork of God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible. Look at this: in the thirty-first chapter of Exodus and the thirty-fifth chapter and the thirty-sixth chapter of Exodus, you have words that are tremendously potent when it says, "And the mighty Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab" [Exodus 31:1-3, 6]. Well, when I read that, "the mighty Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab" [Exodus 35:30-31, 36:1-2]. I would suppose it would be for some tremendous earth-shaking conquest, or some vast tremendous assignment that reaches to the very throne of the highest heaven. Now, that’s what I would suppose in the introductory of those words: "the mighty Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab" [Exodus 31:1-3, 6, 35:30-31, 36:1]
So I read those chapters thereafter, to see what the holy, mighty, heavenly Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab to do! And what was it to do? The mighty Holy Spirit of God came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab to make rods, and curtains, and stops, and rings, and staves, and pots and pans, and shovels for the house of God. Now can you imagine that? That’s God. Those little inconsequential minutiae, those small, minute trifles; that the Holy Spirit of God comes mighty upon Bezaleel and Aholiab to do that.
Well, lest I think that that is unusual and unique that God should have done that in the Bible, I turn and look at God’s other book: in nature. And the same Lord God is doing the same thing there every day and has been from the beginning. Did you ever look at a butterfly wing? The hand of God in those insignificant, almost, details?
A man one time said to me, "Come here and look at this microscope." And I looked down through that microscope; he had a butterfly wing underneath the microscope. And it was beautiful how every little detail of pigment was smooth and homogenous, just all alike all the way through; it was a marvelous thing to look at, that butterfly wing. Then he said, "Now wait a minute." And he took a piece of thing that was painted, our paint – you know, a man’s coloration – our pigmentation. And he put that under the microscope, and he said, "Now look at that."
So I looked down at the microscope at a man’s painting, his pigmentation, and it was rough and full of globules and blots and smears, and it looked terrible! Now that’s the Lord God. Can you imagine His taking time to work on the trifling detail of a butterfly wing? And He had been doing it from the beginning of creation, and still at it.
A snowflake: there are no two snowflakes ever alike, and each one of them marvelously, geometrically symmetrical, beautiful; the attention of God to detail. In my walking sometimes I’ll see a little flower growing out of a weed, and I’ll pick it up and look at it. It’s just marvelous: the handiwork of God in those inconsequential pieces of grass – and the whole workmanship of God is just like that!
Well, when I think of how God works, and how He reveals to us here in how we learn: we are going to sit at the feet of our Lord, and we’re going to try to get the mind of God in our minds and the heart and spirit of God in our souls. And how do we do it? Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little [Isaiah 28:10], growing in the knowledge of the blessed Lord Jesus, and it’s those little attention to trifles, to little bits and pieces that make the great, mighty, moving understanding of the doctrine of God.
I went to the British Museum one time, especially to look at the Elgin marbles. The reason I wanted to do that was I’d been in Athens, and there the Parthenon, which is one of the magnificent creations of classical Greek genius, the pediment – that triangle above the row of columns – the pediment at one time had beautiful statuary up there, created, chiseled by Phidias, the great Greek sculptor. But they’d been taken down; Lord Elgin conquered the country, and he carried those marbles to the British Museum.
Well, I had heard in reading Greek history that Phidias was working on those marbles to be put way up there, and he was meticulously working on the back side of them, the flowing of the hair and the beautiful folds of the garments, the robes. And somebody said to him, "Phidias, why all the labor and minute detail on the back side of these pieces of statuary? They’ll be way up high where nobody will ever see them."
And Phidias replied as he worked, "But God can see them!"
And he made them as beautifully perfect in the back as at the front. And that’s the reason I wanted to look at those Elgin marbles. So when I went to the British Museum, I looked at the back side of all of them, looking at the back side. And they are just as beautifully carved and as beautifully wrought back there, where he thought nobody would ever look at them, as they are in the front: that’s perfection!
As some of you did, I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Florence to look at Michelangelo’s David. As you walk into the main corridor, it’s the one that blocks the corridor – one of the great tremendous pieces of statuary of all time. And you’ve heard this story a thousand times. After everybody thought Michelangelo had finished the statue, he worked on it for months, and months, and months: a little thing here, a little piece there, a little expression yonder, a little curve in the muscle there. And somebody asked Michelangelo about it. Well, he replied that he was doing those little things, and the man who was talking to him said, "But Michelangelo, those things are trifles!"
And then the great artist replied, "Yes, they’re trifles, but trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle." It is our willingness and our surrendered yieldedness, it is our patience to learn that will open to us the ways of God and the understanding of heaven. And if we have no disposition to be patient in our studying, and to be diligent in our learning, and to add this to this, and this to this, precept upon precept, line upon line, that’s God’s way of teaching [Isaiah 28:9-10]; and if we don’t follow it, we’ll never know.
I cannot help but be halfway amused in reading, in the seventeenth chapter of Acts, the response of the Epicureans and the Stoic philosophers in Athens to the apostle Paul. He was in the Agora, down there below the Acropolis where the Parthenon is. He was down there in the Agora, talking and preaching about the truths of God. And those Epicurean and Stoic philosophers listening to Paul said, "What would this spermalogos have to say?" [Acts 17:18]. Spermalogos, how would you translate spermalogos? About as near a translation as you could say is "seed-picker." "He gives himself to dealing in trifles. What would this seed-picker say?" and the Greek is subjunctive: "What would this seed-picker say, if he had anything to say?" He’s a dealer in trifles: spermalogos. Well, when you look at the whole spectrum of the truth of God, you will find it to be just that! It will be a plain and a simple and an understandable thing.
I cannot help but be amused at what these critics say of the Christian fundamentalist who is trying to enter into the arena of national and civic life in our modern generation. All of us are very much aware of it; so the critics are those that look upon it with sarcasm, saying – now I’ve read this forty times, and you have too – "This bunch of Christians gathered over here, they have simplistic answers for all of the complicated problems of life."
That’s what they always say: "simplistic answers." Well, to them that’s a sarcasm. To them that is a caustic comment. That’s what they mean by it. Actually, in my humble persuasion, that’s God! God always has a very simplistic answer to all of the problems of human life. And our trouble is, instead of accepting and receiving and believing the plain, simple way of what is right and what is God-honoring, why, we try ten thousand circuitous, devious ways to get away from it! But the answer will always be simplistic.
For example, the Ten Commandments: could you imagine anything more easily understood or simpler than that? They’re called "The Ten Great Words" [Exodus 20:1-17]. Or take this tremendous answer of the apostle Paul when the jailer asked him, "What must I do to be saved?" [Acts 16:30]. Could you imagine a simpler, a more simplistic answer than this? "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" [Acts 16:31]. Simple, plain, that a child can understand.
Robert Browning wrote a tremendous poem entitled "Death in the Desert." It’s fanciful, of course, but out of his imagination he is describing the death of John, the sainted apostle, pastor of the church at Ephesus. He’s describing the death of the apostle John, and in that poem, Robert Browning writes – now you listen to this simplistic answer: "I say the acknowledgement of God in Christ, accepted by thy reason, solves for thee all questions in the earth and out of it."
So, what do you think about that? If a man will give himself to God, if he will follow the mind of Christ, if he will open his heart to the meaning and message of the Lord Jesus our Savior, he won’t have any problems he can’t solve, either here in this life or in the life to come. That is God; the ways of God ultimately will always be plain and simple. And our way of understanding and learning is just like that: line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little, growing in the grace and in the knowledge of the Lord [Isaiah 28:9-10].
Now, in the message last Sunday on Adorning the Doctrine of God, we spoke of epistemology, that is, the branch of science that has to do with how we know, how we understand; the origin and the methods and the limits of knowledge. Now I’m going to speak for a moment of the tremendous branch of theology called hermeneutics, hermeneutics: how we interpret what God has written.
We have the self-revelation of our Lord here in this blessed Book. Now, how am I to interpret it? These are some of the tremendous principles of hermeneutics, as I seek to understand the revelation of God. Number one is this: I must remember in my reading the Bible and studying the blessed Scriptures, I must remember that it is one Book, it is one Book, it is moving toward one tremendous purpose. Now in that Book, in this one Book – the Bible – there are many, many sections and many, many parts, and many, many of those sections and many, many of those parts are incomplete in themselves.
So my first principle of interpretation is: I must interpret the entire part in the light of the whole Book. I must not take just a piece or just a part or just a section and then build the doctrinal truth upon that piece or that section. I must take the whole Book and the whole, whole purpose of the Bible. You’ll find in the Bible, "progressive revelation." It was this way and then God added to it here, and God added to it there, and God added to it further over there; progressive revelation. God has something better and more and still.
For example, when I read of the harem of David, or of the harem of Solomon, that in the Word of God; and this man David, after the Lord’s own heart [1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22], and Solomon, the one upon whom He gave such enormous blessing, with seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines! [1 Kings 11:3]. Little Sunday school boy said, "Solomon sure did love animals."
And the teacher said, "Well, what made you think he loves animals?"
"Because he had three hundred porcupines."
God sometimes does things because men are not able to receive it. That’s what Jesus said: "Moses allowed you this because of the hardness of your heart" [Matthew 19:8]. So we must interpret the Bible in terms of all of it; and there is progressive revelation of God in the Bible.
Another hermeneutical principle in the blessed Word: always, we are to interpret the passage in its context, always. What is this passage talking about? What is before? What is after? And what is the man who is writing under the Spirit of God, what is he saying? And in no instance are we ever to take an isolated text out. For example: those who teach that in baptism your sins are washed away, and the Bible says, "It is the blood of Christ that washes our sins away" [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5]. You must interpret an individual, isolated text in the framework of the whole revelation of God, and if you do, it’ll come out in a beautiful, marvelous way because God doesn’t contradict Himself: that’s a hermeneutical principle.
May I mention just one other out of so many that we ought to discuss? The matter of exegesis in interpretation, in understanding the Word of God; what does that word mean? And that’s why the man of God ought to be able to understand Hebrew, and he ought to be able to understand Greek, because the Word was written in Hebrew, or Aramaic, and Greek. Now, that is why, and we just follow this deductively on down, that is why it is so important – to somebody like me, at least – to believe in the infallibility and in the inerrancy of those original autographs. Because when I study the Word, and go back and back and back to the original manuscript, when I study the Word, if I don’t have the assurance that the Word in the original manuscript is infallible and inerrant, then I can never know the truth!
I have to believe that if I take this Word back to the exact way that the inspired prophet or the inspired apostle wrote it, if I can find that Word, I will have the exact Word that God inspired [2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21]. But if it isn’t correct there, then I could never have any assurance that this is the truth of God. It is most vital, it is not optional to somebody like me, it is most vital for us to believe in the inerrancy and in the infallibility of that original Word written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and written in Greek. And when I go back to that Word, I have the infallible and inerrant word of Almighty God.
Now, I must conclude. You know it just seems to me I’m up here about a minute or two, and here we are and the thing is over. Now our invitation: the invitation of God is always to "come and to sit at My feet, and to enroll in My school, and to learn about Me" [Matthew 11:28-29]. God invites us; it’s the big thing in our lives. The wisest man who ever lived wrote in the fourth chapter of Proverbs:
Ye children hear the instruction of the father. Attend to know understanding, for I give you good doctrine . . .
Get wisdom and understanding: forget it not . . . Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.
Exalt her, she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honor. She
shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee.
That’s God speaking to us. If in our patience we will learn precept upon precept, line upon line [Isaiah 28:10], hungering and thirsting, as Jesus would say, after the Lord [Matthew 5:6], if we will do that; that, the faith, the knowledge, the doctrine, the truth of God will crown our heads with an ornament and will bring us to glory [2 Timothy 4:8]. The Lord has promised a beautiful thing for us who will do this, who will learn of the teaching, the doctrine, the truth of God [Matthew 11:29].
Jesus said, in John 17:3, "This is life eternal, that they might know Thee . . . and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." The way to life, the way to heaven, is thus to understand the self-revelation, the teaching, the doctrine of God. And that’s our Lord’s precious invitation in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, verses 28, 29, and 30: "Come unto Me," He says, "Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me" [Matthew 11:28-30].
"Take my yoke upon you" is an old Talmudic, rabbinical phrase meaning "enroll in my school." And "learn of Me" means "to sit at My feet" [Matthew 11:29]. It is possible for a man to know all about the history and geography of the land of God, the Holy Land, but never know God Himself. It is possible for a man to know all the syntax of the sentences that describe the love and grace of God and yet never know God Himself. That’s why I think the Lord couched that beautiful sublime invitation, "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Enroll in My school, "Take My yoke upon you"; sit at My feet, learn of Me [Matthew 11:28-29]. For when I know Jesus and accept Him as my Teacher and my Lord, my Guide and my Savior, I have the key to all of the understandings of life here and in the world to come. It is a precious and beautiful thing that God hath given to us. As Isaiah quoted the Lord, saying, "This is the way, walk ye in it" [Isaiah 30:21]. "Enroll in My school, sit at My feet, learn about Me," and the result and the promise is eternal life [John 10:27-30]; the solution to every human problem, the open door into heaven [John 14:1-6].
O Lord, how wonderfully good You are, thus today to condescend to be a teacher of us who are made out of dust and ashes. And that’s our invitation to you. Now could we stand for the prayer?
Our dear Lord in heaven, how could we frame the sentence to say it or the word to pronounce it, the depths of our gratitude to God that thus He invites us to sit at His feet and to learn of Him? There are no answers that God doesn’t know. All power in heaven and earth is in His hand [Matthew 28:18], and He can see us through; He does, He will. And our Lord, in that simple and humble obedience of bowing in Thy presence, of accepting Thy grace, of loving Thy dear Son, of walking in this pilgrim way, O Lord, what a heavenly privilege. We thank Thee that God does open the door to us. And we pray now, Lord, that God will touch the hearts of many this morning; that they too will walk with us in the highway of holiness [Isaiah 35:8], in this pilgrimage to the world that is yet to come.
While our people pray, and while we wait, and in a moment when we sing the song, thus in the balcony, a family, a couple, or just you, in the press on this lower floor, into an aisle and down here to the front: "Pastor, we have decided for God today, and here we stand." Down a stairway, down an aisle, here where our ministers can pray a prayer of rejoicing for you, and our deacons can kneel by your side and thank God for your coming, make the decision in your heart now, and in a moment, and in a moment, take that first step, and God will lead the rest of the way. And thank You, Lord, for these who come. In Thy saving and keeping name, amen. Now while our ministers are here, and while our people pray, and while our choir sings our hymn of appeal, make it now, come now, while we sing.
HOW GOD TEACHES DOCTRINAL TRUTH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. Our heavenly assignment
A. Words of commission (Matthew 28:19-20)
B. Teaching ministry of the church (1 Timothy 4:16, 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:14)
1. Truth of God given to us for safe keeping (2 Timothy 2:2)
II. God’s teaching method
A. In the Bible, the way of the prophet and apostle
1. The patent method of Isaiah (Isaiah 28:9-10)
2. He is revealed even in the minute trifles (Exodus 31:2, 33:35, 36:1-2)
3. Our patience to learn will open our understanding (Acts 17:18)
4. Simple and plain (Acts 16:30-31)
B. Today, the way of the pastor-teacher
2. Must take the Book as a whole
3. Interpret passage in its context
4. Discover exact meaning of the words – exegesis
III. The invitation to learn
A. Desire to know (Proverbs 4:1-9, John 17:3)