The Christian’s responsibility is clear: We are to learn God’s truth by searching God’s Word. We must carefully evaluate every teaching according to God’s unfailing standard. What passes the test is sound doctrine, and what fails the test is false doctrine.
False doctrine confuses truth and error, while sound doctrine distinguishes truth and error. False doctrine fails to distinguish between what God has revealed in his Word and what has been fabricated by men or demons. In the book of Hebrews, we see a church that has backslidden, that has reverted to ungodly behavior. They have done so because of their failure to heed sound doctrine. Their pastor writes this: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food … solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12,14). The sound doctrine they had received would have enabled them to distinguish truth from error, if only they had held to it. Their poor doctrine left them vulnerable in the face of error.
False doctrine prevents godliness, while sound doctrine promotes godliness. False doctrine undermines godliness by promoting what is novel or speculative in place of what is true. As Paul writes to Timothy, he says, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different [strange] doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Rather than continuing to act in love born out of a sincere, informed faith (5), those “certain persons” had wandered into ungodly vanity (6). Their false doctrine had led them to ungodliness.
False doctrine promotes sin, while sound doctrine prevents sin. False doctrine allows sin to take root in our hearts and minds and work its way out in our lives. Sound doctrine confronts our sinfulness and motivates us to repent. As Paul says to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The doctrine contained in Scripture teaches and reproves, it corrects and trains, purging sin and motivating righteousness.
False doctrine elevates ungodly leadership, while sound doctrine qualifies godly leadership. Positions of leadership within the church are reserved for those who know and teach sound doctrine. When Paul writes Titus, he instructs him to appoint elders in the churches of Crete. He reminds Titus of a key qualification he must look for before appointing such men: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Those who cannot give sound doctrine cannot lead the church.
False doctrine permits false teachers, while sound doctrine protects against false teachers. Propagated false doctrine weakens a church’s defense, providing an easy opening for more false teachers to spread through the congregation. The false teaching in Crete had weakened the church for the “empty talkers and deceivers” of the circumcision party (Titus 1:10). Such false teachers “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (16). But sound teaching equips leaders and laypersons alike to refute false teachers (9).
False doctrine removes God’s blessing, while sound doctrine ensures God’s blessing. Revelation is bookended by promises of God’s blessing upon those who hold to the doctrine it teaches. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it … And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 1:3, 22:7). Yet it also solemnly warns of the dire consequences for those who fail to hold to its doctrine (2:14-16, 20-23). God blesses those who heed the precious truths of his Word and curses those who deny or reject them.
False doctrine debilitates the church for times of difficulty, while sound doctrine equips the church for times of difficulty. By the time Paul sends his second letter to Timothy, he is anticipating a time when churches will no longer tolerate truth. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). How should Timothy prepare his church for such a time? By preaching the Bible and teach ing the doctrine it contains. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Nothing better equips a church for times of trial than the Bible’s deep doctrines.
False doctrine weakens the future church, while sound doctrine strengthens the future church. Christians are responsible for both the present and the future of the faith. Jesus’s final commandment to his disciples included not only evangelizing and baptizing the nations, but also “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20a). In both letters to Timothy, Paul told his young protégé to “guard the deposit” that had been entrusted to him (1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:14). But it was not enough for Timothy to guard it personally. He was called by God to raise up the next generation of leaders who would hold to it and, in turn, entrust it to the generation after them. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
False doctrine confuses truth and error, prevents godliness, promotes sin, elevates ungodly leadership, permits false teachers, removes God’s blessing, debilitates the church for times of difficulty, and weakens her for the future. Sound doctrine distinguishes truth from error, promotes godliness, prevents sin, qualifies godly leadership, protects against false teachers, ensures God’s blessing, equips the church for times of difficulty, and strengthens her for the future.