Gospel and Doctrine
by David McClister
Sometimes you will hear (or read) that the gospel is strictly the story about Jesus which is contained in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Doctrines, on the other hand, are thought of as “other” important ideas in the Bible. One idea that seems to be particularly popular today is that doctrines are man-made ideas or religious traditions (and thus fallible), whereas only “gospel” comes from God. That is, the idea is that the gospel comes from the Bible, but doctrines have come from the church. Even in our own fellowship we sometimes hear similar things, suggesting that we should just preach the gospel and forget about doctrines.
So just what is the difference between gospel and doctrine? I would suggest that the difference is minimal, almost non-existent. First, the gospel is, at its core, the story about Jesus. In particular, it is the story of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15.1-4: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” That’s the “core,” but we realize that there is a story that leads up to, and explains, the death of Jesus – and all of that is part of the gospel too. The gospel, then, is the story of Jesus.
So what is “doctrine”? A good example of a doctrine appears right there in the text we just quoted, in the words “for our sins.” If we think of the gospel as the story, then doctrine is the explanation, the interpretation, or the significance of the story. Or think about the Biblical doctrine concerning idolatry. The apostles taught that Christians should stay away from every form of idolatry (whether it involves a statue or not; Col 3.5). Where did this doctrine come from? Why did the apostles teach it? The answer is that fleeing from idolatry is part of what it means to die with Christ, to crucify the old man of sin, to crucify the flesh and die to the world. The dying of Christ, when it is applied to us as an example to follow, means that we must not (among other things) be involved in idolatry. You see, the doctrine is an explanation, application, or interpretation, of something that is already in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Where did the doctrine of baptism come from? Right – from the story of Jesus. Baptism is an imitation of and joining with Jesus in His death (Rom 6.3). Where did the doctrine of brotherly love come from? Right again – it came from the story of Jesus, because His death was the expression of His love for others, and are commanded to follow that example in our treatment of others. What about the Biblical doctrine of sin? It is clearly implied in the death of Jesus, since His death was “for our sins.”
In a sense, it goes back to what Jesus said in Matthew 16.24: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Jesus said that the story of His own life – culminating and climaxing in His own death, burial, and resurrection – must become the pattern of living for every one of His disciples. Jesus said that the gospel must be applied to our lives, that we must live like what we see in the gospel (the story of Jesus). The Biblical doctrines that instruct us how to think and live are nothing other than the gospel put into practice.
I would suggest that whatever you find in the New Testament that could be called doctrine, it always, ultimately goes back to the story of Jesus, the gospel. That is, the doctrine is an explanation, interpretation, or application of what we find in the gospel, the story of Jesus. The doctrines are directly linked to the gospel or come straight from the gospel. Or, if you will, the doctrines are another way of saying what the gospel says. That is, doctrines are not the invention of churches. Doctrines come from the gospel.
Once we see this, the supposed distinction between gospel and doctrine basically vanishes. Or, to say it another way, gospel and doctrine are so inseparably linked, glued, and tied together that where you have one, you always have the other. This is why the apostles keep mentioning “the gospel” in their letters to Christians (74 times!), because the gospel and Christian doctrine are really, after all, the same thing.
The larger fact is that everything in the Bible is ultimately about Jesus. That’s right, everything. The Old Testament with is various stories, people, laws, institutions, etc. – all of those things pointed to Jesus in one way or another. The interpretive key to it all is Jesus (2 Cor 4.16). Think of how often the New Testament authors quoted the Old Testament as containing a pattern for something in Christianity. This only “works” if everything in the Old Testament leads us to the Messiah, Jesus. The result is that every Biblical doctrine, therefore, has something to do with the gospel.