By Ben Zemmer
In ancient times, God revealed Himself through visions and prophets, mighty acts, shadows and types, but all of these served but to point to the fuller and complete revelation of God in the person of Christ. The ageless question of how can sinful man stand before a holy God has its final, definitive answer in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. This is the hope of all true children of God. The reason and life blood from which flows the life of the believer is the very definitive and final work of Christ. The cross and resurrection is the pivot point on which the life of the believer turns. The very quickening of saving faith, the constant battle of continued belief and repentance, and the final climax of sinlessness beyond the death-line are all anchored in the cross of Christ. It is for that reason that the Paul resolved when teaching the Corinthian believers to “know nothing among [them] but Christ and Him crucified”. It is of this good news that Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe”. Paul was so fixated by the greatness of the gospel that he carefully constructed all his reasoning, instruction, and admonition to tie back into the completed work of Christ. Though the content of “sound doctrine” is complex and profound containing both indicative and imperative statements, narrative and discourse text, it relates in every way back to the foundational truths of the gospel.
Sound doctrine consists of the once for all delivered gospel and propagates by means of teaching. When writing to Titus, Paul encourages him to, “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Earlier on in the epistle Paul highlighted that sound doctrine is the task of a faithful elder by means of instruction (Titus 1:9). Further, it is clear that the content of sound doctrine is the gospel. Paul told Timothy that every doctrine or teaching must be measured against the Words of Christ (1 Timothy 6:3). Another word which Paul uses in close conjunction with the concept of sound doctrine is the word “traditions” (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:2). Although in this passage, Paul uses traditions in a positive sense to refer to the whole body of teaching that Paul “delivered” to the believers, one must exercise great caution to not mistake the word “tradition” as a largely positive term, since almost everywhere else in Scripture the term is used in a negative sense, referring to the self-righteous set of standards by which unbelievers attempt to make them selves acceptable to God (Galatians 1:14, Colossians 2:8). Near the end of Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonian church, Paul exhorts the believers against “idleness” which is “not in accord with the tradition that you received” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). If one were to understand “tradition” to refer to the whole content of Paul’s teaching that he cited earlier on in His epistle, it would be plausible to conclude that the content of Paul’s teaching was largely ethical. Although this is not the case, because the word Paul uses when rebuking idleness is not in the plural, but rather in the singular form (“tradition”). This indicates that ethical exhortation is only one “tradition” (3:6) amid the larger body of “traditions” (2:15). Thus, a correct understanding of tradition in this sense is very much synonymous with sound doctrine, namely the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Another key word that Paul used, though only once, is the concept of “pattern”. Paul used this term in reference to the way in which he communicated the content of sound doctrine to the believers. It is thus good to summarize that content of sound doctrine is the full bodied message of the gospel which includes both statements of fact (indicatives) and calls to action (indicatives), both of which cannot be divorced because both are rooted in the finished work of Christ. The essence of sound doctrine is Christ and Him crucified.
In his epistles Paul clearly follows a pattern of moving from proclamation of the “great redemptive works of Jesus” (indicative) to the “act and content of teaching” (imperative) (Ridderbos, pp.57,69). Just as in his epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul based his call to ethical change upon the gospel and truth he had delivered to them. One could easily, confuse Paul’s exhortations to be separated from the indicative statements that preceeded them. But clearly, the two are closely connected. As Ridderbos stated, “It is true that frequently teaching and to teach are concerned especially with ethics, but it is impossible to find…[this] distinction supported by New Testament usage. Teaching not only accompanies the kerygma [proclamation] (Matt. 4:23; 11:1); from the outset it refers to the content of the kerygma (Matt. 5:2; Mark 1:27; 4:2ff.; Acts 28:31; Gal. 1:12) and in part consists of the further explanation of the nature and progress of the accomplishment of redemption (Mark 9:31; 4:2ff.; Acts 18:25).(Ridderbos, p.70). Christ is the great indicative. Christ is the great normative. Thus the founding, shaping, and stabilizing of believers happens through the proclamation of the gospel. Paul calls faithful ministers of the gospel to preach the indicative with imperatives as natural outworking. Believers only have hope for following the imperatives, because Christ has already completed the work for them. As Paul elegantly stated, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”(Phillipians 2:11-13). Christ is both the content and essence of sound doctrine.