From Doctrine to Experience

How should theology relate to life? The epistles of Paul address this question by their very structure. Notice this pattern: Romans 1-11 are primarily doctrinal; chapters 12-16 are practical. Ephesians 1-3 are doctrinal; chapters 4-6 are practical. Colossians 1-2 are doctrinal; chapters 3-4 are practical. Why did the Holy Spirit inspire this pattern? The key word is “therefore.” “I, therefore … beseech you to walk worthy of the calling” (Eph. 4:1). Practical Christian living is built upon revealed truth.

In her textbook on Christian literacy, Judith Lundsford encourages us to overcome the modern reluctance to learn doctrine. She noted,

“Since certain doctrines often spark debate, we moderns [in contrast to Martin Luther] tend to shy away from doctrine altogether. As a result, we ignore a broad set of Christian teachings that are fundamental to our faith. These doctrines are biblically sound, basically non-controversial, and help us organize our beliefs about fundamental issues, such as God, sin, heaven and hell. Because Christianity prompts a believer to live out the principles of his faith, the Christian’s beliefs are important.”[1]

Gary Johnson gives a further warning about this trend:

“Although most of today’s professing evangelicals would acknowledge that theology, in some sense of the word, does matter, a recent survey in Christianity Today revealed that this is more lip service than anything else. According to this survey … theology, in any sense of the word, is really not all that important to the very people to whom it should matter most: those in the pew and in the pulpit. Both groups listed theological knowledge as last in terms of pastoral priorities … We are sadly experiencing, on a rather large scale, a subjectivism that betrays its weakened hold on the objective truth and reality of Christianity by its neglect or even renunciation of its distinctive objective character.”[2]

To be faithful in carrying out the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-10), we need to study and believe the doctrines of God’s Word. God’s people should be loyal to “orthodoxy.”

Recognizing the importance of doctrine, we also need to appreciate its practicality. Dr. Wayne Grudem notes the devotional implications of theology: “I do not believe that God intended the study of theology to be dry and boring. Theology is the study of God and all his works! Theology is meant to be lived and prayed and sung! All great doctrinal writings of the Bible (such as Paul’s epistle to the Romans) are full of praise to God and personal application to life.”[3]

Hopefully, these reasons will encourage us to learn and defend biblical doctrine. But, orthodoxy alone does not produce Spirit-filled living. We also need “orthopraxy”–living in accordance with God’s Word.[4] Ephesians 2:10 exemplifies this balance: “For we are His workmanship [doctrinal], created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” [practical].

T. H. Bernard gave Bampton Lectures at Oxford back in 1864. This scholar not only taught the doctrines of God’s grace in Christ, but also challenged his hearers to apply these truths to their own lives. This lecturer identified key texts such as 1 Corinthians 1:30: “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God–and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Bernard rightly connected doctrine with experience:

“This [1 Cor. 1:30] is not a statement of doctrine, but the summary of a life. Surely I must ask, is it a life which I am living now? [In the New Testament] I see an ever-present consciousness of being in Christ, and a habit of viewing all things in Him. Must I not look down into my own heart and ask whether my own inward life bears this characteristic? Let me accept nothing in exchange for this. Men bid me live in duty and truth, in purity and love. They do well. But the Gospel does better; calling me to live in Christ, and to find in Him the enjoyment of all that I would posses and the realization of all that I would become.”[5]

We would do well to make this scholar’s application our own. Is our knowledge of Christ only doctrine to understand, or reality to live by? The Lord Jesus is not just a teacher; He is the believer’s life-source (John 15:5). He is the bridge from doctrine to experience.


[1] Judith Lundsford, Test your Christian Literacy: What Every Christian Should Know, (Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1989), p. 172.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 17.

[3] Gary Johnson, The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody Press, 1996), pp. 58, 66, 67. Quoted by Dennis Costella, The Church Growth Movement.

[4] “Orthopraxy” is used here, not according to its medical definition, but according to its Greek root words: “Straight” + “a doing”, i.e., right practice.

[5] T. H. Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament, (p. 184,185). (emphasis added)

Copyright (c) by John Woodward, 1999, 2010. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use if unchanged and credit is given to the author and Gracenotebook.com. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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Copyright, John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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