It’s an oft quoted phrase in the history of the Reformation that Luther hatched the egg Erasmus laid. For while God used the humanistic scholar, Erasmus, to drive a study of the original languages and to demand a reform of the church, the reform he sought was essentially ethical. In Erasmus’s work, On the Freedom of the Will, he contended for—what could arguably be called—a mere Christianity. Erasmus wanted simplicity in church dogma, and he asserted (while arguing against assertions) that the Scriptures themselves were not clear enough to give us sound answers on doctrinal perplexities.
However, Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, took the elder humanist to task about his “wet fish” Christianity. It was biblically anemic without any sense of doctrinal precision. It gave man preeminence and denied the seriousness of sin and the glory of grace. Though Luther did credit his interlocutor for touching the essential issue with his thoughts on man’s will, he slammed Erasmus, saying, “you assert nothing.” Why did Erasmus have such a dismissive attitude toward what Luther judged to strike the hinge on which the gospel turns? It has to do with Erasmus’s conception of doctrinal matters. He judged church dogma to be an unimportant matter, and, as Packer puts it, “the issue as to whether a man’s will was or was not free was more unimportant than most.” Luther vehemently disagreed, and his vigorous defense birthed perhaps his greatest contribution to the Reformation.
This historical and theological duel—while fascinating in its own right—raises questions for Christianity today. Should we be confessional sticklers or ease our adherence to doctrinal standards? Should love compel us to cover contentions about words with compromised language, or should precision in dogmatic discussions drive us? Is it even a fair question to pit love against truth? Further, should we seek unity over a minimalistic doctrinal statement, or should our unity be built on robust declarations of biblical truth?
The Spirit of Truth
While we could answer these questions by considering church history, perhaps a simpler approach would be to ponder our Savior’s words about the Paraclete. In the Upper Room Jesus told the twelve that the Spirit of truth would be given from above (John 14:16–17), and he would guide the apostles “into all the truth” (John 16:13). Further, Jesus said, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14).
The assertion that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth initially tells us that, without Him, all our understandings are shrouded in falsehood. He must enlighten our darkened minds and continually illumine us to discern the truth. In the Spirit’s role as the teacher of truth, He takes what is Christ’s and makes it known to us; that is, He unveils to us progressively all the truth of God. As a guide to truth, the Spirit both opens our minds to discover what is true and He bends the will to the doctrines of truth. In view of this wonderful ministry of the Spirit, a question should be asked: Why would we minimize truth found in Christ and given by the Spirit to glorify Christ? Would not love for Christ demand greater love for the truth? Would it not disparage the ministry of the Spirit to downplay the depths of the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge found in Christ (Col. 2:3)?
Love for Christ Demands Love for Truth
You may object here and say, “I know many folks who love Jesus and still understand little of his doctrine. In fact, there will be saints in heaven who did not advance far in the school of Christ.” It is surely true that there are souls in glory who had but a glimmer of the breadth of biblical truth. The thief on the cross comes to mind. He knew Jesus was the Messianic King. He understood he was a great sinner getting what he deserved. He knew that love to Christ compelled him to appeal to others—namely, his fellow thief—to cease his blasphemy. In his hour of suffering, what that thief expressed of biblical faith is astounding, but it is still a tiny grasp on the depths of God’s revelation.
However, while there may be those who’ve gone to our Savior’s side still with minimal understanding, love for Christ, through the illumination of the Spirit, ought to make the believer advance to embracing the sound words of the gospel. In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul teaches the church how we ought to behave in the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15), but his instructions do not pertain minimally to ethics. Paul hammers home the need for sound doctrine and sound words. He uses expressions like these eight times (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1, 2). Sound doctrine specifies teaching that is correct, but the word “sound” is also a medical metaphor highlighting what is healthy. True spiritual health is found not in being a theological lightweight but in following the pattern of sound words seen in Scripture (2 Tim. 1:13).
Was Paul a doctrinal minimalist? Surely no one with a sound mind would say so, and what Paul conveyed to the church about Christ clearly rose from a love for Christ. Paul displayed deep Christian piety exclaiming his desire to know Christ (Phil. 3:10). If we also yearn to know Christ, that knowledge will necessarily demand studious searchings of the deepest doctrines and adherence to them with fierce affection. We don’t want to be Erasmus-like and just lay an egg. We want our hearts and ministries to hatch passion and precision in the service of Jesus. Christianity is first and foremost a doctrine, as Machen once argued. If we then take away doctrinal depth, we will lose more than merely so-called “non-essentials.” We will lose everything. May that never be, for the Spirit of truth stirs us to stand for truth in love.
 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), 320.
 J.I. Packer, Historical and Theological Introduction to The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), 42.