Doctrine is inescapable. Whether trumpeted loudly or held closely to ones chest, beliefs have a subtle but powerful way of shaping people’s lives and the world. The New Testament is careful to caution against being led astray by false teaching, and on several occasions the Apostles entreat God’s people to remain faithful to the truth of the gospel (see Matthew 22:29; Galatians 1:9; 1 Timothy 4:16; 2 Timothy 3:14; 2 Peter 2:1).
Powerful links can be discovered between our beliefs and our behavior; theology and ethics; orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Indeed, Scripture knows that the boundary between beliefs and morals is a fluid one. Take Acts 15 as a case in point—which of the conclusions passed on by the council are theological and which ones are ethical? The difference is hard to make. The popular distinction between ceremonial, moral, civil, and ritual aspects of the Mosaic law fails at exactly this point.
So it’s no wonder that Jesus asks the Father to sanctify his followers by the truth (John 17:17). Truth is ultimately related to holiness, and sometimes that relationship is obvious, while other times it’s wonderfully mysterious. So rather than being divisive or distracting, doctrine unites the church and calls forth its imitation of the life of God in Christ.
The following are five doctrinal myths that often go unchallenged in our popular church theologies. Though their ethical dimensions are only teased out in the form of reflection questions, they may have the power to affect the church’s flourishing—for better or worse. Some of these deal with matters of orthodoxy proper, while others are secondary doctrines that shouldn’t divide Christians.
1. God created humanity and the world so that he would have someone to love.
At first glance, this is a harmless conclusion that serves to warm us up to a God who wants to have a special relationship with his creation. It is, perhaps, something you might read on a church sign or placard. However, since Scripture teaches that God is love (1 John 4:8)—in his very essence—this means that he was already perfectly loving before he created the world. Simply put, God didn’t need us in order to be loving.
To affirm this myth would result in forfeiting the doctrine of the Trinity, which states that God was a perfectly loving community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit even before the creation of the world. This is why Jesus can say, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:5) Furthermore, if God needed the world to express his love, then God is somehow dependent on the world. But this would call into question some of his essential attributes, such as his aseity, or self-sufficiency, and his eternality. Ultimately, if God is dependent on creation to manifest his essential attributes, it would make Christianity a lot more like pantheism (God is the world, and the world is God), which the church has always firmly rejected.
Scripture teaches that “The God who made the world and everything in it … is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything” (Acts 17:24-25). So, while the error that God created us in order to be able to show his love is true to the extent that creation is an expression of his love, the triune God of the Bible is not solitary and therefore lacks nothing. The church worships a God who, in himself and without the aid of anything external to him, is perfect love.
- What function might this erroneous doctrine serve for the world? Could that purpose be established elsewhere in Christian doctrine?
- If love has its basis in the eternal life of the trinitarian God, does it diminish or enhance the limits of loving human relationships?
- How might you relate differently to a God who is, in his essence, a loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rather than merely, say, a ruler, creator, or king?
2. Without Jesus there remains only the judgmental God of the Old Testament.
Popular culture is replete with the claim that in Jesus we discover a God that reverses the image of the mean, wrathful God of the Old Testament who is bent on violently punishing sinners and smiting entire people groups. The God of the Old Testament, or so the story goes, was about law and judgment, while the God that Jesus represents is about love and grace.
What this popular version of Christianity certainly gets right is that in Jesus we discover the climax of God’s love and grace toward the world. What it gets wrong, however, is its claim that Jesus is a reversal of the God-story found in the Old Testament. This is a distortion of the gospel and is at odds with the evidence found in the biblical narrative. On the contrary, Yahweh is regularly described as “slow to anger” (Numbers 14:18) and full of grace throughout the Old Testament, especially the Psalms (86:15; 103:8). The Exodus wandering and the tradition of the prophets and kings make clear that Israel’s God was full of patience and kindness, both toward Israel and its neighbors.
Then there is Jesus. Rather than abolishing the Old Testament Law and prophets, Jesus came to fulfill them (watch this Seven Minute Seminary by John Oswalt). Indeed, Jesus is whom the Old Testament anticipated. God’s love, which reached its climax in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is one that presses the need for repentance firmly upon the world (Acts 2:38; 17:30). Jesus’ teaching, especially the parables, were full of warnings of judgment (think of the sheep and goats, the administered talents, the ten virgins, etc.) And in the book of Revelation, which concludes the New Testament, God’s promise to renew the world and rid it of sin, death, and the devil is ultimately accomplished by judging it.
The rejection of the God of the Old Testament was decisively deemed a heresy (in this case, Marcionism) by the early church because it fundamentally failed to integrate the historical teachings of Jesus, his apostles, and the Old Testament in a coherent way.
- Does the strong continuity between the Old and New Testaments affect your understanding of Jesus’ character?
- Might a retrieval of God’s covenantal grace, love, and holiness—both in the Father and in Jesus—impact how you should relate to others?
- Would your presentation of the gospel change in any way in light of a more careful reading of both the Old and New Testaments?
3. God the Father turned his back on Jesus while he hung on the cross.
Churches that are especially gospel-conscious will take steps to clearly present the work of Jesus on special occasions such as Easter services. Easter is when this particular teaching rises to the surface. It is commonly claimed that because Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), God the Father, in his holiness, turned his back on Jesus while he hung on the cross. This explains Jesus’ cry of abandonment, or so it is claimed (Matthew 27:46).
Rather than this being an explicit teaching found on the Bible’s pages, it is, rather a logical deduction based on conclusions drawn about God’s holiness (Isaiah 59:1-2). While being an effective, and perhaps faithful in some measure, gospel presentation, it fails in reading too literally a figurative explanation of God’s reaction to sin. What this view does, in the process of drawing attention to the high cost that God paid on the cross, is cause a rift in the life of the Trinity. But rather than being a cry of desperation because of a felt break in his relationship with the Father, we might consider Jesus’ words a shortened allusion to the prayer of Psalm 22:1, which ends in a faithful trust in God’s plan and vindication.
Jesus and the Father enjoyed an unbroken union in the Spirit throughout his entire life, even on the cross. While the Father allowed him to suffer and die in order to save humankind, Father was never pitted against Son, and their relationship was never ruptured.
- If Jesus was allowed to suffer even while perfectly faithful to God, what does that forecast for our own trials and tribulations?
- Does Jesus’ lament on the cross embolden you to cry out to God in your suffering?
- How should the context of Psalm 22 affect our disposition when walking through adversity?
4. Christians will spend eternity in a place called heaven.
It’s true that Christians will go to heaven, or something like it at least, upon death (2 Corinthians 5). But that’s only half of the truth. Rather than spending eternity in an immaterial world, the gospel actually promises a more radical alternative—a new heaven and new earth, inhabited by people with renewed, resurrected bodies (watch this Seven Minute Seminary video by Matt O’Reilly).
Centuries of unfortunate tradition and hymns have resulted in one of the most difficult myths to dislodge from our consciousness, namely, that the reward for the Christian life is heaven. On the contrary, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul looks forward to a resurrected body—like the one Jesus has. It is spiritual (v. 44) in the sense that it is animated by the Spirit of God and is a product of his Spirit’s renewal (watch this Seven Minute Seminary by Ben Witherington). But it is material in the sense that it is a body styled after our current one, and it will be the glory of God for those who inhabit the earth after the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven as a dwelling place for God and humankind (Revelation 21:1-2).
As N. T. Wright has said, “Instead of suggesting that we could escape the earth to go to heaven, Jesus’s good news was about heaven coming to earth.” This is why, in teaching us to pray, Jesus asked of the Father, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The gospel is the good news that God is reconciling all things to himself and renewing all of creation (see Romans 8:19-23; 2 Peter 3:10-13; Revelation 21:1-2 and this blog post).
- Does God’s commitment to his creation affect how your view your place on this earth?
- How might the metaphor of sojourn/pilgrim take on new meaning in light of God’s promise to renew the heavens and the earth?
- What does God’s commitment to our material world do to a strict physical/spiritual dualism?
5. The Father loves us as a result of the work of Jesus.
Many gospel presentations vividly describe a sinful humanity, an angry God, a deep chasm, and the obedience of Jesus that placates judgment and enables God to love us as his children. Some go so far as to say that God loves us eternally only as a result of the work of Jesus on our behalf, which he had anticipated in his foreknowledge. However, this gets the story wrong—ever so slightly. John 3:16 says it clearest: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.”
Rather than being merely the cause of his love for the world, Jesus was the result of the Father’s love for the world. To be sure, God loves those who accept his grace and become his covenant people in a special way because of what Jesus has done, but this is only half of the truth. God invites people to live in covenant with him through Jesus because of his profound love and affection for the world.
The love of God the Father is one of deep, abiding affection. Consider these Scriptures as a testimony of his love, in spite of humanity’s sinfulness: Zephaniah 3:17; Luke 15:11-32 John 15:13; Matthew 23:37; 1 John 4:8.
- Do you know that God loves you in and through Jesus, not only as a result of Jesus?
- How might your worship and prayer life be altered by a surrender to this profound affection of the Father?
- Does this kind of love—and order of love—impact how you should relate to your parents, children, spouse, neighbors, enemies?
- What has your experience been with any of these “doctrinal myths”?
- Has your mind changed on any of these issues over the course of time?
- Do you have experience with other mistaken beliefs that have proven to be powerfully effective in your life or those around you?