SGBC Modesto

Doctrinal Conviction

April 13, 2024 by

Johnnie Sloan

Martin Luther, when challenged to recant of his writings against Roman Catholic abuses said, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason. I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”  This statement was part of the fuse that ignited the Protestant Reformation.

The question for us today as we see so much doctrinal diversity and consequent tension in the Christian Church is: Who has this kind of conviction today?  At the outset and at first blush it might seem the question is simple enough in asking whether or not there is a lack of conviction.  That is not what this article is driving at.  Let us go further.

Time and again in my first decade of pastoral ministry I have observed decisions being made that are said to be based on doctrinal convictions.  Folks move (or desire their church to change in a direction) from this church to that, or move from this particular Eschatology to that, or move from this version of the Bible to that, or this style of worship to that, or countless other possible moves and combinations thereof.  All the while saying that the move is a matter of conviction.  However, on further inspection and through countless discussions I have found that rarely was there ever a true conviction (as Luther had) of the position that was to be abandoned.  This article is not about the positions themselves per se or which should or shouldn’t be held.  It is rather to point to a potential danger in the process and to avoid the damage caused to individuals and churches in these interactions.

For example, using a hypothetical rather than a real case:  Person A is raised in a church where the teachers hold to a true and possibly obligatory New Testament ten percent tithe on all gross income.  Then they move to a church that does not hold that position, but believes in totally freewill offering-based giving.  Then in a discussion, Person B who holds to the tithe position expresses their conviction (mark that word) of a Biblical tithe and Person A replies, “I used to believe that too.”  Our question is: Did they really?  Did they hold to it implicitly being raised to hold it, or because their Pastor did, or mom and dad, or was it their studied heartfelt conviction.  Would they have stood for it if challenged in the past and been willing and able to defend it Biblically?

It is the suggestion of this article that for something to be called a conviction, it must be owned and defended not just held passively or by association.  Over and over I have heard people say they “used to believe” things on a variety of subjects like a Millennium, divorce, election, roles of men and women, and so on.  But when asked to express those convictions Biblically it is often the case they cannot.  What it can amount to rather than one conviction being exchanged (or avoided), for another is one preference being exchanged for something more preferred.  That is not conviction in the Biblical sense.  And further, it can be harmful to state things in these terms.  It can promote discord instead of unity.

The Bible actually uses the phrase “hold fast” in the imperative mood when it says:  Test all things; hold fast what is good (1 Thess. 5:21).  Meaning we are to hold with conviction truths of Scripture.  Further, note this holding is after a testing (also imperative – or a command).  This speaks directly to the point and thesis here.  If it has not been tested it has never truly been held.  It seems to me that some read and apply this not as a diligent test to come to a conviction to stand for at all costs because of a desire to be faithful to the Word of God, but more like a taste test in a cooking contest that ends with a preferred winner.  Further, their taste test may have their own grandma’s apple pie in the contest with its bias which here would be an adopting of a preference rather than a conviction coming from Scripture and personal study.  A preference is something we want to believe while a conviction is something we have to and we will gladly have it tested because we want to make sure to do away with anything that isn’t Biblical.  Luther would not move unless convinced by Scripture, but certainly would if he had been.

If a position you once held would not have been life or death if you were called to defend it, it doesn’t qualify as a conviction in this sense.  Luther was willing to die for his position on justification and got it directly from Scripture.  Are you willing to die for yours (whatever the doctrine)?  Here are a couple of desired applications from this article.

  • When a Christian truly owns a conviction, be slow to argue against it with an unstudied preference: Oftentimes conviction is treated as a weakness.  ‘Why is this a big deal?’ or ‘They take this stuff too seriously!’ are the cries.  It is not safe to malign someone who comes to a tested and studied position and is holding fast to it.  This is not to say they are right, but it means take a real attempted Biblical conviction seriously.  And likewise it is a challenge to own your own conviction.  Don’t dig a hole in another point of view and leave it empty.  You must have an answer on the subject yourself.
  •  Be honest about your positions:  We used to say in sales: You can’t sell what you don’t own.  If you have not fought for it and held it as precious, do not act as though you have in order to keep the option for further study on it closed.  It is not enough to have once gone to a church that believed that.
  • Be charitable enough to do the work when challenged on your convictions:  Recently a respected teacher admitted to wanting to throw a book across the room written by someone who held a different view than his own.  Another person said they felt beat up by a teaching different than their own.  This is no way for believers to act (or react) toward one another.  Being dismissive of or defensive about a real conviction undermines Christian charity.  Take your brothers and sisters true convictions seriously not personally.  Remember, love is not provoked.
  • Beware of your own unchallenged assumptions and be teachable: I have heard people say multiple times recently that they were not interested in looking at a position not their own, nor did they need to.  This can be indicative of something the Lord would not be pleased with.  The Bible is full of exhortation to receive instruction and it may be that the Lord is using that person in front of us to give it (Pro. 22:17).  We must take care so as not to say, “I don’t know what I believe or why, but I know I don’t believe what you do!”  We must be able to clearly express a view we do not hold in order to truly say we can’t hold it.  We should never be afraid to let a brother or sister in Christ open God’s Word with us.  On the contrary, we should enjoy that process of growth.
  • Choose Scripture, not favorites: I cannot count how many times people have left churches or teachings without ever sitting down with their Pastor to discuss subjects with an open Bible while simultaneously reading from and listening to another Pastor (author/teacher) on those subjects.  To be Biblical is to allow your Pastor the opportunity to obey 1 Peter 5:2 and shepherd the flock among him.  Convictions ought to be arrived at carefully while honoring and communicating with those who hold them openly and freely (1 Tim. 5:1; 2 Tim. 4:2; Heb. 13:7,17; 1 Pet. 5:5).
  • Do not be afraid to change a preference for a conviction, but do so only after careful personal study of Scripture – for yourself:  Sometimes we need to put down our favorite teachers’ books or at least slow down before picking them up.  Sometimes it may be – admittedly from a bias I now speak – that our Pastor or someone without his name on books is actually properly handling Scripture and attempting to point us directly to it.  I can speak honestly of times I needed to reexamine a position based on a Christian’s challenge even to the point of change and it is not always easy, but always fruitful.  One important thing to remember is that Scripture is good.  If we are afraid to open a Bible for fear of change, it might be telling us something is wrong with our position and attitude.  I have seen people dismiss actual Scripture and say, “That does not mean anything to me” and “I don’t see it that way” and I do not mean my interpretation, I mean verses!  It is far better to be Biblical than it is to be right. 

In conclusion, Luther codified the point of this article when he declared, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”  This phrase says I cannot have another view.  Not I will not because so-and-so who I follow says otherwise, or because the latest bestselling author or commentator says so, or – and this is very common – I have not studied that.  It says I have examined as many of the pertinent texts in the Bible on this subject, listened to respected men from multiple positions (including my local Pastor), and I have no choice.  I must hold fast to this position unless Scripture convinces me otherwise.  That is conviction.  It may feel safer to hold things loosely, but that is opposed to the imperative to hold fast.  Take special care in making decisions or adopting preferences apart from true conviction. And further take care in using preferences against convictions of others.  Above all, keep the Bible open.