Doctrine - Conclusions

The three sections of this book have forced me to consider which doctrines are important, which are divisive, and which are so confusing that it is possible we have misunderstood the Bible.

One surprising realization I had while writing this book was how little it takes to “please” God. This is not a new discovery but is found in the Bible itself: we need merely to “believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). It was confirmed by drilling down in section 3 to the minimum list of doctrines necessary for salvation in the New Testament: Jesus’ death, resurrection, and divinity, with an understanding that sin is followed by either judgment or by forgiveness if we repent and trust Jesus.

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Both simple and complex

Although this shows that the gospel is simple to grasp, looking at the details through first-century eyes also reminds us about the complexities that have kept theologians working for two thousand years. Concepts such as “Trinity” and “faith” are multifaceted in a way that translations can obscure. But the most complex topic in the New Testament turns out to be the means by which salvation comes through Jesus. This can’t be portrayed by any single picture, so the writers use multiple images: redemption from slavery, a sacrifice of supreme value, vicarious suffering of sin’s consequences, salvation obtained through mercy and grace, free forgiveness that necessitates repentance and obedience, and all this resulting in new birth or new creation, which can also be described like the adoption of a teenager.

       Over time, as the church has merged these different representations of salvation, some have become obscured or conflated. For example, in this book we have found that the concept of suffering in the first century was entirely separate from the topic of sacrifice, so we tend to merge them—which means that we neglect the message of God’s sacrificial generosity. Other topics are neglected in the Bible text because, paradoxically, although they are very important, they were so accepted or taken for granted that there was little need to mention them. Just as the Bible rarely teaches that God exists (because everyone already believed this), the topic of repentance was so overwhelmingly important and obvious in the first century that it isn’t often mentioned. However, when we reinsert repentance into the background of beliefs, concepts such as sin and the need for forgiveness become self-evident.

Clearer in the first century

We have also found that other doctrines have become clearer when seen through the insights of first-century believers. The “unforgivable sin” has turned out to be something Jesus’ contemporaries already knew about, so his teaching on this subject was actually something revolutionary about the nature of God. By contrast, original sin was an entirely novel teaching that isn’t in the Bible, so we tend to confuse it with original sinfulness, which clearly is there. Unfathomable concepts such as faith and how prayer works are less confusing when seen through ancient eyes, though they are still mysterious.

       Paradoxes such as predestination versus free will, or God’s omnipotence versus human suffering, can be seen in a much clearer light when two thousand years of theological complexity are removed. Ultimately, of course, they aren’t solved, because the Bible doesn’t contain the solution—otherwise theologians wouldn’t have had to work so hard. Nevertheless, uncovering the foundations of these issues has been illuminating.

       The way we interpret and sometimes ignore texts is usually the weakest link in our doctrinal foundations—as we saw in the chapter on prooftexts. Occasionally the most likely reason is that the church has taken a wrong turn based on a misunderstanding. The New Testament is virtually silent on the issue of remarriage, for example, but the early church needed a clear message. Unfortunately, it came to profound conclusions on flimsy evidence. On the matter of eternal suffering in hell, however, the historic church didn’t lack data in the Bible, but it seems that it chose to ignore part of the message found in many of the Bible texts on the subject. Our detailed look at the Bible text has helped us retrace some of those wrong turns.

Toward less division

I recently came across a disturbing Sunni Islamic doctrine called firqa annajaat, “the successful faction,” which says that anyone from a rival denomination in Islam is destined for hellfire. Sunni Muslims, like Protestants, are divided into multiple denominations, and each one has inherited this doctrine. If they take it seriously, it means that anyone who doesn’t believe precisely what their own denomination teaches will go to hell. I found this particularly disturbing because a similar belief is implicit among some Christians.

       Divisions have been with us since the early chapters of Acts. Profound differences in what Christians believe about doctrines from birth and baptism through to the second advent have created many modern church splits. We disagree on whether to govern the church from the top down or bottom up, whether inspiration lies in the message of the Bible or its precise wording, and even whether we choose to follow God or are chosen by him.

       Revisiting the biblical foundations for these differences won’t solve them, but it does help us understand why other believers have come to different conclusions. We live in a complex universe, and God has not chosen to explain everything to us, so we should not automatically reject alternate conclusions based on the same revelation from God.

       Some of our divisions are unavoidable because, for example, the same organization can’t make decisions both by voting on each issue and also by following a single leader. But many are avoidable if we simply admit that the Bible doesn’t make everything clear. We can’t be certain of all the details implied by prophecy, and we can’t hope to solve all theological paradoxes this side of eternity. Going back to the Bible with a little humility could heal many rifts and thereby fulfill Jesus’ prayer to his Father “that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).

       Doctrines are helpful summaries of what the Bible says, but we’ve seen that when they go beyond what the text says, they have the potential to confuse and divide. I see no harm in making conjectures about things the Bible doesn’t state clearly, so long as we don’t treat these ideas as dogma. We have also found that reading the text through the eyes of its original recipients can open our eyes to what it means. There is no harm in exploring God’s word freely—especially in those areas that have been dismissed as “paradoxes” or other issues that are clearly problematic—as long as we come to the text in prayer and present our findings with humility. There is still much to discover!

1^ Hank Hanegraaff, “What Is Essential Christian Doctrine?” (
2^ Ed Stetzer, “99 Essential Doctrines Christians Should Know” (
3^ Example:

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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