Please open up with me to 1 Timothy 4:6-16 and let’s read it together.
What we are about to read are the words of the Apostle Paul written either from prison, or right after he had been released from prison, and was writing in order to counsel his young co-worker Timothy about some of the issues that were arising in the church in Ephesus and how to deal with them – especially the false teachers. Paul tells Timothy that true Christianity is evidenced by a lifestyle that is shaped by the gospel – and that corrupt doctrine is corrupted Christianity and will be evidenced by a corrupt life.
The letter up until this point has been covering a bunch of theological and practical issues in the church, has addressed some of the lies that the false teachers have been spreading, and now, we read these words. Let’s read it together:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
If you recall a couple of weeks ago I talked about Timid Timothy, Paul’s co-worker and God’s obedient, but pretty roughed up soldier, sent into the toughest areas to help the church. Paul would plant a church and then move on, the church would end up in some kind of trouble, and then Paul would send Timothy to help them get things straight. Even though Timothy was young, timid, and stressed out, he was also obedient and godly. He when where God wanted him and preached what God wanted him to say.
How though? How did Timid Timothy stay strong in the face of false teachers, church factions, violent mobs, and utter confusion? How did he stay uncorrupted when faced with so many lies, rumours, divisions, hurt and anger? We see how in this passage. He stood firm on the gospel. Paul’s command here to Timothy, which is also God’s command to all churches, is to keep it simple and stand on the foundation of biblical truth. Timid Timothy held tight to his doctrine and it was his strength. His opponents weren’t fighting him, they were fighting God.
The word doctrine is all over the section we just read, though it’s translated “teaching” sometimes. Paul says in verse 6 that Timothy was trained in “good doctrine” and then in verse 11 tells him to “command and teach” that doctrine to others. Verse 13 says to keep reading the scripture in public and to keep teaching its doctrines. And then, in verse 16 he says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [that word means “the doctrines”]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
How could young Timothy help to save these hurting, messed up, false teacher infected churches? By keeping a very close watch on his personal behaviour (so he didn’t disqualify himself) and his doctrines.
The word “doctrine” itself simply means, “authoritative teaching”, and in the New Testament it’s used to describe the standard, orthodox teachings given in the Old Testament, by Jesus, and through His apostles. It’s shorthand for “The right teaching of God’s Word.”
In Mark 7:6-8 Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
In Romans, a book full of theological teaching, Paul says in his final greetings 16:17, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”
In the qualifications of the elders given to another co-worker of Paul’s, a young man named Titus, it says that an elder in the church 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).
Why? Because it is by the persisting in good doctrine, right teaching, right theology, right understanding of the Word of God that both themselves and their hearers would be saved.
Necessary Controversy in the Church
“But!”, I hear some people saying, “People aren’t saved by doctrine! They are saved by Jesus! We don’t need a bunch of doctrinal statements, theological arguments, and catechetical documents – we just need Jesus! Doctrine is for those hyper Calvinist and fundamentalist guys who hate and judge everything and everyone. Loving people don’t argue about doctrine.”
A lot of people hate the very idea of studying theology and doctrine because all they see are a bunch of excuses to nit-pick and argue. “The gospel is simple”, they say, “just believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved! Why complicate it with a bunch of other boring and hurtful stuff that just causes church splits and arguments?”
In a sense, I can see their point. I’ve studied a bit of church history and I’ve been part of a few churches in my time, which means I’ve seen a lot of really bad stuff come from fights about theology. And for sure, it’s terrible when Christians fight. It not only makes us look bad, but it doesn’t bring glory to God. We read Acts 2 and Acts 4 and wonder why we can’t be more like that. United under God, fellowshipping in each other’s homes, “of one heart and soul”. And I wish that were true, but the history of the church, even in the New Testament isn’t one of continuous, blissful, uninterrupted unity – it’s a continuous battle against division.
Just consider the letter to 1 Corinthians we just studied. They were split over everything! Which apostle was better, sexual morality, what to eat, what to wear… everything. Every letter sent to the churches in the New Testament deals with a problem where Christians were dividing over some issue or another.
But here’s the thing. Even though Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” he says later in chapter 11:19, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
In other words, in God’s divine direction for the church, He has allowed and even ordained that there be controversies and arguments in order that the quality of each person’s spiritual life. Controversies, times where there are differences of opinion and disunity in direction, are a way for God to “test and approve” his church. It sounds weird, but controversy is actually necessary for a healthy church. You can know the quality of a person’s faith better, and your own, by how we face controversy. You can tell who is pursuing right theology and good doctrine by being forced to clarify it and argue for it. You can tell who is cut out for leadership, and who is just a poser, by seeing how they face controversy. You can see which people are genuinely in love with God and His church, and which are just along for the ride, by seeing what happens when controversy arises. And often in the church, those controversies are doctrinal.
That’s why the scripture commands us to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the [doctrines]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Right doctrine is the difference between worshipping the right God and the wrong one, trusting the right Jesus or the wrong one, having confidence in your salvation or not. Right doctrine, a right understanding of God, is the difference between being able to passionately worship the one, true, God for all He is and what He’s done or just going through a bunch of religious motions because it makes you happy or you think you’re supposed to. It’s the difference between having a church that honours and preaches God’s wisdom that saves and inspires or honours and preaches man’s wisdom that condemns and ensnares. Right doctrine is the difference between raising up children that are actually Christian, actually faithful, actually able to know what they believe and why, or are just a bunch of good, religious hypocrites who have no true foundation and will fall away when left to themselves. Seeing God rightly helps us fear God, pursue righteousness, mortify sin, and do what we can to be in right relationship with Him and others. Right doctrine is the strength of the Christian church, of the Christian family, of the individual believer. Without good doctrine, we lose our way.
As Bad as it Gets
There was likely never a time when the church had lost their way worse than right before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The church and almost all of Christendom was an absolute mess because so much false teaching and bad doctrine had taken over the church.
I won’t get into all the ways the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the gospel, but the worse way was perhaps something called “indulgences”. It was, in short, a way for the church to sell people forgiveness. The pope was spending money faster than it could come in and needed to make lots of money fast, and came up with the idea that the church could grant people forgiveness for certain sins, even in advance, even for people who were dead, if they would give the church some money.
Church representatives would go from town to town selling indulgences to poor people, telling them that if they contributed to the church that their dead parent could get out of purgatory, and that it was their fault if they let their family member suffer. They would go to rich people and say, if you want to sin, just give us some money and we’ll make sure it’s ok with God. It was an absolute corruption.
My favourite story of this was when one of the most famous indulgence sellers, a man named Tetzel, was found by a nobleman named Hans von Hake who asked if he could buy an indulgence for a big sin he would be committing in the future. Tetzel asked for a bunch of money and then gave him the receipt which said that the church would forgive him for whatever he did.
Hans then waited until Tetzel was headed out of town, attacked him, and stole all of the money Tetzel had collected. When Tetzel became angry and started to threaten him with the torment of purgatory if he didn’t give the money back, Hans just waved his receipt in his face and said that this was the big sin he was planning to commit, so it was already forgiven!
That’s how big of a mess the church was in. That’s what the church was teaching and no one knew any better because almost no one had access to the Bible – and those given the task of preaching and teaching it, even in the seminaries and universities, didn’t bother to read it either. All that mattered was what the pope had said was true. But for a few exceptions, the Bible was all-but forgotten in the Christian church. In other words, (and though this is an oversimplification) no one was watching the faith and the doctrines closely – and it had led to moral chaos.
Most of you know what happens next because we just celebrated it last October. A bright, young monk named Martin Luther comes on the scene, starts to study the Bible, posts 95 problems he has with the church that he’d like to discuss – especially indulgences –that document is printed on the fairly new Gutenberg press and it’s sent all over the place, and it sparks the Protestant Reformation.
Zacharias Bär (Ursinus)
We know lots about Luther and Calvin and Wycliffe and the other fathers of the Reformation, but someone else that was incredibly influential during that time period, that a lot of people don’t know about, was a man named Zacharias Bär, later known as Ursinus. [Telling Ursinus’ story, for me, is extraordinarily complicated because God was doing so very much during that time, in so many places, but I’ll do my best.]
Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by nailing the 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Castle Door in Germany in 1517. He worked for 30 years, writing, defending, travelling, pastoring, and teaching the Bible all over Germany, sending his writings all over the world, dying in 1546. John Calvin, another giant of the Reformation was born in France 1509, became a Protestant in 1533, partly due to Luther’s influence, and published the first edition of his masterwork, the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1538, something he would work on all his life until he died in 1564. [There were so many other important figures at this time, but let me stick to just those two giants.]
There are two main periods at the beginning of the Reformation: this first generation of Luther and Calvin where they plowed the dry, stony ground the church had become, tilled up the land so God’s healing rain could be accepted and make the land fertile again. It was these men that scattered the seeds of gospel truth onto this newly productive land, sprouting churches and new hope in Jesus all over the place.
When they died, a second generation took up the work of the first, but their task wasn’t to plant the seed, but to guard the ripening harvest and plucking out all the weeds that were growing that wanted to choke out the new growth. It is to the second period that Ursinus belongs.
Zacharias Ursinus was born Zacharias Bär in Breslau, Germany in 1534. He grew up poor, but showed an amazing aptitude for learning and was sponsored by a rich doctor to go to university in Wittenberg in 1550, when he was barely 16 years old. That was just 4 years after Luther died.
After reading about him for a while, I think I can safely say he was a lot like Timothy. Both were very young and timid, but bright and faithful. Both were chosen by an older, greater man, and thrust into the world to do great things. Both served memorably and courageously, even despite their natural predilection towards meekness. He studied under a man named Philip Melanchthon, a famous friend of Luther’s and staunch defender of the Reformation. Melanchthon became like a father to young Ursinus and brought him all over the Reformed world. At age 21 he went to a church conference in the city of Worms, one of the most famous places in Luther’s career, and was sent off from there with a glowing letter of recommendation to study under the greatest teachers in Germany, Switzerland, and France for a few years.
He met the biggest names in the Reformed world, even John Calvin himself, receiving a free gift of the copy of all his works, including the newly completed Institutes that Calvin had been working on for 23 years!
While Ursinus was traveling and learning, some difficult things were happening back in Germany. A man named Otto Henry, an Elector Palatine, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in one of the most important, most influential positions in the world, died in 1559, after only 3 years. Otto had been one of the key figures that had moved away from the Roman Catholic church and allowed Reformed thinkers and Protestant parties to hold some seats of power and influence in politics and the universities. But though he was a follower of Luther, and even had Melanchthon as an advisor, he was also a fence sitter who didn’t want to get into theological arguments, even trying to keep contacts with Catholicism to avoid conflict.
When Otto Henry died, Frederick III came into power. Frederick was no fence sitter. Even though he was born Catholic, he married a Lutheran woman who converted him to Christianity. As he studied, he became more and more reformed minded and eventually became convinced of the teachings of Calvin.
As he took up Otto’s important position, he took it as his main task to unite the varied protestant groups and sects that were under his rule. He wanted his people united, the church united, the theology and doctrines gone through, and everyone to be on the same theological page. And so he turned to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg to help him out.
He wanted some big names. Otto had asked Melanchthon to lead the University of Heidelberg, but he said no. Now Frederick wanted another big name, the renowned Peter Martyr Vermigli, who taught at the University of Zurich. Vermigli said he was too old and would, in fact, die only a couple years later. But he had an idea. He had recently met a young man, only 26 years old, that loved God, knew God’s Word and Reformed theology in and out, and was eager to learn and serve the church in whatever way he could. His name was Zacharias Ursinus.
And so, in 1561, at age 27, Ursinus moved to Heidelberg to work as the superintendent of a preacher’s seminary inside the University. He was to become one of the pillars of the Reformation. It is not an understatement to say that Ursinus was being asked to become the John Calvin of Heidelberg – an incredibly daunting and dangerous task.
But how would Frederick and Ursinus unite such a divided group of believers? The Protestant Reformation was still new. Luther had only been dead for 14 years. The ink was still wet on Calvin’s Institutes. Most people had only had the Bible in their own language for less than 30 years, and there were a LOT of ideas coming from all directions.
The more they studied, the more they realized was wrong with the Catholic Church, even the most basic parts like the Lord’s Supper. What even was it? Did it magically turn into Jesus’ actual body and actual blood when the priest blessed it? Or was it just a symbol? If you missed taking it could you be forgiven? Who could take it? How often? In some Catholic churches, the bread and wine were considered so holy that common people weren’t even allowed to touch it – they could only look at it on the way by and then the priest would eat it. And in some cities, when the Protestants invited people for the Lord’s Supper, people fainted when they touched the bread, riots broke out, churches and priests were hunted down and killed.
How would Frederick and young Ursinus bring all this together? The answer came from the scriptures and from Luther. They would hold onto the doctrines, they would command and teach the doctrines, and they would watch their lives and their doctrines closely. They would persist in it, for by doing so they would save both themselves and their hearers.
Luther said it this way when speaking about the use of force to try to make people convert to Christianity or change their theology: “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take me as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
The Heidelberg Catechism
And so, they would teach the word to people, especially the youth. Before Frederick came to power the young people were either neglected or were being miss-taught by individual pastors who were just making things up as best they could. What they needed was a catechism, a positive and uniform training in the Christian faith that would state the doctrines clearly and comprehensively.
It wouldn’t be a document for dusty theologians and arguing university professors, it would be one that the young, the novice, the unlearned, the preacher and the schoolmasters could read, understand, and use as a rule to go by in their private learning, schooling, and church instructions. It wouldn’t be something brand new but would use the best of the existing catechisms and teachings of the church, from the Apostles Creed written in 390 AD to what John Calvin had written only a few years before. It would be divided up into three simple, logical sections: The problem of sin, the way man is saved, and how we should thank God for that salvation. And though it would have 129 questions and answers, it would be broken down into 52 sections so pastors and teachers could complete it in just one year. And in those divisions, it would use the words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s prayer. There would be a shorter one for easy study and a longer one with hundreds of notes and commentary – and then years later an even longer version with even more notes and commentary.
It wouldn’t just be a textbook but would be a beautifully stated theology, a personal confession of faith. It would be personal because unlike many other catechisms that came before and would come after, Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism would be written in the first person.
Let me read you the first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” And the answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
There is a beauty there, and power. We’re going to talk about that question this week, but what I really want you to walk away with this morning is the vitality and necessity of good doctrine, right theology, teaching and being trained in the Word of God, and what a gift it is to live in an age where we are overwhelmingly blessed with resources and good teaching.
And I want you to commit yourself to doing what 1 Timothy 4:16 says, to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the doctrines.” as we study it together.
 Introduction to 1st Timothy: ESV Study Bible
 Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.
 A lot of this is from Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Re. G.W. Williard, 2004, intro “Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism